By Janice Pariat
(Published in Hindustan Times 16 May 2015)
What happens to poems deferred? When they lie unshared, unseen. Do they dry up, raisins in the sun? Fester like sores? Do they sag? Like heavy loads. Do they explode? Rarely do they land in your hands, like Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities, beautifully bound and produced. He isn’t new on the scene. In 1988, at 24, he won a country-wide competition organised by The Poetry Society of India and The British Council. The winning poem, “Madras Central”, displays special mastery of sparseness.
It begins with a quotidian black train pulling in at the platform – “Hissing into silence like hot steel in water” – and comes, not to a crescendo, but what Marianne Moore calls “merely to a close” with the description of a solitary traveller carrying “unwantedness” from place to place. A quiet finish both vulnerable and lasting. In 1992, Nambisan’s poems appeared in Gemini, a two-poet project, which Dom Moraes called, in the foreword, “an indication that Indian poetry, after many years of striving, ha(d) at last arrived at maturity.” Since then, there was poetic silence. Nambisan embarked upon a distinguished career as journalist and critic – documenting his experiences of small-town Bihar in Bihar is in the Eyes of the Beholder and arguing for the importance of written communicative honesty and integrity in the Orwellian Language as an Ethic. Most recently, he has translated the devotional bhakti verse of Poonthanam and Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri. Twenty-two years after Gemini, Nambisan delivers his first full-length poetry collection. First Infinities is worth every minute of the wait.
“Poetry is the only thing that matters,” says Vijay Nambisan (seen above at the Delhi launch of First Infinities), whose first collection in 22 years is evidence of the frail hardiness of the poet who knows that his way of seeing cannot be ignored
In his preface, Adil Jussawalla touches upon the mystery of Nambisan’s creative diffidence – “I wondered why the fact [that he had poems waiting to be published] had been hidden for a long time.” Nambisan’s foreword explains that one reason was that he was pretty much convinced “poetry did not matter.” Why then were his poems now being cast into the world? Kavery Nambisan, his novelist spouse, shared an anecdote that helped clarify things. They had a house guest once, she told me, who openly belittled poetry. “What’s its use?” he’d questioned. “It has no purpose. Nobody needs poetry.”
“Vijay’s reply was great,” said Kavery.
“What did he say?”
“Poetry doesn’t need you.”
Explicable then that Nambisan admits, later in the foreword, that he doesn’t know exactly why but some years ago he veered to the opposite view: “Poetry is the only thing that matters.” A collection like this springs from many forms of resilience – a supportive spouse, generous friends, a dedicated publisher, and the frail hardiness of the poet who knows that his way of seeing cannot be ignored, and undone.
First Infinities brims with urgency from the very first piece. “Dirge”, written in 2004, the year we lost Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, and Arun Kolatkar, is a tragi-comic lament rhymed in playful couplets. It is homage and nostalgia, scathing indictment and witty repartee. His polemic in Language as an Ethic in pithy verse form, calling for a time when publishers cared, and newspapers printed pieces unchanged, unlike now, with our “wilder whirl of weeklies, tabloids titting on page threes.” Unabashedly, the speaker also lays out his own intentions, to write poems “with a shriller pen” so they live “four score years and ten”, and if he doesn’t, to blame it, delightfully, as the anaphoric line goes, on him “taking kisses from his misses.”
At the launch of First Infinities at The Toddy Shop, New Delhi, Nambisan began his reading, appropriately, with “Dirge”, and I caught myself thinking: what happens to poets deferred? Do they too dry up, or fester? Are they burdened? Do they explode? Andrew Motion, in A Writer’s Life, his biography of Philip Larkin, speaks of how Larkin always cultivated his privacy, declining invitations to read and discuss his work, revealing little of his intentions. But “[b]y appearing only infrequently, his statements have a resonance lacking in those that come from comparatively talkative writers.” At the event, filled to packing with old fans and new, Nambisan’s words held the same powerful sway. A quiet figure slowly enlivened and transformed. By the end, including a conversation with editor/writer Supriya Nair, he flourished. He indulged Nair with a reading of “Elizabeth Oomanchery”, sang a poem song, recited “Madras Central” perfectly from memory. His replies to her questions were characteristically self-deprecating – “No, I’m not” he said when Nair mentioned he was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar – and laced with wry, vitriolic humour. “I wanted to title the book The Corporate Poet but Adil and Jeet [Thayil] disagreed violently.”
“Why is it called First Infinities?” asked Nair.
“I don’t know.”
The audience laughed, enjoying the banter, but there was in Nambisan’s words a pertinent pointer toward his relationship with his art. Running through his poems is evenly tempered restraint. In “Hidden Things”, Cavafy hints that “from my most unnoticed actions and my most veiled writing – from these alone will I be understood”, and so too with Nambisan’s poetry. In “Aswatthama”, the protagonist’s (a modern-day immortal?) “silences were different from ours.” “Mind the gap”, a devastating portrayal of urban isolation, carries lines such as “each to each must forever be strange” and “our empires are within/And must not touch each other.” In “First Infinities: Drying Out”, he says “My bones are torn entire/They look at me and laugh. I am what is.” Sprinkled through the collection are also moments of lightness and humour – the hole in the earth’s bowels, that dramatic “voided ground” turns out, anticlimactically, to be a manhole. Nambisan is skilled too at upending expectations, at infusing the mundane with epic resonance – under-bed lint accumulates to “all of yesterday that we wished to forget.”
At the end of the launch, I watched Nambisan signing copies, thinking how he, of all the writers I’ve encountered, had what Joshua Rothman, contributor to The New Yorker, calls the “artist’s sense of privacy”. An inner privacy which you protect not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Behind Nambisan’s “I don’t know why’s” perhaps lies a belief that when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions looking too closely changes what we feel. That to explain rather than leave certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown is to somehow diminish them. Poetry – all writing – springs from an innerness, a kernel of selfhood we cannot share with others. We come to know it best, and value it, when we’re forced at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world. First Infinities, intact, unsullied, comes from the soul.