NOTE: If you reading this on your phone, do hold it horizontally to ensure the line lengths aren’t compromised. Better still, read it on a tablet or a computer.
Almost two years have passed since Covid upended all our lives. However, it’s spanned three (calendar) years – 2020, 2021, and 2022. Here are three poems I’ve written about what may be the world’s first true pandemic. Incidentally, each one was written in a different calendar year. Beneath each poem, I have mentioned the approx. date it was written on and the circumstance that prompted me to write it.
1. For These (Covid) Times
This afternoon, a well-wisher and a friend asked for a poem for these ‘covid times’. I was flattered by her faith and said I’d try, but, really, what she’d said was as good as asking me to not think of an elephant. So as I walked briskly on my evening walk, my mind began to formulate a poem. With my taste being both rhythm and rhyme, the poem’s opening was metred; end-rhyme is not easily unfacile but a rhythm’s a lot easier to find. Six lines into my thought-poem (that I meant to write after my walk was done), it struck me that corona’s devastation was without both rhyme and reason; and how its contribution, as it were, was to upsetting the whole world’s rhythm.
‘Poetry must disrupt’ is a worthy slogan (often used unworthily by poets whose poetry’s their only disruption), that at its best can be a way to see what we only ever look at mindlessly. But how can poetry (itself) deal with a dis- ruption, what can it say and do to remain relevant? What must it lose what must it gain for what it says to outlive the sayer? Think – if corona had to take a poem’s form, what would it be? would every comma in the poem mean ‘tested positive’, a semicolon spell seriousness; and a full stop take the place of death.
The lockdown’s done, people are free (if masked) and the road no longer stretches on, lonely. I followed the news when it first raged but now I cannot say I really care; I’m comfortable – I have a house, food, water, snacks, a mask, a stiff-backed chair. I know no one that covid’s killed – it’s like that man-eating tiger you read about that’s killed someone who knew someone (who knows someone) you know. The direness of poverty’s a paper-pic, a facebook-post, last evening’s news – something you’d like to prick at you but that you know you will forget. Privilege and death are kindred – either you or a close relative must be involved for you to know it.
Ten days into the lockdown my ajji died, what took her was not the virus but time; inexorable. At 93 years old, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due – though the suddenness of her passing came as a blow. (The doctor who came home was a leech. Not a bad man – but greedy for the money he could strip without damage to both your dignities.) The rites, the rituals, the mantras were performed; the rhythm of the chants remained but several other rhythms failed – the crowd that gathers to mourn an elder’s passing could not obtain; tradition, prepared for this, said six months later would not be late. (On the obverse side, marriages were infected too.)
Last year this time, I ran and walked the Institute; my childhood place, my stomping grounds, my grace. The gulmohar flowers are now upon a different tree – the Institute is temporarily closed to me. But the flowers’ happy red remains – reminding me not everything can be locked down; life’s disruption has it limits too – even the best dictators can control just other men and their families.
Exaggeration’s the old game’s name, but its shelf life too is limited. 2020 may go down as ‘corona year’ but 2021 will have a different theme, vaccine or no vaccine; the simple truth’s that death is such a part of life, it can distress only so much. Remember Yudhishṭira’s answer to the yaksha – the most wonderful thing in the world is this: ‘that a man can see men die all around yet think that he’s beyond it.’
(Written on June 18-19, 2020, a little while after the first lockdown had ended and restrictions had been relaxed. The well-wisher I mention at the poem’s beginning is Aruna. Without her prompting, it’s unlikely this poem would have been written at all. I later revised the poem a fair bit on August 20, 2020.)
2. Covid – Reprise (2021)
This lockdown’s lifted me up closer to the sun; I no longer walk half-empty roads and come home with some flowers for ma. I stride, instead, upon the terrace stone, the evening sun treks up my bare brown hands; across, a boy grows fat on photographs.
The “second wave” they say; I’ve walked into the sea and had the waves wash over me – then watched them break upon the shore. But covid’s second’s been a wave of grief – rising – stumbling – tumbling, it’s broken on the shore of life, the wet it’s left’s the wet of tears.
The gulmohar’s flowers are red again outside; this time they do not seem like happiness.
(Written on June 12, 2021, almost exactly a year since the first poem and towards the end of the quite-deadly ‘second wave’ that began around late March, 2021. Again, it was an acquaintance I’d shared the first poem with who wondered if I’d considered writing a ‘sequel’ poem, in light of the devastation the second wave had wreaked. By the time I wrote this, I too had ‘first-hand’ experience, with at least two people I’d known well – a relative and a friend’s mother – having died from (what was alleged to be) covid. And I was hardly the only one. Naturally then, I considered writing another longish poem that incorporated these events…events that, in some ways, made the first poem seem a lot less “prescient” than it might have been when I wrote it. I think though that I felt there like there was too much to say…and ended up writing a sonnet instead.)
3. Corona & Curfew – Twenty Twenty Two
It’s hard to stay afraid indefinitely; especially when, looking round and thinking for yourself, you fail to see what’s dangerous. It’s not like being on a makeshift raft at sea, jostled above the waters vast, aware fully that deadly creatures swim beneath your feet; it feels, instead, like being on a nearby street; around you mills humdrum humanity.
It’s Jan again in Bangalore – the rain is gone; the sky is blue, some trees are green, some flowery; the sunlight’s calling like a therapy. Corona, though, is off again; playing, like a maestro, its variations on a theme. In thrall to it, the world-mind’s stuck in loop; testing – vaccines – protests – lockdown – curfew.
But you are sick (though not to death) of this, this virus-string whose strains keep playing on; for all you’d like to do after two torrid years is wallow, bison-like, within the sunshine’s warmth, forgetting about both delta and omicron; stupid tags for a virus of Chinese origin.
And now the evening sky is filled with chirping sounds, the orange sun falls slowly towards the horizon – you love how you can look upon on its brilliant glow; and though the curfewed streets are pleasant silently, your mind goes to the bustle that it knew so well, a bustle that boosted spirits like an arm-prick never will.
