Review: Magadh by Shrikant Verma, translated by Rahul Soni
Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1987, Shrikant Verma’s Magadh, which has been translated into English by Rahul Soni, is a fine example of Nayi Kavita, whose practitioners believed poetry was political and a way to respond to systemic inequalities
To think of Magadh only as a poetry collection would be a gross underestimation of the ambition and seething rage of Shrikant Verma’s poetry. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1987, this collection, like the very nature of the twisted locutions of its poems, highlights a unique contradiction in Verma’s life. Even after being affiliated with the ruling party to the extent that it was his strategic planning that restored Indira Gandhi to power, he remained deeply critical of the party’s actions and abuse of power. As he grappled with his place in contemporary events, he used the palette of ancient history to paint the questions that may have disturbed him endlessly.
Bored of the metrical poetry of Chhayavad and the philosophical ruminations of Agyeya, Hindi poetry of the 1970s and ’80s was itching for a breakthrough. It was also a time of socio-political upheaval with the country reeling under the effects of the Emergency. A new generation of poets — clubbed under the label of Nayi Kavita — believed poetry to be political, a way to respond to systemic inequalities and suggest change.
Magadh is a fine example of Nayi Kavita. In their simple yet sharp rendition into English by Rahul Soni, these poems look like plain, unadorned ruminations about Magadh and the other Mahajanapadas around it. The reader is even baffled by questions such as these:
Why are you silent, friends?What’s happened in Magadh?Has the king died?
How is it possible for the number of dead to be the same on both sides
- A Just War
It’s difficult to understand the depth of such questions in a quick first read or if you are unaware of the political history of Magadh.Even while formally monarchic, the sense of justice that prevailed in the state made it exemplary. But with the eventual passage of time, as rulers began to exercise unbridled power and their “nights were drowned in wine and whores,” Magadh turned from democracy to despotism, the implications of which were felt far and wide. This is where the tension of Verma’s poetry lies.
On page after page, the poet questions the grand illusion of power, the insignificance of victories, the vanity of ambition and the ubiquity of grief. In Fiction, he says: The Pataliputrayou and Iare fighting foris in the eyes of othersa fiction.
The absurd ambition to rule is on stark display. For such monarchies to survive, he argues, dissolution of thought and reason is needed, as a result of which, people become mere puppets in the hands of rulers:
The crowdis saying in one voice -Weare happy!Maharaj,as many timesas they tell youtell them -‘My people!/Stay happy’
- The Style of Kosal
No one even interruptsfor fearof interruptionbecoming the custom in Magadh
Verma does this, not with the righteousness of an uninvolved writer, but with the dismay of an insider frustrated by the acquiescence of the people. As a result, the poems grow on the reader and he begins to find resonances in the contemporary world. It is this that gives this slim volume the quality of a classic. Verma questions the thoughtless existence of monarchies and voices the disillusionment that comes with the abrupt ideological changes that accompany a ruler’s ascent to power. When he states in Some Other Amravati: Maharajthis is not that Amravatithis is someother Amravati
the reader, immediately reminded of the religious fanaticism plaguing the country today, feels a pang of sadness.
The identity of a nation remains intimately connected to the identity of its people, as is the loss of that identity. This is accentuated in Nameless in Avanti, where the disillusioned poet ironically asks: Will it make a differenceif I sayI’m not from MagadhI’m from Avanti?
As the collection progresses, there’s a transition from sarcastic poems to ones that are softer, subtler, and more accepting of the truth. The weariness that emerges after closely witnessing injustice is further accentuated by the helplessness that lumbers up at the inability to do anything much about it. In He Who Was Young, a poem like many others that target Ashoka, Verma reasons: It’s naturalfor a man to grow oldalong the way—whether the way be easy or hard.
Some of the most moving poems are also personal ones where Verma ruminates on the toll of living the contradictory life of a poet:
I could have saved myselfbut how could I Those who save themselves cannot create
It is perhaps this acknowledgement of the stranglehold of duality and the poet’s desperation to creep out of it that gives Magadh its unparalleled ferocity and urgency. Verma died of cancer shortly after its publication, making Magadh his last book; it is one that will continue to outlive him for years.
Kinshuk Gupta is the associate editor of Usawa Literary Review and the poetry editor of Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review.