Prof. VVB Rama Rao, an ELT professional, is well-versed not only in ELT and literary hermeneutics but also an astute poet, who knows well how to sift dross from gold. Looking Within and Around is his second anthology of English poems, besides critical and translated works, that beautifully display his mature wisdom, which comes with age, as Browning has stated in his verse:
Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be.
The book has thirty-two short poems in all. As one enters the domain of his creativity, one is enamored of the values, which presently seem to have been lost in the mire of materialism, which the poet sings. The very first poem, ‘A Sigh and Relief’, is a satire on the political power. The politicians, these days, are amuck with power and seem to have lost ken in discerning good from bad. He, very aptly, argues that “Vice has limits / Death is not the only end” and those who fail to learn this truth must know that “Bangs may not sound” but “can be doused”. Power and beauty are short lived. One should remember that “Waves that surge retreat too” but life goes on forever – it is eternal. “Nothing remains”, in the third stanza, and “Nothing stays”, in the fourth stanza, remind the reader Shelley’s words: “Nothing beside remains” about king Ozymandias, who attempted to eternalize himself by getting his 92 feet high statue placed on a platform in a temple, but the poet tells that it has fallen and is in ruins. So, the contemporary rulers should also learn a lesson from it: all power and pelf are transient, if anything remains, it is only virtue and God’s will.
The poem, ‘Memory’, is about one’s memories of past. Memory to the poet, when old, “flashes for no reason at all” like “A whiff of a thing forgotten long ago / From the distant insignificant past”. Sometimes it may be without “any purpose.” In this poem, the protagonist remembers about his youth when he walked in a fashionable T-shirt with sun-glasses on his eyes flaunting his ego and now realizes that it was all useless. The third poem, entitled ‘Joys of Living’, enumerates how the old people get joys of life by looking at the grand-children playing before them and showering their affection on them by “Offering candy and frisking [their] hair”. Wife requesting her husband to take tea first gives joy to both of them. At this spectacle, the old couple feels “accomplished” and thanks God for this bliss. The poet infers that “Life is for living in joy / with a satisfied feeling of wellbeing”.
‘My Son My Father’ is the next poem. Though the title of this poem appears paradoxical, but the persona in the poem tries to justify it that when he was young and his son infant, he used to help him, but now when he is old – in his sixties or seventies – his son helps him:
He bathed me, fed and helped me dress
When badly needed of course.
Took care of my hair, took me out for haircut
Sent me to sleep too, going on cautioning all day.
He feels angry when he (son) “makes fun of me, jibes and mimics too”, which “May be childish pranks” and lead to childish laughter. But, at the same time, he realizes that it is learning and “Getting this to know is joy at three score”. In old age, one has to take lot of pills to live longer and keep oneself in good health, but “The gas must not give in getting exhausted / with no gas stations nearby” – a perpetual problem with the elderly people brings in universal truth amalgamated with humor. However, the protagonist feels consoled finding his medicines “near the table and bedside”.
‘On Sobriety and Sensibility’, the fifth poem, begins with reference to “Sage-seer-saint Vatsayan” and his “sutras” that “were misused and abused, over practiced / Damaging and misusing the objectives of living” and Saint Gautama – Gautama the Buddha, who “had expectations on humans / That they can be inebriate / Holding passions under control” because life is to keep passions under control and not over indulge in them. But, how strange it is that the humanity these days is more indulged in passion-fulfillment! There is degradation in life so much that even human procreation is endangered – “come under the witches / Making the fair foul and surely the foul fair”. This allusion reminds the reader of the witches, who are busy to prepare the most poisonous concoction in their cauldron to make their “charm firm and good” (Macbeth5.4) to kill Macbeth. Manus, the law-givers of the Hindus, were never after “fame or power” unlike the present rulers/law-makers. The objective of ancient law “was to lead humans to light and wisdom”. The poet is depressed about the present spectacle when he concludes this poem: “Wise counsel not followed, we are doomed to fail and perish.” In the contemporary age men are not wont to take good counsel as readily as the bad one.
