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POET, LOVER AND MADMAN

Even those who don’t read Hindi know the poet, Nirala (rare), as a highly eccentric character, a moonh phat (face-spitter) who took on Bapu Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had a crush on Vijaylakshmi Pandit (never reciprocated) and went crackers in the last years of his life. Now, for the first time, I have been able to read his work translated into English: A Season on the Earth: Selected poems of Nirala. It was translated by David Rubin, once professor of Hindi at Columbia University. I have come to the conclusion that besides being a crackpot, Nirala was a great poet, and Rubin is a great translator.

Suryakant Tripathi was born in 1899 in the village, Mahishadal (district Midnapur, West Bengal), in a family of Kanyakubja Brahmins which had migrated from Kanauj (Uttar Pradesh). He spoke both Hindi and Bengali fluently. He took on the poetic pseudonym, Nirala, in 1923. He lost his mother when he was only two years old. He married Manohradevi (then 11) from Kanauj. He failed in his matriculation examination and was thrown out of his home by his father. He lived for many years with his wife’s parents, and a son and a daughter were born to him. Despite early setbacks, Nirala made his name as a poet.

He went to Calcutta to edit a magazine for the Ramakrishna Mission and then another journal, Matvala. He then moved to Lucknow where he lived for 12 years and saw the publication of his collection of poems, Anamika. He came to be known as the “Tagore of Hindi”. Gandhiji made the mistake of asking his hosts at a meeting of Hindi litterateurs in Indore in 1936: “Where is the Tagore of Hindi'” Sometime later, he happened to be in Lucknow. When Nirala went to see him, Gandhi’s secretaries stopped him saying he was seeing some important politicians. Nirala snapped back: “I am an even more important poet”.

Another time he cornered Pandit Nehru in a rail compartment and demanded why he had failed to pay tribute to Munshi Prem Chand on his death. In his later years Nirala began to have illusions of grandeur. He claimed to be a wealthy man, attached university degrees to his name and talked of his dialogues with Queen Victoria. He coined his own obituary a long time before he died. When visitors came to call on him, he would tell them, “Nirala doesn’t live here. The man you are looking for died long ago.” He died in a mental home in 1961.

Nirala was a poet of rare sensibility towards nature and feminine beauty. In an early composition he describes a young girl:

She sat on a rock,

Her blue skirt gently fluttering

— thus,

Uninhibited, the evening breeze

Held some silent conversation with the

lovely girl

And smiled.

Her curling hair,

Black and luxuriant,

Blue, loose and fragrant over her pale

face,

Tumbled over her breasts,

Teased her affectionately.

From the open sky

The chill spray scattered,

Exhilarating,

On her shapely limbs.

In an earlier poem composed in 1916 which roused some controversy he compared the blossoming of a Jasmine bud to that of a young girl being embraced by her lover:

On a vine in the deserted wood

She slept, blissful in dreams of love,

Pure tender slender girl —

The juhi bud —

Eyes closed, languorous in the

folded leaf.

A spring night. Her lover,

Tormented by separation in a

distant land,

Was that wind they call

The southern sandal-mountain

breeze.

He recalled their sweet re-

unions,

The midnight drenched in moonlight,

The lovely trembling body of the girl.

And then' That wind

Crossed over grove lake river mountain

wood

And vine-entangled jungles

To reach where he could dally with the

budding flower.

She slept —

For, tell me, how could she suspect

That her lover was at her side'

The hero kissed her cheek,

And she swayed, shivering from it,

But even now she did not waken

Nor ask forgiveness for her fault.

The long curved sleepy eyes stayed shut

As though she swooned,

intoxicated from the wine of youthful longings — who can say' Ruthless, her

lover,

Of a sudden cruel,

Struck that tender body hard,

Slapped her pale full cheeks.

The girl started up,

Stared all about her, astonished,

And found her darling by her bed.

She smiled, gratified in her desire,

And blossomed in her lover’s arms.

Another word for yes

Okay is one word common to all mankind from Red Indians, Eskimos, Canadians, Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese — even Bedouin Arabs of the Sahara. When was it first coined and in which country' No one really knows but many guesses have been made. Professor Allen Read who spent his lifetime studying origins of words put forward many versions of the origin of OK. Americans believed that it came from badly spelt Orl Korrect.

G.I.s who went to Europe during World War II found the word was commonly used all over the continent. Germans claimed that it is derived from oberst kommandant (over-commander); the French said it came from Aux Cayes, a town they established in Haiti. Others put it earlier to Van Buren who became the eighth president of the US. He was widely known as Old Kinder hook: “Vote for OK” was easier on the ear than his Dutch name. And yet another claimant is a Red Indian tribe which has a word okeh meaning “Yes”.

Things to remember

Trust in God, but lock your car.

Marriage is one of the chief causes of Divorce.

Work is a fine thing if it does not take too much of your spare time.

Hard work never killed anybody but why take chances.

A man who wants to do something will find a chance. A man who doesn’t will find an excuse.

Three groups of people who spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.

(Courtesy: Amir C. Tuteja, Washington).

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