(Written between January 12-14, 2022, not long after the announcement that a “weekend curfew” would once again be implemented in Bengaluru. Having begun the year by going to watch a play and catch up with some friends on January 1 and looking forward to more such meetings in the new year, I reckon the frustration that the authorities had once again decided to let covid dictate our lives was what prompted me to write this. However, with the omicron strain spreading through the populace with the speed of a common cold – and, thankfully, with much less deadliness than the delta strain – I sincerely hope we are finally ready to “live with covid”…and that I will not be required to add another poem to the trilogy.)
Nota Bene: For proper scansion, hold the phone horizontally (rather than vertically)! Or, better still, read it on a tablet or a computer.
December 1, 2020
It is the evening of the first day of the last month of the year – and it is cold; almost as if the month wanted us to know that it was here.
A little past twelve a.m. last night (for once remembering), I flipped the pages of the calendar that hangs upon the stout, paint-covered nail – November’s picture-lights fell back; in their place, the jewellery of December.
It will get colder as the night goes on, the water from the tap will chill rather than wet the fingers and the hand. (I can almost feel the icy water as I type.) But I will huddle within my jacket’s wool and the gooseflesh will be a cosy thrill.
Somewhere outside, not far from here, others will huddle too – in corners of the house they work to build; the mongrel strays will curl up too – let’s hope that there’s a fire.
(I came back home with plumeria in my hand; fallen flowers, I’d picked them off the ground. Picking up these flowers has turned routine; stooping’s become part of my evening rounds.)
My wish is that this December’ll bring a wealth – of writing, goodness, discipline. Winter is not the time that earth-trees fruit – perhaps the mind-tree Bendre sang of will.
‘It is the first day of the last month of the year’ – this phrase occurred to me sometime before; I hoped then I could make something of it – though at the time the cold had not yet bit.
For December 1, 2021
It’ll be a year tomorrow, to the day, since I wrote ‘December 1, 2020’. January 1 is New Year’s Day, but a new year’s starting all the time: each second’s newer than the last, each minute’s the future – present – past.
My mind’s somewhat awry today; it’s been like this for a few days; is mind enough to mind the mind? The Gita says ‘to mind the mind is like to bind the wind’. I do not wish to bind the wind or mind. Let the mind-kite roam its endless skies; let me have a hand upon its strings.
The sky is toggling between blue and white; some blue means sun, all white just cloudy sight, though the white is not a white that’s loud: it’s like the quiet of someone when they’re sad.
(‘A good day for coffee and a book’ some think, slouched behind a computer in their house. Outside, the labourer bends his back – he cannot afford thoughts like that – his form holds up both house and sack.)
I try to think back on the year that’s gone; I have not kept a diary track. But days are slippery; like river-stones they smoothly slide out from the grasp. Most stones have slid but some remain – rem(a)inders of the year’s variety …
… and one year older now, I see that it is discipline begets variety; and so I pray to things I believe in – for variety’s richness and sober discipline.
A few years ago, I attended a session conducted by Christ College’s ‘Kannada Sangha‘. I believe the occasion was their annual celebration of ‘kavi dina‘ (~ poet’s day), Da Ra Bendre‘s birthday. The details of the session esape me, but I do remember something one of the speakers said, in the context of the unprecedented volume of writing that is being published today. The chief editor of a now-defunct Kannada literary magazine, he spoke about the necessity of “letting a piece of writing dry” – ಒಣಗು (oṇagu) was the word he used, which in Kannada means “to dry” – and the advantages of doing so. (I think he compared it to the drying that needed to be done to develop non-digital photographs…and if he didn’t, well, I’m doing it now.) What he said struck me – and has stuck with me – not simply because of the interesting metaphor but because it resonated: I too have mostly been cautious about sharing a piece of (serious) writing no sooner than it’s been written; of making it public without returning to it (after having put some space-time between us) and possibly revising it; of presenting it without “letting it dry”. Why is this relevant? Because the second of these two poems was written yesterday (November 30, 2021) and, being less than a day old, has had hardly any time to dry. But, as I’m sure you see, today’s date is the reason I am sharing it.
At about this time last month, i.e. September 2021, I was wondering if the measured progress of my website’s (www.darabendreinenglish.com) statistics would allow me to celebrate it reaching a total of 50,000 views by the end of the year. Given that some 8500 more views were needed to get to 50,000 and the average monthly views-count was about 1500-2000, I reckoned it’d be around March 2022 when the milestone was be reached. Not having posted anything new for more than a year (and having acquired a degree of satisfaction about the monthly numbers), the forecast was something I was able to take in my stride. Indeed, I had recently achieved a state of (almost) detachment that allowed me to go a couple of days without even looking at the website’s numbers.
It is only in hindsight that the 25th of September stands out. Squat and insignificant as the day now looks on the bar graph (that shows daily views over a month), it would be the very first day that Bendre’s the ‘The Bird is Flying – Have You Seen It?’ (ಹಕ್ಕಿ ಹಾರುತಿದೆ ನೋಡಿದಿರಾ?) would occupy the top spot in the ‘most viewed posts’ section; jointly sharing the honour with ‘Song-Essence’ (ಹಾಡ-ಹುರುಳು) on that day.
But just like a bird can when it wishes to, so too would the ‘The Bird Is Flying’ poem begin to fly ‘up and away’ from the next day, soaring to precipitous heights with an abandon the more ‘earthbound’ poems could not hope to match. To wit – September 26 would see the poem gather 98 views, September 27 would see it get 99 views, September 28 would see it gloriously cross a hundred views (and reach 180 views) and it would gather 320 and 449 views to close out the month of September. And like a high-flying kite draws attention to the (earthbound) player-of-its strings, so too did the ‘Bird Is Flying’ poem draw attention to the other poems on the website and raise their profile (and, consequently, their views).
