Witness and Complicity
Translated by Rahul Soni
Almost Island Books, 2013
The Hindi poet Shrikant Verma wrote the iconic poems of Magadh in 1979 and 1984, both of them years of some significance in the political history of independent India. The last months of 1979 saw the long-expected collapse of the coalition of liberals, socialists, and conservatives that had wrested power from Indira Gandhi’s Congress party in the general election of 1977. The election was the first time the Congress had been out of power in New Delhi, the outcome of the accumulated unpopularity of the years in which Gandhi had declared a “State of Emergency” in the country, suspending civil liberties and ruling by decree.
Indira Gandhi was returned to power in 1979 and her tenure was marked by constant violence in the state of Punjab, many of whose youth had been converted to the cause of Sikh secession. In 1984, the army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar where the militants had sought sanctuary, and shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister, who had ordered the operation, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in an event that set off a tide of violent recrimination against Sikhs living in New Delhi.
The poems of Magadh are essentially tied to this history, but the disquieting fact is that their author was no dissident. In fact, Verma was a member of the Congress, rising through its ranks as an articulate and witty party spokesman and later becoming General Secretary. His parallel career as a well-respected poet and a central figure of late modernism in Hindi poetry saw him moving surely from the controlled lyricism of his youth to a style marked by an extreme austerity of diction that critics have read as an expression of repentance, and an attempt at expiation.
These stylistic features survive the journey into English in Rahul Soni’s unshowy and often deliberately unidiomatic renderings. Soni’s are not the first English translations of these poems, but they are the best in print, and the only ones to be printed with the Hindi text alongside. “[L]isten my host”, says the reanimated corpse whose ominous “Invocation” opens the volume,
I bring you
stories that span generations
the sorrows of cities, of citizens […]
The sorrowful cities in Verma’s poems bear the names of real cities from India’s antiquity, long a staple of historical romance—Ujjaini (the city of the most eminent of classical Sanskrit poets and playwrights, Kalidasa), Vaishali (the early republic that was home to Amrapali, the semi-legendary courtesan and Buddhist convert), Takshashila (site of an ancient centre of Buddhist learning), and the titular Magadh, the most powerful of the ancient monarchies.
Verma relies on his readers approaching these names with a sense of the romance with which modern antiquarians have endowed them. But in his hands, these fabulous cityscapes are redescribed, turned into yet another of the wastelands of twentieth-century modernism. Poem by poem, the cities are denuded of their romance, revealed as sites of alienation, angst, and cynicism. (Soni is right to remind us in his translator’s note that “the book demands to be read as a whole, its poems gaining power through aggregation.”) They are not a foil to the exhaustion of the present but a mirror.
The courtesan Amrapali (sometimes “Ambapali”) is one of many romantic figures to whom Verma provides an unexpected modernist inflexion:
All of Vaishali sleeps,
In some other world
people are born
In another poem in the series,
Amrapali is happy that
everyone knows her
Amrapali is sad that no one
These quotations are nicely representative of the style of Soni’s translations, which closely mimic the short, spent lines of Verma’s Hindi and capture their recurring contrasts and paradoxes, their air of dejection. The Amrapali of legend ended her life as a Buddhist nun, well-placed to see truth in the Buddhist maxim that desire begets suffering. Here, the malaise is as much political, an effect of long proximity to the powerful, as it is spiritual, and her story is left open-ended.
One of the last poems in this volume, the enigmatic ‘The Third Way’, opens with a commonplace of political disaffection:
Voices in Magadh say no rulers remain in Magadh
say the same
The “two ways” of politics, we are told, are rival forms of hypocrisy, principles and practice doomed to be out of joint. But the poem ends on a note that is the closest that Magadh comes to hope:
a third way –
it doesn’t go
The nature of this “third way” is left obscure, but Verma may have identified it with the way of the poet. It is possible that he saw his austere poetics as a secular analogue to Amrapali’s renunciation after a lifetime spent as a dogsbody to power. The critic Ashok Vajpeyi writes in his introduction to the volume that “The poetics of witness and complicity triumphs in that it creates the possibility of another […] world, another republic of the imagination”. But this puts a too hopeful spin on a despairing phrase of Verma’s—his kingdom of Kosal “is a republic only in the imagination” (emphasis added).
Further, “The poetics […] of complicity” is an equivocal phrase. If Magadh is Verma’s admission of his complicity in legitimising the excesses of the Emergency, then he expresses his contrition subtly indeed. It is likelier that the poems work as invitations to us, its readers, to consider the extent of our complicity in the evils of power, by our omissions no less than by our acts. Such a message carries a strong whiff of bad faith. But perhaps Magadh is not an attempt at expiation at all because there is none to be had after a political life such as Verma’s.
“We possess art”, said Nietzsche, “lest we perish of the truth”, by which he meant not that art was a substitute for truth but that art allowed us to possess the truth without perishing of it—a quite different thought. Magadh is art, perhaps even great art; its harsh beauty neither consoles nor lies.
Nakul Krishna is doing a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.