I first came across M Mohankumar’s poetry when his second volume, ‘Half Opened Door,’ was released at a function at Thiruvananthapuram six years ago. He was then the Chief Secretary of Kerala and that perhaps explained the high profile of the audience at the function. The high and the mighty of the officialdom were there in full measure (the book was released by the then Governor of the state). But there were also several shining stars of the literary firmament, led by the late Dr K Ayyappa Paniker, eminent poet who was also a great promoter of poetry.
But more than the glitterati what impressed one was the book itself. It had a simplicity, a directness that was appealing. Reading some of the poems one felt an instant rapport with the author. Many of the things he said in his poems may be quite ordinary or humdrum. But a keen sense of observation, an acute poetic sensibility and vivid imagery have all given them an extra-ordinary texture.
Over the years I continued to read his poems and could still be delighted by the amazing imagery and instant appeal. Like, for instance, ‘Music at Night’ that he wrote recently after reading ‘Voices Within,’ an excellent pictorial biography of Aariayakudi Ramanuja Iyengar by Bombay Jayasree and T M Krishna.
“Before me a book of music. ‘Voices Within’
emerge as from a fine-tuned instrument,
deftly played. Again and again my eyes turn
to the old master-singer, namam and all.
All of a page, swinging on the oonjal,
magnetic eyes fixed on me. I press the remote
and hear a vibrant voice, his voice, singing,
the way he would swing, neither slow nor fast,
keeping the golden mean. What raga is it?
Janaka or Janya ? How does it matter?
My joy is not a whit diminished by my
ignorance. Now the room is filled with
sublime music. Loneliness has slunk away,
weariness gone like a wind-driven cloud.”
As he has said in more than one poem, Mohankunmar has always been fascinated by words. ‘In this room. Am I lonely?’ he asked in the very first poem in his first anthology, ‘Pearl Diver,’ published in 1998.
‘Not really, I am in lively company.
For they come flocking into my mind,
Like a flock of sheep. Words.
To give utterance to thoughts.’
And what kinds of words?
‘The long ones and the short,
Some pleasing to the eye,
Some sounding soft, some harsh.
Some plain but elegant.’
He sums up:
‘Each word has its value.
Like syllables, none unfit for a mantra;
Like men, none utterly useless.
And in their proper place
They make good prose or verse.’
With a remarkable felicity of expression that is at once simple and profound, Mohankumar explains his poetic creativity. ‘Some people ask me why I write poetry, at this age,’ he pointed out in the second poem in the same anthology. His answer is that the ‘urge to write’ has taken hold of him, as never before. And there is no age limit for writing poetry either. He writes poems because ‘It comes as the wind /And when it comes, I capture it/ And set it down on paper, not let it/Die in my heart.’
Mohankumar has so far published five volumes of poetry, the fifth one, ‘The Diwan’s Discomfiture and Other Poems’ hitting the stands some months ago. It is no mean achievement for any practitioner of the poetic craft, not to mention one who has been till some years ago extremely busy with affairs of state as Kerala’s Chief Secretary. The first two volumes of his poetry, ‘Pearl Diver’(1998) and ‘Half-Opened Door’(2000) appeared when he was in office and the next three, ‘Nightmares and Day-Dreams’ (2002), ‘The Moon Has Two Faces’ (2004) and ‘The Diwan’s Discomfiture and Other Poems’ (2007) after his retirement.
Perhaps poetry has been with him even from his youthful days as a student of literature and his subsequent work as a Lecturer in English. But there was a long hiatus, once he was drawn into the IAS and the exigencies of administration took him to many places and many positions. Much later in his career he realized that he could suppress the urge no longer. And when poetry bloomed there were flowers all around.
What distinguishes his poetry is his keen sense of observation matched by precise diction. What he speaks of generally are people and matters around him, ordinary and humdrum, but his acute poetic sensibility and vivid imagery give them an extraordinary texture. Vignettes from his personal life may be found in every anthology, as also many of the events or developments he comes across in his life as a bureaucrat. Nature in all its finery and little acts of kindness or consideration that mean much have also been given memorable poetic treatment by him. In ‘A Frozen Teardrop’ in Pearl Diver he laments for a little sister who died years ago:
‘Many years have passed. But
In my mind’s eye, Sister,
You are still a child of three,
Playing, laughing, free.
