Through the ghostly lights of Verma’s ancient cities
Shrikant Verma’s politically-charged book of Hindi poems, written across 1979 and 1984, gets a worthy revival through Rahul Soni’s magisterial translation, writes Sridala Swami.
SRIDALA SWAMI 8th Jun 2013
Manikarnika cremation ghat at Kashi, one of the ancient sites where Verma sets his poems.
he Hindi poet Shrikant Verma wrote Magadh over two years: 1979 and 1984. For this work he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award posthumously in 1987.
A cursory search on Google throws up several translations of the work, not just into English but also into Bengali and Gujarati. Rahul Soni's translation, therefore, is not the first one. A journal that Soni himself co-edits, Pratilipi, has translations of two poems from Magadh by the poet Vijay Dharwadkar.
Comparing that translation with Soni's it becomes clear that there is something unique about the project that Soni has undertaken over the last half decade: in his translator's note, Soni describes his process as a movement from 'free renderings' to 'a stricter more faithful method' in order to 'mirror its simple, crystalline vocabulary'.
The vocabulary and syntax is the first striking thing about Magadh. A child could read these poems more easily than they could any lesson set them in their second language course. But this simplicity is just a distraction. Verma, like the Vetal that the speaker of the 'Invocation' claims to be, is a master of misdirection. The poems may appear to be simple but they hide serious conundrums behind the paradoxes, repetitions and rhymes, between the deliberate statement-and-restatement and the rhetorical questions that Verma employs.
In many of the poems in Magadh, people are leaving or returning to cities. They are giving up their right to call one city their own while they live in another. They experience a divided sense of self and loyalty when they move between cities. And roads to and from cities seem to have a life and a destiny all their own. The pivotal question of the collection is, 'Horseman/ where does this road go?' but the traveller often cannot stay for an answer, cannot accept the one he is given or cannot interpret it to his satisfaction.
Read together, read as a whole, the accumulated effect of these poems put the reader in a state of deep confusion that can only be called existential. What do the names of these ancient cities matter to us, who cannot easily identify Magadh, Kosala or Ujjaini on a map? The speaker in the poem 'Hastinapur' speaks our mind for us when he says, 'Consider/ a person/ left all alone – / why should he care when the Mahabharata was fought?'
Read together, read as a whole, the accumulated effect of these poems put the reader in a state of deep confusion that can only be called existential. What do the names of these ancient cities matter to us, who cannot easily identify Magadh, Kosala or Ujjaini on a map?
In Magadh, the speakers – though they are sometimes guides or travellers – are often insiders or people loyal to those in power. In one poem, the speaker says, 'Kosal is a republic in my imagination/ The people of Kosal are not happy/ because Kosal is a republic only in the imagination'. The tiny, subtle shift from one person's imagined republic to a general, abstract idea of a republic that has not materialised, is a clever one.
As an insider himself – Shrikant Verma began his political career with the Congress (I) first as spokesman, then as the General Secretary and finally was elected to the Rajya Sabha – Verma knows the value of mythologising the political and of making it ahistorical and for all time. A person left alone may not care when the Mahabharata was fought, but as no one knew better than Verma, a person is rarely left all alone and must therefore care about Hastinapur, Magadh, Kalinga – about all these other cities to which there are no roads.
erma saw politics from close quarters and his experience of it is expressed in often disquieting ways in these poems. In 'Interference', the lines 'peace must remain in Magadh', 'Order must remain in Magadh' and 'What will people say', create a sense of unease that recall an earlier poem, 'Wailing from the Inner Chambers', that ends with these lines:
When everyone behaves themselves,
When everyone thinks before they speak,
Why these tirades? Find out.
Suddenly, the words' find out' take on a more sinister tone, its intent less benevolent and concerned and more punitive. It is hard not to remember that some of these poems were composed in the years following the Emergency.
Which brings me to the only quibble I have with this translation: I would have welcomed a little more context with regard to the composition of these poems. The Foreword by Ashok Vajpeyi discusses Verma's involvement in politics and Soni himself mentions, but leaves unexplained, the intriguing fact that these poems were composed five years apart: some in 1979 but most in 1984.
Why did Verma let these poems be for all those years? What made him return to the earlier poems and give them their current shape with newer poems? An historical account of how Magadh came to be would have satisfied my curiosity with regard to the two dates 1979 and 1984. It is clear that the Emergency has something to do with the tone of some of the poems, but when in '84 were the other poems written? Before Mrs. Gandhi's assassination or after? Or both before and after?
Without this necessary context, the poems remain caught in a mythical mayajaal, whereas it seems to me that Verma's poems are directed as sharply towards the present as they are to the distant past.
In all other ways, this translation is impeccable. Soni's immersion in the text has resulted in a pared down, burnished rendition of Verma's cycle of poems. His care with line breaks, his use of words chosen not just for meaning but sound, argue for a kind of rigour that is very welcome. Soni's Note on the translation is a gem of precision and clarity, and completely free of any displays of pomposity.
As with Adil Jussawalla's collection, Trying to Say Goodbye, also brought out by Almost Island, much care has been taken over the design of the book. The poems in Hindi and the translations on the facing page move together, nearly perfectly line by line. Going by the quality of paper and size of book, it would seem that Almost Island is going for a specific 'look' for their poetry collections and that – if it means that there will be more poetry in the months to come – can only be good news.