It’s been two weeks now since the ‘The Bird is Flying’ poem took flight – and the milestone of ‘50,000 views’ (that was predicated on steady, earthbound travel) has lost all relevance. Soaring high with outspread wings, the poem’s singular flight has lifted the website’s numbers to stratospheric heights and allowed it to surpass the 100,000 (or one hundred thousand or one lakh) views mark! And though I am still searching for what caused the ‘The Bird is Flying’ poem to finally spread its wings wide and fly like Bendre knew it could, I am overwhelmed (in rather dazed fashion), extremely gratified, and very grateful to the people and the circumstances that have given such an unexpected boost to my website and the translations therein. No matter what happens next (though I hope, of course, that the bird of Bendre’s poetry continues to soar), these last two weeks – should the statistics prove to be legitimate and not ‘bot-generated’ – have brought a certain ‘ಸಾರ್ಥಕತೆ (saarthakaté)’, a certain sense of fulfillment to a work that has been a long labour of love. Sure, it would have been even nicer if some of the more-than-thousand new visitors had left a comment to show they were there but then again – one mustn’t be greedy!
As serendipitous as it’s been for the purpose of this write-up that the relevant poem was so felictiously named ‘The Bird is Flying’ (though I do hope I haven’t overdone the metaphor!), I would like to conclude by quoting a few lines from another poem of Bendre’s; lines that seem to me especially appropriate for the occasion, given how one poem-feather set off a ‘domino effect’ that gave the other poem-feathers the chance to be recognized.
“Push them, blow them, make them fly, let them fly as much they will, these feathers that were born to fly, these feathers on a bird’s body.”
P.S: Almost exactly one year ago (October 12, 2020), I celebrated the fact that my website had been visited by 10,000 unique visitors! At the time, I talked about how it had taken about four-and-a-half years for the website to reach the milestone and how the 10,000 visitors hailed from 59 different countries. As I write this, the number of unique visitors has more than tripled and crossed 30,000 while the number of countries they have come from has risen from 59 to 71. All in all, it’s extremely gratifying.
Koochi adopted our family on May 25, 1998. She must have been about two months old at the time. I myself was not yet ten. We were living in the D-quarters in the IISc campus then and had never considered owning a dog or a cat or any animal really. For one thing, few people actually “owned” animals in those days: cats and dogs that became “pets” were usually strays that, roaming the roads of the campus, were lucky enough to chance upon a benefactor who gave them something to eat. A couple of rounds of such feeding meant the animal usually stayed on, coming and going at will. At the time Koochi came along, there were already several (terrifically-named) neighbourhood fixtures, including Neandrakal, a rather haughty, unpredictable dog; Getti, a somewhat timid and complaisant dog, whose ingratiating ways and constant presence meant its name was a shortening of “Get out”; Dabuji, an aged and regal loner-cat (that remains perhaps the biggest cat I’ve seen in my life); and Brownie, a clever little cat that was quite easily the most-pampered animal around. The few “proper pets” that were around were all dogs: Zaika, a bloody-infuriating white Pomeranian, whose constant shrill yapping was the bane of the people around it and that instilled in me a lifelong dislike for the breed; Doggie Rao, a largish brown mongrel that, as the story went, had been rescued on a rainy night as a terrified puppy stuck in shoulder-height brambles and had since then been kept chained almost all the time – making it, as we were growing up, an almost-legendary creature-of-menace that most of us kids were scared to approach (and that we only saw when it virtually yanked its owner along for its evening “walk”); Regina, a smallish black dog with a leg damaged from being run over, an event that had turned it both wary and snappy and that made petting it an exercise in delicacy and caution; and, arriving just a few months before Koochi, Stagina (or Stag), another mostly-outdoors pet that grew into a large, brown, beautifully-athletic specimen of a dog that could move from being coy and lying on its back for a bellyrub to being a snarly grump that growled throatily if you even got close to its food-bowl. It was into this environment that Koochi arrived on the evening of May 25, 1998 – and, in what can only be called a ಋಣಾನುಬಂಧ (ruṇānubandha), a Kannada word that refers, approximately, to ‘a bond forged through mutual interaction and relationships over several lifetimes’ – made herself our dog – and eventually the neighbourhood’s dog – in the teeth of my father’s initial opposition and my mother’s reluctance. (Amma was fond of animals and had grown up with dogs, squirrels, and budgies. Appa, on the other hand, had had very little to do with dogs all his life and wasn’t keen to start.) Of course, like me and so many of the neighbours, they would both come to adore Koochi, that pure-mongrel dog with its wonderful large liquid-brown eyes, its small black-and-white-dappled frame, its endearingly-reproachful howls, and its remarkably clever ways (that led my father to remark that Koochi was easily the cleverest dog he’d seen). Idid not know, when I started to write, what form this preamble would take or how long it would be. In fact, the purpose of this post was to share two pieces I’d written previously about Koochi: one, a poem I wrote not long after she died on March 10, 2011 – and that I have revised a little since; and two, an essay I wrote, in early 2019, to accompany the photograph of Koochi you see above. (That said, I am quite pleased with the way the preamble’s turned out and the reminiscing it allowed for. I also think it has done a good job of not “stepping on the toes” of the two pieces.) Here, now, are the poem and essay.
Note: The poem was written at a time when I was still writing poetry in the ‘romantic style’. Like I said, I have revised (and tempered) it a little. But I reckon its ‘romanticism’ remains fairly obvious. Perhaps the unadorned narrative style of the (photo) essay I wrote in early 2019 was meant to counterbalance the extravagant language of the 2011 poem.
Poem (2011) : Koochi – Memories
Whether by instinct or brow-written fate she’d come as a lonely cub to our gate on tiny, tottering feet; it was how amma learnt that a glance can take on a bigger aspect and show the blindness of chance; and like a blue unclouded sky can nurse a shower, creation can thread us to an unseen star.
Thereon she lived, I like to think, many happy hours in the company of friends – hers and ours – who doted on her like she was their pet alone and placed her on a variety of thrones. Yet no matter how far or near she roamed each night we found her on the doorstep she first called home.
I remember that she came when I was just a boy who in my innocence and wonderment and joy spoke several sounds that meant but little to both me and her, yet from which she learnt that Koochi was her man-given name; which, in all her puppy ardour, she treated like a game.
Nature’d given her a coat that mingled black and white and a mongrel ancestry as natural as the light that played off of her soft brown eyes; to look into those was to see feelings that ranged from fear to repose and passed through tail-swirling joy and howled soft reproach when we came back late – for she always scented our approach.