In my heart, a frozen teardrop.’
Life of a senior bureaucrat is never easy because of the tensions that go with the administration and the multitudes of problems that crop up from everywhere. Equally important is the problem of dealing with inconvenient bosses. There are several poems that cast light on the predicament that these officials find themselves in day in and day out. One such is ‘Boss’ in ‘Nightmares and Daydreams.’
‘You are never safe with this man,
Superior and supercilious.
He measures and metes out in his
Strange, incomprehensible way.’
If you keep mum, he will declare that you are good for nothing, if you are brief he will pounce on you and maul you for being short and if you start to make a detailed exposition he will cut you short ‘With barbed words that pierce the heart.’ And the poet wonders whether in comparison Procrustes, who stretched or shortened his guests to adjust them to the length of the cot, was not a gentler soul.
There is much social criticism, poignant at times, in his poems. Take for instance ‘Strife Torn’ and ‘Something Troubles This Village’ in which the poet refers to actual incidents of violence that took place at a few places in Kerala and points to the heart rending aftermath of wanton violence. The rag picking boy, he says in ‘Strife-torn,’ picked up the bomb that burst in his inquisitive hand and robbed him of the light of his eyes. Elsewhere, a girl lost her leg when a bomb was hurled into her house by miscreants.
‘The hand that put the bomb
In the garbage heap—
Surely it new
What it was doing.
The hand that hurled the bomb
So casually into the house—
Surely it knew
What it was doing.’
‘But in this strife-torn village
Hands are insensitive and
Conscience lies in stupor
For years to come
He will go on fumbling
Tap-tapping his way;
And she will lurch along,
Leaning on crutches;
Recalling, with shudder
Grim stories of a village
Laid waste by neighbors
turned into foes.’
In ‘Something Troubles this Village’ he refers to young men who
Or lie in wait
Hidden daggers shining through their eyes.’
It is a place
‘Where flames leap from inflamed hands
And the scorched earth lies
Spattered with blood.’
One of the touching poems in The Moon Has Two Faces is ‘The Young Mother’ in which he refers to a young vagrant woman he saw when his car stopped at a traffic inter-section. The woman, playing with her infant, was so engrossed in it that was unmindful of everything else.
‘What am I to make out
From this bloom of youth,
This face of innocence,
The glass bangles, the toe-rings,
The crumpled saree, the straggly hair?
And the babe-in-arms
Plump and dark?’
Soon there will be twilight and then night. Will there be any shelter for her somewhere, the poet wonders.
‘Or will she remain in some dark recess of the street,
A thrown out rind?
For the advancing night to
Enfold in its licentious arms?’
The biggest tragedy in his life was the untimely death of his wife following a sudden, inexplicable illness. The death, needless to say, devastated him and made him a lonely man. He feels that there has been so much of indifference or carelessness, or both, on the part of the doctors that led to her death. He has never forgiven the medical fraternity for that.
Memories of his wife make up the central theme of many of the poems in The Moon Has Two Faces and The Diwan’s Discomfiture And Other Poems.
‘Transition,’ ‘Stopped in the Track,’ ‘Once again the Birds Twittered, ‘Of Bad Dreams,’ ‘Poem’ etc are poems in the latest anthology that mention his wife with all the tenderness of love or the pang of separation. Since she had won whenever she took part in musical chair competitions, always outran others with lemon on spoon perfectly balanced between her lips
‘I’d thought you would outlast me
In this game of life,
But was shocked
To see you stop
In the track
To the ground.’
One of the most poignant pieces is ‘Poem,’ one in which he draws from a saree advertisement he saw in Chennai,
“It is not a saree, but a poem on you.”
‘I have been at it, for days, weaving
And unweaving, like Penelope, but only
To improve, having gone far afield to get
The best stuff I could, having dyed and
Starched with loving care, working in
The motifs and the gold threaded border
Keeping your taste in mind. I have woven
With love and silken threads. In pastel
Color as you would have liked it. Some may
Sneer at it as a botched thing, some may
Fault the count, the texture and the finish.
But how does it matter to me? For I know
You would have been pleased with the
Look of it and the feel—this poem on you,
With you to stand beside me, will I care?
Did I care? But you are now far, far away…’