Reading Vijay Nambisan

Nambisan, who passed away recently, channeled with wry confidence and clarity the worlds of Malayalam, Sanskrit and Urdu poetry.

Vijay Nambisan. Credit: Paperwall

It’s been a difficult and unsettling few weeks for Indian poetry in English. Close on the heels of Eunice de Souza’s passing comes news of the death of Vijay Nambisan.  

He was fifty-four, an age that no longer seems old at all to me, not least since Nambisan had only recently begun to publish poetry again, and only recently – thanks to the cajoling of his old friend Jeet Thayil – released his extraordinary first collection.  Moreover, he had begun to write poems, so it seemed, in great spurts and with a new and accomplished wisdom, nuance and originality.  

As Nambisan explained in his foreword to that book, First Infinities (Poetrywala, 2015), he had written and published very little over twenty odd years because he had come to the conclusion that “poetry did not matter”. Now it had recently come to him that in fact, “poetry is the only thing that matters”. One could equally suggest that through much of the late 90s and early 2000s it seemed as if there was no viable readership or community for Indian poetry written in English, beyond a couple incestuous pockets; now suddenly it seems to me more sophisticated and full of possibility than ever before.  

According to Thayil, Nambisan had already more or less completed a second collection, so the appearance of a posthumous book is likely and necessary, and will further change our picture of his work.  

Before we begin reading this poet, the first things to nudge out of the way are the various myths of personhood we cultivate to cover up our anxieties about reading poetry. The romantic image of Nambisan as a drunk and reclusive writer – perhaps this idea had meant something to him too, in his younger years. He tells us about it himself memorably, in the First Infinities sequence – “Desperate with knowledge, opened wide by drink, / How I’ve thrown my need about the houses / I’ve partied in…”– and yet we shouldn’t forget the caveat he also offers, in another poem, “To Have Been Written in Urdu”:

All the world, it seems, knows I like to drink;

How few know how well I like to be sober.

Indeed, the latter was the only side I saw. I met Nambisan only twice: first, with Anjum Hasan when we shared a panel at a South Indian writer’s festival in the early 2000s, and then in 2015, at the launch of First Infinities, more than a decade later. He’d lived the whole intervening time out, it seemed, in those small and mofussil towns with his wife, the writer and doctor Kavery Nambisan. The Vijay I briefly met the second time seemed exactly the same person I’d met before, warm-hearted and reflective, self-effacing and yet in control – and scrupulously sober. He understood he’d achieved a degree of cult fame, almost without wanting it, and he was practiced in his defenses against flattery. In his openness and willingness to talk, he seemed not at all like a recluse.

As for the writing itself, it’s never a good idea to read a serious and ambitious poet piecemeal, or to praise him or her only by the poems that are, for whatever reason, best known. Much of Nambisan’s early work betrayed an apprentice’s allegiance to mid-20th century British poetry, especially the Movement poets (and his most famous poem, “Madras Central,” though its sentiments were genuine, quite obviously, to the point of pastiche, to Eliot’s Prufrock).

To someone who did not know the writer, this all implied a stiff-upper lip Anglophile, quite the opposite of the earthy Nambisan that I finally came to meet in person. Nevertheless, this apprenticeship in language, the emphasis on “purity of diction” that it brought with it, empowered him with a deep faith in the writing act – what Nambisan himself refers to simply as “a school which trained us to put our visions on paper trustingly and accurately”. This is a ground that eventually served him well. There is a wonderful elegance and delicacy to his mature style, channeling with wry confidence and clarity the worlds of Malayalam, Sanskrit and Urdu poetry, or intensely local scenarios and longings, the contemporary landscape of Coorg.

Two poems especially from First Infinities will always stay with me. The first, “Neighbours”, interestingly tells us very little about its setting, though I’d gone and imagined a post-liberalisation mofussil town, with satellite dishes splayed from every terrace. The astronaut Sunita Williams is being interviewed on TV; the narrator seems to be living in a circumscribed world himself, but outer space has somehow become terrifyingly banal, simply there for the taking –“those glittering worlds / … so familiar, we think of them / as just across the street”. And then, without warning, the poem turns profoundly lyrical and philosophical:

           Star requires of star

Nothing but being.  In some world to come

Each house shall be only the threshold of the next.

In the two halves of this poem, one dry and ironic, the other melancholy, lyrical, and open-ended, we begin to clearly see the tension and contradiction that Nambisan wrote out of, where poetry did not matter and was also the only thing that mattered.  

The second I’m thinking of is “Dvija”, the longest and most powerful, ambitious poem in First Infinities, an uncanny encounter, half nightmare, half wrenching consolation, with the ghost of the narrator’s father. I have to guess that the dream Nambisan describes in it was at least partly real, not pure fiction, for all the startling and unpredictable turns it takes, how it weighs the memory of the dead with a cold but not uncompassionate eye.  The poem takes a Sanskrit word as title, “dvija”, but completely discards the word’s caste ritual-based connotation. Instead, it uses the idea of the second birth to think about how and under what conditions we might live on in the dreams of others.

The idea of conditional knowledge here is important. It brings a faith to the act of reading. At the innermost heart of the work of Indian English poets like Eunice de Souza, Gieve Patel, Siddhartha Menon and Vijay Nambisan, we find not rapturous feelings or unacknowledged legislation but an ethics: language itself as an ethic, to borrow from the title of one his prose books. Far from being an outmoded approach, this issue has become even more relevant in the era of ubiquitous fake news, no longer just a philosophical question. It’s something we should perhaps keep in mind as a specific contribution of the much-ridiculed Indian English poetry to our cultural landscape, even as our poetry, and our English, transforms in the coming years into something vast, diverse and almost completely unforeseen.

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