In ‘Quizzical Quartet’, body, mind, spirit, and soul tell about themselves. Each one tells about itself in six lines that imparts equal worth to all individually, and also evinces the poet’s impartiality. Body declares that its “needs are urgent, whimsical”. It neither has patience nor tolerates any delay. Its demands must be fulfilled as soon as possible and “Without me [it] nothing gets done, enjoyed or gives peace.” Mind discloses that it thinks, judges, feels and imagines the things and situations, but, all the same, it resonates between the good and the bad:
Sacred I could be or sinful
Merry or mischievous, candid or deceitful
Helpful, guiding or misleading
IT could be either nice or nasty.
Spirit says that it is “Not an elf or a goblin” but “Valor, vigor and vivacity” – the abstract qualities. Soul reveals that when things are done without its intent, they become uncontrollable. It harvests only the fruits of past karmas. Because “Control is beyond me – mine is only to repay” what has been sown in the past life as karma.
The next poem, ‘Old Age Domes’, compares the eastern and the western values of life and their concern about the aged parents vis-à-vis people. The poet wants to know whether it is a “free fall” or a “paradigm shift” in our ethics. The concept of “old age homes” is an easy concept derived from the west. “We”, with this idea, “grew clever very fast”. By saying so the poet, in reality, denounces this idea. In olden days, children looked after their parents to their best with whatever they possessed in the Indian culture. Now the children, living abroad are well off, talk about “Old Age Homes” for their parents and fail to provide them their meager sustenance. They begin to ask such questions: “I never asked you to bring me here!” and “Why me, the moneyed more are there!” Such things were not even in the dreams of our culture. They dole out some currency to live alone in aloofness. They call it mercy: “A meager dole is mercy / can I be so heartless?” Can this behavior of the modern children, in any way, be called compassionate or kind? All bonds of filial relations seem to have dried! A word about the word, “Dome”, in the title: it is a portmanteau word derived by joining the two words “dole” and “home”. It also implies the dominance of the occidental value system over the oriental value system.
The eighth poem, ‘Of Lotus Land’, is a juxtaposition of the new and old values as well as the rich and the poor. The poet begins with the example of “Lotophagi”—it reminds the reader of Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ deriving its theme from Homer’s Odyssey—and calls them “not sinful” – pious. The poem is also satirical in tone: “If no crumbs of bread, why not cakes?” The rich are unmindful of the poor: “The haves in indolence stain / the white radiance of the skinny millions”. He reminds the reader that those days are past when “poverty was sung as a gem of virtue”- considered good. While making a dig at the gluttonous habit of the rich, the poet refers to epicurean philosophy: ‘eat, drink and be merry’ – the philosophy that emphasizes on pleasure than pain. Notice the humor in it: “The gluttonous pot-bellied without compunction / Belch aloud and suppress farts.” It not only makes a jibe at the over-eating habit of the rich but also at their manners. The poet ends the poem by alluding to ‘Ulysses’—another poem by Tennyson—and his strict observance of duties: “‘Decent not to fail in offices of tenderness’”. It also suggests the dereliction of responsibilities by the present politicians and bureaucrats and adopting a ‘WHY SHOULD I BOTHER’ attitude towards those who look towards them for compassion.
In ‘Jetlag’, the philosopher poet introduces the concept of lag being directly proportional to the length of flight of the airplane to indirectly hint at the contemporary polity and that the senseless brains fail to feel. He maintains that “The brain curdled refuses to feel, not to say of any thinking”: the minds of politicians have become sour and lost sensitivity to feel and think and these are likely to “be deflated” because of their inhuman and indifferent attitude toward humanity. The protagonist poet calls such an attitude as “Blood curdling and shamelessly painful than the jetlag”. The poet very aptly compares the human indifference to the technical jetlag/drag – both serve to retard the natural functioning of the mind, machine and society. This will lead to the collapse of human society. He pleads to stop such human impassiveness to save the collapse of social sanity: “Would anything stop a crumbling house of cards!” The poet compares the present societal set-up with house of cards which is bound to crumble with the slightest movement.
