• Kunwar Narain: The Poet of Love and Deep Reflection

    Translated from Hindi by Sneha Chowdhury

    Mangalesh Dabral

    December 4, 2017

    Image courtesy Scroll

    There now remain very few people in the Hindi-speaking world who, in their personalities, carry the value of cultural diversity and whose language reflects truth, dignity and ethics as a beacon for our times. Kunwar Narain was one such individual and writer. His demise marks the loss of an individual of rare values, and the universe of Hindi poetry is now left without a poet whose poetry could bring its readers close to the feelings of respite and grandeur at the same time. For several years, Narain struggled with failing eyesight and an abiding ear ailment, and the last five months of his life were spent in a condition of incapacitating senselessness, fighting death. The whole universe, for him, was enveloped solely in touch, but despite that, the sincere expression of his sympathy never dulled; nor did his ability to dictate through gestures, become weak. Many of his poems, including the long narrative  “Kumarjeev” were made possible in this manner. It is certainly more than a mere coincidence that Argentina’s famous storyteller and writer Jorge Luis Borges, an author Narain was immensely fond of, was also afflicted by blindness in his youth. He kept touching and caressing the hands of the people who visited him at home. One day, during a conversation he said, “I cannot see the world outside, but now it seems I can see what’s inside even better.”

    Kunwar Narain’s aesthetics developed during the “literary phase” of “Nayi Kavita”. But from the very beginning, his poems were not simply literary, but also responded to the society at large.  His thoughts were deeply influenced by the scholar and socialist thinker Acharya Narendradev. His cultural practice extended beyond poetry to include modern thought processes, Buddhist philosophy, mythology, the various cultural crises faced by mankind, world literature, cinema, classical music, archaeology, etc, and his writing on alternative cinema is considered very significant. Several currents of thought constantly stirred in him. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, when Marxist ideology was becoming the subject of criticism everywhere, Kunwar Narain had said, “Marxism has finally managed to step out of the boundaries of the dominant Soviet groups, and come into a bigger world of ideas.” Even though he did not receive a formal training in progressive and Marxist thought, progressive ideas and ethics were an inherent part of Narain’s consciousness; and that’s why he could make the bold proposition that, “the word ‘spiritual’ is not rejected in traditional Marxist thought; if placed in the right context, it has humanitarian value whose total evolution has been imagined in its application to our social structure.” Kunwar Narain is also hailed as the most well-read writer in Hindi, and apart from his poems, his erudition is reflected in his critical pieces which bear testament to his faith in cultural diversity and his overall concerns. 

    Kunwar Narain’s family was financially quite stable. He used to work as a managing partner in a showroom of ambassador cars in his favourite city Lucknow, but he never did much to expand this business and gain profit. In fact, he used to self-deprecatorily call himself a “damaging partner” or would say, “I am in the car business so I don’t have to partake of the business of words”. His house in Lucknow was quite well-known and was visited by many artists – one of them was Ustad Amir Khan who sang several powerful and impressive ragas in that house. When Satyajit Ray was making his first Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi, originally based on a short story written by Premchand, he would often stay in Narain’s house during the shoot. Later, he had to leave Lucknow for Delhi which, according to him, was at the centre of power, and as he describes in one of his poems, two hands, tied and dragged by riders, always move towards the city of Delhi.

    Love and philosophy form the core of Kunwar Narain’s poetry and for him, his language is like a prism, through which he saw love and human magnanimity develop, spread and emerge from different corners. This love is not limited to human beings, but has spread to myths, histories, philosophical discourses, memories, trees which “usher in a new dawn”, and the flowers of Neem, Malati and Amaltas. In one of his poems he expresses his desire to hate certain people but then, by acknowledging his inability to do so, he writes: “When I wanted to hate the British,/ Shakespeare came in the way/ reminding me of his countless favours/ When I wanted to hate the Muslims,/ Ghalib stood in the way/ Now you tell me, how will one have his way/ before them?”

    In another poem titled “Wound”, he writes, “If I could cross / these lanes/ without any stains/ it would be better/ and if I had to carry a stain/ It would not be the stain of innocent blood/ but stain from the wound of a long-standing love/ that refuses to heal.” In a world captured by the rancor and barbarity of the mechanisms of power, Kunwar Narain stubbornly returns to love and humanity and treats poetry as something that “sometimes in front of us, sometimes ahead of us, and sometimes behind us” bears testament. His disgust with the growing hatred, communalism, and other inhuman and anti-human forces and regimes is also a manifestation of his love. The manner in which he turned his deep sense of alienation and dispassion into weapons of criticism and dissent is rarely found in Hindi poetry. Every time he went to the bazaar, he would be filled with the same philosophical gaiety that Socrates experienced – “One does not need these things at all!”

    Several poems were written in Hindi on the planned demolition of the Babri Masjid and the violence in Gujarat – Kunwar Narain’s poem “Ayodhya 1992” addresses Lord Rama and says: “Ayodhya is not your Ayodhya at the moment/ It’s turned into a Lanka of warriors/ ‘Manas’ is no longer your life-tale / But an election-call.” Narain was quite disturbed by the growing intolerance and hatred, and the violence perpetrated on minorities and intellectuals in recent years, and when some writers chose to return their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest, he extended his moral support to them.

    Despite having reasons to hate the world and fight it, spending his life with utmost love and affection, Kunwar Narain was as much an ethical human being, as he was an ethical poet. One may say that his ethics was his politics. Our deceitful politics, market, economy and several other acts of inhumanity and crudeness have rendered words such as humanity, integrity, goodness, truthfulness nearly meaningless and unstable, but Kunwar Narain’s poetry brings them back to life: “Like a bright mirror, / Whenever I turn/ A word/ Towards man, things and the stars/ Behind them/ I see a meaning emerge/ Which is greater than the word.” German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht thought that a great composition is one which can be explained in a single word or a single sentence. He is a poet who envisions a fuller humanity, whose concepts constantly recur in his poems. He wishes to be fuller, and writes: “This time If I stay alive, / I’d like to return grateful/ If I return this time, / It would not be as a wounded man, / but a man who returns fuller/ thinking of everyone’s well-being.”

    Perhaps only a serious ethical and philosophical bent of mind can once again express, establish and illuminate the right meanings of these words. In this sense, Kunwar Narain is not just a poet writing in Hindi, he is, in fact, a world poet. His narrative poem “Kumarjeev” is an example of this, and remains unprecedented in Hindi literature. In the poem, he depicts the inner and outer journey of an Indian philosopher who translates Buddhist texts into Chinese, turning the journey from one life to another, one country to another into another act of translation. All this will keep sustaining the life of his poetry.

    Read the Hindi original here.

    Mangalesh Dabral is a celebrated Hindi poet. He has published five books of poems, two collections of literary essays and socio-cultural commentary, a book of conversations, and a travelogue on his experiences in Iowa, where he was a fellow at the International Writing Program in 1991. He has received numerous awards, including the Shamsher Sammaan (1995), the Pahal Sammaan (1998) and the Sahitya Akademi Award (2000).

    Sneha Chowdhury is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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