Friday, August 30, 2019


Good poetry is believed to be untranslatable. We can even argue that at an undefined high level in creative writing, language itself attains a form that becomes untranslatable. Poetry, admittedly being the highest mode of creative writing, has this natural condition of untransmutability of language as a medium. In fact, one way to define poetry could be to emphasise its innate attribute of untransmutability. Once it attains an achieved original form in the medium of a native language, it cannot, to a satisfactory extent, be recreated in another language. Evidently, this may not be true of all different modes of creative writing which lie beyond the domain of poetry; in particular, writings in prose. One apparent reason for this could be the level and nature of meaning that soars to a very high level in poetry, unlike prose where it exits, by and large, on the terrestrial level. Also the use of ambiguity and symbolism of meaning in poetry is very complexly ingrained with the subtle cultural content of the language which it uses.

Generally speaking, one inevitably agrees with Robert Frost’s dictum of poetry being that which hardly ever survives translation. But there seems to be another iridescent facet of the prism. A good creative translation of a poem is more likely to achieve another poem in the translator’s language that not only reflects the core content of the poem translated but overrides the syntactic and semantic structures of the original. It often obtains in the translated poem a parallel semantic signification adumbrating the original creation. Also, there is always a certain extent of unpredictability in the chance occurrence of  ‘the right poet, the right translator, the right poem and the right moment’ in the achievement of a good translated poem. In other words, poetry may be as untranslatable in particular instances as it could be, in some other instances, equally translatable as a close and satisfactory parallel.

Still another facet to the iridescent prism is the serendipitous possibility of a poem that is so fluid and primordial, almost elemental, that it transmutes itself entirely smoothly into a closely parallel mould, almost effortlessly. It seems to exist at a level where it attains a form of signification that is almost beyond the apparent matrix of words and sounds of a particular language; even its cultural content and imagery being purely symbolical and universal.
And if this be true, it is most true of the modern Hindi poet, Kedarnath Singh, whose poems are generally crafted in a poetic language that transcends the semantic boundaries of the original language into a world of meaning that is often as close to universal signification as possible. It would thus be truer to say that Kedarji’s poetic language operates at a level of intensity and signification quite distinct from those of his contemporaries. It is a highly cultivated poetic language, paradoxically as close to normal speech and syntax as conceivable on the one hand, and on the other, imbued with a signification that is almost beyond words.  It uses language that seems deceptively close to normal spoken  prose, very simple and common on the surface and yet equally profound and diaphanous in its signification. Of course, such level of intensity and signification is not be seen in some of his own minor poems, or even on a uniform basis throughout his poetic ouevre, but it can surely be seen as a hallmark of his poetic art.

 Kedarnath Singh’s greatness as a modern Hindi poet lies precisely in his inventing a poetic idiom in contemporary Hindi poetry that distinguishes his poetry from his other contemporaries. One of the subtle markers of this pellucid poetic medium – closely adumbrating the rhythms of common speech -  is the near absence of punctuation and use of varying line lengths with occasional repetitions - lending it a fluidity consonant with its intensity of signification. (It is pertinent to remember here that Kedarji was himself a brilliant translator and had translated poems of Brecht, Paul Eluard, Jabananand Das, et al. Also, many of his own poems have been translated in world languages like English, German, Spanish, Hungarian, etc.)

The special appeal of Kedarji’s poetry lies in its dualism of empathetic intimacy juxtaposed with total objectivity which attains a new dimension beyond tangible text signification. As the famous Hindi critic Parmanand Shrivastav, in an insightful introduction to a popular edition of his selected poems, observes:

“The point of departure for Kedar’s poetry – the point from where it gets its energy – is the point where language per se gets moulded into meaning. In the contemporary scene in Hindi poetry, Kedarnath Singh is, perhaps, the singular poet who belongs as much to the village as to the city life. His world of experience in his poetry reaches out almost simultaneously in both these dimensions. Quite possibly, this is the crux of the quintessential Indian experience without which it is impossible to conceive of true Indian poetry. There is a primal quality  characterizing his poetry, verging to a hazardous extent on simplicity, touching upon pale, ordinary words and artefacts, and obscure natural phenomena, and thus obtaining a poetic meaning otherwise unobtainable.

“Rather than being monologic, Kedar’s poems are dialogic in the true sense. His poetry delves deep into the subterranean turbulence of life, and is vitally connected with all relevant contemporary concerns. And yet his poems never lose their innate lyricism and classic perfection of structure. The wealth of imaginative capital that his poetry displays is seldom to be seen in the poetic work of his contemporaries. Indeed, in his poetry is to be discovered a new, vibrant poetic form which marks his poetic personality as distinctive among his contemporaries.”

