A Study of the Long Poems of P.C.K. Prem
Poetic imagination is always multi-faceted: ardent, vigilant, introspective, extrovert/introvert, passionate, furious, angst-driven, mocking or jocular, to list some of its traits. In poetry a poet’s scoffing and mockery with ingrained disgust would powerfully communicate feeling to the thoughtful reader. P.C.K. Prem is many in one: a teacher, a civil servant, an administrator, a thinker and an intellectual at that. Poems could be short or long: as short as a haiku or as long as an epic. For sustained intense passion a long poem would be the best choice. Only this would satisfy an intellectual with intense sensibility to express his strong feelings. No wonder Prem chose the long poem to express various philosophical thoughts, religious quests and spiritual worries of man through his poetic compositions.
This paper is a brief and limited study of some of Prem’s long poems alone. Monto, the long poem in eleven sections, comes at the end of P.C.K.Prem’s first collection published as Among the Shadows by Narinder Publications, Delhi, 1989. Monto is ambitious, pleasure loving and blatantly selfish. The poet presents a convincingly interesting picture of to-day’s well-to-do satyr, unscrupulous but dangerously attractive male. The poem starts with Monto still in bed on a Dunlop mattress, his body stretched wide. The sounds of washing and rustling in the kitchen, water flowing down from the tap and the rustle of clothes being washed by the maid are being heard by the slothful master of the house. A ringing of the telephone makes him wake up unwillingly and angrily. This is how the show begins. Monto howls, rages and cries – revealing to the reader his pride and anger. But this is not a simple poem though certain things like his breathing, the way he wakes up listening to the ringing of the phone are.
he languished in sermons,
and like Bhishma
wishes to advise the God of Death
to come during Uttarayan,
– (I, ll. 17-20)
The reader understands and appreciates the irony of the poet we call the narrator hereafter. The man is an exact opposite of the scriptural hero but he would not accept being compared to any one lesser. We are given his traits briefly and at the end of the section are given an aid. Monto wants his woman to be a machine. His laughter is for getting a chance to have love (read lust) with warmth. This is just a sample by way of indicating the poet’s style of presentation. The second section shows us Monto’ study table cluttered like a studious scholar’s. He is a reading man, a thinker, high-flier and a brooder too. He thinks high of himself, feeling he is a Moses. Like Mahatma he leads a Dandi march. His desire satiated in the night, Monto thinks he is a saviour, Messiah (to the maid and others of that type) and this makes him a thinker thinking very deep with high ideals. His wife away put into a train by himself, the first thing he does like a pious devotee is to make obeisance in the morning to the deities hanging on the walls, his mind at peace in joy swiftly saluting image after image. He is thoroughly satisfied thinking of himself as a Solomon himself as praised by God Himself. Monto feels he is Rama and Krishna too and draws a parallel relation if only with a little selectiveness of his own. The creator created him thus but Monto knows that he is cunningly brave, studious and diplomatic. Thinking of the bed mate as a succulent wench and fully awake now, Monto needs a cup of tea. He mumbles loudly and waits after she appears till she comes before him. He is a consummate player. Outwardly shy and gentle he is exposed enough to know the facts. Monto is a socialist, a communist to be justifiably precise.
Monto thinks about Man’s destiny and the division of society into classes, creeds and greeds. And then there are wars even in civilized societies. He waxes philosophical. He believes in the dictum that the fittest survive. Even the Gita says so which strengthens his belief. The charioteer Krishna who knows no relation, no blood no obligation, says so too. For that reason the elimination of poor sure. Then he thinks of the injustice of even Rama. The rich win and become the majority and powerful. The poor in consequence are relegated, thrown into the background. The rich get and get into power by hook or crook, usually by the later. He harangues on the theories of Marx, analyses revolutions and talks of 1917 and 1949 in a manner that electrifies the comrades, the listeners. He is a concupiscent and loves women most. His weakness for the fair sex is all inclusive right from a maid to a princess. Ethics are for ordinary men and lesser mortals. Monto’s ethics are unique, distinguished and marked with extensive voluptuousness. He is Samson unshaven by Philistines. His knowledge of the world famous in all types and categories, rulers, fighters, lovers and statesmen political philosophers is surprisingly extensive. His mental ability and astuteness, cogency in argument and depth of thought are unparalleled and sublime at the same time. The Marxist ideologue is long and bewildering. The narrator is the one flabbergasted as Monto’s listeners in the crowd. He knows the ins and outs of his creation, his marionette. He cannot help commenting lest he be misunderstood.
