Ashok Vajpeyi
(India, 1941)   
Ashok Vajpeyi

Ashok Vajpeyi is a noted Hindi poet, critic, essayist and translator, and a dynamic presence in the Indian cultural scene. Writer, cultural activist and ex-civil servant, he has played a vital role in building numerous arts institutions. He is the author of thirty-eight books of poetry and criticism in Hindi and the founder/editor of eight journals in Hindi and English. His poems have been translated into several Indian languages, as well as French, Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Norwegian and Arabic. He is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (1994) for his book Kahin Nahin Vahin, the Agyeya Rashtriya Samman (1997) for his contribution to Hindi literature, the Officer’s Cross of Merit (2004) from the Republic of Poland, and the Officier de L’Ordre des Art et des Lettres (2005) from the Republic of France, among others.

In an introduction to one of his books, Ashok Vajpeyi writes: “Today, the basic struggle of poetry is to protect the personal, which the public world is all too eager to devour . . . Poetry is a civilizational critique of the public from the standpoint of the personal and the individual . . . It is not a celebration of the personal but its exploration, which renders our relation with the public simultaneously creative and critical. It is an unending satyagraha (non-violent resistance) against impersonality, totalization and simplification . . .”
While his celebration of the pre-modern traditions of Indian eroticism has often led him to be regarded as a love poet, the poems in featured here are markedly different. These are drawn from Vajpeyi’s award-winning book of 1994, Kahin Nahin Vahin, a volume of verse written at a time “when there were many dark days and absences in my life,” as the poet once told me. Through Vijay Munshi’s skilful translation, the characteristic qualities of Vajpeyi's writing shine through: most importantly, the ability to bring into the same frame the commonplace and the cosmic, the domestic and the metaphysical: “weak tea/ with just a little milk” and the “peeving/ at the mismatch/ of buttons and buttonholes”, on the one hand, and“the dark gloom of the soul” and the “wondrous glow of the body”, on the other.
Also interesting is that the poet’s take on death – the dominant theme in this book – is not a consistent philosophical position; it is instead an extended reflection, a wondering aloud, edging toward but also, always, swerving away from a single conclusion. Since they do not emerge from a place of ideological conviction or theological belief, the poems veer from puzzlement to terror, from perplexity to provisional faith. Death, the poet tells us, could come “like sunshine”, leading one “like a child . . . / for an early morning walk”. Or it could whirl us away to a sinister world of night shelters, refugees and gods with mouldy ledgers. It could be “home again” – a reunion with Mother who has, as usual, “rented out/ a house . . . / in a crowded locality”, and with Father, silent as always, clearing his throat. Or it could mean the terror of erasure from aging gods’ balance sheets, of expulsion from tradition and of effacement from scripture. It could mean hope – the refusal to “stay silent”, the irrepressible karmic acquisition of a new form and image. Or it could mean resignation, coming to terms with living “where we do not want to”. It is in these anomalies that Vajpeyi’s poetry makes its home – not in the certainties of sermon and manifesto.
Strikingly, these poems, even at their most nihilistic, retain the unmistakably Indian preoccupation with ancestors and community. They may be lost, “meandering, empty-handed”; they may be stoic and surly; and they may leave us with ambivalent legacies, but the forefathers are always around. The poems seem to say: While we may be unable to believe or to pray, while we may even be mere latter-day, upstart interpolations in history’s holy books, the poems suggest that the Hindu joint family is so imprinted in a subcontinent's DNA that even in the totalizing effacement of death, our ancestors manage to linger on as shadowy presences, “hovering around our homes/ like unseen birds”, offering location and context. The deepest dread, the book suggests, lies in the annihilation of location, of standing in a nowhereness looking down at the earth, “not recognising/ our small house”.
It is its faith in the besieged realm of the intimate and personal that makes one trust these poems. In memorializing the mundane – the erotic interlude, the inconspicuous cameo, the pocket verity – and consecrating it in words, the inconsequential is transmuted into the imperishable.

© Arundhathi Subramaniam

Kahin Koi Darwaja, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2013  

Dukh Chitthirasa Hai, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2008
Kuchh Rafoo Kuchh Thigare, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2004 
Ummeed ka Doosra Naam, New Delhi: Vani Prakashan, 2004
Ibarat Se Giri Matraye, Bikaner: Vagdevi Prakashan, 2002
Samay Ke Pass Samay, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2000
Abhi Kuch Aur, New Delhi: Pravin Prakashan, 1998
Avignon, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1995
Bahuri Akela, New Delhi: Sanskruti Pratishthan, 1992
Kahin Nahin Vahin, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1991
Tathpurush, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1989
Agar Itne Se, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1986
Ek Patang Anant Mein, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1984
Shahar Ab Bhi Sambhavana Hai, New Delhi: Bhartiya Gyanpeeth, 1966
Pratinidhi Kavitayen, poetry anthology, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan
In translation
Nowhere But There, trans. Vijay Munshi, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004
More poems in English at BOMB Magazine (trans. Krishna Paldeva Wide) and The Little Magazine (trans. Pratik Kanjila)
Video of Vajpeyi's lecture on ‘Loving the Arts’ at the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi–Amrita Sher-Gil National Art Week


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