The evolution of Hindi saw a rich literary tapestry that not only enriched the language but also sought to expand its reach. Hindi continues to thrive as an acceptable medium of communication, aided in large part by the efforts of the men and women whose works have embellished it over the years. Even today, efforts are being made to spread it to countries sharing cultural similarities, such as Mauritius, Nepal and the West Indies, which saw migration from the Indian continent to serve colonial interests during British rule.
Inside the country, with states having their own thriving literature in local languages, disagreements over perceived efforts to impose Hindi may continue to arise from time to time. However, the free movement of people from all regions across the country has led to a degree of familiarity with the language.
One genre of writers sought to take Hindi out of the confines of mythology, folklore and local environment by taking a new path, that of Nai Kavita or New Poetry, of which Kunwar Narain was a strong proponent. Their works were progressive and experimental with political overtones and a global perspective. Focused and conversational, embracing free verse, evoking imagery and minimalism, he believed in the larger cause of humanity, as the lines of the poem “Angkor Wat” say: “Under the banyan tree; a bodhisattva in contemplation; against the reality of some Pol Pot; the forest of art and tranquility; engenders a surreality of supreme compassion.
The book was wonderfully translated — a feat difficult to achieve — by the poet’s son, Apurva Narain, himself a man of significant achievement. We are informed that this is the first book translation of Kunwar Narain’s poems to appear after his death in 2017, with a large selection of them from his last five collections. The bilingual edition is also substantial with over a hundred poems.
Kunwar Narain’s life encompassed some of the most turbulent decades and the work recounts memorable moments like his encounter with Pablo Neruda in Warsaw in 1955:
“Half a century ago at a delicate point; I had met Neruda in a city ravaged by war; quick return to life.
The poet’s life was interspersed with that of some of his great contemporaries like Kedarnath Singh, Shrikant Verma and Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena. There are lines that describe his feelings at the death of the poet Muktibodh:
“On the way to achievement; when the everyday world is moving backwards and a person is moving forward; how strange it is that one should separate oneself from oneself.
Interestingly, there are prescient poems that connect with today’s reality. Like “The Numbers Pandemic”:
“The doctor explained – this numbers virus is spreading like wildfire these days; it immediately affects the brain; suddenly he felt that the doctor’s face had turned into a red alert; warn of imminent danger; and he, lacerated by numbers, shouted – we are people even now, not numbers.
Contrary to the coldness of relations with China today, the poet had a sketch made by a Chinese poet friend who made him think:
“Maybe I was wandering a silk road, chaining nations together.”
Poetry as an art form is evocative and influences individuals, not always pleasantly. But, above all, the wish is as the last poem says: “If only as much as a poem; I have to somehow stay connected to all of them.
Kunwar Narain is a success in this regard despite his reluctance.