poetry picks

These translations of poems by Kunwar Narain (1927-2017) show why he defied slotting into any genre

A brief selection of the later work of the Hindi poet who died on November 15 at 90, translated by his son Apurva Narain.

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017) was considered one of the finest Hindi poets and, naturally, a leading literary figure in India. Widely read since his first book of poems was published in 1956, he blended a modern international sensibility with a thorough grounding in Indian history and thought. His work evolved continuously – from a metaphysical engagement with language to a creative use of history and mythology, and from a visionary sense of beauty to the coarse ironies of socio-political reality. Narain’s poems embody a unique layering of the simple and the complex, with a deep humanism. Widely translated, his honours include the Padma Bhushan, the Jnanpith, and Sahitya Akademi awards.

A Strange Day

I roamed about all day today
and no mishap happened.
I met people all day today
and was slighted nowhere.
I told the truth all day today
and no one took it wrong.
I trusted everyone today
and got swindled nowhere.

And the strangest miracle was
that coming home I found not another
but myself come back there.

Published in No Other Worlds: Selected Poems, Arc Publications.


On the Eighth Floor

On the eighth floor
in this small flat
are a pair of windows
that open outward.

To live incessantly
alone in the flat
at such a height with windows
that open outward
is terrifying.

On both windows, I
have put strong grilles
knowing full well
that on the eighth floor
one will hardly dare
to come in from the outside...

In fact, I am scared from the inside
not from the outside
that, edgy with the world
or bored with my own self,
I myself may not someday
jump out from within.

Published in No Other Worlds: Selected Poems, Arc Publications.


Princes

The game is not over yet.
I will play: but not with them.

Time that runs after butterflies
dazzled by colour
went playing childlike that way
beyond this son of golden tone –
to where other distances, other woods and groves,
to where in a magic fountain of tales
sleep countless princes in stone.

Published in No Other Worlds: Selected Poems, Arc Publications.


With Pablo Neruda

I look intently
at the spot in Warsaw’s Bristol Hotel
which has completely changed now
after fifty years

That hotel then
was the left-over glory
of a devastated city

Sitting on a chair in front of me
that person drinking tea
was it not he perhaps

I go near and hesitantly ask –
“are you not he perhaps
who wants the whole earth
to be a residence for all
where everyone can live
happily, without unease”

Neruda’s face had brightened up
“sit, have tea with me:
what do you do – where do you live”
“I write
I am Indian...”

For a while
he was a million miles away
What was he thinking –
the country of fakirs and philosophers
“Oh, the country of Gandhi”, he said

There was a table between us
and two cups,
we talked for long...
then he left for a flight
to return home

Returning to India
I too was seeing
from the height of a flight
a congeries of tiny houses on the earth beneath,
spread far and wide
kindred realities

I was with Neruda
half a century ago
at a delicate cusp
when a war-ravaged city
was fast returning to life

First published in K1N.


The Decay Of Vijaynagar

Cities are just historic
but forests are pre-historic,
a city is that prologue
whose moments of triumph are civilisations

But under every garden is buried
the heart of a defeated jungle,
from there sometimes
the grammar of a new cycle begins

A seed attacks – first of all
its raw life-force is seen,
then, on a larger horizon,
the elaborate vista of its triumphs

This stunned city is not a city now
but its own formless skeleton,
somewhere here lived Sayan where
now is a pond draped in hyacinth

Sometimes greenery also flourishes in a way
that ponds dry up from within,
the outer cover looks fresh and green
but termites consume the book within.

To be published in City.


Living An Ordinary Life

I know I cannot
change the world
nor even fight it
and win

Yes, fighting, I could become a martyr
and beyond that maybe
get a martyr’s monument
or become famous like a star...

But to be a martyr
is an entirely different thing

Living ordinary lives too
people have been seen
quietly
being martyred


Words That Disappear

There are words
that if abased
themselves leave
life and language

Purity is one word
not in vogue any more,
words of its kind
are difficult to find
in earth, water or air

No living example
these days can prove
the word’s innocence

Another word was peace,
now its clan has vanished,
it is nowhere to be seen
within or without

They say one finds it after death –
I doubt
all things
found after death...

Love too may be a word
whose mere remembrance
is now left in language...

Many such words
once the pride of life
keep getting exiled
if not lived...

Where do they go
after leaving our world

Perhaps they turn solitary
or seclude themselves so much

that no language is able
to reach them again

First published in The Dhauli Review.


A Diptych Of Ragas

For music maestro Amir Khan

A Day, A Raga

Come, begin
a day like a raga

In slow pace
starting with a prelude
like a morning begins
little by little

Then, taking tempo
from tones and trills
meandering mid-pace
flowing into fast flight
saturate the scales
with structured notes

And finally
coursing the complex
crests of cadence
slowly be consigned
to the lingering finale
of a long silence

Raga Bhatiyali

In Baul music,there is
a raga called Bhatiyali

Its final note
is left free
swaying in the air
a sound saturated
with the fullness of life
fading into infinity

It does not bind
the remaining notes
and so in the end
is not bound by them either

Something like a last sigh
it breathes a strange
sense of emancipation


All poems translated from the Hindi by Apurva Narain.

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