Intro: Could the book have retained the original untranslated poems in the English/Devanagari script, thereby providing access to magical new sounds, enchanting its readers with medleys of rhythms, allowing them to connect to the near and yet oft-neglected polyphonies of familiar Indian life?
By Ratna Raman
Review of A Poem a Day, selected and translated by Gulzar, Harper Collins: 2020. Pages 954. Hardcover Rs 3,999.
This special anthology of 365+ selected and translated poems from the Indian subcontinent, for each day of the year, by poets from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, was collected over a period of eight years by trans-creator and versatile public figure, poet, cultural commissar, filmmaker and lyricist, Gulzar, who possibly drew inspiration from Poem-a-Day, from The Academy of American Poets; a site that digitally launches and circulates one new poem from Monday to Friday to 350,000+ readers, since 2006. Gulzar’s collection showcases contemporary poets, writing and publishing in independent India, in various languages in the subcontinent and is the first compendium of poems housing so many different languages for the curious reader in search of vibrant voices from the Indian subcontinent.
Sifting through poems in multiple tongues, presenting those that appealed to him in an English translation, and then trans creating them into Hindi\Urdu is undoubtedly a labour of love, and this elegantly produced tome in red and gold hardcover with creamy white pages inside grabs eyeballs as it competes for space as a coffee table display.
Perchance, this book could become a coveted item at weddings, either as a gift to the couple, or as wedding mementos for each family in lieu of the traditional feast and go on to adorn eclectic bookshelves in chosen homes.
In times when reading habits continue to shrink, sigh and gasp for attention, in a country with a dearth of public libraries in its big cities, books of poems can serve as cultural markers to reiterate the continued relevance of poetry in human lives, asking us to reexamine the place for books in a paperless universe, in a colonized nation where each locality in every city of ours, suffers from a dearth of public libraries.
Despite a mandate for compulsory education and the conviction that standards of living improve exponentially through education, our national goalposts stop at shabby public buildings such as baraat ghars to celebrate marriages and births. Aesthetic book collections, delightful to hold and read out from, should be on public book shelves garnering the attention of possible readers. Volumes of poetry and fiction, produced in like fashion should occupy pride of place on book shelves and be brought down from shelves by avid readers and read, slowly, lazily, languorously, for that is how poetry must be re-infused back into our lives.
Yes, poetry is significant and the nature of poems available to us has changed drastically, from the time when the genre remained confined and restricted to the temple and the cathedral, ritualistic and religious in intent. When did poetry and meter separate from hymn and song to exist in worlds of their own?
A long time ago in oral cultures and when languages were formed into signs on palm manuscripts and sheaves of paper, perhaps even oral folk songs drifted into written traditions. Now, we have a poetic tradition that is an amalgamation of centuries of lived experience, part of cultural practices, shaping community hopes and aspirations, fears and joys, and festivities, enshrined in books for modern times. Alongside in song, we have access to voices, trapped and squeezed through helpful technology and broadcast through airwaves, records and tapes in an audiovisual digital world.
THE LARGE NUMBER of poems in this collection recalled for me, Archibald MacLeish’s injunction, “A poem should not mean/But be.” Housing poems from the year of India’s Independence, Gulzar gives us a symphony of voices: through lyrics small and beautiful and voices lilting and loud, as they speak in symphony on a diverse range of subjects.
Haldar Nag and Ilayabharati describe poetry as elixir and sunlight, respectively, reminding us how vital is this source of sustenance.
The boundless human imagination has been molded and formed through time and history and today the repertoire that a poem unfurls in its tread is enormous. Poems are no longer hagiographic, epiphanic or dirgeful; they speak of the most banal, the terrifying and the sublime as well.
Jayanta Mahapatra’s requiem to Graham Staines chills the brain and numbs the heart, showing us how poetry falters and teeters in the face of visceral hatred and destruction. However, since human memory has a short span, the anxiety remains that over a period of time, countless renditions, subjective in their own contexts will no longer tease, evoke associations, recover memory, impinge upon the consciousness, sear the mind or illuminate the soul, and will become mere words on paper.
As a public monument, is this democratic divorcing of poems from their contexts and histories necessarily a good idea?
We know very little about poets and after reading so many of them, there seems to be no way of tracking down any of them, should one poet fascinate and mesmerize more than the others. Each individual voice has somehow been honed and whittled down and made generic and while this could work well for a singular theme or for a school of craft or choir-persons, I am not entirely convinced that it is effective to flatten out disparate voices in a modern world where polyphonic poets reside in diverse languages.
The assumption that Hindustani is a preferable option for translation in comparison to the English when it comes to translating poems written in the multiple languages from the subcontinent, perplexes. Any language used in translation serves as a link language. Unless this book is the beginning of a series that will give us translations in all the 34 languages that originally comprised this poetic oeuvre by 279 poets, claims pertaining to the appropriateness of one Indian language, set up small convulsions of insularity and parochialism, which all of us, as lovers of languages, need to do without.
Perhaps, poetry, primed to address the higher functions of literature, association, memory, intentionality and renewal, both subjective and associative, does become rather ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ when limited to a couple of tongues?
Living as we do in majoritarian times, we must tread softly, so that we do not set off an abrasive stampede that could bruise and hamper our plural bhashas. Could the book have retained the original untranslated poems in the English/Devanagari script, thereby providing access to magical new sounds, enchanting its readers with medleys of rhythms, allowing them to connect to the near and yet oft-neglected polyphonies of familiar Indian life?
Such experiments would lead us to another overwhelming question: Are such polyglot readers and listeners to be found anymore?
If they cannot be found, the answer blowing in the wind is that it is high time such readers are created! Perhaps in the interests of sustaining plurality, producers and publishers need to work towards creating texts in the near future for such audiences.