The half-a-century long poetic journey of Kedarji came to an end on 19 March, 2018. His death cast a dark shadow on the entire Hindi literary world and also on me on a personal level. I had known Kedarji since the 80’s and also had a few occasions of meeting him. I tried to reconcile myself with the grief by translating some of his poems including his celebrated long-sequence poem Bagh. Translating poems, I felt, was also a tribute to the poet, because in translating poems in an empathetic situation, there could be much greater identification between the translator and the poet not only in relation to the sensitive text but also to the poetic persona of the poet. 

What struck me as especially inspirational was the ease with which his content as well as the rhythms, imagery, and even the formal structures in the poems lent themselves to smooth translation – almost guiding the translator gently and openheartedly in the act of parallel creativity. There is, then, reason to believe that perfect poetic communication is achieved at a level, and in a manner, where poetry attains the highest kind of signification and transcends the bounds of translation. If this be so, Kedarji’s poetry presents some of its finest examples. Here is a selection of his poems that can stand as imaginative creations on their own which amply prove the excellence and uniqueness of Kedarji’s poetry, and thus serving as the best tribute to his exceptional poetic art on the first anniversary of his eventful departure.

© Dr BSM Murty
Photo : Courtsey Google Images

[For 10 translated poems of Kedarnath Singh go to earlier post on this blog. And for older posts on Kedarnath Singh and translation of his sequenced poem “Bagh” go to 2018 (May 25 & July 15.]

Please also visit my two other blogs - 
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for my Hindi articles and matter on Shivpoojan Sahay & others; & my translation/retelling of Bhagawad Geeta, Ramcharit Manas & Durga Saptshati & 

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Other Important blog posts you may like to see here:

2010 : Sahitya Samagra : 5 Oct / 2011 : On Premchand: (26 May) / Has Hindi been defeated by English? : Shivpujan Sahay : (7 Dec) / 2012 : Memoirs on Prasad and Nirala : (25-26 Oct)/ 2013 : Sheaf of Old Letters (10 Oct) / 2014 :  Shivpujan Sahay Smriti Samaroh:( 27 Jan) / On Amrit Lal Nagar: (18 Aug)/ On Bachchan : (27 Nov) / 2015 : On Renu: (3 Mar) / On Trilochan: (1 Apr) /Odes of Keats + Shantiniketan: (25 May) / Premchand Patron Men: (3 Aug)/  Suhagraat: Dwivediji's poem: (13 Nov)/ 2016 : Three stories of JP:(6 Jul) / On Neelabh Ashk: (24 Jul)/ / Dehati Duniya: (8 Aug)/  Anupam Mishra: Paani ki Kahaani :(Dec 25) /   2017 :  Doctornama: memoirs of Shivpujan Sahay (July 10):  On Prithwiraj Kapoor (Nov 6) / Rajendra Jayanti Address @ Bihar Vidyapeeth, Patna (Dec 14)/ 2018:हिंदी नव जागरणशिवपूजन सहाय  और काशी           (1 Mar)/Tribute to Kedar Nath Singh (25 May) /  राहुलजी और हिंदी-उर्दू-हिन्दुस्तानी का सवाल (12 Jun)/ Neelabh Mishra (16 Jun)/ Death of Shivpoojan Sahay(17 Jun) / बाबा नागार्जुन (1 Jul)/ On Kedarnath Singh (with full translation of ‘Tiger’, 15 July)/Five poems of Angst (14 Aug)/चंपारण सत्याग्रह : भारतीय राजनीति में सत्य का पहला प्रयोग (26 Nov)  2019: On Kamaleshwar’s stories collection: ‘Not Flowers of Henna’ (26 Jan)/ Why Gandhi was killed (30 Jan)/ ‘Wings on Fire’: The Art of Himanshu Joshi ( 18 April) मंगलमूर्ति की कुछ कविताएँ (28 April) / Stanley Wolpert (Jun 12)/ Three Eminent Men(Aug 3)

Kedarnath Singh : 10 Translated Poems

1.Nameless River

Cleaving my village
Much before the first man came
Silently flows a very thin river
That has no name!

Have you ever seen a river
How it looks without a name?

Full of algae and moss and mud
She has been flowing for hundreds of years
Just like this – looking for a name
The river of my village

When someone dies
People lift him up
And burn him somewhere around
Where the river is most lonely and silent

When I was a child I often thought
One whom people burn near the river
What would the river do with it!