I’m happy to think we left her free to wander as fancy struck (and sniff at every tree she passed); still, all her life was not just ease: twice savaged by her own ilk, her smallness was almost her disease. And still she waxed into old age to continue to reprimand and startle; that we who loved her thought she was immortal.
But one day, her soul left when none of us was near her side to give her final thoughts an ear; yet I know for sure she faced death with a calm mature as old-rooted tree; a calm we all could learn from. And this was how she left into the dusk she came from: memories linger, fragrant as musk.
Photo Essay (2019) : The Coming of Koochi
A woman sets out for her routine evening walk. She rounds the jackfruit tree by the corner and walks on. She glances to her left and spots the tiniest puppy dog – small enough to fit in her palm she thinks. The puppy lifts its head and looks her in the face: the two lock eyes for a fraction of a second. The woman walks on. Her thoughts drift and the puppy is soon forgotten.
The woman returns from her walk. As she nears home, she sees something on the lower step outside her door. She gets closer – it is the puppy she saw not an hour ago! The puppy looks her full in the face. Astonished, the woman returns the look. (Little does she know what is in store.)
Koochi runs up to the woman and wags her tail madly as she swishes in and out of the hem of her saree. The woman bends down to pet Koochi, murmurming affectionately. Koochi – the nonsense-name her son invented as he looked to express his affection for the tiny puppy; the puppy that adopted her; the puppy that has now grown to be a most intelligent dog that waits eagerly for her afternoon meal; the dog she soothed and extricated from the chain that had bitten into her flesh; the dog with such a wonderfully expressive face she seems to her almost human at times.
Koochi is now an old dog, deaf in one ear and slowly fading. Her tail no longer spins like an over-excited windmill. The woman watches as a cluster of ants march around Koochi in one of nature’s mysterious ceremonies.
A couple of nights later, the woman and her son will take Koochi to the veterinary hospital. She will stroke Koochi gently as she stands on the operating table, semi-conscious and trembling. She will hope but sadly. A few hours later she will hear that Koochi has died – at around 6.40 a.m. She will console herself and her son and murmur softly to herself: “May 25, 1998 to March 10, 2011. Not bad, not bad…she lived a good life.”
(Like you must have guessed, the woman in the story is my mother.)
A couple of months ago, I was (once again) complaining to my father about the lack of recognition, appreciation, and feedback for my translation-creations of Bendre’s poetry. I suppose I repeated what I’d told him before – the unresponsiveness (despite their promises) of the many Kannada litterateurs I had shared my translations with, the general apathy of the non-Kannada people I’d reached out to (on Facebook mostly) who seemed interested in such things, the disregard of other Indian-language translators I’d sent messages to, the negligible number of visitors to the blog-website who’d thought to write a message saying they’d been there and enjoyed my translations. It was then that Appa said something I knew – perhaps had even heard before – but had never properly recognized. “Madhava,” he said, “you have to realize that you are dealing with a very niche subject”.
It was no epiphany, but it came close. Appa’s words contributed to piercing the veil of disillusionment (and, to some extent, self-pity) I had allowed to mantle me. As I thought over what he’d said, I was able to return to the reason I had begun the blog-website in the first place: to popularize the sublime Kannada poetry of Da Ra Bendre.
I remember celebrating reaching 10,000 hits, a milestone the blog-website reached last December. At the time, it seemed like a significant milestone; especially since the website’s progression had been tortoise-slow for over three years. The initial indication that the website was gaining currency came in July 2019 – with a record 824 hits, the first time the monthly count had ever crossed 500. But it was the 1000 hits mark being breached the very next month that got my pulse racing. I began, for the first time, to check the stats on a daily basis – with some dread to begin but with pleasurable anticipation not long after. Happily, this upward trend did not falter – the blog-website continued to record over a 1000 monthly hits and I was soon preparing my write-up for when the blog reached the milestone of 10,000 hits. (In the thirteen months, not including this one, that have passed since August 2019, the only time the website did not record 1000 monthly hits was July 2020; when it recorded 990.)
Returning to what Appa said, his observation did not negate the desire to be recognized and appreciated so much as it tempered the desire. (Indeed, it would be somewhat unnatural on my part to not want my work to receive recognition – or even be published!) Consequently, it should not surprise anyone that I continue to look at the website’s stats regularly, check to see which translation-creations are currently in favour, and try to find ways to best promote the blog-website. What I have tried to change, however, are my attitude and my approach. I have decided to celebrate the support and appreciation that I do receive (from a small but wonderful group of friends and rasikas) rather than lament the appreciation I don’t.
Speaking of celebrating, I’m writing now to celebrate a different10,000, one that is perhaps more meaningful than the number of hits. It is the total count of unique visitors to the blog-website since its inception in April 2016. It is also an indicator of the blog-website’s scope, its extent, its reach.
10,000, ten thousand, ಹತ್ತು ಸಾವಿರ (hattu sāvira): that is how many people have visited my blog-website and read Bendre’s poetry in its English avatar. The statistics tell me that these 10,000 people hail from 59 different countries, including St. Lucia, Brunei, and Serbia. Assuming, generously, that at least half of them already knew of Bendre and knew how to read Kannada (though I suspect that estimate errs on the high-side), it would mean that my blog-website has introduced both Bendre’s poetry and the Kannada language to some 5000 people around the world! And while none of these non-Kannada readers-who-aren’t-my-friends has written to me personally, it is nonetheless very gratifying to know that Bendre’s poetry has reached so many people (and hopefully moved some of them with its magic).
I’d like to end with an anecdote. About two months ago, my friend, Aditi, relayed her birthday wishes via a quite lovely voice message. Of the many nice things she said in her message, one was that “Bendre must be so proud of your work”. It was the first time somebody had expressed the thought in so many words. Recalling her words in this context, I’d like to think that Addy was right and that Bendre would be proud.
Note: There’s a glossary below for those who’d like it.
Once Upon A Story
I remember how I wished to tell of an old, widowed village woman as she passed through every season of the calendar, seasons with Sanskrit names all vaguely familiar. I hoped to limn the heat of greeshma with my pen, and catch in salient words the earthy whiff of a humid wind that made the dust swirl lyrically; before I sketched how sharad’s cold (that knifed her skin with consummate ease) was the child of an unfeeling ocean-breeze; and how even watery varshā’s rains could hardly help her feel less alone.