In ‘Quo Vadis – Whither Goest Thou’, the poet lays stress on honest living and shunning love for money – materialistic life. Love for money leads to dishonest life – “Doings go haywire”. In fact, it is written keeping in mind the present politicians who are blindly and shamelessly after accumulating wealth while in power. In such an ambience “Kingdoms crumble” as “bank notes travel in truck loads”. It suggests horse-trading in politics. He views that “handful of silver corrupts absolutely”; so, he advises the modern man to “Bury lucre to earn honest coin” and to choose “the thorny path of virtuous wages”. In other words the poet is advocating the Aristotelian philosophy of virtue as the mean between the two extremes. From Aristotelian philosophy, the poet moves to the proliferation of temples in ‘Mystery Spots Galore’: Indian deities – gods and goddesses exist in “Every hamlet, village, town, [and] city”. Even “Ma Shakti”, “after She was disembodied” – there is reference to Ma Parvathi’s immolation by jumping into her father’s Yajnakunda and when bereaved Lord Shiva carried her body from place to place, her body organs, according the myth, dropped one by one at several places: “Every inch of land, nook and corner of land / Even mountains, rivers and water-tables” that have now become sacrosanct and are worshipped as Shakti-peethas. It is the seer hypocrisy of man that on the one hand, he shows himself as holy person; but, at the same time, he commits several “scams, murders, atrocities / Blood-curdling rapes”. See the irony of fate for the fair sex and satire on the rich inherent in the following lines: “Surely Shakti from Her numerous peethas / Must have been venting Her disgust, anguish and wrath / Leaving children to the mercy of glib-tongued multi-crorepatis.” This line concatenates it with the fourth line: “Glib tongued politicos”, who “buy men”, in particular and the poem, ‘Quo Vadis’, as a whole; thus, making his poems well-knit, coherent and cogent.
‘Coming of Age’ teaches that years do not make one wise and mature, but mind grows “slowly” and “Acquisition of Jnana”, which is “the goal” comes with constant contemplation at a stage when “mundane things fade / Then may emanate radiance / Slowly, slowly, steadily”. Here the poet advocates the development of a dispassionate and disinterested attitude in one’s life – a detached attitude. The last line is worth notice that Jnana is achieved very slowly but steadily. This Jnana or knowledge is about the divinity, which “is all power and glory”. However, at the same time, the poet is doubtful, if it can be achieved in “this world clumsy / with things, wishes, passions around”. Though the knowledge of the Divinity is very significant, yet meretricious worldly things, human wishes and passions are the lairs in acquiring such “power and glory”.
The poet grows thoughtful, in the eponymous poem, thinking that human-vices are destroying human-virtues and man expresses his “Inability to restrain / The ever-changing deceitful quagmire / The moves that can never be stopped”. It seems endless. But a thinking mind can’t stop thinking. Then, the poet alludes to Lord Buddha’s discarding “His bowl” in desperation when he fails to find any remedy to the sufferings of this world. But, “What can we throw away – even with this weak mind?” remains the rhetorical question that continuously haunts the contemplative psyche of the poet.
The poem, entitled ‘Phonic’, opens with the second half of the twentieth century when phones were not common and messages were sent through telegraph wires and little children “used to glue ears to telephone poles / . . . listening to the buzz and hum” and felt excited. On the contrary, now phones of different shapes and sizes can be found everywhere and with all kinds of people irrespective of color, creed and gender. Verily, they are omnipresent from aristocrats to those living in jhuggi-jhonpadis.
