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Lakshmi Kannan


Lakshmi Kannan – ‘Encounters with People and the Angels of Hope’







HK Kaul
Encounters with People and the Angels of Hope
Collection of Poems
New Delhi: Authors Press. 2017
ISBN 978-93-5207-463-1
Pp 210 | Rs 450 | $ 25

Searching for home

In the opening line of his Preface, Kaul says ‘Poetry is born out of our passion and duty to express our true feelings that we experience in our lives. These feelings come to the fore when they are stirred, disturbed or overhauled by unforeseen, unwanted or intensely desired events in our lives.’ He then shares how in the early stages of his life, he would stop after writing a few lines, and yet even that little writing gave him a sense of satisfaction.

The poet has since authored five collections of poems, this being his sixth which include the poems he has written since 2006. The poems are classified into seven sections. Although I   read the book in a linear manner, like any normal reader does, some sections made me stop on the tracks to re-read the poems and absorb them against the context of the stark reality that stares us in the face. In that sense, most of the poems are equally ‘Encounters’ with not only people, but with situations, with political history, and with the pride of India, the beautiful place Kashmir, ravaged by violence. 

The section called “Kashmiri Pundits” is therefore a disquieting one. What happens to the people who belong to this devastated place, and who have a rightful claim on it? I am tempted to quote the poet’s lines at length so that the reader can sense what it means to lose a home.

Here on the slopes of Shankaracharya
I face Dal Lake at the dusk of an era.
Sitting on a slippery stone I try
To balance between the time lost
and the dark night ahead.
My brothers and sisters
living in the houses, houseboats
Spread unknowingly ghostly shadows
Through unseasoned window panes
And recently made slits in the old doors.
These shadows settle in the spaces
between the frozen willow trees
Over the trembling waters of the lake.

Even as we grapple with the sense of foreboding evoked by this desolate scene, the poet declares ‘I have no home in this ancestral valley...I am a wanderer now rolling along’.

What is he armed with, to combat this carnage and destruction that all but decimates human beings? You get it in his words:

I have no gun, no bomb, not even a sword
to strengthen me. I have just a pen
Which is stuck to my head and heart.
(“On the Slopes”)

“Just a pen?” one wants to protest. For it is the pen that speaks powerfully about lives lost, the loss of a home, a hearth, a space of one’s own, and the rights of a citizenship to live in one’s own state. The pen here has a sharper edge than the sword.

Terror shrinks living and breathing spaces. Some roads look sinister because they bear the history of violence, everything in short becomes narrower and narrower. We experience the anguish of the poet in the lines

As I stroll towards downtown
Through streets, lanes, streams of consciousness
To watch the roots of some old structures
I find streets have turned into lanes
Lanes into dark narrow spaces
Within fractured blocks, blocked
Streams in the diminishing spaces.
(“As I Stroll”)

A so-called “peace time” in a war-torn zone can be most uneasy even when nothing apparent happens and the air is still. An ominous fear always lurks in every corner and in every heart in anticipation that violence may erupt at any time and place. This bleak stagnation is symbolised by the metaphor of a small boat that one sees in Kashmir. Only, it’s now moored to the shore.

No Dal for the naav to float on
No Jhelum to float down its stream smoothly
Or manage itself up its familiar flow.
No oar to let it move from here
No naav-i-vole to take it back
With flowers scattered far and wide
(This Naav)

Pictures of terror continue in the section ‘Crime and Violence’. The vulnerability of human beings, the ephemeral quality of life itself that is gone in a trice, is captured in many montage shots in the poems. One of them takes on a wry tone –

Crossing pastures in these tracks
in search of herbs and healers
Led me to many shades of grey alone on the rise.
From free forests to fortified farms
From healers to wheeler-dealers
Erosion of soil, that fed the roots
Flooded families, mutating the masterly
Into monsters on these harsh slopes.
(“Unnatural Prisons”)

What could be the worst casualty of all this savagery? The children of course.

Falling in the line of fire,
The fragile minds wore
Adult robes as soon as the environs
Got filled with smoke
Of fire and fury.
 