Quite late after the sunrise
Come the buffaloes
To bathe in the river

Where it is deep it shakes for the first time
Then comes Jumman Miyan
Carrying his long fishing line and bait

For the first time comes a shine in the river
As if the river has recognized Jumman Miyan

And till the sun goes down
There at one place
With his fish hook sunk in the water
Jumman Miyan would sit transfixed
How many fish during the day
Get stung by his hook?
How many shrimp, how much moss
Would jump out of the water
Into his bag
No one knows

Who gives a name to a river
Have you ever thought?

From morning till evening
Does Jumman Miyan sit there alone
By the bank of the river
Looking for a name for it?

Bina Nam ki Nadi” (1980)

2. People surrounded in flood

People surrounded in flood
Do not pray
They would look at the waters
In total trust
And one day
Without any notice
They would leave
For somewhere else
Carrying their belongings
On the back of a mule
Or on a bullock or buffalo

How strange it is that
However devastating
The flood may be
They do find some place
Even in the waters
Some sunshine
A piece of sky
And they would pitch
Some pillars
Spread some sackcloth
Tie some moonj ropes
And fix a tarpaulin

People surrounded in flood
Would bring with them 
The smell of straw
The bare rind of mangoes
Empty tins, fried gram
Fire and a chillum

Then get washed away
Their cattle, their puja bells
And their man-sized
Idol of god Hanuman
The mud walls
Of their hutments
The painted elephants
And horses on the walls
The flowers and motifs
All get washed away

But people surrounded in flood
Never complain and would
Always save some fire
In the holes of their chillums

Then the sun would set
Loud voices floating on the waters
Would come from somewhere
Smoke would rise
From some corner
Hovering over trees
And people surrounded in flood
Would become restive

They would light up
A broken lantern
Hang it on a tall bamboo
So that their presence
Should reach across the waters

Then in that dim light
Gazing into the eyes of the waters
They would stand for the whole night
Before the waters
By the side of the waters
Against the waters

Only within them
Like some landslide
Something breaks down
Something falls in the waters


“Pani Men Ghire Hue Log” [Yahan se Dekho, 1999]

3. Cranes in a drought

Three in the afternoon
They came
When they came
No one even thought
They could come like this

One after another
In flocks and hordes
Slowly they came
Slowly they spread around
In the whole sky
Slowly the whole town
Was filled with
Their craning noise

For long they kept
Circling over the town
For long they would shed
From their wings
Over the roofs and shacks
The tang of dry paddy straw

Suddenly an old woman
Saw them – sure, sure
They have come
Looking for water
She thought

She went into the kitchen
Brought a pot full of water
And kept it in the middle
Of the courtyard

But the cranes kept
Circling over the town
Neither seeing the old woman
Nor the pot full of water

The cranes didn’t even know
People who lived below
Call them cranes

Looking for water
They had come
 From far off places
So, craning their necks
They looked behind once
A glance full of hate or pity
It was hard to know
But for once they did
Look back at the town

Then flapping
Their wings in the air
They were lost
In the distance

Akaal Men Saras” [ Akal Men Saras,1988]

4. Grass in drought

It’s a terrible drought
The birds are fled
The ants –male and female -
All have left the holes
And the tree trunks
Even doors with their frames
Have left the homes
And gone no one knows where

A terrible drought it is
The cattle are standing
Looking at each other

Father says
He never saw such drought -
Drought that would scorch
All grass in the village
Never heard
All the grass
Getting scorched

But grass never dies
Saying this
Father falls silent

I go out
Looking for grass
Searching everywhere
Peering into wells
Stomping around
Lanes and crossings
Grass is nowhere
Only empty gaping 
Buckets, pots, vessels

I pry into them
Into the cups of people’s eyes
Looking for grass
But there is no grass
No grass anywhere

In the end after searching
Everywhere in the village
I return frustrated
Sidestep the gutter
Beside the well
Suddenly I see amid
Scattered splinters of glass
A tiny green leaf
Of grass – yes, yes
Of grass – I can see it

I return and give
This news to father
His face glows
Even in darkness
‘Much is there still –
If grass is there’
He mutters

Then father is lost
In deep thought

Akaal Men Doob” [1988]

5. Smell of  not being*

Now there was nothing
Only we were returning
So many people with heads bowed
Were returning silently
After offering him to the river
And the river looked more
Generous and infinite than before
Even in that darkness
Its flow was as gentle
As dark and nervous

And now we were returning
As now we were entirely emptied
And most emptied were our shoulders
Because now we had paid back
Our debt to the river
Someone had that lantern
In his hand, burning dimly
Walking ahead of us

So we saw the village
So we entered
Into the village again

The doors of that house
Were still ajar, with nothing more
As per ritual, only some fire
Simmering near the doorpost
And a little beside
Was kept the iron piece

