If a preoccupation runs through the work of all three poets in this feature, the thirtieth for our India section, it is possibly liberation. But it is not as an overt theme – but rather as a breeze, a hint, a rumour.
On one hand, these three Indian poets – Ashok Vajpeyi, Mandakranta Sen and Anand Thakore – cannot be more diverse. They represent different languages (Hindi, Bengali and English), different age groups (one is born in the 1940s, the other two in the ‘70s), and different locations (representing the northern, eastern and western parts of the country). And yet, even while dealing with very different themes, the poets published here turn, each in their own ways, to the trope of freedom, welcoming it at times and spurning it at others.
In the poems selected for this feature, senior Hindi littérateur Ashok Vajpeyi explores the dominant theme of death – a prospect that could spell either the terror of eviction or the warmth of homecoming; the blankness of annihilation; or a jaunty transition from one home to another. Mukti or ultimate liberation – the supreme aim of the traditional Hindu – holds no allure in these poems. Freedom instead lies in defiant revolt against death: “Finally/ we will evade death/ return again –/ after the end/ we will not stay silent”, says the speaker in one poem. In others, Vajpeyi clearly values the perpetuation of the familiar – the intimacy of a neighourhood, the repetition of genes, opinions, habits, and the vexing but beloved foibles of ancestors. Nor is mukti even a real possibility for the bewildered modern-day agnostic: “Like an interpolated passage/ expelled from holy scripture/ where shall we go?”
If freedom lies in defying the terminal closure of death in Vajpeyi’s poems, Mumbai poet Anand Thakore offers another take. In his Mughal Sequence, a diamond yearns for life in the mines, away from the cruel white light of imperial glory and eternal celebrity status. Death here is a return to origins – a dark, primal oblivion, or perhaps a simpler, if cruder, life (reminiscent perhaps of Prufrock’s desire to turn into a “pair of ragged claws/ scuttling across the floors of silent seas”). In another poem called ‘Glacier', the speaker acknowledges that the real self is a “vast frozen mountain thawing in the sun” dripping into the river that is “always letting go of itself”. Freedom here, for all the terrors of dismantling, is a certain exultant move in the direction of “the strong single-minded river” that “knows no direction but downhill and seaward”. Perhaps there is a tragic inevitability to the direction “downhill”, but there is also an exuberant freedom in turning “seaward”. Thakore’s poem reminds us of both.
In Bengali poet Mandakranta Sen’s poems, we hear of another kind of freedom – not death or dissolution as much as a jubilant and voluntary sloughing off of superfluous and claustrophobic roles and skins. Nightdresses fly into the night air, going wildly astray, and saris turn into rivers that might swallow controlling lovers. These are anthems to a wild, sensual “disobedience”, in which ruler and ruled, colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed are both called upon to participate in a conscious unmaking, so that a new freedom can be born.
Whether it is “that clear blue motherland” of the imagination in Thakore’s poem, the river of the discarded “blue sari” in Sen’s, or the gush of water that improvises its course through stream and waterfall only to “arrive in the end/ at the shores of our forefathers” in Vajpeyi’s – freedom here speaks in many strikingly diverse shades of blue. And in other memorable colours. And so we read on.