Goodbye to a citizen poet: Kunwar Narain’s immaculate poems capture the thoughts of an era

Influenced by writers from Ghalib to Borges, Kunwar Narain (1927-2017) expressed precisely ‘what is’, and vividly imagined ‘what could be’.

On November 15, Kunwar Narain died and was cremated in the Lodhi Road crematorium in New Delhi. Across its walls is Nizamuddin Basti where four of his favourite people sleep – Mirza Ghalib, Amir Khusro, Jahanara and the saint Hazrat Nizamuddin himself. As his body was being readied, the strains of a very tuneful evening azaan from the nearby mosque mingled with the muted chants to the funeral pyre. It was an appropriate end of a journey that began in Faizabad, in the heart of Awadh, where he was born in 1927 and acquired the core values of its culture.

It is a bit of a truism that the passing away of a poet is felt more keenly in dark times, particularly as his was an individual voice that articulated the thoughts of his era in a way that no one else did. That cannot be said about many people but it can be easily said about Kunwar Narain: a much appreciated, loved and awarded poet.

The humble observer

During his lifetime, he received the Sahitya Akademi award, the Jnanpith award, even a Padma Bhushan, as was his due. But he was untouched by them. For all that one saw in him, he may as well not have received any recognition for his writing. Nothing in his behaviour, his conversations or his interactions with younger writers and admirers gave this away to a person who may not have already known it. He was humble but was full of self esteem and stood erect at the same time.

People are easily considered “cultured” if they have more than an average acquaintance with the life of letters. Kunwar Narain was a connoisseur – of literature from across the world, of cinema, which he also wrote about, and of music, particularly Hindustani classical music, which he enjoyed in an informed way and spoke about in his everyday conversations with friends who shared his interest. He was a keen and attentive reader with particular sensitivity to tone and what could be visualised and imagined in what one read. He was, above all, an observer of life as it is lived and could imagine how it may or could be lived and an observer also of the written word, as it has been written and may or could be written. This extraordinary quality of observation coupled with what may be imagined permeates his entire oeuvre.

His poetry reflects the voices of many languages, many ages and many cultures. He could absorb from everywhere and turn it into his own rooted voice. He could dig into his own tradition and imbue it with universality. He could imbibe from music, art and folklore and turn it into word.

Narain’s influences in literature and culture range across the world – one could sense the great presence of Constantine Cavafy, Mirza Ghalib and Jorge Luis Borges – and the manner in which he could weave the eternal and the immediate, the thread and gap between what is and could be. He found his subject matter from these, which is why the range of his concerns could be so wide and focused at the same time. He could express immense passion for what he aspired for in everyday life and say it with equal equanimity, patience and discipline. As they say, the style is the man. His tone is his poetry. This style and tone – always reflective, always immaculate and always aspiring for the best – characterised how he lived and carried himself.

A citizen poet

His morality and social concerns shone through the tone and style he adopted in his poetry, allowing for a perfect symbiosis of conscience and beauty. He was very much a citizen poet, even as he was an aesthete. Even as gentleness and generosity were the hallmark of his demeanour, he was restless and loath to give in or compromise.

Narain was not an ordinary middle-class poet, as he is sometimes made out to be. His poetry constantly tugged at his moorings, sought to stretch its boundaries of concern. Rather than complacence or despair, his poetry reflects melancholia coupled with a stubborn optimism and belief in the future and in mankind, which has been the mark of all great poets in dark times.

Several of his poems were written in response to the days of the Emergency, (such as his collection Apne Samne, 1979), the rise of ultra right movement leading upto the demolition of Babri Masjid (Koi Dusra Nahin, 1993) or the alarming retreat of politics and the rise of a corrupt and repressive order in last two decades (In Dinon, 2002). His was not a ‘”safe” poetry of a middle-class man in tune with his world and his status. His affinities lay elsewhere.

Narain’s progressiveness and radicalism lay in never coming to terms with the status quo, in always challenging the dilemmas of everyday life, batting for protest and being alert to alternatives and possibilities.

“Gradually, I have been losing touch
with my own laughter”

he says in “Hansi”, from his 1993 collection, Koi Dusra Nahin, voicing his inner, individual state. In “Ve Bhir Nahin Ham Hain”, from the 2002 collection, In Dinon he says, mischievously:

“It seems a terrible disorder
is guaranteeing our safety”

And then, in “Zakhm”, from In Dinon:

“If I could have walked through these by-lanes
without a stain,
it would have been better”

In “Abki Bar Agar Lauta To”, from Koi Dusra Nahin:

“If I return this time
I must return greater...”

The undying urge to be human and to see a more human world sums up the man and his poetry.

Towards the end of his life he began losing both his sight and his hearing, a punishing existence for any person, more so for one whose life lay in reading and in listening to the voices of the world in its many forms, whose very expression took sustenance from these. But to meet Narain was an experience in receiving from him rather than learning what he was being deprived of. He finally lay in a coma for close to five months, after which he passed away, with dignity as he had always lived.

Narain leaves behind his wife Bharati Narain, who was always his protective partner and enlightened guide, and their son Apurva Narain who now has the massive task of organising his father’s multifarious archives and translating his work, spanning several genres and disciplines.

Kunwar Narain’s major works include Atmajayi (long poem), Akaron ke As Pas (collection of short stories), Apne Samne (poems), Koi Dusra Nahin (poems) and Vajashrava ke Bahane (long poem)

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.


Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.