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Abhay Kumar: The sage Indian of Brasilia

Poet-diplomat Abhay Kumar on the links between capital cities, poetry and planetary consciousness

Brasilia. Photo: iStockphoto
Brasilia. Photo: iStockphoto

Washing dishes is just like early-morning meditation," laughs Abhay Kumar, as he stands at the sink in the kitchen of his sprawling house in Brasilia. India’s second-highest ranking diplomat in Brazil, the shaven-headed, baby-faced Kumar is surprisingly invested in domestic chores.

He has just made breakfast of puri-sabzi from scratch, rolling out the dough into one large piece and then cutting out circles with an inverted glass. It is an old habit. “While studying in Patna, I had to learn to cook for myself. Later, when I was posted to St Petersburg, I used to host gatherings of artists and writers on weekends. I found this was the fastest way to make large batches of puris…"

Kumar’s deceptively unassuming manner conceals the mind and ambition of a curious and ambitious traveller—one who wants not just to experience the world, but to transform the way people think about the world. Last year, he released Capitals: A Poetry Anthology, one of the more unusual travel books of our time. The product of a sensibility both bureaucratic and literary, it is an anthology of poems about the capitals of as many as 185 countries.

Abhay Kumar. Photo: Courtesy Abhay Kumar
Abhay Kumar. Photo: Courtesy Abhay Kumar

Merely the contents section of the book, with names like Conakry and Cotonou, Bishkek and Tegucigalpa jumping off the page, is a provocation to the reader’s imagination. Could it be that verse provides an experience of these places that a guidebook cannot? “As a frequent traveller I often felt the need of a poetry atlas but I could not find one," Kumar writes in his introduction. “So I decided to create one."

He wrote to all the poets he knew, asking for permission to reuse poems they had written, or for suggestions on where to find poems about particular places. Most importantly, he wanted contact with poets in faraway lands—Djibouti, South Sudan, Turkmenistan—who might supply him a satisfactory poem about the capitals of their countries.

But “even the most well-connected poets…did not know poets from two-thirds of the world". Sometimes a poet could be found, but not a satisfactory poem about a capital in an English translation. In these cases, Kumar’s somewhat unorthodox solution, criticized by some reviewers, was to write one himself. He asks the indulgence of the reader for this liberty, believing it a necessary sacrifice for the sake of the cause. After all, the book itself might draw out poets from the missing capitals (if you’ve written a poem about Jabu or Maputo, get in touch).

The cover jacket of Kumar’s book ‘Capitals: A Poetry Anthology’.
The cover jacket of Kumar’s book ‘Capitals: A Poetry Anthology’.

As we speak, it becomes clear that a certain capital has shaped the sensibility behind Capitals. It is exactly 20 years since Kumar came to live in New Delhi for the first time. The son of a primary schoolteacher from Nalanda in Bihar, he had gained admission to Kirori Mal College to pursue a bachelor’s in geography. The coordinates of his journey (movingly described in a memoir Kumar published when still in his 20s, River Valley To Silicon Valley: Story Of Three Generations Of An Indian Family) make a pattern that thousands of middle-class, first-generation-urban Indians will recognize. But Kumar’s story also falls into another, much more uncommon line, that of the small-town autodidact hungry for the widest possible experience of the world and finding it in books.

Linguistically, culturally and emotionally, the overnight journey from Patna to Delhi traversed a distance that could not be expressed in kilometres. Delhi was a huge culture shock. “I had always loved to read and ours was a household that set great store by reading. But all my reading was in Hindi…the stories of Premchand, the poems of Makhanlal Chaturvedi, the dohas of Kabir and Rahim.

“In Delhi all this seemed to mean much less. The students in college spoke to each other so easily in English, whereas I had studied in Hindi medium until matriculation. I bought a dictionary and started reading English newspapers daily. It was two years before I felt comfortable with the language. I started reading poetry in English too: Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I fell in love with it and that pleasure has never left me. After I graduated, I gave the civil service exams and when I got into the IFS (Indian Foreign Service), my dream of travelling to the faraway capitals of the world came true."

Kumar’s enthusiasm for big-city life, with its appealing combination of wide-eyed wonder and worldliness, makes for a persona greatly suited for his editorial project. Whatever the faults of the volume, Capitals radiates an infectious love of the subject. As the poems vividly show, capitals are mines of tangled history, playgrounds of dynasties and empires, hubs of trade, sites of social and sexual intermixing, theatres of fantasy and reverie and decadence, crucibles of new ideas, junctions of new kinds of community and havens of thrilling anonymity. Capitals are human beings at their most inventive. Kumar quotes Michelangelo, “I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all."

Capitals is dedicated not to any person, but “to the call for an official Earth Anthem". For though capitals belong to countries, for Kumar, they also form a kind of rebuke to them. He sees them as portents of a future in which the political forms that have held sway in the last 300 years— especially the nation state—will break down and disappear.

“Most national anthems—I’m speaking now in a purely personal capacity—today sound so banal. Why is that? Because they do not correspond to the way we live in the 21st century. Yet we are held hostage by the world view they project. In a globalized world, the challenge is today to find a way to relate to the entire world. The nation-state-led world view is not of much help with that.

“The internet as a part of our everyday lives is probably only one generation old. But like the printing press 500 years ago, it has greatly transformed our relationship with the world. It is creating something new, a planetary consciousness. That consciousness needs a new anthem.

“In contrast to the man-made idea of the nation state, with often completely arbitrary borders, the image of one planet is straightforward and compelling. It makes us aware of a common ecology, a planetary community which we must all protect and nurture, for the sake of the future of humanity."

Unsurprisingly, the Earth Anthem is a poem written by Kumar himself, in English, Hindi and even a multilingual version, with lines switching from English to Nepali to Russian to Arabic. Released by Kumar in 2013, it has found many supporters, including Shyam Benegal and Kailash Satyarthi. Earlier this year, it was set to music by L. Subramaniam and sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy. It is not especially subtle, but it is certainly moving.

Its final line reads, “We are humans, the earth is our home." I ask Kumar whether he thinks a person needs to have travelled beyond the borders of his or her native world, to have met and made friends with people from other cultures, to properly understand this sentiment. Perhaps the dramatic combination of his childhood in rural Bihar and his stints in many countries—he has served in Russia and Nepal, and his wife is Russian—have stoked his particularly strong sense of the possibilities of a radical new planetary consciousness.

“Yes, perhaps. But sometimes one also learns that it is futile to go across the world. Ultimately you learn the same thing that you could in your birthplace." He smiles gnomically over his caipirinha, as happy to dwell in paradoxes as a Hindu sage. “That’s one of the strange things about travel. You journey the whole world and find out that the best place is where you were born."

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