In the assemblage at a literary symposium Monto discusses men and matters, poets and fiction, culture, tradition and all kinds of writings and penmanship. He extols litterateurs as persons of the brave new world, goes to Keats and reminds the listeners that beauty is truth and truth beauty, of course not going beyond to say that it is all they need and need to know. That is because the maid and the comrade’s daughter are there for him to enjoy and he needs that enjoyment. Then he speaks about peace and harmony. The dictum he mouths aloud with strong emphasis is impeccable. He is cocksure that as blood is red, society should be casteless and creedless. As the world is just one there can not be two religions. Since Man is all one and the same – equality and sameness is implied – there could be only one truth.
A windfall for him, a young poetess is enamoured of his eloquence and comes to him. His lasciviousness ignited, he grows high. Thus accomplished most unexpectedly (some have all the luck in the world) he goes for his next achievement. Monto is the chief guest. The assemblage is high and great as the poet describes. Most important are the officers, those who hold power and help the crooked devils known by the people who vote them to power for a bottle of cheap liquor or a bank note. But the poet does not use words that are not to his taste.
Monto too talks like a babu. Karl Marx, Ruskin and Keats are at the tip of his tongue and he talks of all resounding things. On them all hinges the grandeur of Man and the glory of God’s creation. Wife of a high officer, when her hubby is away on important tour of business sent by his boss, calls Monto to a corner and professes an undying crush for him. A vague mist of compunction does come but Monto heroically blows it away. This is stupidly pedestrian. We are provided two great achievers, Salieri, the Italian classic composer and Pushkin the Great Russian. The literary symposium, the banquet and wonderful speeches are over. With this we come to the end of the tenth section. Monto’s condition while on his way back home walking is abject in the next eight lines with dogs barking, asses braying and jackals howling besides many other despicable things happening. The fall of the puppet-like hero inflicts a twang of pain on the player, the creator of the persona. He has nothing left to play with the strings left in his hands. The creator, however, has mercy for his brainchild. He is hopeful and hope lasts longer than anything. It is a thing with feathers as a poet said. For this poem there could not possibly be love at first reading. Surely a second reading or a third reading would communicate the very fine and deeply lovable nuances and the work would be understood, felt and appreciated. Normally all good poems do not appeal the most at the very first reading.
Prem is an intellectualist poet. His Monto is today is a sequel to the wasteland of earlier years being a waste macho. References to Salieri, Pushkin, Karl Marx, Ruskin sand Keats when understood give joy to the reader as are the references to Rama, Krishna and Ahalya for all the scripture-knowing though their references are not virtue promoting . The reader on reading this carefully would find this a rich poem with references to scriptural giant heroes and the masters of the west in various fields. Music, poetry, politics, statecraft are all here. The pretentious socialist, the haughty Communist the socialite free sex-lovers presented here are both amusing and thought-provoking. Morality is not valuable just for the age-advanced. The mannequin and the player, the puppet and the fashionable fair sex are all lovable to the mischievous imagination and delectable expressionist. Leg pulling is an art that requires not only gumption but also consummate skill. This poet’s sardonic humour at times accentuates the scathing criticism of the politicians and their babus revealing his sensitive understanding and competent expression.
The next collection entitled Bermuda Triangles reads like a preamble to Of This Age of Obscurity. The title indicates the deadly whirlpools of human existence in actuality. Even a cursory reading of Prem’s first collection reveals the intellectuality of the poem and his contempt for degeneration, his angst and flair for mockery of the new leaders, money bags and social detritus. Vile and pretension are the hall marks of the big people in contemporary society. The Devil’s Triangle is another name for the triangle – a region of the Western part on North Atlantic Ocean where thousand of ships and aircraft mysteriously disappeared. The whirlpool is the actuality of our times electrifying the reader to read the text with rapt attention. The speaker of the poem is another Monto who begins thus:
I am the monk naked
living in back-lanes,
of a holy-city unnoticed
that exists somewhere near a river.
