In 2013, when Shrikant Verma’s iconic collection of Hindi poems, Magadh, appeared in English translation from the indie publisher Almost Island Books, it created a stir, not least due to the exquisite rendition from the original by the writer, editor and translator Rahul Soni.
Born in 1931, Verma was one of the leading lights of literary modernism in Hindi. His sculpted lines and experimental approach bear the legacy of the Nayi Kavita (New Poetry) movement dating back to the colonial era. But, for a long time, outside the Hindi literary fold Verma was best known as a public figure, especially as a key member of Indira Gandhi’s Congress party. A witness to the Emergency, he is believed to have coined the popular slogan “garibi hatao (end poverty)", which ironically came to mean “garib hatao (remove the poor)". Verma was a vocal supporter of Indira Gandhi’s return to office.
Plato, the Greek philosopher, had banished poets from his ideal republic because they spread lies and corrupted the minds of youths. Although Verma’s career did prove that poets don’t necessarily make for smart politicians, it also established, especially with Magadh, that poets are indispensable to the health of a republic—the latter, in his case, being India, the world’s largest democracy. For it is along the pages of his masterpiece that the poet confronts the disillusioned politician in himself speaking in a voice tinged with weariness and remorse, but also one that has been awakened into a tragic vision of life.
Earlier this year, when Westland Books reissued Soni’s translation of Magadh in a new edition, with commentaries by writers and scholars Apoorvanand, Ashok Vajpeyi and Mantra Mukim, I reread the poems with deep interest. In spite of the gulf of a decade, the mystical beauty of Verma’s lines, the riddling syntax of his thought and the fragments of speech strewn along the pages, still remain hypnotic. To hear the unheard and see the unseen, you have to read this poem aloud, letting its sounds seep into your ears and its sights appear before your eyes.
Few writers have the gift of compressing copious, intense emotions in such few words and with such practised understatement. Verma’s cryptic stanzas (Vaishali is not a city/ it is the memory/ of those who came/ before us) are gateways into a realm of opposing paradigms—past and present, history and mythology, memory and forgetting. Making one’s way through the labyrinth of lines, where every fact rests on a counterfact (The truth is that/ every road goes to Ujjaini/ and that/ no road goes to Ujjaini), the reader is reminded of the mythical Sphinx and its impossible puzzles from the annals of Greek mythology.
Yet, this seemingly treacherous poetic landscape—where kingdoms rise and fall, roads appear and disappear, and power corrupts the purity of thought—is also an arena of infinite vastness.
Just as an abstract painting by a master artist surpasses the sum of its shapes and colours to capture a rarefied emotion, so does Magadh exist as a metonymy for the human condition, transcending the roll call of empires and emperors that keeps repeating like an incantation throughout its pages. As the poet Karthika Nair puts it, Magadh is the “slenderest of books that is nonetheless an epic".
The epic journey of Magadh winds its way through the cities of Hastinapur, Kosambi, Kashi, Ujjaini, Nalanda, Takshashila and far beyond. An array of characters, from Bimbisara and Ashoka to Ajatashatru and Amrapali, come and go. But the real hero of the epic is the poet himself. It’s his voice that cries out with urgency and anguish, it’s his mind that raises kingdoms out of thin air, it’s his heart that bursts into piteous laments as civilisations are reduced to dust.
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Significantly, Verma composed the poems in Magadh in two tranches: a handful in 1979, as India was emerging from the terrors of the Emergency; and the bulk in 1984, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Unlike many of his political colleagues, who remained steadfast in their support of the party in spite of grievous misdeeds, Verma had a reckoning with himself through the vehicle of his art during these years. His creative catharsis gave rise to, as Ashok Vajpeyi puts it, “a new poetics of interrogation and doubt".
In Magadh, the reader feels the full force of the moral and ethical dilemma Verma was forced to confront by the actions of his party. As he writes in The Law, “the truth is unnecessary/ it is unwise/ to be prodigal with the truth…./the law can’t be broken,/ the law/can be changed." It is tempting to read strains of personal confession into parts of Magadh but the appeal of the poem, as a unity, lies in its sublime elusiveness, its ability to plant uncertainty into seemingly obvious truisms. “Is a horseman/ who goes to Kalinga/ the same when he returns?" the poet asks in one instance. “What do people call him—/ victor/ or murderer?"
Reading Magadh in 2023, it is impossible to escape the awareness that good and evil, friend and foe are, more often than not, two sides of the same coin.
Verma’s “victor or murderer" dilemma, which has been omnipresent throughout human history, hasn’t lost its moral force in the 21st century. In fact, this ethical vertigo has seeped into the very foundations of our democracy, eroding our polity from within. The saddest part is that not many writers of Verma’s genius are left to take honest stock of the decay or articulate it with a sensibility as fine as his.
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Magadh’s greatness lies in its complete surrender to a grand tragic vision, an ultimate pessimism that is impossible to escape. Reading the poem is to have a sobering reminder of the vanity of human wishes as well as an acute consciousness of the intellectual darkness we live in. Verma’s Magadh is here and now, there and everywhere, a world, as another great poet wrote, where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity".
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times
- FIRST PUBLISHED06.08.2023 | 10:00 AM IST