Kuldeep Kumar’s poetry collection consists of sixty four poems which include love poems; some reflect his involvement with classical music, and a few that may be called ‘political’ poems which engage quite directly with current events, where the journalist in the poet comes to the fore
Kuldeep Kumar’s collection of poems, aesthetically produced and rather wistfully titled Bin Jiya Jeevan (An Unlived Life), has appeared more than two decades after his early poems were first published in magazines like Kadambini, Alochana and Pahal, while he was still a student. The poems have been quietly in the making all the while that he was pursuing a career as a full-time journalist, writing both in English and Hindi. Not only has Kuldeep Kumar written incisively on politics and society, but has also gained a reputation as one of our finest music critics. The fact that he has re-emerged on the literary scene after a disappearance of twenty-two years is the affirmation of an engaged poetic imagination.
He does not call himself a ‘regular’ poet; yet it is poetry that informs his everyday experiences. All the years that he was not writing poetry, it seems that poetry was writing him, creating within him a reservoir of impressions that give subsequent form to his thoughts and a tone of voice that seems ironic and intimate simultaneously.
The collection consists of sixty four poems which include love poems; some reflect his involvement with classical music, and a few that may be called ‘political’ poems which engage quite directly with current events, where the journalist in the poet comes to the fore. There are also five long poems about the women in the Mahabharata — Madhavi, Matsyagandha, Gandhari, Madri and Draupadi; the women have been given a distinctive voice and a strong feminist point of view that questions widely accepted notions about their role in the epic. The conversational style dispenses with any illusion of distance that may lie between readers and the mythological characters. Rather, the reader becomes a confidante of these women who seem to speak close up to the ear, to tell their woes and air opinions about the treatment given to them in the epic.
The love poems are particularly striking for their controlled intensity and brevity — in the opening poem Vah Chehra, the poet sees in other faces the separate features of his loved one’s face everywhere and all the time, but the regret remains that he may never see her whole face again.
In Subah, the absence of the beloved is noticed tangentially; pillows and quilt are not where they ought to be, the morning newspapers that should have been missing are all there, the kettle lies empty and upturned in the kitchen. The oblique perspective gives the poem a force that may have eluded it, had the lines been more direct.
Though very different in subject matter, Smriti and Yahi Jeevan both seem to stand back and take stock of life and of love. “Did you also keep aside something in all these years?” asks the poet of his love, after counting off all the things that he has remembered of her, in Smriti, and in Yahi Jeevan, he expresses the thought that were he to die and be born again, it is the same life that he would wish to live all over again. Perhaps then he would be able to do the things that remained not done in this one, to say what stayed unsaid. In a moving moment at the end of the poem, he says that among the things that he’d like to do, were he to be born again, one would be to ask his dead brother to remember him ‘there’ as he remembers him here.
“Maine Octavio Paz se/Phone par kaha/Apse milna hai…” (I told Octavio Paz on the phone that I have to meet you…) So begins Octavio Paz Se Ek Mulaqat, and it goes on to narrate their meeting as though it were a story. In fact, this ‘storytelling’ element is present in some other poems too. Railway station ka Pul, Shayankaksh, Phaansi kothi ke qaidi, Samay, Chaurahe par ladki — all read like stories, and are reminiscent of some of Raymond Carver’s poems that have a similar quality.
Throughout Kuldeep Kumar’s oeuvre there seems to be a conversation going on: Sometimes he is speaking with himself in an internal monologue; at others, it is a loved one who is addressed. Maan is an extraordinary, long poem in this genre, with striking images — “a fifty-one year old darkness”, “wrinkles that melt and flow on the streets”, “she sits like the blackness on a stove”, “breath that falls like a weak roof.”
There are various changes of register across the collection. If there is a linguistic playfulness in Raagdarshan, there is irony in Nishedh and Na bolna vah shabd, whereas Jaane do is about renunciation; in the poem everything is abjured, till all that is left at the end is “a fistful of sadness”.
“Hum baar baar koshish karte hain/Kisi doosre janm mein jaane ki/(Rahoge tum yahin Ashtavakra!..../Nahin le sakoge ab phir koi janm”) (We try again and again to be reborn in some other life, this is where you’ll stay, Ashtavakra….never will you be born again) The despairing mood of these lines from Shaap ke sahaare has an echo of Cavafy’s The City — “You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:/There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.”
Kuldeep Kumar’s context is very specific. It refers to the deformed sage Ashtavakra in the Mahabharata, cursed to stay forever in the same birth. There is no mythological reference in Cavafy’s poem. Yet both have a similar ring to them.
Much remains unsaid in the poems. A sketch may be drawn with very few words; Mallikarjun Mansur compresses a whole life in seven lines. It is this spare quality that is most memorable. And the poet iterates this in Tootna: “Aur hamesha yaad rahta hai/Jo kabhi nahin kaha” (What is never said is always remembered) It is this unsaid that resonates with the reader.
(Sara Rai is a bilingual writer and literary translator based in Allahabad)