015 - A Poet in August

Remembering Vijay Nambisan

Quite a start the city has had in August. Despite the rains people are out and about and I sit and marvel at them. There’s a great temptation to be out, but I resist. Books help in this matter. I’ve read three books of poetry the last two weeks. That and another reason that I hope you will see as you read is what this letter is about.

The website said it was the last copy left. I doubted that till the moment I held the book, a week later. The book was hardbound black, the jacket pristine white; that was the expectation. The jacket arrived with a layer of unclaimed dust, as if the book took a flight of its own, from some obscure corner where no one knew it lay. It may just be the last copy. But there’s an unfortunate certainty that it is indeed the last book.

Integument is a ‘tough outer protective layer, especially that of an animal or plant’. It is also a poem from this book. In it is a line:

Yet burst if you will, for I well know
Inside, that inside is another wall
Which will hold off anything that may call
For your destruction.

I think of the book jacket in this instance and wonder of the hard bind behind it. I also wonder what is a poem, an animal or plant?

The Miracle of the Pomegranate

In the August rain the flowers are changing
The shape of the tree. It was light and airy,
Holding its colours high above the earth, arranging
For itself a crown with sure fingers. Now rudely laden
With miracles, it regards the wetness below.

Fruits swell in crimson and yellow, strange
To pluck from grey air. Is there nothing else to do
But life must poke its secrets up through the shoots,
Up past the leaves and into the flowers,
Filling them slowly as if trying on gloves;

Nothing to do but after the merest shower
It should be thrusting earth aside with green plumes
Simply to put the tree in proper perspective—
unwanted things coming again and again to birth,
Ignoring the fact that the gardener’s due tomorrow

He’ll mutter to himself, Nothing useless nothing wasted,
But the tree’s grown so tall that half its prizes
Will only come to the wasteful bats and thieving
Squirrels, then be left to lose their colours, rotting,
Laying the secret bare to be sympathized with. 

Poetry, as I see it, can only look ahead. To see what’s behind one has to turn around and go along the road as if moving forward. What was intended? What is foretold? Answers to these go around in circles.

A good poem often ends where it starts, thus completes such circles. But if you leave on a tangent, the possibilities, as with a line, becomes endless. And once on it, you don’t recognise what led you there.

The mistake one makes is that we picture a man on the line where only words exist. Men stop, somewhere down on a line. The words go on, endless on the endless line. If you stand beside the words and not behind them, you may see where they have been, and where they yearn to go; all the intentions and foretelling may become evident.

Today, we walk beside the words of a poet and writer whose intentions with words were always clear - Vijay Nambisan.

The Miracle of Pomegranates is the first poem in Vijay Nambisan’s collection called These Were my Homes. And considering the nature of the collection, it is also the first poem in his first collection Gemini I, that he co wrote with Jeet Thayil under the aegis of Dom Moraes.

In her introduction to These Were my Homes, Rukmini Bhaya Nair meditates on the prophetic nature of poets. She writes ‘… raising once again the unanswerable but always haunting question about the relationship between poetry and prophesy’. She notes how The Miracle of Pomegranates spoke of an August, way back in 1992. *

On August 10, 2015, Nambisan reviewed Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the debatable sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird; the title and subtitle read: This Bird Doesn’t Sing For me, Jean Louise Finch will remain a promising child who passed away young.

On August 10, 2017, Vijay Nambisan passed away. He was 54.

All the poets confirmed with their eulogies and obituaries that a promising talent passed away too soon. And only the poets, the writers spoke. Their secret now bare. The tree perhaps had grown too tall.

A stanza from one of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poems ends an essay by Anjum Hasan. It is an essay she wrote in Nambisan’s memory - A Home Grown Page; the title derived from Mehrotra’s poem. In it she shares a side of Nambisan’s poetry -

Elsewhere, Vijay is the languishing poet, certain his gifts are not up to the mark, his tongue impoverished. ‘I grant myself a turn for scripts and signs and silly things/But O the bird of many hues within me never sings.’ 

The essay is evocative and moving.

If you haven’t read it before, I urge you to now. It is a befitting tribute to the genius and humanity of Nambisan.

Another lighter shade of Nambisan’s comes through in the wit in poems such as The Corporate Poet, Ill Met by Moonlight and Dirge. He wrote about poems and poets; roots and nature; religion, mythology, and even pop culture. But to me his poetry truly came alive in all its irony when he spoke of things and their capacity to diminish, to die. There is a virtue in facing mortality with words.

Smell of Things to Come**

A nose is a nose is a nose. Who knows

Those fibres of smell better than I? The scent

Of a book that grows on me, of a rose

Withered by fondling, of newsprint, of drink

Untasted but soon to be consumed, of course

I know them all and know too the gross

Odours of unwashed flesh, of dirt

Shed or retained by skin, and I know almost

The scent of love, because sometimes it flows

Between breast and breast, and my nose

Has nestled there.

          When blows the wind above

My senses, I have smelled the clouds grow

Against the sky. One scent remains to know,

The last breath I shall ever take as I.

I am neither a poet of much calibre, nor did I know Vijay Nambisan in any capacity. I came to know of him and his work only this year. The book that I first read this year came out twenty years ago. To write about him then in this letter, makes me confront my own pretensions. But I think it is fair to say, that reading a single poem or in case of the book a chapter, no, just the preface to the edition that I have, makes evident the skill with language he possessed. And if you are a writer of any variety, you will rejoice in its highs and share the common pain.

When Suddenly the Poems Die

When suddenly the poems die
Away, when he pen lies bereft
Of striving hand, what use the day’s
Long words of pretence what is left?

Another snippet from Anjum Hassan’s essay, seems an apt place to arrive at here:

In First Infinities, his lines are clearly wrung from life—this is hard-won verse, songs of experience. A question Vijay struggles with here is—what’s poetry worth? ‘I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end,’ he says in the opening poem, which is a prelude both paradoxical and true. Marvellous poems follow, the lines haven’t quite come to an end but they are always at the verge of.


* I didn’t speak much about it above, but Nair’s introduction that also includes her essay on Nambisan after his death is one of the better works of prose I have read. It is educational and as in Hassan’s case terribly moving, and goes on to answer the question of poets and their relationship with prophesy.

** This poem is part of the same set that Integument is; it is called The Evidence of My Senses.

A less spoken talent of his is his illustrative skills which are on display in the book On Bihar.

I wanted to refrain from speaking about it, but when and where will I get a chance to say this elsewhere. Vijay Nambisan shot to the literary limelight as the first winner of the All India Poetry contest in 1988. His poem Madras Central that won him the prize is also probably his most quoted work. Rukmini Bhaya Nair won the award the next year. HK Kaul instituted that prize. He passed away last month.