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Review: No Other World: Selected Poems, by Kunwar Narain

Edmund Prestwich, Manchester Review, 2010

In his Introduction to this volume, Harish Trivedi says that Kunwar Narain is probably the most highly regarded Hindi poet alive today. Both Trivedi and Apurva Narain emphasise how deeply the poet has read Indian literature from its Sanskrit roots to now. As an outsider to Indian culture I'm not in a position to judge Narain's learning or cultural sophistication by his references, but they are both continuously reflected in his urbane tone, the lightness of touch with which he deploys complex suggestions and ideas, and the modest sense of proportion with which he sets personal feelings and experiences in wider contexts. In these ways and in its range this feels like the work of a major poet.

Both commentators emphasise the writer's humanity, which is a quality that appears in poem after poem. The material in this selection also seems to have been chosen with a wise eye to its accessibility to the non-Indian reader. I found nearly all the poems easy to relate to. Among my favourites were By the Sea, The River Does Not Grow Old and Flowers of Neem. The language in the first two of these is delicately but highly sensuous, sparkling with eroticism and humour. Both, the former more implicitly, the latter explicitly, strike a poignant balance between evoking the feelings of the moment with supple immediacy and sharpening our sense of their transience by allowing vast natural and cultural perspectives to shine through them. The moral is partly to seize the day -

let us live this fleeing light -

but it is also to find consolation in the fact that we are only part of a wider and deeper life that will survive us as the river survives its drops of water. This life, figured in the river of the title of the second poem and imagined as a woman, sometimes suggests the whole history of India, sometimes the spirit of poetry or creation, or the poet's own muses, sometimes a particular literary tradition. Though the language is clear and sensuously evocative it involves complex, subtle and contradictory reflections on the relationship between the poet and these different vital forces. The third poem I mentioned, Flowers of Neem, is equally fine in its movement between the tenderly personal (in this case involving memories of the poet's parents) and broader cultural perspectives, but is written in a more grave and sober style.

Inevitably there are some less satisfactory pieces. In such cases I sometimes found it useful to go to the Internet for translations by Daniel Weissbort, working in collaboration with the author, or by Vinay Dharwadker. Those by Dharwadker read too flatly to give me much pleasure. Those by Weissbort and the author struck me as a valuable complement to Apurva Narain's versions. However, in the poems I've mentioned above, and in many others that gave me almost equal delight, the difficulties of translation seem to have been brilliantly overcome. The whole collection was moving and absorbing to read.