The Arts

Manglesh Dabral: A Poet Whose Aim Was to Preserve a Simple Sentence – ‘We are Human’

The illustrious Hindi poet always sidestepped convenient definitions to give a sense of how things were in reality. He knew that what is characterised as inhumanity is, in fact, a crisis of humanity.

“Manglesh Dabral is gone. Sad.” The phone screen lit up with Kavita Srivastava’s message. My heart sank. Although, I can’t say that the news was entirely unexpected; from the moment I had got the news about him testing positive for COVID-19 and being taken to one hospital and then another, I had steeled my heart.

The year 2020 has taught us to look at death not as an incident but simply as a fact of life. In the same manner as, in the last six years, the humiliation of and the violence inflicted on Muslim citizens has been turned into a natural fact. Still, it is not easy to cultivate an air of detachment towards such facts.

Even after getting this information, I completed watching a film that was a fantasy about the victory of the resistance against Hitler. Fascism and film – one a source of continuing concern for Mangleshji, and the other an abiding interest, like music.

Manglesh Dabral. Photo: YouTube screengrab

The manner in which fascism has been causing damage to India’s social fabric and distorting the very essence of his language, Hindi, troubled him greatly. In recent times, on the few occasions when I met him, I could sense that he was feeling more and more bereft of the means to tackle this growing perversion.

Perhaps it was in one such moment of despair that he wrote:

Although there is much that is being written by way of poetry, stories and novels in Hindi, in truth these forms have died, although there has been no pronouncement to this effect, simply because of the spate of writings. However, it is only themes like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, Vande Mataram, ‘just one place for Muslims: Pakistan or the graveyard’ that are alive in Hindi now. The fact that I write in this language fills me with remorse. How I wish it was not my mother tongue!’

Regrettably, the deep anguish underlying this statement was not understood by his peers and younger writers, who pounced on him for saying what he did. He was reminded of writers from Premchand to Dhoomil and told that Hindi was a language of resistance and revolution. However, the extent to which Mangleshji had written in and read Hindi by that time surely gave him the right to feel ashamed about the language. For the Hindi that we speak today contains the moistness of the sweat, blood and tears of writers like Manglesh. It was surprising that even those who consider themselves litterateurs remained largely untouched by his anguish.

Why just Manglesh, any poet who remains connected with social realities would not but be familiar with society’s disregard for language:

In the streets, on buses, in meeting places,
no one in such a huge throng says — a few lines of Nirala came to my mind today.
No one says – I have read Nagarjuna.
No one talks about how Muktibodh died

One says — I have made huge strides.
One is happy to find a seat in the bus.
One asks — why does society not follow my command.
One has already seen his whole future laid out. 

One says –just wait and see how I carve out my way forward
One says — I am poor. I don’t have any other word left.

I could perhaps count myself among his friends, although I was not deeply acquainted with him. What I can say with certainty is that our relationship was that of a reader and a poet.

That is not to say that we did not meet face to face and talk; we did. But on all those occasions, I was not able to bridge the formal gap that existed between us. It was at some public event or other that I would meet him.

Whether it was a meeting or a march, I always had an impression of a certain tentativeness on his part, as if he was not fully confident about the impact of what he was about to state. One would not call it a sense of hopelessness; it was more an absence of the arrogance of hope that is completely divorced from reality. It was as if the only way he could see himself was in the context of others – somewhat like Vijaydev Narayan Sahi, grasping not only the limits of his pursuit of poetry but equally its necessity:

Not forcefully,
But, again and again I said what I had to say
in all its weakness
Driven by some hope
I expressed my despair

Expressing confidence without self-confidence
Writing and striking out this sentence –
everything is passing through its darkest time

Putting together scattered papers
Wiping away the dust
debating verbs, turning them inside out

Like, it happened, continued to happen
should have happened, could have happened
what if it had happened (I would say it again and again)

Despair may be the reality but it cannot be used as an excuse to turn away from one’s duties or deeds:

Even after doing a great deal if we feel we have done nothing,
that is despair
People keep a man without hope at arm’s length
We preserve our despair so zealously
as if that itself is the biggest joy

Before our eyes the world gathers dust
Birds appear like scraps of paper flying around
Even music is not able to liberate us

We are constantly accosted by discordant notes
In colours we see bloodstains and images of the aftermath of killings
Words are not in our control and
love seems to be beyond human reach

In despair we cry out – despair, give us our morsel
Give us the strength to walk a few steps
(a poem on despair)

Manglesh Dabral was born in an India that had freed itself from the status of a colony. Undoubtedly his youthful years must have been warmed by the hopes and spirit of the Nehruvian age, resting on a belief in the basic goodness of humanity.

The Hindi in which he decided to write poetry, forging his language for the task, had already gone through several phases of aspirations. No wonder it did not bear the stamp of a forceful assertion that it could change everything. Nor, for that matter, was that claim wholly unacceptable.

Raghubir Sahay unerringly noted in his review of Manglesh Dabral’s collection, Ghar ka Raasta (the way home), that his “…poems …portray the human engaging in struggle in his own way. He stands in a sliver of space, touched by what seems to be a faint shade of hope, or is it a field of darkness? These are the very things that give meaning to his struggle, for that itself is struggle.”

Manglesh Dabral was acutely aware of the suffering inflicted by humans on their own kind. His translations of works from languages across the world are testimony to this fact. Hence, he was familiar with the difficulties characterising the struggle to end the culture that perpetuates such suffering.

Moreover, with his profound knowledge of the language, he was familiar with its limits as well. He was a leftist, but in recent years I noticed in him a growing closeness to Gandhi. Perhaps it was the brief, hesitant comment he wrote on a discussion about Gandhi following the performance of Hungarian playwright Nemeth Laszlo’s Gandhi ki Mrityu, that created this impression in my mind. As also the few phone calls he made to me after reading some of my pieces on Gandhi.

Literature or poetry is but a way of recognising the essence of life in its so-called unnecessary or insignificant aspects. They epitomise the struggle against the temptation for a formulaic narrative:

Definitions present a way of making life easy – for instance, if you remember the definition of man or cloud, there is no crying need to look at humans and, similarly, it is possible to get by without looking up at the sky. 

The definitions of crisis and decline and degradation were also crafted for this very reason. When we describe a calamity or try to show the state of affairs, we are told it is an exaggerated picture. A man beats a sharp tattoo on the table and barks out, stop this purana and state the definition.

But, instead of taking recourse to definitions, Manglesh, like a true poet, always tried to give a sense of how things were. He knew that what is characterised as inhumanity is, in fact, a crisis of humanity. Brutality, crudity, pettiness – these are all part of the human condition. Being fascist is not as difficult as it seems!

The physical absence of Manglesh Dabral now gives his readers an opportunity to see his works clearly. And that, in the spirit of partnership, they do not merely echo the desire expressed by him, but do something to ensure that his desire does not end up being confined to just that:

I want that touch survives
Not the touch that flays the shoulder
like an oppressor raging past
But the touch that
feels as if after an unknown journey
one has touched a shore of the earth

I want that taste survives
beyond sweet and bitter
Taste that does not devour things
but is another name for the
attempt to keep them intact 

My aim is to preserve a simple sentence —
we are human
I want that the truth of this sentence survives
And the slogan that can be heard on the street
survives with its meaning intact

I want that despair survives
That once again resurrects
a hope for itself

May words survive
that, like birds,
are difficult to catch

May love retain its childishness
May poets retain some decency 

So, dear reader, let us attempt to write a simple sentence together, for that would be the most fitting tribute to the poet.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.