Book Review: Caught in the World of Binaries

Book Review: Caught in the World of Binaries

This book is an enriching collection of poems that enlighten one on the many aspects of life

Caught in the World of binaries

K S Nisar Ahmed emerged in the 70s and 80s as a very unique voice in Kannada poetry. Though his rise to fame and popularity was during the heyday of Modernism in Kannada, and his poetry was a reflection of some of the modernist trends like freedom from conventional metre, idiom, and imagery, he stood apart from his contemporaries for several important reasons. Alongside poems in free verse, he also wrote immensely popular songs. His celebrated anthem to Karnataka, Nityotsava, is known to every schoolgoing child in Karnataka. Though like his contemporaries such as A K Ramanujan, he often wrote prose poetry, his poetry escaped the stigma of difficulty in modern poetry. Though sensitive to nature, his poetry was replete with urban imagery. Like the English poet W H Auden whom Ahmed admired greatly, he was able to write poems, fresh and contemporary, and easily accessible to the common reader, and was hence very popular. 

His unique contributions to 20th-century Kannada poetry include poems like ‘On Sir C V Raman’s Death’, ‘Rain at 5 in the Evening’, ‘Gandhi Bazar Dawn’ and ‘Masti’. The poem on Raman’s death is unique. On the bitter-cold morning of Raman’s death, the poet goes out for a walk, as usual, where he meets Hanuma of Navula village, “as if the village has attained a human form” (more literally, as if the village had become Hanuma). A beedi over an ear, and scratching his thigh all the time, he floods the poet with a plethora of information about his everyday life: rains, bickering neighbours, and so on. The poet realises: 


For him Raman’s or Russell’s death
means the same,since he can forget the world because of its monotonous

He doesn’t read newspapers; he 
doesn’t know that I am a poet
(Tr. Sumatendra Nadig)


The poem presents a very subtle contrast between the learned and the laity, the poet and the people, western education and rustic common sense that co-exist in India in an ironic relationship. The sensitive portrayal of the theme is not easily visible because of his deceptive simplicity.

Nisar Ahmed is the only poet of the period who could capture, to borrow T S Eliot’s words, “infinitely suffering and infinitely mourning thing” hidden in the fleeting and floating images of everyday life. His poetry is important for another reason, too. He is the first voice in modern Kannada poetry to address the problem of minority identity. Being a Muslim by religion, he is always at pains to convince the majority of his patriotic conjectures. Says the poet in his poem ‘As if We Are Step Children’:

Don’t prick us, mother,as if we are step-children and think up an excuse to push us out; you beat us with the stick of a prudish senile mother,
you make us wander and hunt like nomads, as if we are step-children… 
(Tr. H S Shivaprakasha)

There are several other poems where Nisar Ahmed explores this theme with sharpness and acuity. His poem on the great Kannada fiction writer, Masti, brings to life the spirit of Masti following him through his evening walk, card-playing, and conversations at the club. The poem rises above the mundane particulars and becomes the requiem for a vanishing way of life.

As he walks, within no time,
He turns to the cross near the hotel,
And goes out of sight – Masti,
Like a way of life now lost 
Noted for simple and good taste.
(Tr.  C N Ramachandra )

Nisar Ahmed has several metaphysical poems. The most telling of them is ‘What is Art?’ in which he says:

Though it changes hands freely
and fades, though torn a little,
it stays the same, having the same value –
that’s art, a currency note.
(Tr. H S Shivaprakasha)

Though it is true that Nisar Ahmed’s successful poems confirm the poetics phrased in the above lines, the same cannot be said about a lot of other poems translated in this book. Though he succeeded in creating his own niche in Kannada poetry through his unique style, diction, and outlook, he did not widen his poetry in later years. Whenever his magic does not work, his wordplay becomes verbosity. His simplicity, which at its best is his profundity, otherwise turns into superficiality, particularly when he tries to philosophise about “life”. The inclusion of such poems has not enriched this otherwise commendable selection and translation of poems.

The effort put in by the translators - C N Ramchandra and M S Raghunath — deserves our praise. This work should encourage other leading translators to bring out selections and translations of a host of other remarkable Kannada poets whose works have not yet been translated, like P Lankesh, Gangadhar Chittal, Ekkundi, K S Narasimha Swami and K V Tirumalesh.