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Monday, January 18, 2021

Mangalesh Dabral: A poet who spoke through his work and let his work speak for him

A journalist and translator, Dabral also had most of his poems translated into various languages. His language continued to remain simple, accessible withholding current themes.

By: Lifestyle Desk | New Delhi | December 10, 2020 11:22:10 am
He passed away due to COVID complications. (Manglesh Dabral. Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Considered one of India’s most celebrated Hindi poets, Mangalesh Dabral passed away on December 9 due to COVID complications. He was 72. Born on May 16, 1948, in Uttarakhand, his notable collection of poems include Pahad Par Lalten (A Lantern on the Mountain), Ghar Ka Rasta (The Way Home), Ham Jo Dekhte Hain (What We See), Aawaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (The Voice is Also a Place), Mujhe Dikha Ek Manushya (I Saw a Human Being). Apart from this, he wrote reviews, literary essays, travel journal (based on the time spent in Iowa, US), and a memoir, Kavi Ka Akelapan (Solitude Of A Poet).

A journalist (with Jansatta and Pratipaksha, among others) and translator, Dabral also had most of his poems translated into various languages. His language continued to remain simple, accessible withholding current themes. In an interview with The Indian Express, Dabral openly derided the use of technology, expressing concerns about the way it impacts memories. “I am against consumerism and technology. I don’t oppose technology but its greatest repercussion has been on memory. Memory is crucial for imagination, and technology and consumerism destroy it. How many people remember what mobile phone they were using two years ago, or what clothes they bought last year? Along with memory, even history is being erased by technology and, perhaps, only language and literature can counter that.” He infused his apprehension in his poetry, using English words like the internet or mobile phones to impede tampering of their impact.

Dabral often drew the serenity of the mountains and his place of origin as a backdrop for his works. Uttarkhand featured in his poems, even though not pronouncedly. For instance, a report in The Hindu on the poet quotes his introduction to his collection, This Number Does Not Exist, where he wrote, “My poetry was born in the mountains, lived among the stones and sang of water, clouds, trees, and birds; but soon it migrated to the cities where the world was not so simple and innocent despite all its attractions, its wide and ever-lit roads, squares and lamp posts, which looked like the signifiers of a new civilisation. It was filled with the strains between the loss of native spaces and the difficulties of coming to terms with the place of refuge.”

He was more pointed about this influence in an interview with non-profit literary journal, Life and Legends. When asked if he missed the mountains after moving to Dehli in the late 1960s, the answer was in the affirmative. “I do. I escaped from the mountains like a stone or a pebble and stopped in the cities wherever I found a place. Sometime I feel I failed to belong to anywhere. I could never come to terms with a big city like Delhi, nor could I retain the identity of my native place. It’s a kind of refugee condition—as if I were a dislocated persona unable to be rehabilitated,” he said.

This sense of dislocation, void or, as he later referred to, “tension” is where his poems were born. “Maybe my poems are born in that tense void between the mountains and the city landscape. Cities are great alluring spaces and have always given birth to various civilisations. Their wide, ever-lit roads reach new and unknown landscapes, while the village streets lazily remain in the villages. So I’ve a bizarre relationship with both of them, a kind of in-between situation. Maybe I belong in a void, a no-man’s land between them,” he had said in the same interview.

Apart from opining on the political state of the country, he also weaved commentary in his works. A strain of protest runs along in his oeuvre. “I have always been against the idea of a totalitarian government and that comes through my works from years ago,” he had said more recently in the Indian Express interview when asked about his criticism against the present government.

In the same conversation, he had revealed that his 2014 work Tanashahi was inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oratory style. “His clothing inspired another poem, Folk Tale. In it, a king of a fictional land is known to do things in the right manner, and he says he doesn’t like muck of any kind. He is particular about what he wears and changes his clothes often, sometimes twice or thrice a day, because he feels his clothes have a stain. And when his reign eventually ends, his clothes go down in history. His era is remembered as the time of dirty and stained clothes,” he had said.

This political outspokenness was reflected in 2915 when Dabral, along with other poets like Ashok Vajpeyi, returned Sahitya Akademi award, which he had won the honour in 2000 for Hum Jo Dekhte Hain. This was his way of standing up against the increasing communal violence in the country.

Speaking to indianexpress.com in September this year regarding the growing popularity of protest poetry in Hindi, the poet had stressed on the need while reminding of their shirt shelf-life. “Poets who work in a public sphere are different from serious Hindi poets. We do not say anything to make it popular. Rahat Indori said (kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai) because he knew it would be popular and it was. But you see the popularity also ensures that more people will remember it. For instance, there is this Amitabh Bachchan song, Mere angane mein tumhara kya kaam hain. I have never heard this song but I remember it by heart,” Dabral had said then. Unlike what he felt for poets working in a public sphere, his work will remain etched in public memory for a long time.

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