(Bremuda Triangle, p.1)
There is scathing irony and mockery that is almost vituperative in the speaker’s narration:
I carry life on religious wings
and chant ‘Sangham Sharanam Gacchami.’
With the ideal of Astra and Sastra,
I create existence and God
and so this constitution unwritten,
for my democracy without
that remembers dates and not men.
( Monk, p1-2)
In this collection two poems “Grave’ and ‘Burnt Up Faith’ bring out the poet angst and contempt for the ‘greats’ with utmost intensity. Existence for the serious minded with regards to values, myths and legends of the nation becomes heinous. We are told in discomfiture and pain:
When in dreams I die
lying flat over the body of dead thoughts
I remain hesitant but live again.
In moments of spirits confused
with strings of stray thoughts
torturing the soul of a putrid body,
and activating the fingers bloodless
I weave the end of dreams.
In a dreamy cerebration the poet’s anguish is seen, heard and felt and the ratiocination is endless. The speaker’s feelings and emotions change in the whirl gig of time. Myths and legends, Indic and Greek float in the mind:
Cries of hope in utter fallacy
in this pyrrhic glory of aging youth,
upon which the wrinkles go waste
when Iliad and Odyssey were only myths,
fables that wanted root
out come Priam’s treasure
and tombs of Mycence,
and are the riddles that confuse dreams.
Scriptures, ancient legends, myths and history make this scholarly, intellectual poet’s poems require notes (as Eliot’s Wasteland did years ago) . Cerebration in the speaker wreaks havoc and a whirlpool in the mind. For him self-worship remains the be all and end all – the supreme goal and the object too. The grave needs to be dug and till then there could be no respite.
Again in lingering and jinxed thoughts
and in the death-deluded sensibility,
I attempt to dig the grave
That was incomplete last year.
Wish, hope, grave, confusion, turmoil and turbulence make the speaker think of the very distant past, and things appear aimless as the life of man who digs his graves, history, myth, legend and belief. There are references to Socrates, Bhishma, Sri Krishna and other impeccable greats. Only the grave is a must. Survival is feckless. All this is an utterance in total confusion:
This man who dug his grave
living without meaning and hope,
now sleeps with tormented mind.
…. …… …..
And this Socrates* perceived intuitively
while drinking the hemlock,
for a man shall always search for life
in a crowd where the dead listen,
and announce a pre-conceived judgment.
(*A noble mind, Socrates would not stoop to hate or despise even his scoffers; he lived a simple life, taught men like Plato and when jailed after a pre-conceived judgment, refused to flee (at the suggestion of a friend who offered to bribe the sentinel) and ingested poison hemlock. The charge was that he spoiled the youth introducing new gods, had ideas of divinity and the deathlessness of the soul.)
The strong ground for the speaker’s spiritual turmoil, the dark night of the soul, is the mindless violation and veritable destruction of pristine and hoary value system with the pursuit of riches and mindless craving for comfort with voluptuousness. The concepts of afterlife like retribution and hell have been smashed into smithereens as the idea of faith and God.
Its thought process be guided to death
The only solution
Gone are Yajnas when from flames,
children were born,
this is not a fit age,
to expect rebirth or reincarnation,
though Gita, Dhammapada and Hebrew Sages said
“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he .”
…. ….. …..
And it is no use
To remember Krishna,
“Many lives O Partha you and I have lived
I know them all, but thou dost not.”
This Kurkshetra is an invitation
To all boons,
and to the Lord of Death,
to meet immortals
… … …
do not bestow a life always crying,
dull thoughts among flowers
or else it will be a burden.
(Ibid, Part IV)
There is utter despair, a devastating hopelessness that is ‘modernity’:
The man has always derived meaning
Out of eggs broken at breakfast
And throwing away skeleton
…. …. …
No, it is all hollow promise
Its second growth will make another tragedy
Let it lie in the silent grave.
no power will revive the past musings
no dreams shall shape the world anew,
for death of dreams has engulfed
and now all stands disturbed and broken.