But, tell me, what does privilege know of village and woman, old and widowed?
(written ca. 2015)
1. greeshma (greesh-maah): One of the six seasons of the Hindu lunar calendar. It is (roughly) the equivalent of summer.
2. sharad (shuh-wrudh): Another one of the six seasons. Its closest equivalent is winter.
3. varshā (whurr-shaah): The season of the monsoon or the rains.
This afternoon, a well-wisher and a friend
asked for a poem for these ‘covid times’.
I was flattered by her faith and said I’d try,
but, really, what she’d said was as good
as asking me to not think of an elephant.
So as I walked briskly on my evening walk,
my mind began to formulate a poem.
With my taste being both rhythm and rhyme,
the poem’s opening was metred;
end-rhyme is not easily unfacile
but a rhythm is a lot easier to find.
Six lines into my thought-poem (that I
meant to write after my walk was done),
it struck me that corona’s devastation
was without both rhyme and reason;
and how its contribution, as it were,
was to upsetting the whole world’s rhythm.
‘Poetry must disrupt’ is a worthy slogan
(often used unworthily by poets
whose poetry is their only disruption),
yet, at its best, can be a way to see
what we only ever look at mindlessly.
But how can poetry (itself) deal with a dis-
ruption, what must it do and say to remain
current? What must it lose what must it gain
for what it says to outlive the sayer?
if corona had to take a poem’s form,
what would it be?
would every comma in the poem mean ‘tested positive’,
a semicolon spell seriousness;
and a full stop take the place of death.
The lockdown’s done, people are free (if masked)
and the road no longer stretches on, lonely.
I followed the news when it first raged but
now I cannot say I really care; I’m comfortable –
I have a house, food, water, snacks, a mask, a stiff-backed chair.
I know no one that covid’s killed – it’s like that
man-eating tiger you read about that’s killed someone
who knew someone (who knows someone) you know.
The direness of poverty’s
a paper-pic, a facebook-post, last evening’s news –
something you’d like to prick at you
but that you know you will forget.
Privilege and death are kindred –
either you or a close relative must be involved
for you to know it.
Ten days into the lockdown my ajji died,
what took her was not the virus but time; not locked.
At 93, it’s hard to say she wasn’t due –
though the suddenness of it came as a blow.
(The doctor who came home was a leech. Not a bad man –
but greedy for the money he could strip
without damage to his and to your dignity.)
The rites, the rituals, the mantras were performed;
the rhythm of the chants remained
but several other rhythms failed –
the crowd that gathers to mourn
an elder’s passing could not obtain; tradition,
prepared for this, said six months later would be okay.
(On the obverse side, weddings were infected too.)
Last year this time, I ran and walked the Institute;
my childhood place, my stomping grounds, my grace.
The gulmohar flowers are now upon a different tree –
the Institute is temporarily closed to me.
But the flowers’ happy red remains – reminding me
not everything can be locked down;
life’s disruption has its limits too –
even the best dictators can control
just other men and their families.
Exaggeration is the old game’s name,
but its shelf life too is limited.
2020 may go down as ‘corona year’
but 2021 will have a different theme,
vaccine or no vaccine;
the simple truth’s that death is such
a part of life, it can only distress so much.
Remember what Yudhishṭhira told the yaksha –
the most wonderful thing in the world is this:
‘that a man can see men die all around
yet think that he’s beyond it.’
(Composed on 18th and 19th June, 2020; revised slightly on August 20, 2020)
Note: This one’s for Aruna, a friend, well-wisher and sahrudaya-rasika. After all, it was her request that got me started.
By the way, if you’re reading the poem on a phone, holding it horizontally and reading the poem in “landscape mode” is the best way to ensure the line lengths scan correctly.
1. ajji – the Kannada word for grandmother
2. The story of Yudhisthira and the Yaksha: go here to read the whole story. If you’d rather just go straight to the question, scroll down to pg. 8, Q33
There’s a glossary below. Clicking on the asterisk by a word will take you to it.
Did you knów the fragrant flówer was once the fláme of a fiery stár? Did you knów a woman’s milk is but nectar stráined through silk? Did you knów the Dionýsian* dance was bórn of a sōma*-induced trance? Did you knów the human heart has a place in the Múseum of Cosmic Art? Did you knów the vaidic* fire once lit unstáined Baldur’s* pyre? Did you knów the Arctic sea was fórmed from the frost of the Yggdrasil* tree? Did you knów the sweetest fruit is seéded in wise wisdom’s sight? Did you knów the bányan tree fálls to the ground in ecstasy? Did you knów the sweat of toil is nectared-ráin to the drought-dry soil? Did you knów the song for the deaf spríngs from the kàlpataru’s* leaf? Did you knów each cloúd above once carríed water to a thirsty love*? Did you knów that in the earth lives a wórld of unheard mirth? Did you knów that myth and man are as rávelled as the chaff and grain?
(written ca. mid 2015)
For more about the context of and history behind the poem’s creation, see notes.
1. Dionysius (die-oh-nisi-yus): A figure of Greek mythology, considered the patron god of drink and revelry.
2. sōma (so-maah): A fabulous kind-of-nectar (distilled from a plant) that is supposed to have been drunk by the vaidic priests.
3. vaidic: Relating to the véda-s, the oldest extant Sanskrit literature.
4. Baldur (bald-er): In Norse mythology, the son of Odin and Freya. Killed, as a result of Loki’s machinations, by his own (blind) brother Honir.
5. Yggdrasil (ig-drus-il): The giant tree of Norse mythology that straddles the three worlds.
6. kalpataru (cull-puh-thuh-rue): The wish-tree of Hindu mythology. Located in swarga.
7. thirsty love: a reference to the “Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger)”, the famous Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa’s celebrated work. The premise of the poem is of a deliriously lovelorn yaksha (a demigod-like creature) speaking to a cloud above and telling it the message it should take to his equally lovelorn beloved hundreds of miles away.
