Verse Affairs: In War and Peace

A new translation of Kunwar Narain’s poetry, by his son Apurva Narain, brings him to a wider audience.

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In a 2008 essay on Hindi litterateur Kunwar Narain, scholars Girdhar Rathi and Suresh Dwivedi describe the manifesto for this poetry: “War Against Dehumanization”. Referring to the various images of conflict in his poetry — Chakravyooh (a battle formation from the Mahabharata), Atmajayi (self-conqueror), Amne Samne (face-off) — Rathi and Dwivedi write: “War in its various shades pervades, directly or indirectly, practically all the important poems of Kunwar Narain. Words and images like victory, defeat, confrontation, attack or hunt, help him untangle a number of knotty situations while their frequency startles the reader.”

But there are references to peace as well — at times ironic — in poems like “A Shop that Sells Peace”:

He sells peace in the neighbourhood.
His shop of loudspeakers is right
next to my house.

He charges me a fee
of a hundred rupees per month
to not play the loudspeaker for two hours
at the crack of dawn.

A few stanzas later, the poem ends:

I am beholden to him—
in a developing economy like India
where prices are sky-rocketing
if a hundred rupees per month can buy
even two hours of peace a day
it is not expensive.

Narain wrote this poem in 1985, but he seems like a clairvoyant: “He knows that in the times to come / peace will be a scarce commodity, rarer / than clean air or clean water.”

A new book of his poetry, Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems (Eka, Chennai, 2021), in English translation by his son Apurva Narain, brings him hopefully to a newer generation of readers. They are likely to find him urgent and prescient, even as we celebrate his 94th birthday on September 19. The book under review has 88 of his poems — with the text in Hindi and English. These have been selected and compiled from eight of his books. These poems are philosophical, political, personal or historical, describing events, meditating on ideas, or recollecting experiences of the poet.

Born in 1927, in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, Narain studied in Lucknow and lived in the city for nearly eight decades. His house was a centre of fervent intellectual activity, with other writers, musicians and film and theatre people often visiting. According to one source, Satyajit Ray lived with him for a while during the shooting of Shatranj ke Khilari (1977). (Narain was also a well-known writer on cinema). Narain was at once local and cosmopolitan. In 1955, he travelled to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China and this left a deep impression on him. On this trip, he met Nâzım Hikmet and Pablo Neruda (who once-unassailable position in world poetry has been under scrutiny for an admitted rape) — and some of the poems he wrote on these meetings and travels are included in Witnesses of Remembrance. But Narain could also be an intensely personal individual, who refused to attend too many public or promotional events. Despite this, however, he was honoured with almost all awards in the world of Indian poetry, including a Sahitya Akademi and a Jnanpith.

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While he began writing under the influence of the romantic Chayavad tradition, he moved away from it in the 1960s towards the more realistic Nayi Kavita movement. In the introduction to the current volume, Apurva Narain writes: “In later collections, poems combine more accessible exteriors with far-reaching, nuanced content, without attempting to startle or distract with affectation of any kind.”

The starkness of these poems was perhaps particularly suited to his occasional or deeply political poetry.

Perhaps his most famous political poem is “Ayodhya, 1992”, written in response to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This book does not include that, but there are others. For instance, “Groundwork”, with which it begins. The endnotes inform us that it was written during the Emergency (1975-77):

…a half-dead child was brought in
Not ailing, but starving.

At the table, the doctor
Picked up a surgical knife.
Not a surgical knife
But a rusty ominous dagger.

Thrusting it into the child’s stomach
He assured—
Now all will be well.

About 40 years after the end of the Emergency, Narain wrote another poem, “The Happier I Wish to Keep Them”, about the murders of rationalists and writers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi:

The stronger we yearn for a distance to remain
Between innocence and tyranny
The more fiendish the truth of our time
Grows to be.

Narain died in 2017. Since then, our times have undoubtedly only grown more fiendish.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Das Gupta writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.