Rain will not soothe
The dead rock of thoughts
Please go and stop it,
For this noise hurts me deeply.
(Ibid, Part V)
Modern man has wrought destruction on life and righteous, meaningful living A second growth after death – another birth – another life is all fecklessness. Hence a word of caution – piece of advice:
Another life will be a crime,
and modern man must be told,
that resurrection is now difficult
though its meaning is another thing,
for “God is always of the living.’
For the dead there could never be the savior, God. Operation digging should never be stopped for this reason:
Some day cats and foxes will come
and when crows will overlook
to chase them away,
and will dig the old grave
and scatter the bones across the fields.
And here is the end with a whimper:
This will complete digging
to make the dead grave again
thus infusing a new life,
or else scattered bones will be useless
please think do not stop.
‘Burnt Up Faith’ is a long poem which provides the title for the collection. This reads like another remembrance of Monto the fabulous scoundrel which also brings to the serious reader’s mind Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Faustus begs towards the end (both his and the play’s) ‘O lente lente cuurite noctis equi’ – slowly, slowly run O horses of the night – since at the clock striking midnight the devil’s henchman would take away his soul. The speaker in this poem does not have any grace, the grace that Faustus has in begging the horses. Faustus is an awakened one though only before annihilation. The speaker in the poem is unnamed (if there are millions like those, how can one be given a name among all those!). A discomfited crook, politician, trickster and voluptuous fellow, we are told at the very beginning:
It is his morning
getting up looks like another birth
where life lingers on and emotions languish
with a slip.
The nameless fellow (read ‘modern scoundrel’) is scabrous:
The shuffled bed sheets
cigarette butt-ends thrown all over
…. …. …..
.. he is miserably
looking into the pettiness,
the abuse and utter hollowness
of wasted times.
(Burnt Up Faith, I)
Remembering his days he says to himself:
Nobody lives he considers
in a day to day mockery,
of socialism that garners relief
from abject poverty,
walking over to decent life.
There have always been dreams of millions dangling without fulfilment, thoughts run from east to west for him and he never dies but goes on thinking of living in a nuclear world of rashness, vacuum (read squalor), non-violence and chicanery hand in hand all in one breath. The rattling of aero-planes disturbs hid mind, and we are told:
when sky is the limit for his patience
he cannot fight a battle, he can see only,
and wait for a confrontation in the cosmos.
There is powerful irony in the description of the hero:
… he scatters his life,
Unknowingly over Mount Kailash and Meru,
So he sits like Shiva cross-legged
For the Vindhyas for him are far off.
His overweening pride is pitiful:
he speaks words not his own
… ….. …
Words he feels are his, but truth is miles away
(he) keeps his head high to make an assertion,
that he lives here, an Ashvaththa tree
his determined life,
and always emits a squinting laugh
of hokum and self-pity.
This stalwart thinks that he lives as he wishes not knowing that the strings are pulled from above. He had dubious births and deaths that are not deaths but intervals in life.
He does not shed tears:
He moans his fate
weeps over his life and future
…. ….. …
Always he spurs another life
a pathetic living he looks around,
wrinkled and bloodless faces stalk on roads
huddle for breaths in streets,
beg for food at haunted places
visit houses full of headless bodies,
that speak and talk
He is ever boasting, always a Machiavelli, a Chankya still achieving any thing for all his high sounding words not and never his own. We are told:
assuring himself without hope
there he makes a distinction,
between Ghata-Akasa and Maha-Akasa
Limping to temples and churches he tries to clean the unknown Jeevatman, considers the proposal and weeps only to walk over his grave humming tunes of a box-office busting film. Monto was out Montoed by this cur tellingly unnamed.
Oracles of the Last Decades is the third of Prem’s four collections. This is cleverly titled. Oracles are persons, inspired by Gods for divination. They are considered to interface divination, wise counsel or prophetic predictions. Going by the title, the last poem Swayambhuma may mislead the unwary reader but the second line ending with the pronoun him with no capital at the beginning reveals that it is mockery of the poet again. Swayambhuma and Satampa are appellations subtly created by the mocking poet, twisting the names of the first Manu and his consort or the divine Swayambhu, the self-created and Satapa, Maheswara and Devi Parvati. The poet’s creations are deceptive soothsayers, Man and Woman, modern with a vengeance. Knowing the poet’s usual tenor and timbre, the reader enjoys reading the intensely felt mockery and irony in the poem. As his wont it is mockery again and an expression of disgust for modern man whose character and temperament the poet dissects with an understanding scalpel.
