Reading the poetry of Kedarnath Singh (1934-2018) is to be reminded of his love for everything

The acclaimed Hindi poet, who was also a critic and essayist, died on March 19, 2018.

I have a favourite poem. Not necessarily a favourite poet, but a single short poem that demands that I hold on to it, remember it, like a talisman of sorts. The poem is Kedarnath Singh’s “Aana Jab Samay Mile”.

I found the poem at a juncture when my link with Hindi literature had all but snapped. Growing up, the Hindi poems prescribed by the school syllabus intimidated and bewildered me. I experienced those poems as if they were remote, supercilious, unforgiving teachers, and as soon as I could, I distanced myself from them. I went back to reading exclusively in English. But a few years out of college, I met friends who were reading across a swathe of poets, ranging from Kedarnath Singh and Kunwar Narain to Gorakh Pandey and Paash. It was as if I’d needed my eyesight corrected all these years and now somebody had taken me to the optician.

Immediate impact

It is difficult to describe the experience of finding a poet who speaks to you intimately, whose words reach inside you, drops pebbles into the lake of your mind, casually strolls through your bloodstream. I borrow the latter image from the poem “Surya” from Zameen Pak Rahi Hai (listen to the poet’s recitation), where he describes the sun as the only thing his people can trust.

Kedarnath Singh has had an immediate, deep impact on me. Many of his contemporaries are among my favourites, but Singh’s work has a quality of stillness infused with drama that resonates with my own sensibility. Emotion plays out with a seemingly artless restraint.

Consider the favourite poem mentioned above, where the poet addresses a beloved, asking her to show up in all circumstances: whether or not she has time to spare, to show up like fire in a stove, or like a thorn on the branch of a thorny tree, like a storm, like a Tuesday. Each image stands strong, distinct, and the poet sews the whole up into a poem filled with an ancient, eternal distillate: a human being devoted to love, waiting.

Singh is able to maintain a near-conversational tone in many of his poems, which makes it seem like he is, in fact, addressing you directly. He turns a warm gaze upon his country, his people, the objects in their lives, nature. However, he does not shy away from the role of the poet as public critic. Another of my favourites is “A Two-minute Silence”, where he uses a standard expression of shared grief upon hearing of someone’s death to unpack the little sadnesses that go unmourned, and follows it up with the great sadness that none of us dares to mourn:

...for this great century
for every great idea
of this great century 
for its great words
and great intentions
a two-minute silence...

— Translated by Alok Bhalla

Lightness of being

He sometimes approaches the page with a certain whimsy that suggests he is not taking his craft, or indeed, his subject matter very seriously, and yet, by the time the reader has finished reading the poem, the tongue is covered with the thick residue of loss. This is most obvious in poems where Singh uses the writing of poetry itself as a device.

In “Ek Prem Kavita ko Padhkar” (the poet’s recitation), he writes about looking out for ducks in the third line, because that’s where they ought to have been. A woman does not appear until the twelfth line, and he writes her in, and then he cleverly shifts the location of the woman in the poem, along with the reader’s mood.

I had a chance to watch Kedarnath Singh read at an event once. It was a gathering of Hindi poets and critics and I was struck by the cheerful informality in the room. The stage was filled with literary luminaries who appeared to be unafraid of critique or jokes at each other’s expense. Singh remained unfazed by a joke about his numerous awards and the ease with which he gathered them, went up to the microphone, and in a even, low voice, began to read. The calm dignity that came off his person also inhabits his work.

He continues to occupy the quieter corners of my mind. His is a body of work filled with broken down trucks, ducks, potatoes, cranes, abandoned shoes, mothers afraid of abandonment, and books that rebel against cupboards demanding to be set free so they may return to the bamboo forest, to the sting of the scorpion and the kiss of the serpent. It is a body of work imbued with the love of everything in the world.

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