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)

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