Bang in the middle of the mellow Bangalore summer, right when the gulmohars are turning the pavements and the skies crimson, Kannadiga hearts at home and across the world have been raked by the devastating news of the passing of one of Karnataka’s most beloved and long-standing literary luminaries – the poet laureate KS Nisar Ahmed.

For me, the loss feels deeply personal. For the past two years, I have been engaged in translating one hundred of Nisar’s poems into English for a book project. Travel, family commitments, and other projects with more stringent deadlines ate into this one and delayed it unforgivably, much to Nisar’s consternation, until, finally, at the beginning of March, just before the lockdown began, I swore that I would hunker down and finish the remaining poems at a stretch, and proceeded to do just that.

That six-week immersion was exponentially more rewarding than I could have imagined. It left me marvelling at the breadth of concerns that show up regularly in Nisar’s poetry – politics, philosophy, nature, romance, injustice, the angst of the outsider, the minutiae of daily living, the clash of cultures, the crippling frustration of the creative process, love for land and country, and so much more – and the range of emotions each was served up with – tongue-in-cheek humour, black irony, fury, passion, pain, love...

I warmed to the empathy and compassion that illumined his work, grew to anticipate the unfamiliar cadences of the Urdu he often mixed into his Kannada, enjoyed the sudden changes of pace as he played with metre and free verse with equal elan, and was struck by his longevity – this professor of geology had enjoyed a poetic career, in print, for well nigh six decades!

It was extraordinarily difficult to choose just three poems out of a hundred, but it was eventually done. The selection doesn’t do either his prodigious output or his versatility any justice, but there are specific reasons why I chose these three.

The first, “My Words” is the first poem of the first poetry collection he ever published, at the age of 24. When I read it, I was struck by the debutante’s confidence, his immense self-belief, and his conviction that his poetry, slashing like a scimitar through injustice and apathy, would change the world. Ah, youth!

The second, “Amma, Tradition and I”, is a well-known one - funny, autobiographical, and charming in all kinds of ways. I chose it to introduce Nisar the large-hearted liberal – rather than Nisar the poet – to audiences who may not have had the pleasure to know him through his work.

The third, “The News of (Sir CV) Raman’s Death” – is a meditation on the fragility of life and the pointlessness of the various conceits that enslave us through it. The poem’s poignant last verses seemed especially apt for today.

When I called Nisar on April 15 to let him know that the project had finally been completed, he was as delighted as a child. He had nagged and guilted me relentlessly for two years for going slow on the translations, but now he chuckled impishly, saying, “That was very quick, beta, thank you! Poetry translations usually take much, much longer.” Well!

Unarguably, Nisar’s best-known and best-loved poem is “Nityotsava” – “The Neverending Celebration” – a paean to his native state. No translation will ever be able to adequately capture the mood and rhythm of that particular poem, or recreate the thrill that hearing the first bars of the music which it has been set to sends through every Kannadiga soul. What we can all rejoice in, however, is the certainty that Nisar’s poetry will stand for years to come, a radiant Nityotsava to his beautiful life.

~ Roopa Pai

My Words

My words are as white lightning,
Rip-roaring, thunder-blasting, everlasting,
Through the dark clouds that gather round, confining,
They gleam – oh-so-blinding, sparkling-shining.

By smiling faces that hide hate inside
My words won’t ever be lured;
To cunning and guile and arrogant pride
They will never bow down, rest assured.

My words are not sparks – hot, angry, bright –
That flash but briefly in the dark of the night
They’re a raging inferno that strains for the skies
And transcends the limits of every direction it flies
A conflagration, eternal and outsize.

A roaring river in spate that swallows in its wake
Very mountains that stand in its way;
A torrent unshackled, a deluge untrammelled,
Which on the path of freedom stays.

To the voiceless hordes of suffering humanity
My words give utterance, and validation;
To lives fragile and ungallant and weak
They are safe harbour and firm foundation.

Yes, my words, they’re as white lightning,
Rip-roaring, thunder-blasting, everlasting,
Through the dark clouds that gather round, confining,
They gleam – oh-so-blinding, sparkling-shining.

~ “Nanna Nudi”, from the collection Manasu Gandhi Bazaaru (The Mind Is Gandhi Bazaar), 1960.

Amma, Tradition, And I

Before I was married
Mother checked out dozens of girls
Ground each fine in the mortar of her approval
And handed out her considered verdicts.

That one’s like this, she said, this one’s like that
I’d take a crow over Miss A, and Miss J is fat
This one’s fine, but her tongue is too long
That one’s a giraffe, that rakshasiis just wrong
This one’s teeth are like a toddler’s scrawl
That girl looks like a scarecrow, overall.

And thus, she affixed each with a label –
I remained single for years
Cursed Mother, envied my peers.

Mother was a strict traditionalist
A believer, conservative, ritualist
Quran and burkha and the Ramzan fast
Were things she embraced, espoused to the last.
But nothing riled her so much, truth be told
As our girls strolling burkha-less down the road.

“Look at them baring their bodies, all bold and brassy,
To all manner of men, it’s downright unclassy!
Not an iota of fear or respect
For god or religion, but then what can you expect
From a college girl? Such brazen shrews
Are not for my son; he deserves better, thank you.”

So she brought me
Black-swathed bears who hadn’t a clue
Of modern ideas, or science, or anything new –
The kind that blindly trusted the village quack.
Shuddering, I stepped back
Begged to be allowed to choose my own bride (educated)
But that flight of fantasy was speedily truncated.
“Education-shmeducation! What’s the point of it?
I never went to school – it hasn’t hurt me a bit!
Seeing a girl before marriage? That’s against the rules!
We didn’t and thrived! Come, don’t be a fool.”

