Muktibodh is unafraid to make the labour contained in the act of imagination palpable.
Why did Muktibodh become uniquely significant in the summer of 1964? Why did almost all the weeklies, monthlies and dailies start introducing him to their readers?” Fifty years ago, Shamsher Bahadur Singh asked this question in the preface to Chand Ka Munh Tedha Hai, the first anthology of the poems of Muktibodh. Muktibodh was then in a coma, having been brought to Delhi from Rajnandgaon, a small town in Chhattisgarh, by his young writer comrades — Harishankar Parsai, Shrikant Verma and Ashok Vajpeyi — in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save their beloved elder poet. It was not to be. Muktibodh, 46, breathed his last on September 11, 1964. And in Shamsher Singh’s words, the story of the heroic struggle of his brief life and tragic, untimely death turned him into an “event” for the world of Hindi literature.
Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh continues to be an “event” of Hindi literature, the full meaning of which is still being discussed. And yet, as a poet, he was not interested in portraying events. He was more interested in the drama of the human soul, ravaged, wrecked and fatally wounded by industrial modernity. Living the life of a lower middle class family man, constantly changing jobs and places in search of a modestly secure life that would allow him to write the kind of poetry he wanted, Muktibodh witnessed the humanness and individuality of the people being crushed under the ruthless wheels of capitalist modernity.
Muktibodh always saw people as possibilities and it pained him to see them turn away from the challenges thrown at them, allowing themselves to sink in the abyss of ordinariness, a life that lacked courage, a life in which the body became the prison of the soul.
A poet is a collector of the fragments of these unrealised possibilities. In a poem titled “Ek Antarkatha (An inner story)”, the narrator follows his mother collecting firewood, which she explains is not dead. These are valuable sensibilities, she explains, which have become dead as they were left disused for long. People (trees) have thrown them away. A poet has to dig them out from the garbage dumps of this civilisation and set them on fire to bring warmth and dispel the coldness of progress and growth.
Atm (self) and Atma(soul), naturally, occur frequently in his poems, leading some Marxist critics to conclude that he was turning away from social realities. The problem Muktibodh kept grappling with was akin to what young Marx had posed in his 1844 manuscripts: why this distance between the social and the self? And whenever this distance is erased, why does the social always consume the self? Marx was angry with capitalism as it never allowed the working, labouring masses to even feel what solitude is, something that had become the privilege of a few. Solitude is social, he wrote, but people are deprived of it.
Human beings are reduced to the status of labouring, producing bodies. The economic side of the being grows grotesquely disproportionate to the living, feeling side of it. Humanness has been sacrificed at the altar of the god of profit. In a perverse way, reason has won and sensibility has been turned into its slave. Any liberatory project has to have this as its mission: the restoration of humans to human beings.
One is not sure whether Muktibodh ever knew about Marx’s manuscripts. Not that it was necessary. He understood with the wisdom of a poet that the responsibility of perpetuating a system of dead souls cannot be laid only at the door of outside, objective economic and social forces. One has to accept that it was, in fact, our decisions, or our refusal to take decisions, which led to this disaster. It is we who have invited this crisis.
A deep sense of responsibility to participate in life informs Muktibodh’s poems. A sense of urgency and the need to intervene pervades them as he foresees an accident involving humanity. He has to alert them, and also rescue them. It makes his poems sound desperate, full of anxiety.
A poet living amidst deformed or destroyed souls and wandering in their ruins cannot write well-formed poetry. Muktibodh realised the form he had inherited from his romantic predecessors could not contain him. His literary sensibilities were constructed by Marathi, Hindi and Russian novels. Vajpeyi points out that he wrote poetry with a novelistic imagination. He saw with anxiety that his poems grew incessantly, refusing to end. He was always uncertain about the reception of his extraordinarily long poems as the ruling poetic sensibility favoured small, lyrical poetry. Poems that readers and critics were used to had to be finished, whereas his poems always had a tendency to break free, postpone the end and keep moving in unknown directions. It took him years to complete a poem.
Lyrical poetry creates and conveys a total experience, while the long, unfinished poem questions “not simply the possibility, but the desirability of totalisation”. Muktibodh emerges as a worker of poetry. He makes the labour contained in poetry palpable whereas artwork is considered successful if it does not bear the signs of labour undergone in creating it. Imagining too is an act of labour — we forget that the writer too sweats it out when we begin to see the poem as a pleasurable commodity to be consumed by the reader.
Muktibodh is, in the true sense of the term, a political poet, as he sensitises us to the politics of the form. Reading him, one realises that writing poetry is an exhaustingly physical act. It involves your entire nervous system, makes you run and stop, climb steep heights and descend deep mines, be surrounded by marching crowds, get thrown into darkness and suddenly emerge in the sweet light of the morning sun. Even in this serene moment, there is no forgetting. There is a political self Muktibodh is looking for, an engaged subjectivity, helplessly bound with the fate of all of humanity and living with the full awareness that life is a neverending struggle and our duty is to be in the thick of things.
The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University