The façade of specious house
And deadwood midst dust and green
Have popped up myths of ages
-R.K. Singh (In Cozy Illusion)
Literary appreciation is not such a baffling experience as Literary Criticism is in the context of the multiple and not always-complementing-one-another theories. There are academics who led crusades to present before the readers of world poetry by repeatedly and competently focusing on the study, analysis and explication of Indian English poetry in spite of the cold shoulder of the hegemonic highbrow theoreticians who value anything outside our shores as adorable, authentic and sacrosanct.
Rightly did the poet R K Singh come down heavily on obfuscation, jargon, ‘academese’ and pretentiousness of some ‘distinguished’ writers of poetry. He argued for both brevity and stark simplicity in the expression of observed and felt reality. It is only the very weak in imagination that resort to individual explication of myths. Amongst us now are many brilliant poets who have come up with volumes of poetry strikingly different from those Indian English poets who still clutch at English-English mimicking myth poets. The distinctive qualities of a great poet are brevity, simplicity, succinctness and a marked tendency towards catching the moments of revelation one may call epiphany. Indra Kumar Sharma is a poet with a wide range and impressive intuitive depth. Sharma’s angst and frustration are facets of his imaginative insight:
When close-fisted history turns deaf
the arrears of events speak in dumb myths
no moss can climb up to their mouths
nor any snake drive its venom into their heart.
Can the forked intelligence of man
ever unlock the wealth of their imaginative sky?
Can the paneled wisdom of his
ever wade through their fathomless stream?
(Myth, p. 68)*
Aardrata, compassion, is the high water mark of being human. The poet wrings his hands in despair:
Here an ant grows into a tiger,
new spots grow on its body every year,
each year of seclusion breeds new children,
their promiscuity further lead to another coil of beings,
they then roam about on the highway of horns and wings
fastened they again form a new network of meaning.
(Myth, p. 68)
Tears in the nature of things (lacrimae rerum) moved all great poets and specific instances of painful living have ignited impassioned lines that draw tears. Among the Handicapped is a heart-wringing account and the end brings tears into the eyes of the thinking ones:
Here I am among lads
who, if good, would have startled
a Himalayan peak and brought
and brought honours to the state. Today they are
half-written lines of a poem
left behind by a good pen,
when cheated by life or imagination.
…. ….. ….. ….. …
At home they slit my peace
coerce me to revise my lines of verse
and ask me a question:
‘shall we have a chance
to wind our arm
round a slender waist?’
(Among the Handicapped, p. 100)
A similar twang of pain is experienced in the poem A Bull Castrated:
He grew into an epic of strength
…… ……. …… ….
He launched his way through fields,
nibbled grass of his choice and taste
no matador dare shorten his tether in haste
A gelder barged in
with thongs and knives
and his scheming gang,
poked into his sides,
tied his legs, mouth, and all:
he saw his paradise fall.
(A Bull Castrated, p. 42)
In a span of about three and a half decades, between 1976 and 2010, Sharma produced six volumes: The Shifting Sand dunes (1976), The Native Embers (1986), Dharmashala and other Poems (1993), Camel, Cockroach and Captains (1998) My Lady, Broom, and Other poems (2004) and End to End (2008).each of which illustrates his capacity to look at things afresh with imaginative simplicity and empathy. A mere look at the titles suggests that the poet has a variety of themes, subjects and persona. Here’s poet’s plenty. The range is wide: from the commonplace and lowly things and persons to the high and mighty, memorable greats, celebrated and noble, Sharma has taken into his ken. Camel, Cockroach, (Chowkidar and Wood and some other poems like In Memory of Niranjan Mohanty and Liturgy, a tribute to Balaram Gupta are not included in the Collected Poems, 2010), the attendant at .the funeral pyre he calls Terminator, the teli (one who crushes oilseeds and sells the oil) too are subjects of Sharma’s poetry at one end – ordinary but memorable. Personages like Swami Dayanand Saraswati, poets like A.K.Ramanujan, Ezekiel, Montri Umavijani, and many others are paid poetic homage. Lowly professions like that of a chowkidar, a clerk, a maid (Lady Broom) and a nurse have attractive qualities in them for the all-seeing eye of this poet.
