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Lessons from Nirala’s ballad for our battle with covid

'Ram ki Shakti Puja', once a call to action during the freedom struggle, is now a reminder to reflect and marshal strength for the long battle against the virus

A policeman wearing a protective face mask stands next to the demon King Ravana (L) and his brother Kumbhkarana before they are set on fire during the festival of Dussehra, amidst the spread of COVID-19 in New Delhi, October 25, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Literature is the last refuge from fervent hopelessness, and poetry its raison d'être. The year 2020 has certainly staked its claim as a historical idiom of evil. So, this Diwali—a celebration of the triumph of good over evil—as the heart wanders in search of hope, the mind steers it to Nirala’s Ram ki Shakti Puja, seeking in it a poetic distill to our despondency, and the inspiration to overcome it.

Ravi hua ast, jyoti ke patra par likha amar, rah gaya Ram-Ravan ka aparajay samar. The sun has set away, inked on its rays the history of the day, Ram-Ravan in battle kept the other at bay. Suryakant Tripathi, pen named Nirala, opens with these iconic lines, arguably one of the most revered pieces of Hindi literature. The poem traverses three parts: the despondency, the mediative determination, and finally the sacrifice that ultimately lends the strength for victory.

As we light the diyas of Diwali, a barrage of seemingly intractable problems confronts us: A raging pandemic forcing our elderly and healthcare workers to play dice with their lives. An economy teetering on its promise of a good life to our young. A world retreating inwards from its promise of a liberal order. Where is our victorious return home? Where is our Ram Rajya? To err is human, and to periodically implode is humanity. The promise of humanity though, and its beauty, has always been in its ability to resurrect, and redeem, itself.

Nirala’s Ram is human. He is sad, he is restless, he cries. He questions his ability to win the battle: Sthir Raghavendra ko hila raha phir-phir sankshay, reh-reh uthta jag jivan mein Ravan jay-bhay. Ram, always the equanimous, is shaken by doubt, rising in his core the fear of Ravan’s victory rout. The darkness of war then floats Ram to the time he first saw Sita: Naynon ka naynon se gopan priya sambhasan. Tryst of their eyes, they spoke lovingly in disguise. Will Sita safely return home?

To err is human, and to periodically implode is humanity. The promise of humanity though, and its beauty, has always been in its ability to resurrect, and redeem, itself

Ram’s nervousness is driven by the divine, for Ravan has been embraced by Shakti (that is Maa Durga): Yeh nahin raha nar vanar ka rakshas se rann, utari pa Maa Shakti, Ravan se aamantran, anyay jidhar hai udhar Shakti, kehte chal chal ho gaye nayan. No longer a war of man-monkey with demon, descended has Maa Shakti on Ravan’s invitation, oh injustice is guarded by Shakti’s beacon, his eyes turned moist with this oration.

Ram ki Shakti Puja is based on Krititvasi Ramayan, a Bengali version, composed by Krittibas Ojha. The beauty of the epic is in many ways its myriad versions, outsourcing the core to reflect the reality of the readers’ time and place in history. In almost all versions, Valmiki’s original intent of giving us a complex villain remains. Despite our desires for simplicity, even purity, of evil, Ramayan reminds us that Ravan is a learned man, deeply spiritual, and a great warrior. So, it is not surprising that Shakti has blessed him. It is in defeating him in the cause of justice that Ram can achieve greatness. What does Ram do now?

Jambvaan, a senior lieutenant, suggests that Ram withdraw from battle and call on Shakti through meditation: Tum bhi yeh Shakti karo dharan, aaradhan ka dhrin aaradhan se do uttar. In Shakti’s meditation you too dissolve, respond to his determination with an even greater resolve. And then, Nirala gets beatifically meta: Shakti ki karo maulik kalpana, karo pujan, chod do samar, jab tak na sidhi ho Raghunandan. Leave the battle and pray, till it is ripened, weave Shakti’s image within your fray. The legend tells us: when the enemy is disciplined and tenacious, you have to be all that and more.

