After much The long rails will recline into the distance/where tomorrow will come before I know it read Madras Central, the poem that won Vijay Nambisan the All India Poetry Competition organised by India Poetry Society and the British Council, in 1990.
In the Bombay of the late ’80s and early ’90s, creativity flourished as poets of different generations — Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawalla, Jeet Thayil, Arun Kolatkar and Ranjit Hoskote — came together to share, mentor and engage with each other’s work. Of his generation, Nambisan, an IIT Madras graduate, was the first to win the award. “This was the generation that was beginning to publish and we all read at the same places — in bars, cafes, people’s homes. Back in the day, these competitions set a benchmark,” says poet and critic Hoskote.
Referred to by many as the “finest poet of his generation in India”, Nambisan died on Thursday. He was 54. He co-authored Gemini (Penguin, 1992) with Jeet Thayil and Dom Moraes that stands as a “distinct landmark in publishing in India. It was the first time we encountered the nuances of Indian poetry in English,” says Karthika VK, publisher, Westland.
Nambisan’s poetry served keen observations about politics — both internal and external — with gentle wit, often directed at himself. Allusive yet sharp, meditative, but never lachrymose, his poetry experimented with both tone and mood. “As a poet, he wrote what he felt. His unflinching gaze on the goings-on around him revealed themselves as unsettling feelings jostling around but he retained a deep sense of compassion,” says author Anita Nair, who had requested him to contribute to the anthology, Where The Rain is Born: Writings About Kerala (Penguin, 2003).
In addition to a large selection of poetry, Nambisan also wrote in prose. Laying emphasis on the economy of language in Language As An Ethic (Penguin, 2003), he appealed to writers and readers to stop its “debasement”. Of Bihar is in the Eyes of the Beholder (Viking, 2000), his seminal work, historian Ramachandra Guha says, “The book dealt with the caste system in a very affectionate and humorous way. When he wrote his essays, he was like his mentor Dom Moraes.”
Nambisan also translated devotional poetry in Puntanam and Melpattur: Two Measures of Bhakti (Penguin, 2009). “We were enamoured by the power of his bilinguality, how he understood the world of Malayalam literature as well as that of English,” says Karthika VK.
An intensely private person, Nambisan was rarely seen at public gatherings. He published his last selection of poetry titled First Infinities (Poetrywala, 2015). The book carries nearly three decades of his poetry. Deeply reflective, the book bears witness to his constant engagement with politics and a “battling with the self” as Nair puts it.
(With inputs by Pallavi Chattopadhyay)
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