All poets of distinction left their summings-up of what constitute the mettle of the flowers of their wares. Here is Sharma declaring his credo:
Poetry is lib, poet’s lib
From the spectre of the present
The weight of the past,
The shadow of the future
He does not stop here – he speaks of the poet as Buddha who must renounce all and suffer the most
He bleeds into himself,
crucifies himself in his poetic chamber
--a Gandhi, a Jesus in ink –
the liquid wealth of poetry, then
meanders its way down
through regions, steep and rushing
making signature of the poet.
Dogfight is a poem revealing Sharma’s insight into the aspects of poetry. A dogfight is usually a nuisance and a disturbing sight. The canines bare their fangs growling at each other barking fiercely and snarling bitterly. The fight described by the poet here is one between the dogs within his own soul. They dispute with their credos by their own bibles:
‘I am noble when free.
Leash, and I lay a siege
to your island
I do not respect
your humdrum laws.
My aesthetics beyond brush and word.
I tickle the talking points
and play endlessly with them
…. ….. …. …. …
‘I am the centre of all centres,
I’ll ever be where I am,
hell or high water,
amid bone and blood.
Sadhus who put a knife on me
lie in the end under the same knife.
‘I am the Truth
sweetened by Beauty
The other dog is no saint and no less forceful in averments;
‘Your position is unacceptable.
….. ….. …. ….
‘Me, me, me,
does not make one a monarch.
….. …. ….. ….
‘I am always open, unclothed.
I am not the lamp
I am the light
without a veil
….. ….. …. …
‘You are a charming liar
who plucks words
out of wind and rain,
and sing them
to win yes-no hearts
In my beat you cannot toy
with innocent breasts
nor play tricks on old bones
‘You run to me
when life’s Laxman Jhoola rocks
above the flowing river,
and facts slip,
like shavings of a pencil’.
(Dogfight, p. 135)
The former dog is aggressively independent, autocratic, ebulliently emotional, sensuous and glorifying being the Truth sweetened by Beauty. The latter is more intellectual, wise and does not play to the gallery of the youth. We are reminded distantly of that Swift’s Battle of Books. On second thoughts, one feels the latter has desirable restraint and tons of self-confidence. The dog trope set aside, the two are perspectives on the faith and practice of poesy. And then in a dogfight there is no victory of either, no loss for the protagonists. While shavings of a pencil are transient, things to be swept away, the light of a lamp without a veil is illuminating.
In another poem he speaks about the words of a poet:
No, not always the best poets will wait for words
If so the beginning will never end
And then declares:
We tell your fever well
(Three Stones, p.18)
Telling our fever is only a part or a facet of the manifold things that Sharma has accomplished with imaginative agility, gumption, verve and empathy. The poet is of a distinct category. In his poem Three Stones, Sharma speaks of a boulder, a road-block and a pebble. The poet is a pebble, the last:
small, firm, full of grit,
war brewing in its grains,
yield not to size, shape or stature
nor to theory of time.
The poet’s grain is such, the human condition and the tears in the nature of things egg him on to fathom, explore and excel. We have an excellent example of this in Sharma’s poem The Foundling: From a number of angles like brevity, forcefulness and authenticity of feeling, this must be the best of his poetic output.
Like an unsigned letter
it was seen fresh in a park
wrapped in neat human syllables
free from edges and fray
at the end of the day.
It bore no stamp of man
who posted it in the dark,
nor of the box that bore it
privately for long,
it was a pure text without a trace
of date, time and place.