‘Strategic?!’ is a poem that tells about saleable things: human organs put on sale to earn easy money. When a seller is found, there are “buyers dime a dozen”. The prices vary according to the demand and urgency of the moment. The poet turns satirical: “Hearts are in great need / but not a seller yet”. The word has a pun on it: heart is also an organ on which the life of a person depends but it can’t be sold; it also suggests sensitivity of a person. If someone decides to sell heart, “Strategies can be worked out in a jiffy” but, “God save the intending seller”; for, life is not possible without heart.
‘Pessimism?!’ is the sixteenth poem of the collection. It begins with the colonial ambience when common men were “suffering agony, grief and penury” feared the rulers and felt themselves voiceless before them. With the declaration of independence, these people nourished hopes for “roti, kapada aur makaan”: they felt that their days of suffering were over. Something “went wrong and awry”. The new race of rulers/leaders had “ambitions of power and pelf”. They nursed their own people, while “The hungry looked up with anguish but are not fed”. All ethical values were thrown to the winds in the leaders’ love for money and chaos prevailed. When faith is lost everything falls apart: “Faith lost nothing is sacrosanct any longer / Sanctums are ransacked”. In the turmoil of misrule nothing, and none, is safe. “Hooligans and vandals” become omnipresent. To elaborate this disorder, the poet alludes to W. B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (line 3) and poet writes: “Corruption cannot be wiped out by the corrupt”, because the leaders are themselves corrupt and the common man continues to think, though vainly, that they will eliminate corruption which is impossible. They, no longer, believe in the age old values of avoiding wealth and sticking to “the dignity of poverty”. Besides, contemporary “politician in power rues in bitter agony: ‘How can I win without money?’” in conformity with the economics of winning elections in the pseudo democracies. It also shows politicians’ love for money.
‘God’s Grandeur’ is about the physical handicaps: blindness or deafness. People having these sense organs take pity on such individuals and wonder: ‘It’s surprising how he get(s) along!’ The poet is of the view that such people do not seek compassion or sympathy but “few affectionate greetings / even the smiles are understood / They are sustenance enough!” These turn out to be “His caring action, His blessing, His glory!” The other poem, ‘Success Story’ is about the theme that “Fortune favors hard work” and honesty. The opening two lines allude to the US President, Abraham Lincoln: “Log house to White House”, and Indian Prime-minister, Narendra Modi: “Tea-vending to Prime-minister ship”. They got high positions due their hard work, honesty and their desire to serve people wholeheartedly. The poet/protagonist is of the view that “There can be no substitute – short cut for success”. It comes as a reward at the appropriate time for one’s sincerity and dedication.
The protagonist, in ‘Stay Put’, is of the view that it is very difficult to stop thinking about one’s cares and concerns of life. One cannot be in peace even in sleep: “Even in slumber a whirl gig it is / Action, musing, attempt, plan / Worry, anguish, angst” and wants to know an answer to the rhetorical question: “Can there be a stop – even for a trice?” for the common man. “Peace eludes, silence fades, worry debilitates” and in our attempt to achieve peace of mind “we are helpless”. The state of “Sang-froid” needs continuous practice by any practitioner; it is easily preached by the proponents of Dhyanamudra and is confined to “Sages and seers” who “can stay put with serenity.” What is easy for the sages and seers is almost impracticable for the common man. The poet next compares abhorrence, in the eponymous poem, with fire “that blazes, leads even to conflagration”. The protagonist exhorts men to stop hating one another. In the endeavor, when one thinks about the cause of hatred, mind/rationality tells that it is useless. It, whether in home with family members or in society, is harmful. Therefore, one should give it up before any such commotion begins to disturb. Peaceful understanding can lead to success. The poet’s prescription for it is: “Think deep without passion and cultivate understanding / Your happiness is in your hands”.
