The poetics of public places
- How poetry from a poet-diplomat can turn into spiritual healing
Jul 31, 2015-
Once in a while the busy streets of Kathmandu are held up by a vagrant musician, or an artist painting quick five-minute portraits of the buildings surrounding him, or the occasional photographer. Once in a while enters a poet-diplomat who travels around and outside the city with no apparent purpose in mind but a well-formed idea that he is going to write an anthology of short poems. Such is poet-diplomat Abhaya Kumar, first secretary of press, information and culture at the Embassy of India in Nepal.
I read Kumar’s recently launched poetry anthology The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu. The book was launched at an exquisite function by Vice President Parmananda Jha; the translated-into-Nepali version I read—translated by journalist Kishor Nepal—contains an introduction by Abhi Subedi, plenty of praise from a couple of Irish poets, the Vice President’s blessings and—initially—a fair amount of scepticism on my side.
Scepticism because what poetry would a literary enthusiast expect from a poet-diplomat whose motivations to write poetry are perhaps fundamentally different from the alienated poet wrestling with arcane issues? Except, of course, I was proven—albeit not entirely—wrong by Abhaya Kumar. Kumar’s new poetry anthology, Jatra, is an honest telling of the tale of Kathmandu and beyond. I realised, in time, what Kumar’s book could possibly mean—that this was a book for the masses. It is a collection of short poems of different places inside and outside of Kathmandu, and of Nepali people. In the introduction, Abhi Subedi shares my scepticism—or at least, he shares why this form of scepticism is wrong in judging Kumar—by comparing him (and highlighting differences) to Narendra Jain, a former Ambassador of India to Nepal and a poet-diplomat who, according to Subedi, has acknowledged using poetry for a diplomatic purpose—in what ways, however, is unspecified.
In his book, Kumar personifies spaces such as Pashupatinath or Changunarayan or Patan that make up Kathmandu that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. He writes about the different jatras—from Gai Jatra to Rato Machindranath. He also writes about places inside and outside of Kathmandu in two distinct chapters—Inside Kathmandu and Outside Kathmandu. He moves on from personifying spaces to writing about real personalities such as Laxmi Prasad Devkota and Araniko.
Kumar’s style of poetry can perhaps best be described as populist. It is poetry for the masses—and this is perhaps the kind of poetry we need now, in the aftermath of the Great Quake: poetry that can heal. It contains an honesty that is difficult to find in jaded writers. One poem from Inside Kathmandu, for example, is that of the restaurant Imago Dei, describing its black couches, freshly manufactured pasta and the smiles of those who see each other for the first time, not knowing that they were to meet. Such is the simplicity of Kumar’s writing—the ease with which the masses can relate to this style gives it a certain uniqueness.
But how can poetry heal? There are different answers to this question. First, there is that diplomatic healing. Following the #GoHomeIndianMedia movement after the Great Quake, to be able to find a poetry anthology written by an Indian national, clearly, clearly for the Nepali people—in its honesty and sincerity—is diplomatic healing. Then there is spiritual healing. When half of the places personified in Kumar’s anthology have been left in ruins, perhaps the people struggle to find meaning in the places that mean so much to us—Basantapur, Patan, Swayambhunath. Kumar writes of these spaces as they are, with such precise, childlike observations that the poetry anthology reminds us of a long-lost diary. Kumar does not write merely as a spectator. In ‘Raat Ma Kathmandu’ (Kathmandu during the Night), Kumar writes of the lonely cry of a dog, an echoed laughter that winks at him—the air of the quietness that inhabits Kathmandu is omnipresent. He compels the reader to become a spectator while he himself is a filter through which the reader can look at a beautifully constructed collage of the world of Kathmandu, Nepal. Isn’t this what we need, for now?
Although Kumar entertains readers new to poetry, he does, however, disappoint the literary enthusiast who expects poetry to carry depth that gives insights into a writer or into what he writes about. Kumar hardly asks the questions that are quintessential of poetry. He is not merely a spectator but he is, merely, a filter for Nepal. His is an anthology of observations—albeit sincere—that do not represent the history of the poet, but rather, the history of the place. Kumar presents the as-it-is of the spaces, the people, the objects in his book, but there is little or no exploration of why the as-it-is is at it is, the depth that is perhaps expected of poetry in literary circles.
The book consists of illustrations of the places Kumar writes about by Tarshito (Nicola Strippoli) that are primarily minimalistic and hence serve well to deliver Kumar’s musings. The illustrations string together the beauty in the simplicity of Nepal and the honesty of Kumar’s writing.
Hence this is not a book for one who wants to delve deep into what makes Kathmandu, to understand the spaces and the shakes and the whys and the what-happened. This is a book for those who want to remember Kathmandu and the places and the people that have a spot in our hearts since forever.
Published: 01-08-2015 08:53