The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A Season on the Earth: Selected Poems of Nirala Oxford, Rs 295

Translating is supposed to be more exhausting than producing original works. And translating poetry is said to be even more difficult. Take the book under review — a translation of a few poems by the Hindi poet, Nirala.

The translator, David Rubin, is a visiting professor at Columbia University. It is unclear what made him turn to Nirala, but the translation is sure to excite the imagination of the West because of the sheer power of Nirala’s poetry. After all, Nirala, who is mostly unknown to non-Hindi speakers even in India, is a name to be reckoned with in modern Hindi literature.

Suraj Kumar Tevari, or Surya-kant Tripathi, was born in 1899 in Midnapore district of Bengal, into a family of Kanyakubja Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh. He was in his twenties when he assumed the title, “Nirala”, or one who is different. Tripathi knew Bengali well, having read Tagore and other Bengali poets during his stay in this part of the country. He led a rather bohemian life — the account of which is as interesting as his poetry is fascinating. His circumstances were rather straitened after his wife and family members died in the epidemic of 1918. It was in Lucknow, where he moved later, that Nirala produced some of his finest works.

The problem with translating Nirala is the sheer volume of his literary output. But Rubin gets around the difficulty with a judicious selection of about 60 poems which give an idea of the many facets of Nirala’s poetry. Written between 1935 and 1960, Rubin arranges them under six categories, giving each a poetical title. Thus the first group is entitled “Poetry and the Poet’s Life” and contains poems on love and nature, while the last, “Evening Music”, shows the poet’s obsession with death.

Then there is Nirala’s love for word-play — “Don’t think dreams are imagination/ don’t call imagination dreams”. The general mood is one of reminiscence: “and the wounds have brought me low/ the bad fruits born of my own heat”.

Unlike other translators, especially in the West, who take liberties and change not only the structure but also phrases and imagery, Rubin sticks to the original. The use of free verse and the easy flow of language help readers get a taste of the fiery spirit of Nirala’s poetry even in English. But it would have been better had Rubin placed the originals alongside, even if in transliteration.

Hopefully, Rubin’s work will inspire others to turn to other Indian poets and writers who are waiting to be introduced to a wider audience in the West.

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