Under the siege
Of fear and hunger
Nerves hardened
Suffered pain
Gave birth to forces
To avenge death:
Pushed bitter pills
Into younger throats.
(“Children of War”)

A group of poems called “Uttarakhand Poems” in the section ‘Environment’ addresses another kind of violence – the fury of the elements that ripped through Uttarakhand some years ago. The rest of the country was stunned, watching structures, buildings and people razed to the ground by the wrath of nature.  Ironically, this happened in the region of Gods. The deities that are invoked to protect stood as mute witnesses to the sound and the fury.

Sacred mountains battled the blood bath
The bath that let the blood freeze instantly
The great temple of Badrinath watched
The dead lying within and without its shelter
Mighty cloudbursts from Vasukital to
The bath that let the blood freeze instantly
The great temple of Badrinath watched
The dead lying within and without its shelter
Mighty cloudbursts from Vasukital to
Alaknanda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi
Tore apart houses of faith

Two telling lines conclude the poem –

All that flourishes does fade in the time line.
Some in the low of the holy design.
(“The Sacred Mountains”)

In another poem that can be read as complementary to this, Kaul writes –

In landsliding metamorphic terrains
Gods should not be disturbed in their domains. (“Too Little, Too Late”)

Talking about houses of faith, perhaps there is nothing that can look as forlorn figures as those of gods who are left alone, without devotees, without footfalls in their dwelling, without any rituals. Inevitably, the section on ‘Religion and Spirituality’ makes the poet revisit Kashmir.

Gods in the valley are alone now
No watchmen around
No worshippers either.
Where have the worshippers gone
Who flocked every morning
Circling gods with charters of their demands?
They left for safer havens
With family, gold, lost glitter.
Left gods alone in the chambers.
(“Temples of Stone”)

Poems in the section ‘Struggles for Survival’ return us again to this crucible of experience.

Rejoicing and valuing his life was
A distant dream in this neighbourhood
(“Squeezed Out”)
Yes, that was a lot to live through.

Any section titled ‘Society and Culture’ has to address people, of course. People change, at times drastically, irreversibly. Kaul faces these changes unflinchingly as he can see through their masks, their pretensions, their postures. Talking about the crusaders who march down an old street, he writes –

In the invisible glass ceilings
Friends, more dangerous than enemies
Put the scene on the boil.
(“Protest”)

Journalism and media has a new term for them, “frenemies.”

‘Encounters with People and the Angels of Hope’ is a welcome addition to this collection of poems, more so because it records poetically, the lost land of Kashmir from a very human point of view. One of the common complaints about poetry per se by people who don’t relate to poetry is that most poems are subjective. And why ever not? The subjective aspect is of great value in poetry and literature. How else would one get the full significance of a catastrophe, a tragic event, or vicious political schemes? A poem shows how all these touch an individual, his/her family, his/her society and the community that he/she once believed in.  This person is so important that he/she has an “epistemic value”, to quote Satya Mohanty from his book, Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).

This review would be incomplete if it does not mention the sterling contribution of Kaul to the cause of poetry. His implicit belief in the power of poetry goes far deeper than his own oeuvres. All too often, one finds successful poets mired in narcissism. So self-absorbed and self-congratulatory are they in their own creative concerns that acknowledging talent in others does not come easily to them. Kaul stands in sharp contrast to this tribe by his altruistic attitude to poetry. He founded the Poetry Society (India) way back in 1984, took the responsibility of heading it as the Secretary-General, and today it is a poetry hub to many an aspiring poet. Thanks to Kaul’s tenacity, the Society continues to organise a number of poetry programs, competitions and workshops. A recent instance was the success of a poetry program titled ‘Navarasa’. Spread over five years, and hosted by The Poetry Society in the DELNET auditorium, and convened by Rumki Basu, herself an acknowledged poet, writer and scholar, the participants showed a sustained interest in the theme and read their poems. It was heartening to see the theme of ‘Navarasa’ expand, grow and evolve by the enriching energy of all the poets who took part, the established, the aspiring and the new ones who brought a fresh perspective. What really mattered was the sprit that united the poets in a warm circle of sharing. 

Poetry readings make for a pleasurable social activity that connects people together. And Kaul is the moving spirit for this Society that has proved its belief in poetry by drawing people within its fold, despite the early Cassandras who had cynical prophecies to offer. The Poetry Society has proved that Cassandras can go horribly wrong. 

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