Trust not the boat but the river

Kailash Vajpeyi chose to walk a middle line that was often the most radical place to be

Written by Mrinal Pande | Published: April 3, 2015 4:33 am
Kailash Vajpeyi The poet, to paraphrase him, was not just a creator of poetry but also a custodian of racial memory.

In the taxonomy of Hindi writing, poet Kailash Vajpeyi will remain an exotic creature. He was born in Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh in 1936 and breathed his last on the first day of April 2015. Kailash got his Masters degree from Lucknow University. He was a literary groupie as a student, attending literary meets and poetry readings regularly. He joined the Times of India group in 1960 in Mumbai, quit after a year and then taught at colleges affiliated to the Delhi University. His early work follows the tradition of rhymed poetry and talks of death and darkness and the (often temporary) melancholia affecting an angry young man. He often sang his verses at Kavi Sammelans, then the ideal gathering to get noticed as a poet. With an untrained but sonorous voice, Kailash’s renderings drew repeated applause. He was soon being filed under “young voices to watch out for”. At this point, Harivansh Rai Bachchan became an early mentor to the affable young poet, even presiding over his marriage to a young Sikh girl that the poet’s own family refused to attend.

The next phase in Kailash’s life came when he left for Mexico, where he was a visiting professor at the University of Mexico from 1973 to 1976. He returned when India was just recovering from the jolt of the Emergency and Hindi was finding a large readership as a literature of protest and new political thinking. The time was ideal for poetry and journalism to grow and interact with each other. Soon, Kailash’s columns could be seen in various Hindi magazines and newspapers. He had published Sankrant, his first volume of poems, in 1964 before going abroad and received favourable reviews. Some two dozen more publications followed — anthologies of his own poems, anthologies of major Hindi poets translated into English and edited by him, a play, collections of his philosophical ruminations and also articles on literary trends and medieval Bhakti poetry. Kailash was much sought after as a multilingual critic and columnist. In 2002, he was awarded the prestigious Vyas Samman by the K.K. Birla Foundation for Prithvi Ka Krishna Paksh (The Dark Fortnight of the Earth) and the Sahitya Akademi Award for Hava Mein Hastakshar (Signatures in the Wind) followed in 2009.

For Kailash, the poet, to paraphrase him, was not just a creator of poetry but also a custodian of racial memory. Over the years, after his return from Mexico and Dallas, US, one saw him becoming more and more inclined towards and writing about the mystic philosophy and poetry of rebel saints and poets — the Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Kabir, Swami Haridas, Surdas. Connecting the dots now became the great theme of Kailash’s writings. Radio, and later TV, presented him with the opportunity to connect with the masses. Hence his great love for the audiovisual media. In the 1990s, he made a few memorable short films for Doordarshan on their lives and work. It is worth thinking of those cautious and confused Indian middle-class listeners and TV viewers, with their potential for cultural greatness and shabbiness, interlaced with love and spite for their own mother tongues. It makes Kailash’s desire to carry to them the undying beauty and wisdom of saint-poets completely understandable.

But that does not mean Kailash withdrew entirely into the wonder that was India. Between the modernists and the Indologists, he always chose to walk the middling line. It was a shrewd choice. At times, as when defending the liberal humanism of Kabir, Tulsidas and the Sufi poets against fundamentalists of the right and left, that middle line could be the most radical place to be. At other times, in the laissez faire cosiness of poems like “Fana” and “Nirvana”, it becomes merely the most comfortable. Kailash radiated a mischievous Puck-like quality, underscoring the irony of his literary stance with his fascinatingly eccentric headgear and quiet asides about literary bores in Hindi. He harboured no special fondness for his own generation, nor did he look down on those who wrote in English. If anything, he made a faith of personal sincerity and a career of disingenuousness.

In a profession where an unhappy domestic life and waywardness are a badge of honour, Kailash’s personal life retained a contentedly in-your-face middle classness. At home, he was surrounded by the love of his quiet and unassuming wife Roopa and his only child Ananya. Such a life and an unapologetically traditional stance as a writer can be considered more honest than the chest-thumping mea culpas of many of his contemporaries. And yes, in matters of secular pacifism, class and race, Kailash shone as a non-judgemental progressive. “There is nothing…” one of his poems says, “to justify wailing over each passing bier…”

Till the end, Kailash Vajpeyi remained a romantic of the traditional school of Hindi writing, who worshipped not individuals but the great literary tradition: “Doobna to tay hai/ Isliye naav nahin nadi per bharosa karna (since we are all doomed to drown eventually, trust not the boat but the river)”.

The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati

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