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Vijay Nambisan: When poetry is everything

Vijay Nambisan believed poetry, rather than any material achievement, could lead into a deeper existential space

Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi
Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi

In 1988, I was on the governing body of the Poetry Society of India, and on the jury that selected the best poets of the year. The award offered poets a fellowship to England, introduced them to leading British poets, and opened doors for them. That year, it was Vijay Nambisan who won the prize for Madras Central.

After the awards were announced, I met him in the sunlit courtyard of the India International Centre in New Delhi. He came up to me with a lovely, open smile—happy, if not triumphant. Perhaps he recognized a fellow soul committed to poetry, though my route had been through theatre, loss and deprivation.

Nambisan was working with The Hindu at the time, and arranged for me to write for The Literary Review, which I did for over 20 years.

We became good friends, and wrote letters to each other about poetry and literary ideas. He told me that everyone had been critical of him ever since he had passed the Indian Institute of Technology(IIT) examination, and thrown away his bright future for a dream. He had realized that poetry could lead him to explore his inner being, and into a deeper space than any material achievement could. I valued his idealism, which was coupled with a keen sense of the real world—the details which lit up his poems. I thought to myself, Why would you sail the seven seas for the Golden Fleece, when the gold was in your own inner being?

The most telling lines in Madras Central, it seemed to me, were the last: To think we have such power to alter our states, order comings and goings;/ know where we’re not wanted/ And carry our unwanted mess somewhere else.

Nambisan’s early name as a poet came in 1992, when Dom Moraes published him along with Jeet Thayil in a shared edition of poems titled Gemini. While some of the strictly rhymed verses may sound a bit passé, many were already moving towards deeper thought and search. In After Six Drinks, he says: I am pouring my sorrows into a little cup/ Just to drown the gods in—/ a libation, nothing more. A cynical note had crept in. But in Grandfather’s Beard, he was more light-hearted: I would like my poem to be/ Like my grandfather’s beard, to be airy/ in the lean wind.... Nambisan was childlike, and I think that was his real nature. He could see through pretentious and opportunistic people, but this did not ground him.

Once, when he visited Delhi in the early 1990s, he said he would come over. He told me he liked Chinese food, so I cooked a Chinese meal for him, and waited. When I opened the door for him, and a friend, I was shocked to find that he had collapsed right there, at my front door. Actually, I don’t think I had realized till then that he had a serious drinking problem. His friend helped him to the divan, and, later, took him home. The next day, his friend rang to tell me he had been admitted to a detox clinic. I drove there, and stayed with him for some time. He seemed quite unconcerned that he would miss the seminar at the Sahitya Akademi, his reason for visiting Delhi.

Nambisan told me John Berryman was a favourite poet and we swapped some books. Today I opened a copy of Berryman, and found it belonged to Nambisan. Inside was inscribed his name, with “Moraga. October 1991". I opened Nambisan’s Berryman, and read: Will I ever write properly,/ with passion and exactness,/ of the damned strange demeanours/ of my flagrant heart? Nambisan had started by believing that poetry was everything, but for nearly 20 years after Gemini, he didn’t publish another book of poems. First Infinities came out in 2015.

I think though that when he was writing his book on Bihar (Bihar Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, 2000) and Language As An Ethic (2003), in which he gives language the place it deserves to have in our consciousness, he was also moving back to poetry. Already, in Gemini there was a poem that speaks of the depth of his thoughts and his poetic language. In his metaphysical poem Holy, Holy, he looks at the world of the inanimate—metal, crystals, stone—and says, touchingly, Yet even metal has a life that cries/ For use...

He casts Into that emptiness whereof all is made/ And ask,/ without my imaginings,/What is?/ Nothing answered nothing, and in that space/ I knew myself unliving, unafraid. This poem reveals the courage of his imaginative life.

In Two Measures Of Bhakti, Nambisan studied the Malayalam poets Puntanam Namputiri and Melpattur Narayana Bhattatirippad, and with his father’s help, did a translation of their works. I laughed at Nambisan’s account of the practice of the high-caste telling the low-caste, Gaccha, gaccha (Out of my way). Sanskrit lost its pre-eminence, wrote Nambisan, because it said Gaccha, gaccha too often! There you have Nambisan’s streak of caustic humour.

Today, reading his poems, which dare to look into the void, I was moved to read a line which has a Christ-like voice: I am the Life, the Truth and the Way.

I will never say rest in peace to anyone. Rather: I knew myself unliving, unafraid.

Anna Sujatha Mathai is a poet based in Delhi

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