No matter what window he looked out of, there would always be a mountain facing him, trees swaying on the slopes. But instead of blocking his view, it sharpened his vision, so much so that he could even see what the tree birds saw in their sleep. Listening to him, you wanted to leave everything to master the language of leaves, whose rustle he wove into whatever he wrote. As for trees, he had this belief:

The earth and the sky are present together in them
the trees were when we weren’t

more than them we have their memories
they are made of the sleep of a million sparrows

During the ten years I knew Manglesh Dabral, I always wanted to find out what he himself was made of.

I can’t say for sure that I have fully succeeded in my quest. His poems, of course, offer a clue, but you still had to meet the man to gauge the full import of his words, which absorbed the compassion his eyes exuded.

An undated diary entry shows what he was out to achieve:

“Above all, I want to write a lucid poem. A very transparent poem whose words are the scenes of those events about which the poem is. Words are opaque. Behind them there is always darkness and we are forever surrounded by them. To make them transparent, vivid, weightless in daily human dealings has been a major problem of language. I want to write such a poem – one that is as transparent as the smooth paper that village children set on their eyes. I want to write a poem whose words can be “heard” and “seen” on reading. I want to write a poem as if it were the first poem in the world or in language, as if poetry didn’t exist before that poem of mine. I want to write a poem that is free from poetry’s history and past, as if to write that single poem I had given birth to words and all those words were breathing for the first time in that poem.

It was not mere ambition that pushed him. He was under the constant pull of a restlessness, a noble turmoil that fuelled the minibus he often took to the high-altitude village named Poetry.

This village had everything he needed. He could enter and leave it at will. Because every villager not only knew but revered him, he could lodge in whichever house he wanted.

The host of the chosen cabin made sure that the walls displayed neither a calendar nor a clock. It was a place he had always yearned for, a place with “one road, one market, one library, one school, one place to die”, a place where nothing exceeded one, where even “soap had only one brand”.

The villagers also knew how important it was to keep themselves out of sight while their guest was at work. When I was a child, I saw the Doordarshan serial named Ekas Ke Hum Barik (We the Children of One). It was based on some episodes from Nanak’s life. I watched each scene with bated breath, hoping to one day see some actor in the role of Baba Nanak, but I never caught even a glimpse of him. The director had been careful to not show him at all, yet I could feel Nanak’s presence in the camera frame so intensely that I didn’t miss not seeing him. I owe my vision of Nanak to this TV serial.

The villagers felt the guest poet’s presence in exactly the same way. They knew he was not a guest in the true sense, because he had lived in their village all his life even though he wasn’t physically present there. The mountain that faced him even in the plains was the one that housed – and hid – this village. But to him, it was as accessible as it was visible.

When he looked at it, he looked directly at Poetry without aid or inhibition. It was there that he came to the conclusion that “all good poems are love poems, but all love poems aren’t essentially good”. It was from there that he spoke to everyone he cared for, because he wanted to tell everything about this village of the mind.

All his life, he was essentially writing love poems, although he was “scared of” his “own poems, just as” he was “scared going back home”. This fear gave strength to his writing and always kept him on the lookout for “good poetry”, which might perhaps be found somewhere suddenly. Perhaps in sleep, in dreams, perhaps while walking as one catches sight of a shining coin lying on the road. One of its lines might be heard or seen suddenly. Perhaps I might remember it tomorrow when I wake up.

Dreams had great significance for him. He wrote some of them down. Others he chanelled into his poetry. A diary entry, dated 20 October 1996, reads:

“I stood at the edge of a dream for a long time. Somewhere far away on the other shore her eyes shone like stars. I wanted her to call out to me first. Be the first to beckon. Perhaps there was a river between us that shimmered like a mirror. Above us were many clouds – leaning like fearsome faces on the brutal banks of the river. I thought, Prayers are not essential, flowers are not essential, touch is not essential. All I wanted was to hear her voice. That voice of hers which sent a wave rushing through my body hair as if through grass. That voice which had in it the summons of kisses and death. But I saw that she was going away. Towards a boat or the black depths of the river. I kept looking out of the window for long. It was as if I were looking within myself. There was nothing there. Neither a river nor a shore. Only a stark wasteland...Love, I am a child sitting in your lap. Love, I have sprouted from you. No matter how much I grow up, I will always be a child for you just as to a mother her child remains a child till the very end, whether middle-aged or old.”

I never failed to see this child in him, the child who answered your gaze with a guileless smile. This child knew that prayers, flowers and touch are essential, but he also relished something else:

“Don’t know why, but I get a strange pleasure in being cheated, in being thugged. Perhaps it also makes me somewhat happy. If I lose something I feel good for some time. If I buy something from the market – such as a shirt, shoes, a bag or a matchbox – and it turns out to be bad or fake I feel somewhat relieved...If I lose my way I do become anxious but also feel good that this path thugged me. Which is to say, this feeling that this isn’t or wasn’t what it could truly have been or should have been. This isn’t even ‘that’ which was obtained in the form of ‘that’. That is something else, trying to gain which I get thugged. This is also right. If someone returns borrowed money I feel as if I’ve committed some thuggery.”

Perhaps sensing this pleasure, Death too thugged him. He never cared about where the crowd was headed. Since it chose to move towards convalescence, it’s only natural that he set out on another path. He is already on board the last bus to his most beloved village. He has taken a window seat, but it’s on the other side. To see him again, I have to look at him from elsewhere, from the space we inhabited together. From now on, he will control it alone, just as he is also controlling what I am trying to write about him.

Four months ago, I wrote a poem but didn’t know why I wrote it. Now I know:

You look at a mountain
and know a story’s being
played out behind it,
a story you read as a child

near an open window,
the scent of night and rain
filling the room, your fingers
turning, not pages but ages.

The mountain looks at you
and knows even the being
of nothing in which
all stories are laid out

like cowries in a fakir’s lap,
loops of frankincense binding
the words in his only book
with strings of rain, his fingers

now burning with the fever of fables,
now churning the cotton of snows
only a mountain knows.

All translations of Manglesh Dabral’s poetry and prose by Sarabjeet Garcha.