Free Agent in a Land of Devastation

April 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Hemant Divate’s Struggles with Imagined Gods, has been translated from the Marathi by Mustansir Dalvi, and published by Poetrywala (the indie-press that has been regularly bringing out contemporary Indian and, more recently, international poetry with a kind of joyous élan). The poems it contains originally appeared in two different collections, Thambtach yet naahi (Abhidanantar, 2006) and Hya room madhye aale ki life suru hote (Poetrywala, 2012).

 

For those familiar with A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape (Poetrywala, 2011, translated by Sarabjeet Garcha), Struggles with Imagined Gods may, at first glance, seem like a replay. There are the same obsessions with a consumerist society; the presence of the all-pervasive “brand god” we encountered earlier; the omniscient flickering, dehumanizing light of TV and computer screens; the bombardment of advertising messages; the noise of the city; the banality of everyday dilemmas; the almost-casual “live telecast” of a person slowly going mad.  But what makes Struggles more than Part 2 in an ongoing conversation with this poet’s private demons is a vivid new ferocity, a killer-instinct for the line that will twist the knife just so. (Perhaps what seems new to me is simply the effect of a new translator who goes for the jugular in a way Divate’s earlier translator didn’t?) In any case, this is poetry as nightmare, poetry as record of the terrifying onslaught of minutes, poetry as rant addressed to a multitude of one. Foul-mouthed, dispensing gaalis with the liberality of vending machines, the poems cut loose, cut through the veneer of gentility, cut swathes through “This whole bloody world … / stuck in the labyrinth of superficiality.” In a world where “A man may die” but whose email id lives on forever, the poet envisions “A vast mob/ thirty-three crore fickle souls” preparing for the ultimate “festival of caprice”. In a demented show of solidarity, they “applaud the superficial./ It’s a sham hallelujah! It’s a sham! It’s a sham!” The sense of a heartless machine grinding one down, the automaton replacing the human, pre-programmed, with “no means of escape/ from traffucked thoughts/ spawning like viruses”—a unique claustrophobia exists within, and is evoked by, Hemant Divate’s poems. It is the claustrophobia of a single body, trapped between its orifices, bleeding, pissing, shitting, ejaculating, like some monstrous baby on the rampage, horrible, helpless and dependent, while its mind—all-too alert, intelligent, aware, overwhelmed—multiplies, regenerates, metamorphoses, escapes, a free agent in a land of devastation.

 

In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem in which the ‘I’ metamorphoses into a chicken about to be slaughtered. It is a brutal, even ugly poem, so close to reality it makes you sick, and yet, it is the essential sickness of a poet whose malady is the world, the fabric of his existence, from which he cannot tear himself apart without ripping his own guts out, slitting his own throat. As Adil Jussawalla says on the jacket of Struggles, this poetry is “not for weak stomachs”! But more than the ingestive-regurgitative properties that are common to both books, I’m interested in the recurrence of metamorphosis in Hemant Divate’s poetry. Metamorphosis into Godrej chicken, Whisper sanitary napkin and Jaguar shower, a sort of revolted (at moments even revolting) fascination with bedroom and bathroom intimacies; but also, on the cosmic scale, the metamorphosis that will save and condemn. In Struggles, Divate invokes (but of course) Kafka, as the poetourist roams the city of Prague, wolfing it down “like a glutton”; seeing, then becoming, the man in the long Kafka coat, eating chickpeas under the Charles Bridge with sinister ease; Kafka that old ghost, prophet, fucker, sissy tea-drinker, with whom the poet has a wager: “the one who pisses first wins, the other/ will have to run, micturating all over Prague.” Towards the end of this long poem, as the poet “Slowly, without fuss” transforms (but of course) into a “two-inch cockroach” (oh the diminishment of that giant dread), we return to the question almost cavalierly asked earlier on: “how many writers need to suffer and die/ to bring one insect to life”. Who knows. Who cares. “I cannot see the numbers.”

 

Simultaneously grim and hilarious, ‘praha: i’ll be back’ has a section that deserves to be quoted at length:

let me tell you a story:

not one that you should not repeat

nor one that no one knows, but

metamorphosis means the transformation

of a city into an installation in an exhibition hall,

a human artwork to be regarded by insects,

an insect artwork to be regarded by humans,

where a dim light metamorphosed over the installation

is the one that bathes the poet’s composition

in a soft, linguistic, biographical sheen

while the city, as it is now

is the detritus of screaming, blood-soaked geography

or of raw imperialism that, like a half-done omelette

is left to sizzle in the frying-pan of history.

 

 

The relentless surge of this line seems to me typical of Hemant Divate’s relentless anger and angst. And it is in Mustansir Dalvi’s translation that (what I suspect must be) the charge of the original Marathi crackles into an electricity that powers the lines in English. There is great confidence here, the confidence of a poet (Dalvi’s Brouhaha of Cocks is another book I hope to write about soon) with access to multiple spoken fluencies, solidly grounded in the language that he writes in. Marathi words pepper the English with no self-consciousness as the translator chews the “fresh, juicy meat” of the poems with an appetite equal to the task. On the flip side, the poem titled ‘fuck me if you can’ felt dated and adolescent; and ‘dreams while shopping’ was exactly the kind of male fantasy that leaves me cold! In fact, while reading the poems about “today’s Indian consumerist society” (the Italian poet Zingonia Zingone’s blurb) I felt strangely impatient. In the world of consumer trends today very swiftly becomes yesterday, and so the poems turn passé, losing the bite of their critique. It is in the longer meditations that depend less on the barrage of brand names and more on the horror of a dissipating selfhood (“who am I?”) that the poet’s participation in and resistance to conspicuous consumption gains a lasting moral and poetic valency. In an otherwise smartly produced book, occasional typo errors and inelegant punctuation jarred a bit, as did some of the weaker poems (‘new age 123’, ‘tell me when my number is called’); and one false note: “Perchance”! But overall, this book reaffirms my belief that poets make the best translators of poetry, and it is a delight to see that both Divate and Dalvi get equal weightage on the cover, rightly (and all-too rarely) claiming co-authorship of the text.

 

Oh, and before I close—what mortal blows struck by Hemant Divate against organised religion! In A Depressingly Monotonous Landscape there is a poem titled ‘Stories within Stories’ in which the poet writes: “Then and even now/ we never had need for religion./ All faiths were ours/ all demons, fairies, princesses, princes, dwarves/ the magic lamp, Vikram Vetal, Ali Baba/ They never belonged to a religion/ Now even stories are beginning to feel the need for religion/ and have started becoming cruel.” In Struggles, the poet’s imagined god “searches for humanity/ in this vast dung-heap of rags.” Lost faith, lost childhood, lost language, mourned, but never surrendered to saccharine nostalgia.  Read this book and be disturbed. You may dislike the full-frontal assault in its pages, but you cannot fail to be affected by the “jingle of life/ that slowly scrapes across the surface of dreams.”

 

 

– Sampurna Chattarji

 

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