This is my English translation of my own Kannada essay. I wrote the essay at the request of Kuntady Nithesh, editor-in-chief of the online Kannada magazine “ಋತುಮಾನ”. It was published on Jan 31, 2020, Da Ra Bendre’s 124th birth anniversary. I thank Nithesh for his ಸಹೃದಯತೆ (sahrudayate) and his goodwill.
I have tried to keep the translation as literal as possible. I have added audio recordings everywhere. Please note that the wordplay in a few poem-excerpts makes them untranslatable; however, it is sufficient to listen to their sound. Also, a couple of other translations are less “rigorous” than those I usually publish.
Finally, here is a guide for those who’d like to read Kannada written using the English alphabet (like has been done here). However, in this essay, I have avoided the use of diacritical marks as far as possible and instead used intuitive and easily-grasped spellings.
It must have been about ten years ago. I was studying for my BA degree at the time. One day, I’d put the music on in my room and was working on something when a Kannada bhāvagīte (a lyric poem set to music) came on. Its rhythm attracted me and I stopped to listen to it more carefully. I found the words to the song unfamiliar and could hardly grasp more than a few of them. However, I was smitten by the song’s wonderfully attractive rhythm and listened to it several times over. As I did so, the two lines (above) were the only ones I was able to catch clearly. For some reason, listening to them sent a thrill through me. With repeated listening, they became a part of me. This was my first meeting with varakavi Bendre(’s poetry). I think it was the middle of 2013. A friend of my father’s sent me a book that was a collection of writings about Bendre and his poetry. Having only just learnt to read Kannada reasonably well (though I’d been speaking it from when I was very young), a perusal of that book introduced to me both Bendre the man and his poetry. I began to take a pride in him and enjoyed the excerpts of his poetry I found among the essays. A few (praise-filled) writings especially excited me. I was now eager to learn more about Bendre and his poetry. By about 2015, I was making headway in my Kannada reading. A significant portion of what I read concerned Bendre. At the time, I read more about Bendre’s poetry (including critical appraisals) than I read Bendre’s poetry itself. There was a reason for this: I knew very little then about both Kannada poetry and the Dharwad register of the Kannada language. I’ve already mentioned the book my father’s friend gave me. That aside, I’d managed to lay my hands on a copy of Bendre’s ‘gangāvataraṇa’ that had been lying about the house. Sunaath Kaka’s blog too had come to my attention. On a trip I’d made to ‘Sapna Book House’, I’d had the luck to come across the collection “sooryapaana“ which contained the poem ‘The Dance of the Bear’. I was also browsing the web for articles about Bendre and his poetry. All told, Bendre was someone I had begun to feel close to. At the same time, my own “poetic conceit” had begun to show itself. Which is to say – the desire of several years had finally come to fruition and my own poetry had begun to “stream forth”. The language of my poetry, though, was English. (The English language itself was something my mother had bequeathed me.) But why did what until then was a quiescent underground stream suddenly spring to life? It’s my opinion that it was because, at the time in question, the language of my reading (Kannada) and the language of my thinking (English) were different languages. In other words, in some strange almost inexplicable way, the two languages closest to me melded with one another and, offering inspiration, brought out the poetry that had stayed hidden within. What’s more, my close, parallel association with Kannada gave the English poetry I wrote at the time a colour it might have otherwise lacked.
rasika, let my troubles stay my own,
I will give you just their song! And if that melts your sugar-heart,
send drops of sweetness back along!
(from the “sakheegeeta” collection, pub. 1937)
Bendre had a special affection for the rasika-sahrudaya. Like the lines above demonstrate, he has directly addressed the rasika in several of poems and called to them to participate in the ‘Kāvyōdyōga (The High Yoga of Poetry)’ that he was engaged in. Literary readers may be generally divided into two categories: critics and rasikas. Those part of the “rasika group” are keen to experience the feeling literature inspires, to partake of the happiness it provides; they do not concern themselves too much with its provenance, its reasons, and its ‘defects’. In a word: their point of view is innocent, innocuous. Those in the “critics group” possess a more trenchant point of view. It is not enough for them if literature simply provides happiness; its intentions, its scope, its novelty, its sensibility – all these are equally important. It is their belief that the merit of a work of literature must be recognized by an evaluation of these aspects. These two groups are not completely disparate. It is possible for a rasika to be a critic and it is just as possible for a critic to be a rasika. However, the number of people who are both rasika and critic in equal measure is extremely small.
It is fair to say that my temperament has, from the very beginning, been that of the ‘rasika‘, the ‘sahrudaya’, the ‘kindred spirit’. (Especially so in the case of poetry.) Consequently, I have always preferred enjoying a poem’s beauty, the felicity of its words, its rhyme and rhythm and euphony and have never had the desire to examine it critically by ‘taking it apart’. In the case of Bendre’s poetry, Shankar Mokashi Punekar’s ideas gave credence to this natural approach of mine. I first became acquainted with Punekar’s writings through an essay of his in the book “To say Bendre’s to say…”. His essay titled ‘The Study of Bendre’s Poetry’ was one I thoroughly enjoyed, especially because it illustrated the intimate relationship Mokashi Punekar had had with Bendre’s poetry. Reading his essay kindled an especial appreciation of and enjoyment for Bendre’s poetry in me too. In the days to come, I sought out and read other essays Punekar had written about Bendre. Common to every single essay was his faith (in Bendre and Bendre’s poetry), his affection, his loving belief, his kinship.
However, reading Shankar Mokashi did not preclude me from reading what other writers and critics had said about Bendre. I also read the writings of Kurtakoti, G.S Amur, Pu.Ti.Na, Adiga, Ki. Ram. Nagaraj, GSS and others. I enjoyed some of them and even learnt from them. But in none of their writings did I find the intimacy, the rasika perspective, or the ‘flashes’ (of both language and insight) that I found in Shankar Mokashi’s writings. Which is why, as far as I am concerned, Shankar Mokashi is the man who gave me the gift of Bendre’s poetry. He is the ‘master-rasika’ who nurtured my natural rasika instinct and for that I will always be grateful to him.
krutiya racisade kruthaartave jeeva? rasa vima– rsheyu rasada yōga koḍaballudē?
is life fulfilled without creativeness to fill it?
is analyzing rasa the same as drinking it?