(The Foundling, p. 48)
The conceits and the postal imagery are original and powerfully revealing, telling. The babe is divine: only the beej and kshetra are not. Man’s thoughtlessness is abysmal and human beings have fallen prey to passions not permissible. We live in an age of utter decadence. Mirror is about vanity and fecklessness – a shattering experience of disenchantment: the result of an inconsiderate, overreaching, modern ambition. The poet’s peroration goes thus:
The wrinkles trace a turbulent brain
floating, she says to her shut-up self:
shall I break the mirror, mirror the broken?
Revelation, she knows, doesn’t fill our veins.
What is face to face is to be borne.
Nakedness is Eden not to be mourned.
The urgency of a party two hours hence leads the persona, an ambitious woman, to get shocked by the mirror’s hammer blow message. It is the poet’s realization (and possibly the message) that nakedness is Eden and it is not to be mourned. How far has the modern human being come from Eden and why! Perhaps, it is to bring extinction on all life by hastening the deluge to devour all.
Sharma’s sense of the poetic is revealed in his total command over intuiting and executing the lyric. Here are two beautiful examples:
Here are no sermons in stone.
The figures act: mate and mate and mate
in eighty-four ways and will do so
All commandments die here.
(Khajuraho, p. 57)
The lovers in Khajuraho make love endlessly: they’d forever be young. There is beauty and just joy there – nothing else and then for all time too. We Indians have many a vates-sacer, sacred-seers, like Vatsayan to explicate the sublimity of Shringara. I have a feeling that there is more to it than mere humdrum love-making. Aretino spoke of 32 ways of driving a nail: but then here are no nails and walls. These 84 sacred and blissful bandhas are as many stances of total surrender/unification – of man and woman getting coalesced into each other in Supreme Bliss – attaining the state of Arthanareeswara.
Harvest is another poem with lyrical sonority, a feeling of sadness which does not unfortunately draw tears but just a sigh too deep for words. The parents tend the little kids of theirs with honey, love and concern. Here is the feeling when the ‘harvest’ waves a good-bye to embark on distant flights for a handful of silver:
It’s go-go time here.
….. …… ….. ….
My son slides and sips cola,
His wife flies for saree, soap,
perfumes and paste.
Their child chomps on chips
Buns, magi, and cakes.
My wife, tenderly, blesses their take off.
I stand, head bent,
like a shorn sheep
that has lost
its three bags full.
(Harvest, p. 166)
A Shadow on Your Face is about a panoramic barren tract with epic proportions. Poets in Bhashas are very voluble and their orchestrations shake us from the horrors of actuality if only to make us think. In Malayalam Ayyappa Panicker brought forth Gotrayanam and Kurukshetram which we have in English also. While he goes to the roots, Sharma, painfully is confronted with the cankered, crumbling rose with its glory gone to the sere. Those in the academia, particularly those teaching English literature cannot help coming under the grip of the feeling of wasteland. Sharma’s long four-part poem opens with the ring of Eliot’s masterpiece:
every month of the year
Here is an indescribably pernicious wasteland peopled with scamsters, evil-headed cobras, forked tongued politicians and the like. The poet raises the curtain to show the curious show that is on.
In the wings
I hear rhetorics of mad bulls
Draupadi in a net
between the weak-souled and the soulless.
In the second part the narrator combs history for a sane voice:
In the doorway I meet
hounds of varying strength and size
that disguise blood stains
under their pompous coats.
…. ….. ….. …
The authors of graves make their stand clear concluding thus
”Nothing is wholesome in their red book.
No law touches their maw and hook”.
Half-broken, while returning the narrator protagonist meets Vidur (Mahabharat here) and asks if there is any happy sign in the sky. Vidur’s plaint follows: Science is Vishkanya, hiding a viper beneath her skin. Inch by inch
“She de-clutches you
for the Grand Canyon
“Her paramours are Bacon, Newton,
and many leviathans of their kind.
Their ‘Knowledge is power’ is the syndrome
which shuts you up in a small space
where you assemble tools after a thousand tests
to blot out ten thousand at a glance
….. …. …. …. …
They have planted umpteen walls in my village,
have partitioned my soul
on grounds of pigment and tint.”