‘Sweet Temper’, for the poet, is a thing of mind, heart, and will, habitual nature, emotion, and soul. However, it is not possible to rein in all these; therefore, the protagonist advises men to “Never lose temper” and “Win praises/prize for sweet temper”. Thus, one should always maintain one’s cool: It is the golden rule for success. In ‘Kittening and Penning’, the poet beautifully compares these both activities: giving birth to kittens by cats and writing. For the poet, “Fertility is a boon to pray for” whether reproduction in animals or artistic creation in human beings. The poet avers that he is not a cat lover; but, once he saw a mother-cat suckling her young ones and wondered: “Did cats ever send up prayers for fecundity?!” Then, he moves on to the idea of writing a poem, which needs “a spark divine / Inspiration – frenzy too” to bring forth “The radiance of a rapturous thought”. However, both these creations become identical in “Orgasmic feeling of satiety” – the satisfaction that follows creation.
The poet, in ‘Poetic Sensibility’, says that “A good poem needs relishing – slow and steady” to enjoy it thoroughly. He also likens it to a child’s “lozenge to stay long” to feel the “warmth and the fleeing feel of longevity” of the poem. Poetry is such an art that it “needs enthralling sensibility” to comprehend and relish it with patience like the one who “watches the last oozing hours by hours” (Keats). The poem, ‘What is New Now!’, tries to find something new amidst the age old “Hunger, greed, passion and power-mongering” that abounds in the contemporary world. If comes across something strange, it is “Man can marry man – things unnatural”— a hint at court’s sanction to gay marriages—and modernity is nothing but only “Common sense uncommon”. Now, even “Money-spinning and megalomania” have also become old and outdated. Now when everything is falling apart, if there is something desirable as new, then, it is “ancient, saintly wisdom”. Who can dispute this suggestion? Taking the same thought further, in ‘Pristine Wisdom’, the poet comes to the realization that “nothing old is great or good / nothing is new or modern”. There is nothing is disputable in it, while “Ancient wisdom has sublime and unique understanding” inherent in it. He thinks that “Discerning wisdom has the capacity to delve deep into things”. For this reason, “Some tales in our scripture-like epics are guidelines for us all”.
The poet again talks about value erosion in life. It “percolates from places high” and “degenerating moral fabric demands radical action”. He is very true in his observation. Ideals of “peace, fraternity, equality”, the tenets of French Revolution and also the need of the present times, have also become obsolete. “People need food and work – not assurances and promises” to survive. It is the duty of our politicians to provide it to the masses. They seem to have failed; and “polities are in imminent peril”, thinks the poet judiciously. In his views it is necessary “to realize that maintenance must precede governance”, but our polity turns a deaf ear to the right and desired reforms in the society. So, this poem ends with a pessimistic note, because there is none to “listen and start acting with gumption”.
‘Summer Scourge’ is about the fatal summer that has killed a large number of people around the country. The sun, in the morning itself, appears “Platinum-hued, like molten silver” – very hot. The poet becomes conscious about the people in Andhra Pradesh. There the summer is torrid. The people “without proper roofs over their heads” face acute water shortage. They are “Parched, singed, smoldered … in the blaze”. They number “not in hundreds … but millions”: it shows the amplitude of the natural calamity there. Countless people die in this burning heat. Statistics do not give truth: “Nature’s fury never comes right in statistics”. The people of Andhra “cry in vain in horrid pain” about the three things: “Mother Nature’s displeasure, the sun’s valor, or fate”. There is none to listen to their wails. In this poem, the poet muses over the blistering heat wave of 2015 that has already killed thousands and the people of Andhra are the worst hit.