(from “kruti“, “uyyaale” collection; pub. 1938)
I began to feel particularly close to Bendre’s poetry when I began to translate (and transcreate) his poems into English. It seems to me that my beginning this work was destiny. In any case, by June or July of 2015, I had reached the point where I was writing, on average, one original English poem a week. Like Bendre says in the excerpt above, I had, with these poems of mine, achieved a fulfillment of sorts. At about the same time, my study of the Kannada script and my reading about Bendre had reached the ‘next’ level. Even as I was asking “what next?”, I asked myself why I shouldn’t try to translate a poem of Bendre’s into English – which is what I went ahead and did! However, that attempt was simply incidental; a one-off, “why not?” sort of attempt. (It certainly wasn’t work I’d taken on in ‘serious’ fashion.) My hunch is that I was, at the time, looking for a creative engagement with Bendre’s poetry – because, let it be remembered, I had until then read much more about Bendre’s poetry than directly engaged with it. In the event, my attempt (to translate a poem of his) was a way of plugging this gap. The poem I chose to translate then was ‘naanu’, meaning ‘I’. Part of the ‘Gangaavataraṇa’ collection, a documentary made in 1972 shows Bendre himself reading the poem out loud, even as he gesticulates in that singular manner of his. (As far as I know, this is the only video recording of Bendre reciting his own poetry. When he lived, his manner of reciting or singing his own poems was at least as famous as the poems themselves.) In all likelihood, I chose the poem for the very reason that I’d seen and listened to his recitation of it. Even now, I remember trying to translate the poem using the rhythm of Bendre’s recitation as my touchstone.
The most notable difference between the English and Kannada languages is phoneticism. The makeup of Indic languages means it is possible to represent a sound the tongue makes by means of a single symbol. Languages of this kind are called phonetic languages. On the other hand, in English, it is very possible that several symbols (in this case, letters) are needed to representa single sound. Languages of this sort are called non-phonetic languages. Succinctly, the character of the English and Kannada languages are very different. From the very beginning, I had a clear goal – that the English translation or transcreation I make capture as fully as possible the poetic qualities inherent in the Kannada original. In the transcreation of ‘I’, Bendre’s recitation served as an aid. It was by paying special attention (and respect) to the rhythm of that recitation that I undertook my English transcreation. As I continued on, I wondered about what it would mean to use accents to add a ‘push’ and ‘pull’ to my translations and transcreations. (I had already begun to do this in the original English poetry I was writing.) As I began to translate and transcreate more poems, I learnt what kinds of challenges I’d have to face, the sorts of experiments I could try, and what qualities of a poem (would) remain beyond the grasp of both a translation and a transcreation.
What do these lines mean? What have they set out to say? For the bee to travel from flower to flower drinking their nectar is part of the natural order of things. In the poem, the poet has made a metaphor of this extremely natural action (of the bee’s). To the poet, the poem is the nectar-filled ‘[lotus] flower’ calling the rasika ‘bee’ towards itself. It appears that the poet himself is curious and excited about the ‘new creation’ that will result from the bee bending over and drinking the nectar. Speaking for myself, the (idea of a) ‘new creation’ interests me more than the ‘bee-pollen-flower’ metaphor. Like I’ve said already, ‘I (naanu)’ was my first translation. It would not be wrong to call that translation experimental. But once that was done, a ‘what next?’ surfaced. While I cannot remember exactly when in 2015 it was, my first great endeavour as a translator was the translation of the poem ‘gangaavataraṇa’. What I just said may have raised a few eyebrows. A translation of the poem ‘gangaavataraṇa’ (more famous as ‘iḷidu baa taayi)’? You may have even chuckled to yourself and said, ‘Look here, fellow, did you manage to properly understand the [original] Kannada poem first? It’s only after that that translating it or creating an anuvaada or whatever comes. You get that, don’t you?’ What can I say now? I suspect I did not, at the time, fully understand the scale of what I was attempting, and that my bravado made me push forward. I thought to start with the first couple of lines and see where it went. I was soon done with the first stanza – by the end of which I had managed to create a corresponding English rhythm. But the second stanza held me up. It contained several unfamiliar words and several lines that suggested (rather than being obvious in their meaning). A quick scan of the rest of the poem brought further complexity to my notice.
It was at this juncture that Sunaath Kaaka and his very own interpretation of the poem came to my aid! Reading through his explication helped the poem ‘open up’ to me. I returned to the translation. For every line that followed, Kaaka’s detailed explication was the lamp that offered illumination. I continued on. The translation progressed easily – matching the original step for step, rhyme for rhyme, rhythm for rhythm. It wasn’t long before I reached the section of the poem that is an extraordinary blend of euphony, rhyme, rhythm and language. Kalinga’s Rao musical rendition of this section filled my ears. With Kaaka’s explication in front of me, my fingers moved of their own accord, beating out words on the keyboard. To this day, I cannot explain exactly how I transcreated that section. A translation that should have difficult and presented the most acute challenge had, like the Gangé river, flowed on with an uninterrupted ‘swissshhh’. (It was about a year and a half after I translated the poem that I shared it with Kaaka. I had, in the meanwhile, translated a few more poems with the help of his explications. He responded to my reaching out with a sahrudaya’s wonderful affection. His extravagant praise for the translation made me very happy. We began a friendly email correspondence. Kaka was the first ‘serious reader’ of my translations. His support was – and continues to be – a great help. I’d like to take this chance to offer Kaaka an affectionate hug.) My ‘successful’ transcreation of ‘gangaavataraṇa’ was the springboard that allowed me to take off as a translator. At first, my translations flowed forth with the momentum and speed of a dam whose sluice gates had been opened. Though the momentum (and speed) lessened as time passed, the work I began then continues unimpeded today. Occasionally, the ‘kiss’ I have given a Bendre poem has resulted in a ‘new creation’ that is my English translation (or transcreation). Although, like every creation, it is likely to have its faults and rough edges, I can affirm that the act of creation has made me happy. In some particular instances, the joy I have experienced has almost overwhelmed me. All told, this ‘translatory journey’ has brought me closer to the the Kannada language. It has increased my affection for it. It has inspired me to experiment with (writing in) the English language and made my relationship with English a more intimate one. Most of all, it has, by offering constant opportunities to ‘create’, allowed me to keep the fire of creativity burning.
mugila baayi gaaḷikoḷala beḷakahaaḍa beeri
the sky-mouth played the flute-of-wind;
it sent forth a song of light.