(A Shadow on your Face, pp.179- 80)
Vidur is asked in all innocence: “Will God ever come to such uncatholic earth?” and is told that the Maker of the universe writes in a hand none can read but adds in a low voice that Beauty conquers Bhasmasur. Every age has its demon: Chang, Taim, Nap, Hit and Muso, the world’s tyrants, dictators and the like. He is advised:
“Behold the popcorns of history,
Roman and non-Roman
who like cartographers
draw and redraw a map;
they appoint themselves monitors.
…. …. …. …. …
Fire begins from a bush,
eats rows of trees;
swans do not go there
to read Whitman or Sanskrit.
…. ….. ….. ….
Child, Heaven is in Pain
to see the noblest species in peril.
saveBbeauty and Love –
the diadem of mankind
….. .,…. …. …..”
(A Shadow on your Face, p. 183)
The problem is of forked tongues. The ‘monochromers’ all-are-one, all-are-equal pedants, the maxim touting and ideal mouthing hypocritical leaders and real blasphemers: they think one thing, say something else and do things different, shamelessly with masks of the wise and the loving Buddhas. Falsehood and abuse of others has come to be the habitual dialect in this age of decadence among those in power and those in its quest. The solution, like all solutions, is simple. It is problems that get complicated by the second – with ‘human’ intelligence and impeccable devilish logic, thanks to money bags and blabbers. The advice offered remains:
go home, wash your face
and whitewash every house
of the village”.
(A Shadow on your Face, p. 183)
In the fourth part the all-seeing, all- hearing, all-reporting one asks:
Do you see Draupadi going
or in a palanquin
resting on four sturdy shoulders
or in a coffin?’
The listener is dumb stricken. The all-knowing, wise one avers finally:
“No comfort to my soul
Sad to say:
(A Shadow on your Face, p. 184)
The basic mettle has gone tainted, adulterated and abused beyond redemption or reclamation. That is the condition of the shamshaan around. The solution offered: ‘whitewash every house of the village’ is mouthed once every five years only to be taken up in a chant in the next five. The hungry sheep look up: the guileful prosper. Sharma’s anguish and helplessness is just representative of the wise man’s plight.
I.K.Sharma always seems to be swinging between the metaphysical and the mundane, constantly shifting focus and navigating and negotiating a multifaceted vision. For him poetry is the stricken bird at the Buddha’s bosom. With aardrata – compassion and universal empathy and a kind of ever alternating to and fro lyrical, satiric, ironic, didactic and realistic flairs, he grapples with the actualities and ideals of life and existence.
Sharma has written poems which we may consider ‘Rajasthan Specials’. Thoroughly Nativist, Sharma’s poems have a distinct Rajasthani flavour. We have a poem on the poetic The Hawa Mahal:
You are a perfect poem in pink
in five sensuous stanzas
… …. …. …
Each stanza has an element of its own:
earth, fire, wind, water, or sky
all growing into one another
blossom at every sunrise
look three ways with myriad eyes
open, tender and kind –
at the rolling ripples of mankind.
A bay window of the poet’s mind,
the standing vision of joyous poetry.
(The Hawa Mahal, p.15)
There is another poem at an entirely different level: The Pink City:
This is very unfortunate city
… .. … …
Here pigs with muddy eyes
sniff at man in terylene.
Both cross their common ideal freely.
… …. … …
Tax-payers are full of levity
…. … …. …….
They pay tax the government,
filth to the public, for its easy consumption
…. …… ….. …. …
A vile reward for the red rose
That has no thorns!
(The Pink City, p.19)
Camels and Rajasthan are inseparable like the celebrated Juno’s swans. No one has found in the fabulous quadruped anything worthy of tribute. Sharma filled the void. The camel knows its job and can accelerate at will with dignity.
He is the epitome of stately pride.
The son of fabulous sands and frugal pastures
rests when he bags the last item on his desk
As heis tethered to his final post
no chink there is on his face.
(The Camel, p. 99)
Here is a heroic song. The tree has ever been an item of his Sharma’s adoration. Wild Love is the portrait of supreme self sacrifice of a whopping figure of three hundred sixty three women courageously facing cruel axing at the hands of the thoughtless king’s men to carry out a royal command to fell trees. This poem is based on a historical fact. In 1730 Amrita Devi of Khejadli village in Jodhpur led her followers to face death for protecting trees ordered to be felled by a royal order.
‘Spare a thought
for the gold of Thar
Pause ere you head for me.
In my veins flows the fluid divine.’
…. ….. …… ….
with daemonic glint in their eyes
shoot straight to the spot, terrier-like,
where Amrita with her school lof stable feet,
363 in all,
clutch hard the trees.
….. ….. …… ….
The blind axe falls
on bangled hands,
on rising breasts,
on dimple cheeks,
on glowing limbs.
The saviours of the tree, with god on their lips
become the morsel of the king.
(Wild Love, pp. 198-99)
The poet’s eye rolls in a realistic frenzy: he sees both the peaks and the troughs:
Here history unlocks its treasures
in tears: the aging walls, parlours
Down poverty falls in line on the roadside
like the turds of elephant;
(The Amber Palace, p.53)
With a soft corner in the heart for the weak, the derelict, the decrepit and stinking miserable as well as high esteem for the noble and venerable, Sharma drew pen portraits in tribute and homage. Children, men and women are seen as wingless birds, fungus-like and unchiselled stones respectively. For Sharma “the music in veins is quietly stored to stir the silent heavens.” Perhaps no one ever has written a poem about the pyre-keeper whom our poet calls terminator:
With never-say-die spirit he
welcomes fragments of flesh anf bones
that perish at home, and that
that had no home to die in.
(The Terminator, p.225)
The poet has reverence for him as the progeny of Raja Harischandra. And then he has a good word for the chowkidar and the servant maid, My Lady, Broom. The clerk and the mosquito are remembered while the peacock and the nurse are given their due. “Nothing is unworthy of poetry: a pup, a matchstick, a cake of soap,” averred Sri Sri, a Telugu poet who is revered as a yugkarta in Telugu poetry. Sharma too takes everything into his ken: here is a poem on a mosquito:
It slips through traps I lay
like keepers of gold,
who know how to cross
the net and grow.
( Mosquito, p. 171)
The elegiac mood brings out a poet’s best. Obviously this is the dirge for the lady of the house: her going leaves a gap that can never be filled. The Lost Face is all pain and pathos:
…… ….. … …..
Sadly I look at the face
framed in a glass cage,
the garland she wears now
twice trims my pace.
(The Lost Face, p.224)
But then it is not all gloom: the reader’s entertainment is taken care of. The teacher-poet knows the pulse of the reader as he alone can the pulse of a student in his class.
Her heart a pool of plenty
that grew wider and wider
as waves of faces arrive
though my wallet empty
But the original mood is quickly unveiled:
A swan without banners
she sang her lonely song,
in her numb hours I ask:
“your last command?”
‘Feed the poor’ flows the voice
… …. ….. ….. ….
The swan is gone and the grief remains:
From her ashes rises music
that in me shall not die,
no face, no face ever
shall fill my empty sky
(The Lost Face, p.224)
There is a poem On her death, the pronoun standing for a literary magazine from New Zealand. The poem on wood (not included in Collected Poems) is sadness again and painful too as the reader goes along reading it.:
in life we glide on skates of wood
in death we slide into a bed of wood
yet we hear not the cry of the one,
who fondly gives us the matchless wood.
Among the poems not included in the Collected Poems, 2010, this poem can be considered the best, ne plus ultra of simplicity:. Wood is never thought of as a thing worthy of love.
One is justified to say of Sharma’s poems: “Here’s God’s plenty”. In A Lonely Furrow he writes:
Should you come across a field ridden with weeds,
strike a lonely furrow in a ground nearby,
scatter there the seeds from your unseen chest,
they will disperse your scent into distant air.
Here is the visionary, the creator and the forward looking poet: krishi to naasti durbiksham, with effort there would not be famine. Weeding out the unworthy is far more difficult than cultivation of a prepared piece of land.
New paths are harder, need a chest that defies,
levels the mounds that glare in his eye,
he cuts the icy air with his confident scythe
and waits patiently for gold corn to rise.
(A Lonely Furrow, p.67)
The poet forges ahead as a tiller, grower of golden corn. The path to progress is not easy. One has to roll up one’s sleeves to remove inequality and poverty. Patience alone pays if it goes along with the pain of hard effort. There can be no reconstruction overnight.
There are many poems in Sharma’s writing that reveal his humane concern for the female of our species. Here’s a sample in Keep lust indoors, not woman:
Keep lust indoors, not woman.
She is civil. Let her weave magic
for all. Those who send her
behind walls and veils
show tartars of their heart.
(Keep Lust Indoors, not Woman, p. 103)
Humour, a likable aesthetic feeling, rasa, often the most attractive and captivating for many, is an important ingredient in Sharma’s dish for poetry lovers. His rich sense of humour is evident in poems like My Maiden Ride- the ‘once’ which earned for him a comely wife. The humour in Seth Maganlal on the Train is simply Rabelaisian.:
His mouth opens and shuts
as the wind blows in and out.
Then the mighty Great Wind trapped
and nursed day-long
finds its subterranean way out,
runs soon beyond its territory
(Seth Maganlal on the Train, p.79)
A tremendous fart which sends a blush to a young woman’s face draws a sly smile from all.
There is a parable in the light-hearted poem The Big Two:
The rider said to the gasping ass:
he also serves who offers grass.
I grant you freedom now, also at home,
will turn my house into a colourful dome
for your upliftment.
The animal laughed long to reply.
My dead master once kissed me and said;
SERVE in fact becomes the humble lips.
You can lift me up, I know,
But by going beneath me.
(The Big Two, p.92)
They came, he saw and conquered is a poem outside the collected poems is the acme of humour. On the way to a wedding feast ladies wait outside the speaker’s house. They stand like a pillar. The dachshund takes a round or two of the pillar and goes behind and:
Lifts his hind leg,
And warmly lightens himself
on the wall of a Kanjeevaram saree
…. …… …. ..
The pillar impervious to the rains…
The only witness of the scene,
my daughter, splits her sides,
falls off her chair,
and grants him a medal
for the pious act,
past all sensation.
One unmistakable sign of the maturation of Sharma’s poetic vision is the evidence of a flair for making epigrams and pronouncing aphorisms.
Life is not made up of straight lines,
Clear-cut formulas, neat divisions …
I learn the star lesson of life
and man acquires wisdom
(An Encounter, p. 209)
An event becomes experience
When you are aware of it
Leave the dead. Their acts
Cannot be altered …
(To a Tomb-lover, p.164)
Maturation of creative vision is a matter of insight into the nature of things with patience, empathy and understanding. Life is too complex to get squeezed into an all-embracing, inclusive definition. It involves cultivating a saint’s eye, not an easy matter. A devoted and deep study of I.K.Sharma’s corpus of poetic creations would show him as a large-hearted sensitive humane personality. Ironic, satirical and critical at times, he never loses his head or his temper. He never comes down to the level of vituperation. A poet’s pitfalls are moralizing and harshness in expression. Now forging ahead full steam to be an octogenarian, he is tireless exercising his observation and imagination. We can expect more golden nuggets, more gentle chidings and some more narrative poems like his Justice, and Loss where, in just twelve lines, he packs an unforgettable, haunting tragedy.
*Page numbers refer to Collected Poems, I.K. Sharma, Book Enclave, Jaipur, India, 2010