We went by turns near the fire
Near the iron piece
By turns we bent
To touch the fire
And the iron piece

We were thus purified
Thus we had returned
To the sad neighbourhood
Of the living

Nothing there was
Except the mud walls
And the sodden roof tiles
And the smell
Of someone not being 

Na Hone Ki Gandh”  [ Akal Men Saras, 1988)

6. Grass

She is the gypsy chased out
From all cities in the world
Looking for a name and address
In the dust of your city

In the democracy
Of human beings
There should be
An incessant discussion
On the question of grass
But till that time
As a beginning I proclaim
That in the next election
I shall vote
In favour of grass
Whether anyone votes
Or not, carrying a banner
Of a small grass leaf
She is always in the race

At any time
In any place
She is stubborn
To grow

Ghas” [From Shrishti par Pahara, 2014]

[The main article “Kedarnath Singh:A Poet in Translation” and the six poems given above were published in Indian Literature 312, July-August, 2019]

Four more poems of Kedarnath Singh translated by me

7. One who knows a woman

Let the wind blow
And forget that woman
You love

You will get the fragrance
Of the leaves in forest
The warmth of the fur of an animal
You will get a strong stone
On which you may sit

Touch the stone
You’ll hear the music of water

Lift a leaf
And you will find yourself
Flowing like blood in its veins

You’ll come out
And you’ll get the sun
Herding his sheep like a shepherd
Look at him
Recognize him
Feel him on your neck
And your forehead

The heat would slowly
Prepare you for that ordeal
Which you yourself are

After the next Wednesday
The last Saturday
You may not remember at all
You may enter into your city
And feel that city has the name
Of the absence of a woman

(The first name of the city
No one knows)

You will see the tree
And feel as if it is throwing
Its roots at you
The roots are spreading in your blood
You’ll feel

Bear them – smell them
Let them spread
It’s the music of the roots
Ringing in your veins
Look not at the watch
Even the trees can
Give you the time
Even the leaves can fling you
Whither you have to go

Let the wind blow

Move ahead – a little more
And you’ll find you are forgetting
The day, the name, the date
Forgetting the city, the colour,
The faces

But the eyes would still remain
Like the warmth in the body after bathing
They would still remain within you
And you will feel
Grass is growing in your soul

Don’t get alarmed
There’s no wonder
He who knows a woman
For him it’s no wonder at all

Move ahead – a little more
At the end – the very end
You will see a river
Seeing a river after a long journey
You’ll find startling

You’ll be taken aback seeing it
That the water still has the same shine
That you had seen last March

“Jo ek stree ko janata hai” [1978]

8. With the new day

With the new day
A blank page has opened
Of our love

Write your name on it somewhere!

I will put it among
The many sombre pages, somewhere,
And whenever the wind will come
And blow away suddenly the closed pages
The name, kept like a peacock feather,
Inside somewhere,
I’ll read it every time

“Naye Din Ke Sath” [1958]

9. Two minutes’ silence

Brothers and sisters
The day is going down
On this day going down
Two minutes’ silence

On the bird going away
On the water that lies still
On the night that is coming on
Two minutes’ silence

On that which is
On that which is not
On that what could have been
Two minutes’ silence

On the peel that lies fallen
On the grass that is broken
On every plan
On every development
Two minutes’ silence

On this great century
On the great intents
Of the great century
On the great words
On the great promises
Two minutes’ silence

Brothers and sisters
On this great epithet
Two minutes’ silence

“Do minat ka maun”  [ Yahan Se Dekho, 1983]

10. Lips

Every morning
The lips would need a name
Deep red and gluey like honey
That only oozes from a human body

Quite often
The lips would want to live
Separately from the body
To shiver and squirm in pain
Separately from the body
But knowing that
As not possible
They would swallow their anger
And start singing
 Where they be

Often behind the bars
A voice
A palm
Or lips pining
For a door-frame
Slowly become
Like a hard stone
And stones also have lips
Even sand or ash have them
Earth itself from here to there
Is lips and lips only

Whatever it be
The lips would need every evening
A burning truth
Glittering with
Thousands of lies

However they be
Lips would need much more
They would need the salt of ‘yes’
And the iron of ‘no’
And often both - together

But in fact
After giving all their statement
Lips would need
Only two lips
Hot and opening
And speaking lips.

“Honth” [Akal Men Saras, 1988]

© BSM Murty
Photo : Courtesy Google Images

*The title "Smell of not being' has been misprinted in Indian Literature without 'not'.

[For older posts on Kedarnath Singh and translation of his sequenced poem “Bagh” go to 2018, May 25 & July 15 on this blog.]