(from “A Play of Sounds“; “naadaleele” collection; pub. 1938)
Sniffing the skin comes the dog of light
like the stars and moon of the night
(from “In the Garden of the Gods; “kaamakastoori” collection; pub. 1934)
navanavōnmēshashaalinee – the ability to see with a new and renewing sight. This is what the ancients of India called pratibhaa (a word that’s loosely translated as ‘talent’ but whose scope allows for it to be a synonym of ‘genius’). A poet achieves this ‘newness’ by means of conceits, similies, metaphors, and images. Bendre’s genius, to be sure, was a gift from the heavens; the genius of a heaven-touched poet. As for the newness of Bendre’s poetry, it corresponds to the ever-renewing newness of nature itself. The three excerpts above (from three different poems) illustrate my point. All three speak of light. But how different the three conceptions! It is likely to astonish anybody to learn that the same poet conceived of all three. Just as important is the novelty of these conceits. None of these is a well-worn ‘poetic cliché’. This novelty is what sets Bendre apart. Several commentators and critics have discussed Bendre’s originality. It is this quality that has irradiated Bendre’s poetry, has given his metaphors and similes their freshness and left his readers and listeners spellbound and astonished.
The churn and churning of the word brought forth a euphony
it felt a joy – it spread a joy – in its own love it was happy
it did not mean – it did not want – it was just lyric poetry
(from “The Lyric Poem“; “naadaleele” collection; pub. 1938)
“euphony – euphony – euphony is what we need | euphony is what we need to knead | a euphony needs a euphony to match”. Bendre may be the most singular ‘naadalōla‘ or ‘romancer of sound’ the Kannada poetic tradition has seen. He has given us more naada (~euphony) than we could have asked for. That naada has been the bumblebee’s gungun at one time and the koel’s kuhukuhoo at another, has resounded as the mrudanga’s tōmtanaanaa on one occasion and flowed on another occasion as the jum jumu rumujumu gungunu dumudumu of the river-of-sound.
The bhaavageeta or the lyric poem was Bendre’s favoured form of poetic expression. Speaking generally, the form favours sound over meaning. That is to say, a lyric poet uses techniques like rhyme, rhythm, metre, and euphony to evoke (the reader’s or the listener’s) feeling. Bendre was a born poet. Like Shankar Mokashi said, he was ‘a true lyric poet’ (who could write a lyric poem about almost anything). At a time when poetry in Kannada (and other Indian languages) was, under the influence of the west, moving from ‘poetry to be sung’ towards ‘poetry to be read’, Bendre used his distinctive genius to create hundreds of modernlyric poems. What’s more, the flow of his poetry was as natural as a fount’s. Stitching together sounds, rhythms, rhymes, and words that came effortlessly to him, Bendre created a poetry that was variously complex, suggestive, melodic, intimate, simple, and many-meaninged. But, in the end, a bhaavageeta does not mean and does not want. In other words, every lyric poem is free – an untrammelled creation. It is a feather fallen from the bird flying in the “stretching cloth of sky [with] neither start or end”. It has one and only one aim: to spread joy.
(from “The ēla Song“; “gangaavataraṇa” collection; pub. 1951)
The poet is a skilled worker. He is an artist. In his hands, a language can blossom, can take on new forms, can be infused with new vitality. The language a poet uses remains the people’s language while transcending it. Poetry offers space for suggestion, simile, and metaphor that everyday language does not. It allows for the use of rhythm, rhyme, and sound in ways that prose does not. In his use of language, no one has as much freedom as the poet does.
It is my belief that the “Ambikaatanaya who mirror[ed] forth in Kannada the universe’s inner voice” lent the Kannada language the divine touch. The crown of varakavi – the poet given a vara, the heaven-touched poet – sits upon Bendre’s head like it can sit upon no other’s. His use of the Kannada language is unparalleled. He ‘burrowed deep into its [very] womb and drew forth [its] (inner) thread’. In my opinion, his poetry is a wonder of the world. What is more, he is, as a poet, na bhootō na bhavishyati, i.e. ‘never before and never again’.
On occasion, I play a game as I read Bendre’s poetry. The game is to count how many tatsama words (words directly borrowed from Sanskrit) there are in the poem. I am astonished almost every time I play this game and cannot help but ask myself: ‘What is this! How in the world did he write such sublime poetry in the janapada, in the the spoken language of the people of the Dharwad region! How, when Kannada – in the tradition of every language the world over – had created a poetic literature by treading the classical path did he manage to use a dialect (Dharwad Kannada) of the language to create such magic! Has poetry of this sort ever been created anywhere?’
(For instance, the poem, ‘Jogi (ಜೋಗಿ)’ – labelled the poem of the 20th century [in Kannada?] – contains just ten tatsama words! Every other word is a ‘pure Kannada’ word. In order to properly understand the magnitude of this achievement, it is necessary not simply to read what poetry was being written in Kannada by Bendre’s contemporaries but to realize the emphasis that had been placed on Sanskrit all through the Kannada literary tradition – beginning with Pampa’s works in the 10th century AD. However, this doesn’t mean Bendre did not use Sanskrit in his works. As someone born into the vēdic tradition, Bendre is known to have called himself a ‘vēdavit kavi’, i.e. a poet in the manner of the vēdic poets and written poems in the incantatory metre of the saamavēda.)
It seems fitting to end an essay that began with Bendre’s words with his own words.
kannaḍavu kannaḍava kannaḍisutirabēku.
Kannada must continue to mirror itself in Kannada.
(The translation of this last line is necessarily approximate; in no small part because of its play with the Kannada language and the pun within. For the curious, the pun comes about from the word ‘kannaḍi‘ being the Kannada word for ‘mirror’.)