Thus did Mother summarily shut me up.
Disgusted, I turned to my trusty backup.
Father was a liberal –
“Let the boy choose his own path
Why should we parents interfere
Just let it go, my dear.” In response,
Amma cried floods of tears
Cast aside food and water, and, as per our fears
Threatened death by water and fire
I shut up. It was all too dire.

Father, man of the world
Familiar with Amma’s anger, her stubbornness
Decided the fuss had reached the limit of reasonableness,
Said, “As you wish, then”, and withdrew
Into silence, cigarettes, late nights; he knew
It was out of his hands now; sullen,
He distanced himself from the villain.

Then one day, out of the blue,
Mother saw the light –
At lunch, she said, “Oh all right,
You pick your educated girl and marry her,
I will not put up a fight.”
Surprised, delighted, and awash in disbelief
I left the table, suddenly nervous, heaving
A huge sigh of relief.

After gazing long and hard, and evaluating
The post-graduate’s photograph, and locating
Her address, we meet face to face; something clicks
And we’re married, seemingly in two ticks.
Silently, I send many grateful words

Time now to step out of the house
As a married couple! My beautiful spouse
Dressed in grand saree (tied delicately below the waist)
And sleeveless blouse
Decked out in high-heeled shoes, rings
At her ears and fingers, a string
Of gold around her neck, powder and lipstick
Hair pulled up into a tiered tower, very slick –
And smiling a smile that put all of these in the shade
Is about to step across the threshold, when – “Oh wait!”
She runs back inside. And returns a moment later –
“Now I’m all set!” I stare, struck dumb. The traitor
Is now looking very proper, very pucca –

She’s wearing my Amma’s burkha!

~ “Amma, Aachaara, Naanu”, from the collection Sanje Aidara MaLe (The 5 pm Rain), 1970.

The News Of (Sir CV) Raman’s Death

I read of Raman’s death
On a morning that had brought a bitter chill
To Shivamogga; the news made me restless, filled
Me with existential dread; unable to bear it any longer,
I decided to go for a walk.
The streets and fields were unchanged,
There was no hushed talk – I grieved
That no one was grieving.

A mile down the road, I ran into Hanuma, of village Navule.
Hanuma, tiller of someone else’s lands,
Behind-the-ear beedi-wearer, frequent thigh-scratcher,
And overall strange creature –
The epitome of the village itself. Waving his hands about,
He was shooing away birds
With a series of practised shouts,
Working the field as he crooned
A decidedly non-classical, outdated tune.

No sooner than he had seen me, he called out a greeting –
“How are you?” “It’s been a while!” “You haven’t been eating?”
He proceeded to tell me how the crop had fared –
“We don’t need the rains anymore,” he declared.
“The daily wrangling with my neighbour, Sir,
Has worn me down, I swear...”
My attention, like the sun in the foggy sky, was a blur,
I nodded, my distraction obvious,
He jabbered on, oblivious.

“O Hanuma, Raman is dead!” I nearly cried out in anguish,
Then stopped myself. How could this simple, unlettered soul
Appreciate what Raman had been, or condole
With me on his passing?

On one side is Raman, on the other Hanuma.

To the latter, who spends his day trawling through muddy slush,
And dines on the kind of stale mush
I would reject even in my dreams;
Who gets drunk each night on country hooch, and deems
Each day to be quite the same as another, who cannot
Tell apart his todays from his tomorrows or yesterdays
Because of their mind-numbing monotony and ceaseless hustle –
To such a one, what difference does it make
If Raman is dead, or Russell?
Hanuma reads no newspaper, does not know I am a poet.
He has no understanding
Of my peculiar hungers or current unease
No way to respond
To catastrophic contemporary events such as these
No appreciation of the difficulties involved in existing
On many different planes; he is barely subsisting –
And yet
He is content.

The field, the landlord,
His saggy-breasted woman, their snotty children,
A simple understanding of god,
The village headman and his squad –
Such is Hanuma’s entire universe.
And yet
He is content.

Unlike me, who is bowed down by weighty matters –
The status of Kannada, border disputes, the sharing of river waters,
Poetry, prestige, pretensions – Hanuma thinks
About uncomplicated things –
A blouse for his wife, school fees for his eldest son,
The debt he owes Haleshi (for his so-called coffee),
Providing, daily, three humble meals for his family –
As you can see,
It isn’t as if he doesn’t have his problems –
And yet
He is content.

I walked on, marvelling, envying, full of a strange disquiet;
When I looked back, both Hanuma, shrouded in mist,
And his now-distant shouts, infinitesimal in the midst
Of Nature’s immensity, seemed meaningless;
His very existence, like mine, utterly purposeless.

One day, Hanuma will die, but I will not be around;
Some day soon, I will be transferred out of this town
The assured local here will become the stranger there,
I will pass on, no one will know or care;
No one will know
My name, my work, my poetry, my life;
No one will know
Of the things that caused me joy and strife;
This familiar sky, this coconut tree, this canal, this hut, this hill –
Their graciousness, their large-hearted goodwill
The meaning they imbued my life with
The emotions they were rife with –
No one will know.

My throat tight, I walked slowly on, alone,
Feeling a weight lift; the news of Raman’s death
Which had caused my world to shift
Seemed suddenly less cataclysmic;
I felt less adrift.

~ “Raman Satta Suddi”, from the collection Naanemba Parakeeya (The Alien That Is Me), 1972.

All translations by Roopa Pai.