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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Written in the tradition of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, poet-diplomat Abhay K’s new book of poetry is an ode to nature

The poem traverses the Indian Ocean islands, taking in their culture and beauty, before making landfall in India

Written by Jonaki Ray |
May 7, 2022 4:54:49 pm
'Monsoon: A Poem of Love and Longing' by Abhay K; Sahitya Akademi; 54 pages; Rs 100 (Source: Amazon.in)

In a land plagued by extreme heat and soaring temperatures, the onset of monsoon is equal parts magical and transformative. Once the monsoon does arrive, the change in the landscape and of spirits have been an inspiration for centuries in music and poetry. The songs associated with monsoon come within the family, Raag Malhar, that literally means mala (dirt) being hari (removed). Consider the following lines of the Raag Mian ki Malhar (attributed to Tansen, the court musician of the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar):

Saavana ghana garajey ghooma ghooma/ barasata s(h)ettala jala jhooma jhooma/ Hamsa chakora chahoo(n) disa doley/ caataka keera kokila boley/ naachata vara ati karata kikola/ mora morani jhooma jhooma. Roughly translated, it heralds the arrival of heavy clouds in the month of shravana; and how that makes birds of every shade, including the mythical ones, dance in abandon.

In the world of poetry, we see the monsoon being personified in the magnificent Sanskrit classic, Meghaduta by Kalidasa (c. 4th–5th century CE). The romantic poem is a narration of the sights seen by a monsoon cloud as it carries a message from a yaksha exiled in the hot plains to his lover in the Himalayan outpost, Alakapuri.

Poet-diplomat Abhay K carries forward this tradition by describing the sights seen by the clouds as the monsoon gathers in Madagascar, turns towards the Indian subcontinent, and then goes back again. This journey is narrated through 150 stanzas, with each stanza of four lines in free verse, a remarkable feat in itself.

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The poet, who is currently India’s ambassador to Madagascar, mentions in the Introduction about reading Meghaduta in March 2020 and translating it alongside Ritusamhara, Kalidasa’s other classic, into English. He was then inspired to write this modern version of a message being carried to a beloved. Only, in this case, the setting changes — from Madagascar to Srinagar, and back to Madagascar again.

Along the way, the poem weaves in the folklore, cultural traditions, and local flora and fauna of the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Re´union, Mauritius, Seychelles, Mayotte, Comoros, Zanzibar, Socotra, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman and Nicobar and the Indian subcontinent. It also highlights common traditions and knowledge between the island communities that have followed a parallel track of trade and migration, much like the monsoon winds for centuries. For instance, consider the description of the influence of the large diaspora from Gujarat in Madagascar as well as the vivid description of the natural landscape: “Traveller’s palms stretching their arms in prayer/ Baobabs meditating like ascetics turned upside down/ Giraffe-necked red weevils necking their mates/ fragrant Champa flowers — galaxies on the earth/ colourful Mahafaly tombs dotting the countryside/ erotic Sakalava sculptures arousing longings in mind,/ innumerable sculpted rock-temples at Isalo/ each one a homage to Lord Pashupatinath”.

The description of the fast-disappearing species and the interweaving of the past and the present in terms of local festivals, architecture and flavours makes this poem an important addition to the field of eco-poetry as well. Thus, we have in Mauritius, “Black River Gorges resembling an enchantress/ and the seven coloured princess Chamarel/ will captivate your heart, frolic with the pink pigeon/ before they vanish forever from the earth…” while Udaipur, India, has an almost-wistful image: “Udaipur, the City of Lakes, will be mirthful again,/ the Monsoon Palace named after you, built/ on a hilltop overlooking the lake Fateh Sagar/ will sparkle like a gem, drunk on your potion”.

Finally, the two parts of the monsoon — from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea — converge near Delhi and move to the land of the beloved — Srinagar: “when you see her, surprise her with all/ you have seen, heard, tasted, felt, smelled/ and absorbed on the way from Madagascar/ to Srinagar before giving her my message”.

By the end of the poem, one realises that it is a message of love indeed, but not just to monsoon, but to the wonders of the world and to our planet.

(Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer, and editor based in New Delhi. Her poetry collection, Firefly Memories, is forthcoming later this year)

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