This is how the poet begins:
It is loving activitised for him
…. …… ….
It is waltzing with jazz and disco
Sans rhythm and music roaring
(Oracles.. ll. 1-8)
This man runs in all directions without any purpose or goal. He only searches shadows where reality is not something he wants to look for.
he drinks black water
of pungent odour
that poisons him
With rough headedness he destroys himself. This is conveyed in an ascending tone and ultimate crescendo. This man makes himself sure that he achieves deathlessness:
It is a planned living
in tensions of time
where a man contemplates
a virtual suicide in hard times
without throwing a body.
(Ibid. ll. 43-47)
Cruelty and mindless violence are the bases of his temperament. He lives between ashes and immersion thus ultimately creating pennydreadfuls in squalid situations oozing metallic or wooden sex. He depends on the breakfast T.V.
It is a routine
a spiritless journey
to jungles of orgies,
a crude repletion
without sustaining thought,
and thus the spouse
of today’s Satampa suffers
(Ibid. ll. 93-100)
He lives in squalor:
taking tea on dirty beds
resting against pillows
a rape in agreement
but noisy and sensational,
for news of private moments
and modern Satampas’s TV
becomes a reality
and her Sanjay becomes blind
with Dhritrashtra gaining sight
to have a glimpse
of dark and polluted Delhi
Manas without mercy
For he is learning to live in fragments.
(Ibid. ll 113-127)
Rotting and mostly rotten modern value system astounds the poet. Morals and values and finer things are no longer here: things have gone topsy-turvy.
Now to-day’s God says
to Satampa and all
the world is a tree,
it has fruit poisonous
… ….. ….. ..
And thou shalt eat it
And thou shalt
In life and death.
(Ibid. ll. 145 – 159)
Cartoon flooded TV rebuilds and makes farces of Shakespeare and Kalidasa. Great masters are twisted, reviled and denounced. Inordinate pride and one upmanship becomes the order of the day. There is only heart appeasing lust with no emotion. Man’s thinking has gone awry: he needs wrong things for wrong purposes and thinks of reaping success. His life pattern itself is destructive and counter-productive:
It is his living
in intuitive premonition
of a fugitive,
of earth like Cain
waiting for perdition
(Ibid. ll. 235-39)
Life - a drama without a plot - is his way the condition of action. Sexual promiscuity goes on fast engulfing with external ribaldry and innate concupiscence:
…… ….. …
here mothers are fucked
and daughters run into fathers
so relations become suspect,
(ibid. ll. 278-280)
People do not hold on to old values. We are told:
it is a mad crowd
running with headless
and without hearts,
a mindless race where crowds
collide and collapse.
Degenerate man, the poet tells us:
Lies in thorns and inferno
of shame and continuous hatred
so cannot save himself,
(Ibid. ll. 346-348)
We are told by the poet that man’s destruction is self-caused:
He tries to become a God
but responds not to prayers
offered daily in despair,
he challenges his identity that is inconsequential
and without value,
but ends up in tiny portions
for he is a man destined
to die and breathe
in fractured life.”
This is oracle, the divination of the last decade, the poet’s portrayal of withering man.
PCK Prem has carved a niche for himself long ago in the Parthenon of Indian English Literature as a poet, fiction writer and a literary critic of eminence. Modern culture makes man a mannequin, a figure in wax with feet of clay. There is no straight forward thinking in the powers vested with the murkiest of black money and moral turpitude. No wonder a morality sensitive intellectual is bothered by the fumes of cerebration. The agony of the right-minded was found in the vyakulata of Sage Vedavyasa who had to write the eighteen puranas. The poet in Prem is so perturbed that he is tossed in turbulence. Value systems are pooh-poohed and the old rectitude with honesty is considered abysmal stupidity. The evolution of deeper thought gives expression of mal du siècle, the malady of the century. He titled the book ‘Of This Age and Obscurity and Other Poems’, the fourth of his collections of poetry published in 2011. In this towards the end there is the poem ‘True Memoirs’. All the poems are about the sordid human condition in the modern age where cultures of the hoary times have been undergoing intense, debilitated and still debilitating change. This long poem is about the drift of times and a quick look into past. It begins with remembrance of things past with this first:
At this stage, it is hard to forget days
spent along the riverside,
on the wayside stalls peeling peanuts
hot gram or popcorn with a paisa as pocket money
…. ….. …..
