While literary fiction can still occasionally afford certitudes, poetry traverses a vulnerable lane. It rarely attempts to offer opinions, as certain apprehensions about its own gaze never take its leave. Manglesh Dabral, who died on Wednesday, was a poet of delicate doubts and anxious assertions. He began his Sahitya Akademi award acceptance speech, Kavi Ka Akelapan (The Loneliness of a Poet), with a reference to Pablo Neruda. The Chilean poet had begun questioning his art upon learning that a man had committed suicide after reading some of his melancholic poems. This anecdote, perhaps, epitomised Dabral’s artistic life — how to write about sorrow without losing hope, how to be a poet without ceasing to be a human.
The division was marked elsewhere as well. The poet was in the unyielding profession of journalism. As the literary editor of Jansatta, Dabral pruned raw copies into finished pieces. His language, thus, operated in a liminal zone, illumined both by the rigour of prose and the lyricism of poetry.
While Nirmal Verma is post-Independence Hindi literature’s representative fiction writer of the hills who moved to the plains of Delhi, Dabral is perhaps the representative poet of the hills who migrated to the national capital.
Born in 1948, Dabral emerged as a poet in the 1970s, an era marked by Naxalism, student unrest and the Emergency. He had a lifelong association with Jan Sanskriti Manch, a cultural organisation linked with the CPI-ML. He could see the inherent dangers of capitalism, the illusions and threats of the “free market”, and wrote some of the finest Hindi poems in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The language of poetry is different from that of politics. The latter provokes, even misleads you; the former makes you pensive. Politics takes refuge in a leader; poetry is a celebration of people. Dabral’s political poetry is not about grand revolutions, but the muted sorrows of the common woman and man.
Post-Independence Hindi literature has propagated an uncontested and unfortunate binary — that those aligned to the “people’s cause” care little for the aesthetics of language, whereas the aesthete remains insulated from politics. This can be easily and empirically refuted by several examples on both sides, and the exquisite writing of Dabral is among the greatest testimonies to that end. Indeed, he dedicated a book of his prose pieces to “prose masters of past and future”, that included writers from various factions. He was also an icon for many younger poets who had progressive leanings and also wanted their poetry to be a distinct artistic statement.
A connoisseur of classical music, he was a virtuoso with the harmonium. His artistic life is perhaps best reflected in a brooding personal essay, Ek Raag Ke Awshesh (‘The Remnants of a Raga’, IE, November 12, 2017), which, incidentally, I translated a few years ago. In poignant prose, interspersed with poems, he recalled his childhood village and his father, who used to play Raga Durga on a harmonium with German reeds. As Dabral was leaving his village, with the trees and the hills falling behind, it occurred to him that he was gradually going away from his most adored raga.
I had read Dabral earlier, but this translation took me to those crevices and treasures of his language that had escaped me. I, then, learnt, that the conversation of a translator with a text is far more intimate and intense than that of a reader or a critic. I was moved by as well as marvelled at the sensibility of the young man who was “banished from a raga”. He ended the essay with these words: “Durga was like a civilisation — a restless raga that floated inside a thin layer of darkness and was composed of elements like water, trees, grass, river, rocks and birds. A raga that now survives in its remnants.”
I had thought that one day I’d ask him about the morning he left his village. That day was never to be.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2020 under the title “Remnants Of Song”. Bhardwaj’s recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines