Stuck on 1 by forty, Pritish Nandy’s latest poetry book is with me in the hospital. Between treating assaults and trauma, I peep into his book every day. I read his poems almost like I was treating an emergency protocol. Emergency Medicine is not flexible, but his poems are, and I long for that day when I can virtually fuse Medicine and Poetry so that each one can relate to the other.
If I need to write on his poems in Stuck on 1 by forty, I need to write about Pritish Nandy himself. Actually I have been writing about his works since 1979. We have two Nandys: the one who was the poet at Calcutta (I prefer referring to it as Calcutta) and the other one who lives in Mumbai (not Bombay). The Poet Nandy believes that after leaving Calcutta, he became a prose writer and has been achieving laurels in many other genres other than poetry. But to my way of thinking both the Nandys are one and the same and Pritish never left Calcutta inasmuch as I never left Gwalior. Pritish in his foreword writes about his leaving Calcutta, never to return. Mumbai is his new life, the glitz and glamour sometimes overshadowing the days as a struggling poet: he wrote poetry at a pace few could. Calcutta gave him poetry in streets and lanes, he in turn gave Calcutta the gift of Indo English Poetry, the first of its kind that many never believed in, yet it was poetry of many surfaces in arrogant sunsets.
While launching his glossy book ‘Again’, he said, he stopped writing poetry because poetry doesn’t sell. He turned to writing prose, and I have been following his work surreptitiously. Nandy indeed is a prolific writer of prose as well, though most of it is so poetic that they come across as prose-poems, Nandy was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly, in which he wrote about quite a few people, bringing out certain interesting aspects of their personality. He wrote about Osho -
“Few people have understood India like Osho. It was an understanding at many levels. The philosophical, the historic, the purely emotional - and even the political and the literary, the wanton and the spiritual. His was a holistic understanding. An understanding that went beyond words, into the uncharted terrain of true love. For love was at the core of everything that Osho believed in. It was the ultimate message he left for us. To discover, experience, savor life through love.”
Nobody has ever over stepped in mystifying the beauty of Rekha the way Pritish did. I must have read that article in the Illustrated Weekly a hundred times. Pritish, in many off his books, correlated with the beautiful photography of his friend, Dhunji Rana. This brought out the magnificence of his poetry, which managed to stay in the hearts and minds of the younger generation of India the way it did in me.
I remember it clearly. There were two Calcuttas during that period. The Calcutta of the Elitist who met at the Saturday Club and for balls at the Swimming Club and then the one that was the middle class who wished the destruction of anything and everything that the mind believed in, both were tired of living a boring apolitical death. And then there were Babas who understood both these groups and exploited them. I also remember Desmond Doig, the charismatic editor of JS asking fervently to interview a Naxalite just to understand their philosophy. He never got one. Till this day, the Naxalites are the most misunderstood group because there is simply no political agenda that can be put within a frame or the covers of a book. If the exploited in the then Calcutta and now in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are termed as ‘Naxalites’ then I must be one Naxalite too.
Pritish Nandy burst into the poetry scene during that period with many books, and one of them was a book titled Madness is the Second Stroke. The book which was published by Dialogue Publications also got a place in a JS Blueprint issue. Calcutta was moving fast in involuntary spasms and Pritish just needed to pick on some of these. This book is in a soft cover with a jacket similar to Stuck on 1 by forty. Measuring 22 cm / 13.5 cms., this book is slightly bigger than Stuck on 1 by Forty. It has a soft cover continuing as a jacket just like Stuck on however it doesn’t have the gloss paper print and the UV gloss cover. There are three important happenings that have made me relate the book to Stuck on. This book is living proof that Pritish Nandy’s attachment to Calcutta continues.
Pritish was fast becoming an icon with his poetry that asked everybody reading his works to throw out the grammar book of Wren and Martin. He clasped and re-clasped his words and sentences creating a form of English language poetry that is truly his own. Questioning poetry, he built his own relevance. Relating his life and living, he brought the multitude of Indian culture and thinking to a resemblance that people in India finally understood. In an India during that time when Internet never existed, he believed in writing poetry and publishing them through the small press.
During the same time, another poet had become instantly popular. He too did not pay much attention to grammar. He too, like Pritish, wrote about the common man’s anguish and love. Yevgeny Yevtushenko is an international icon not only in the world of poetry but among the common men of the former Soviet republic. The Soviet bureaucracy once frowned on him simply because they couldn’t place Yevgeny’s work in a single distinct file. Tired of the existing literature, he started writing in spurts of everyday life that everybody understood.
The remarkable impact that Yevtushenko made sprang more than anything else from his being the representative of quite a new generation, seeing old truths through fresh eyes as each new generation must. By consistently refusing to compromise his regard for truth or his concept of good poetry he became this new generation’s unchallenged literary spokesman, and opened a way for the host of talented young poets that has emerged in the last decades. Peter Levi.
Pritish Nandy no doubt became the Yevtushenko of the seventies and continues to be so. He hustled in a new form of pop culture hitherto unknown to the Indo English Poetry Movement. Calcutta was his life and continues to be so. While people like Braz Gonsalves and Pam Crain were breaking into newer forms of music and Ananda Shankar had grasped the grammar of Western music and successfully implemented it in his newer form of music, Pritish Nandy just did the same with his poetry, he brought society, politics and love together in a heady mixture of suspended words crafted out of remembering the smell of a city and his love for love itself.
Let me now try fusing both these books together. Its all about memory that seems to cling even after one has written a book. He quoted in the beginning pages of Madness is the Second Stroke –
Who can say where memory begins
Who can say where the present ends
Where the past becomes a sentimental ballad
And sorrow a paper yellowed with age
In his poem, What shall we do with these memories, he has experimented with italics and removing commas and full stops. This would continue in his poetry of 2012 where a poem can end abruptly in a single line or there would be double space after each line
this is my country
the smell of blood that I have known
and the silence that I would have recognised
and yet they have sentenced me to death
a silent wordless execution on the nineteenth hill of fury
a death even memory cannot disown without hate
In his poem, Down the ruined staircase of the sun –
remember Anamika madness returns at the stroke of
exactly at twelve we shall both die
Calcutta if you must exile is considered Pritish Nandy’s best poem ever written by an Indian. Pritish has added this poem to many of his collections and many of his close friends including Shashi Tharoor remember this poem from a volatile era in Calcutta.
And I will show the hawker who died with Calcutta in his eyes
Calcutta if you must exile me destroy my sanity before I go
In his poem, Though I have never seen the mountains of Colombia –
Though I have never seen the mountains of
Columbia your name Camilio Torres the storm
has whispered in my blood
straggling group of guerrillas have gathered near
the frontiers and in the foxholes the soldiers wait
In his poem, Wandering in this strange continent of the Asphodel –
there are moments when to accept peace is to line
up your friends blindfold against the wall and gun
them down there are moments when the only
honest thing left to do is to fight and die
and till then peace-mongers poets and pimps can
carry on this trade in human frailties
when the time to die comes friend we are all men
guerrilla into the night raise your rusted bayonet
the time has come to fight
Love, Violence, Protest and Living, were part of our lives especially if one stayed in Calcutta during the seventies. Madness is the Second Stroke is all about that. During the same period Yevgeny shunned Byron and wrote poetry. In his celebrated poem Zima Junction, he writes
As we get older we get honester
And these objective changes correspond
Like a language to me and my mutations
If the way I see you now is not the way
In which we saw you once, if in you
What I see now is new
It was by self-discovery I found it.
I realize that my twenty years might be
Less than mature: but for a reassessment:
What I said and ought not to have said,
And ought to have said and was silent
In his poem, Epistle to Neruda –
Like a seasoned lion,
Neruda buys bread in the shop.
He asks for it to be wrapped in paper
And solemly puts it under his arm:
"Let someone at least think
that at some time
I bought a book…"
In his poem, Memento –
You entered - neither too late nor too early -
at exactly the right time, as my very own,
and with a smile, uprooted me
from memories, as from a grave.
And I, once again whirling among
the painted horses, gladly exchange,
for one reminder of life,
all its memories.
Stuck on 1/Forty is Pritish Nandy’s latest collection of poems. Published by Amaryllis in 2012, Nandy brings forth poetry within the one hundred forty characters allowed in Twitter, a widely used social networking site. Its revolutionary, its colourful, it has the familiar smell of Nandy and its obviously beautiful. Being an old Nandy gazer among many others, Gulzar being a well-known one, I beg to disagree with Pritish when he says -
So, I am back to poetry. Its different from what I have written before
When did Pritish leave poetry? The magic of gauging immortality with words still continues in the same way as it did in the seventies.
Chetan Bhagat writes, It's rare to have poetry from someone who has fought injustice all his life with prose.
It would seem that Chetan has possibly not read Nandy’s poetry from 1969 onwards, which forms the bulk of the work, as much, if not more than his prose. Noteworthy among these is Nandy’s poetry on Bangladesh and his translations of noted Bangladeshi poets in his book Poems from Bangladesh, Voice of a New Nation published in 1971. Nandy is also the youngest recipient of the Padma Shri for his poetry
Stuck on 1/forty has poems in fonts of different size and in different colours, matching the mood of the poem.
On Twitter he writes -
Why am I on twitter?
Do I need friends all over again?
Or am I hunting down
My solitudes one by one?
His poems on Kolkata (not Calcutta)
The tramcar hurtles
Through the night,
As I walk alone
Alone in the dark, through
To where I want to be
The blue bus stumbled down
The broken roads of Howrah
Till I reached the factory
And found that nothing really
Mattered but you.
Cities come and go.
Bombay is Mumbai now,
Where will I hide from you
Or for that matter
From myself? I write me
A passport to hell.
This poem on Darbari Kannada reminds me of his book Lonesong Street where he had mentioned about it, his fondness grows
The darbari kannada
Contexts the moment:
The gull swoops down
To pick its prey.
To end this review, would be the most difficult task for me, because realising the brittleness of a sunset trauma from Nandy’s poetry is far more relevant to me than performing craniotomies in makeshift camps in Eastern Zaire behind a setting sun, some years back. Ishita spent hours designing this book and the redesigning them again, somewhere at some place, within the book the colors changed and so did the fonts. The poetry bloomed because of her excellent graphic designing.
I seem to have rambled on while writing this review on Stuck on 1/forty. It always happens. Nandy cant be captured in a review nor in a Ph.D thesis. He just happens, a happening in a brilliant galaxy where mass and matter merge, words simply explode.