Condensing Expansive Worlds

    by Kinshuk Gupta

    Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems by Kunwar Narain, translated by Apurva Narain, Eka (Westland), 2021, 304 pages, Rs 599

    The poems in the collection, Witnesses of Remembrance, take a hard look at the primeval question of what it means to survive in a co-inhabited world. Carefully chosen by his son Apurva Narain, this bilingual edition comprising almost 100 poems, presents a rich collection of prescient poems, hinting towards Kunwar Narain’s poetic prowess—his ability to compress expansive worlds.

    Succeeding No Other World: Selected Poems, Kunwar Narain’s first book-length collection of translated poems, which was launched in 2008 by Rupa Publications in India, and subsequently by Arc Publications in 2010 in the UK, the book under the review, gives an easy passage into the diverse themes that impacted Kunwar Narain’s poetic persona. Moreover, as also pointed in the Foreword, one observes the influence of age and deepening maturity—his poems getting smaller and simpler—laying bare the ‘truths’ without any embellishments.

    Straddling the world of imagination, the poems are divided into 8 sections—each beginning with a picture of his personal commodity and an excerpt of his poem. However, despite the dreamlike quality of these poems, they skillfully merge personal with the political. The realization that poetry should reflect the eccentricity of the modern world and, thus, act as an antidote to it—contrary to the romantic lens of Chhayavad poets—can be easily understood by one of the often-quoted lines from one of his poems in the collection, “I reached this world a little late.”

    Kunwar Narain often humanizes the natural world, where trees and birds and even buildings can be heard talking to us of their pleasures and pains, highlighting the concept of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’, while also sensitizing the reader about the destruction of the ecosystem in the most organic way.

    Fond of journeys, this collection has poems that are referenced to the various places Narain visited. Quite a few poems are influenced by artists and poets whose work inspired him including Brecht, Cavafy, and Muktibodh.

    Love and mortality, the two forces feeding into any writer’s creative process, guide even Kunwar Narain. Most of these poems concentrated in the latter part of the book are mostly visceral, yet maintain that peaceful tender quality of his voice. The collection, with an erudite translation by his son, Apurva Narain, in most parts, does justice to these poems.

    Kunwar Narain writes clearly, so the poems might also look superficial to an amateur reader, but if one spends enough time with these almost prophetic poems, these poems written at least four to five decades earlier, are windows to the despotic, dystopian world we are living in.

    The book also features the last poem by Kunwar Narain that he asked somebody to write for him because of his failing eyesight, which will always haunt me, not only because of Kunwar Narain’s commitment to the form, but because it is a compelling reminder that the person might die, but the poet—and his enthralling, haunting and deceptive worlds—continue to exist.

    Some poems from the collection:

    Postscript: So Close to Me

    Time is short, and still
    I wish to live with you
    for a few days
    and thus attach a sub-world
    to this narrative of life

    Like a rare interlude
    suddenly remembered, postscript:

    In the August days
    a sojourn to the hills,
    in the hushed pitter-patter of rain
    by a half-forgotten lake
    in some nameless retreat,
    I wish to beguile
    the remaining days of this ending epoch;
    to bathe in your musky fragrance
    to live in complete captivation
    of something intoxicating
    and even more exhilarating
    than the first love in life…

              Oh, why has this tiny patch of sunlight
              that was about to leave the room
              now suddenly moved
              so close to me

    Before Getting Drenched in the Rain

    I met her
    not in a poem of mine
    but in a story

    and not in the beginning either,
    but somewhere in the middle

    of an ordinary homely story, suddenly…
    By then half her beauty had ebbed
    and the remainder of her life
    had been registered like land
    in the name of her family.

    The two of us, hand in hand,
    were descending down
    a craggy, roundabout mountain slope

    From summit to sky
    dense caliginous clouds impatient to rain
    had hemmed in the limits of flight.

    Before getting drenched in the rain
    she was in a hurry to return home.

    The Pandemic of Numbers

    He once began to vomit up numbers
    uncontrollably, counting,
    when the toll began to cross millions
    he slipped into a coma, then

    woke up in a hospital where blood was
    being transfused, oxygen was being given…
    that he screamed out—

    Doctor, I’m bursting with laughter,
    this is laughing gas, not life-saving gas,
    you can’t compel me to laugh
    in this country, all have a birthright
    to live in remorse, else what’s the meaning
    of our freedom, democracy, republic…

    Don’t talk, said the nurse, you’re weak,
    it was a feat to control your blood pressure,
    the doctor explained—this virus of numbers
    is unfurling like wildfire these days,
    it affects the brain straightaway,
    you’re fortunate to have been saved,
    anything could’ve happened to you.

    Delirium, and you would’ve gone on blathering,
    or paralysis, and you could’ve ceased
    talking forever,
    any vein in your head could’ve ruptured
    under pressure from such a titanic count:
    we’re passing through friable times,
    excitement over data can be fatal,
    no medicine works on it. Stay calm,
    if you’re saved, you’d be one in a million…

    Suddenly he felt
    the doctor’s face had transformed
    into a red alert, warning
    against some imminent danger.
    And he, lacerated by numbers,
    was screaming away—we are
    people even now, not numbers…

    Kunwar Narain (1927–2017) is considered one of India’s foremost poets, thinkers and literary figures of modern times. He read across literatures and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. His diverse oeuvre of seven decades embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex; and includes poetry, epics, short stories, literary criticism, essays, diaries, translations, and writings on world cinema and the arts. His honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award and Senior Fellowship, the Kabir Samman, Italy’s Premio Feronia for distinguished world author, the Padma Bhushan, and the Jnanpith. Some of his works remain unpublished.

    Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain’s son and translator. His books of translation include a collection of poetry, No Other World, a co-translated story collection, The Play of Dolls, and a recent selection of poetry, Witnesses of Remembrance. His work has appeared in several literary journals such as Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Indian Literature, Asia Literary Review, Poetry International, Scroll, Two Lines, Columbia Journal, etc. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also has professional interests in the fields of international development, ethics, and ecology.

    Kinshuk Gupta is a doctor, bilingual writer, poet and columnist who works at the intersection of gender, health and sexuality. His debut book of short fiction, Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chordarwaja, modern Hindi’s first LGBT short story collection, was published to great critical acclaim in 2023. He is the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships including the India Today-Aaj Tak Sahitya Jagriti Udayiman Lekhak Samman (2023); Akhil Bhartiya Yuva Kathakar Alankaran (2022); Dr. Anamika Poetry Prize (2021). He has been shortlisted for the Toto Awards for Creative Writing (2023); The Bridport Prize (2022); Srinivas Rayparol Poetry Prize (2021); All India Poetry Competition (2018). He edits poetry for Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review. He has been awarded the prestigious South Asia Speaks 2023 Fellowship to work on his poetry manuscript with Tishani Doshi.

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