The protagonist, in ‘In High Dudgeon’, sees a cat with a pigeon in its jaws – a situation of imminent death, but still alive. The spectacle makes him highly philosophic : “Not able to live – it’s not possible even to die”; for, friends no longer “continue to be friends” and he murmurs a song from the Hindi film “Sangam” - “Dost dost naa rahaa pyaar pyaar naa rahaa”. There is deception everywhere; even filial relations have become ungrateful. It also reminds him about daughters, who turn ungrateful like King Lear’s daughters: Regan and Goneril. His mental state is very much similar to Lear’s “on the heath”. He finds himself incapable to “hold the reins of [his] thought process”. Next, he broods over the Ganges: “Raam Teri Ganga Mailee Ho Gayee” – the title of another Hindi film, because the govt. at centre is making great fuss about cleaning this river, but nothing tangible seems to have been done. He relates this decadence to maya and makes several mythical references to different ghats at the bank of Ganga river at Varanasi and flowing of the river down from “the crown of the Supreme Being, Parama Shiva”. He is so disgusted with the present times and degeneration of values that he wonderingly questions: “Can filial devotion to motherhood again be resurrected?! / Would legislation cleanse the river to her grandeur natural?!” These seem rhetorical questions and answer to them is in the negative. When people become sacrilegious, nothing can be done to mend the situation unless the people themselves mend themselves. Now the situation appears to have reached a pass when it can never be “forgiven by the omnipotent” – the situation is irredeemable and incorrigible. This poem evinces the poet’s disgust, at the contemporary social setup full of besmirched human values at its optimum.
The poet, in ‘Fruition’, wails at the infirmities of old age, when one finds it very hard to move out and welcome people. It is unavoidable and makes one helpless in life. At this age: “Memories throng by myriads, sweet, sour / Sad, pensive, sensitive and sentimental.” Love is another human sentiment that gives bliss. But, when an old man thinks about his love of youth, who also has grown “decrepit, with eyes sunken and hair thin / … walking with a stick” gets solace, because he is not the only sufferer. He safely concludes: “Bliss is a condition of the mind”, which can safely be called fruition of human life. The poem, ‘For Our Children’, teaches the youngsters to learn from their teachers/elders. The poem divulges that there are sixty-four wise methods of teaching and learning. And “Much depends on the learner’s aptitude too.” He tells the tale of a snake that bit people and they beat it even when it stopped biting. It sought the advice of its teacher and explained its position. The teacher told to stop biting but not to hissing and that proved useful for the snake. The snake’s hissing frightened one and all and saved it the undeserved beating in future. Thus, it teaches that “Learners get much by their own intelligence from their teachers!!”
The title of the last poem, ‘Midsummer Day’s Dream’, seems to have been derived from Shakespeare’s comedy, Midsummer-Night’s Dream. This poem also lashes at the decadence of human values and love for wealth accumulation: “Values are vanishing foul lucre holding sway”. Our honorable representatives in legislatures and Parliament have become vain-glorious; and, bureaucrats “in offices are at logger heads” and some invisible fights are going on. Leaders of political parties try hard to win elections: “Brains leading parties are flexing muscles to win”. Power gives rise to treachery: political promises are soon forgotten. The voters, “Hungry men, powerless look this way and that” and find it “Difficult to breathe or wake up safe”. It is their penury that makes them helpless: they have no shelter to sleep, safely at night, free from the worry of being trampled: “Hundreds of mischievous Pucks we need to wake us up smiling”.
The book provides a good read for those who are alarmed at the decline of human ethics and boundless craze for materialism at the cost of human lives. The poet has used his satirically keen scalpel to pierce the sensitivity of the insensitive politicians who rule and have the moral as well as constitutional responsibility to ameliorate the condition of the suffering populace in the country in particular and in the world at large. It is often said that wisdom comes with age. The poems also have good pearls of wisdom for the young generation to learn; if, and only if they want to usher into a country “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high” (xxxv Gitanjali Tagore). Of course, these poems are the pourings of a mature mind that has learnt so many lessons from age and experience, and now wants to advise and guide the generations to follow with valuable suggestions. It has been very pertinently said: “the price of wisdom is above rubies” (Old Testament, Job, xxviii, 18), and “Wisdom is of the soul … is its own poof” (Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road). However the greatest question is: is our polity ready to accept it? The book has material worth research besides jolting the sensibility of our insensitive people at the helm of affairs. The book is an example of the truth that age has its effect on body but not on mind.
A must read for all thinking minds!