A neighbouring country in a big war
countries fought, heard of a a Mahatmas
of a Hitler
or Lenin, Mussolini, Churchill or Roosevelt
and men did not know what it meant,
then it ended and again it was a fight prolonged;
told of Nehru, Mahatma, Patel and Jinnah
(True Memoirs, p.93)
The youngsters are too young to know anything. Old men tell lies or at best distort truths. Then he remembers a friend: a good reader of cozy papers who liked sensationalism who spoke about a sad nation on netas-babus and saints in bawdiness.
I listen and keep quiet.
He calls me a cheat
an intellect of spiteful words,
living in a crowd destroying claims of saint.
If he goes crazy, he would kill me
for I am a neta type of man
holds opinion not handy, I am afraid.
Being a thinking man he was shrunk and shut his mouth. He refused facing ‘a genuine man offering essence bitter.’ The realization of the malady of the century gets into the nerves of expression:
This century talks of classes
among elites and plebeians
quite chic and sprite like Chanakya they love
Machiavelli they tag along, quote Mahatma
as empty vessels of chaotic activity sing
and say man is now a God.
Time and again, the intellectual’s cerebration goes back into the bygone time of pristine values, virtue and valour. He tells us:
This is the spirit I lived in not log ago
in cultural mindset
cuddled in Bhishma’s words, on arrows eye,
an exercise in self-burning in the mid air,
as I find life a headless body
staying with a curse.
Dreams alone may be a source of comfort and solace. But then the enlightened sufferer thinks that dreams of death are a facility for the brave and tough hearts in a land that dried up where bodies only rot.
The most impressive parts of Prem’s poetry are those where the expression sounds powerfully thundering, genuine and electrifying. The lines about the dreams of death paraphrased above are illustrations, a case in point of the seriousness and sublimity of passion. It is always the hot brain which in the emotion of helplessness looks around, sees and feels lousy with utter helplessness. But faith and rectitude stick in the poet’s mind-heart-intellect that people called manas in a single word. The pithiness of expression is high watermark in effective poetry.
Man is born in a tube and clones walk
to construct statues with open eyes
and hand clutched, fingers on triggers
and lips senile,
dictate death in intermittent punctuality,
on a footpath in a posh pub
of fake faces tanned and ears flippant.
The expression of anguish does not stop there. The future does not hold any promise: things have already fallen apart the centre would never be able to hold:
Living in a country of hard luck tells
time is past and present too
hard to walk into future with no hope.
The future envisaged is murky and feckless:
Man kills man and politician is foul
he does not serve, kills men on the streets
and calls it duty
That swamis are great, wonderful cons
cram books as if god sits quite near
a mystery it is to try to unstitch.
It is failure.
This is the way the world goes, on and on and doesn’t stop … doesn’t stop…!
Man goes up in the sky to catch
The an invisible clean object,
without the capacity to hold,
and continues to pile wood on a pyre
that finishes poetry and prose
as parts of history,
that is mystery in a world of robots.
This is the poet’s angst and the way he mocks at satkari babu, politicians and the wretched gifted gabs makes the reader look into what he sees only from outside.
Here is fury and disgust without scurrility but with subtle irony and telling, scathing satire.
Prem P.C.K, ‘Monto’ from Among the Shadows, Narinder Publication, Delhi, 1989,
Prem P.C.K , Bermuda Triangles, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1996
Prem P.C.K, Oracles of the Last Decade, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1998
Prem P.C.K, Of This Age and Obscurity and Other Poems, Gnosis, Authorspress, New Delhi, 2011