An artist dressed as Ravana reacts as he participates in Dussehra festival celebrations in Chandigarh. October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ajay Verma
An artist dressed as Ravana reacts as he participates in Dussehra festival celebrations in Chandigarh. October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ajay Verma

While facing the challenge of a rapidly spreading virus, a heed to this call by Jambavaan to pull back, take stock, and emerge stronger is missing in our midst. Scientists have been pleading with us to modify our lifestyles in the pandemic to save our elderly, our immunocompromised brethren, our essential workers, but their entreaties have met with limited success.

Ram, though, listens, smiles and assents, uttam nischay, beautiful decision, and sits in trance while Lakshman takes over as the leader in battle. These nine days of Ram’s deep worship of Maa Durga are what we celebrate as Navratri, the revered nine nights. Hanuman is instructed to bring 108 divine flowers for the fruition of this meditation. Deep into the eighth night, as Ram is slowly dedicating the flowers and nearing the completion of his immersion, Maa Durga secretly takes away the last flower to test Ram’s conviction—is he worthy?

Seeing the rikt sthan, the empty space where the last divine flower should have been, Ram’s focus is disturbed. He reminisces about all the difficulties he has had to face in life. Nothing comes easy even after such intense efforts. But, just as resignation is about to take hold, Nirala reminds us of his resolve, perhaps one that exists in us all: Veh ek aur mann raha Ram ka jo na thaka, jo nahin jaanta dainya, nahin jaanta vinay. That another being inside Ram exists, who doesn’t despair, who is not meek, not polite to injustice.

Ram channels his courage, his ingenuity: Kehti thi Mata mujhe sada rajiv nayan, do neel kamal hain shesh abhi, yeh pursharan pura karta hoon dekar mata ek nayan. The lotus-eyed mother to me would always state, two blue lotuses in me still await, to complete this prayer, my one eye to you Maa I donate. Saying these words Ram reaches for the Brahmastra, a pious and potent arrow, and with certitude brings it to his right eye. The whole universe shivers, and Maa Durga appears.

It is perhaps uncontroversial to conclude that a large part of the world has been unwilling to sacrifice to stop the pandemic.

The foundations of human morality are steeped in the idea of the ultimate sacrifice. The Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayan and Mahabharat are brimming with it. In monotheistic legends, in the manifest trial, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Heavenly forces save Ishmael as the knife is about to run through him, and then God pronounces redemption for this was a test of Abraham’s conviction.

In our societies today, is personal sacrifice revered, is it celebrated enough? All of us have journeys in which we do our best to enrich ourselves. But, as French philosopher Tocqueville evocatively argued, a collective’s ability to generate prosperity, whether a community or a country, depends on a social mediation of these individual journeys. A healthy civic nationalism, where each of us sacrifices something for the collective, has been the modern bedrock of this idea. It is perhaps uncontroversial to conclude that a large part of the world has been unwilling to sacrifice to stop the pandemic. A large number has been unwilling to rethink its views and learn from others to reduce the extent of polarization in our societies.

Ram’s willingness to go to the pinnacle of prayer, to sacrifice an eye, wins over Shakti. The poem ends in her relenting to his persistence: Hogi jay, hogi jay, hey purshottam navin, keh Maha Shakti Ram ke badan mein huyi leen. O illustrious new man, victorious you shall be, blessing thus the great Shakti enters Ram’s being. Ram defeats Ravan the next day in battle.

Nirala achieves a self-evident preeminence with this poem—the language, the imagery, the consistency through its rather elongated expanse, and its ability to almost inadvertently but in a deep sense intentionally, connect with some higher truths of life. Readers through its 80-year history have sought its soul in varied circumstances—famously first as a grounding for the freedom struggle in the 1930s. This Diwali here is hoping we find a way to respond to the aaradhan of the demons around us with our own dhrin aaradhan.

Rohit Lamba is an assistant professor of economics at the Pennsylvania State University and a poetry enthusiast.

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