Author: Shrikant Verma
Publisher: Almost Island Books
One of the best things about reading a good book is that it makes one want to rush out and buy everything else by the writer. It makes us hungry for more. On that count, Magadh and its translation by Rahul Soni scores high.
I was introduced to the work of Shrikant Verma in 2009, when some translated poems from Magadh appeared in Almost Island, the literary journal. When one first encounters Verma's pointedly sparse poems, the impact is electric. His unfussiness forces the mind to focus on the cacti of dilemmas and questions that never quite leave. These poems are about history, violence, direction, vision. They grapple with the attempt to reinhabit a place. But what is this place? Where does this path lead?
Perhaps he spoke for a generation that witnessed the crumbling of independent India's Constitutional ambitions, when he wrote: “There is pity in no one/ There is shame/ in no one/ No one thinks/ Those who think once/ don't think again.”
But Verma does not mention 'India' or 'Delhi'. He mentions Kapilvastu, Ujjaini, Magadh, Kashi, Mithila. He speaks of an Amravati that belongs to everyone. The book is populated with soldiers and amended laws, corpses and courtesans, ill omens and confusion, the unpleasant prospect of descent and ascent on staircases that don't care. The enemy is unarmed. Rulers are absent. “There are/ no rulers/ Those that were there/ thanks to liquor, stupidity and laziness/ are/ no longer/ worthy/ of being called out rulers/ What do we do then?” Indeed, what?
In 'Wailing from the Inner Chambers', the poet asks: “why this sorrow?/ When/ everyone/ says/ what happened/ was right, / why this repentance?” The poet has dated the poem as being written in 1984, but he may as well have written it in 1992 or 2002. Most of Magadh was written in 1979 and 1984 and though the horrific events of the Emergency era or the Hindu-Sikh riots are not mentioned directly, the allusions are unmistakeable.
In 'The Customs of Hastinapur', Verma writes: “It isn't the custom to listen in Hastinapur — those who hear/ are either deaf/ or have been appointed/ to turn a deaf ear”. The poem seems to refer to the new emphasis on us being a 'young' nation and the preference for younger leaders, starting in the 1980s. We can guess at the troublesome political coteries that would have made Verma write: “Being young/ only means/ that no one old should be in Kapilvastu”.
Reclaiming for a new generation of Indian readers was necessary and Soni's translations go a long way to enable this. He communicates both the wiry frame and the lean flesh of these poems for readers in English. The grammar and syntax of Hindi allows for a stronger rhythm, some of which is inevitably lost in translation, but Soni makes up for the loss by focusing on alliteration. Many poems also bear internal rhythms of meaning. Very few words are used. Entire verses are repeated. But then, a single syllable changed holds weight. Soni's decision to stay faithful to the original enjambment, as far as English grammar allows, also helps to retain some of the grace and nuance of the original poems.
There are things that are untranslat-able perhaps. For instance, the word anarth means the lack of meaning, but also hints at un-voiced horrors. Yet, it is used in a poem that is about writing, giving voice. In English no word comes to mind that can convey both meanings so easily. The translator plays it safe and goes with the former meaning rather than the latter.
Besides, in Hindi, because there is no capitalisation of names or the beginnings of sentences, meaning becomes ever more fluid, harder to pin down and yet, twice illuminated. Soni has worked around these difficulties admirably, though, and rendered twice as readable.