(A collection of poems)

Puran Singh Kanwar

Translations by T.C. Ghai


Dr. Puran Singh Kanwar: A Biographical Note

Dr. Puran Singh Kanwar was born in 1942 in a land-owning Rajput family in Jodhanagari, a small village in Amritsar district. He began his education in the primary school in Dehriwallah, a village about 2 km from Jodhanagari. He passed his high school from Guru Tegh Bahadur High School in a small town, Tarisikha, about 4 km from his village. It was during his stay in this school that he imbibed great reverence for the Sikh Gurus and a view of Sikhism as a liberating force. It is said that, later, whenever he visited his village he used to lecture on the true meaning of Sikhism in the village Gurudwara.

He came to live in a city for the first time when he joined DAV College Amritsar in 1960 to do his intermediate. In 1962 he came to Delhi and did his graduation from Dayal Singh College in 1964. In Delhi University he came under the influence of Dr. R.K.Das Gupta of the Department of Modern Indian Languages, who dissuaded him from going for English literature, and encouraged him to work in his mother tongue, Punjabi. Dr. Kanwar did his MA in Punjabi from Delhi University in 1966. He joined as lecturer in Punjabi in DAV College Chandigarh in 1967. It was perhaps during this period that he flirted with radical ideologies and turned an agnostic, but he retained, throughout is life, his deep reverence for the Sikh Gurus, and mystics and Sufis. He was hostile to all varieties of bigotry and communalism. He was dismissed from service in 1970 for his radical views, being accused of showing irreverence to the pictures of Swami Dayanand, and defying the strict DAV code of conduct. He taught for a brief period in Arya College Ludhiana too.

He returned to Delhi in 1973, where he came in contact with Dr Harbhjan Singh, poet, critic and a professor in the Department of MIL Delhi University and who was emerging as a leading critic in Punjabi by introducing the newest trends from European literary criticism into Punjabi. Dr Kanwar developed a special interest in Russian Formalism, the Prague School and the American New Criticism. Because of his mercurial temperament and outspoken nature, his fierce egotism, defiant attitude and subversive views he failed to develop a positive relationship with anyone who could help him to get a teaching job in Delhi University or set him on a smooth career in research. So, for nearly ten years he remained out of job, unanchored, defiant, lonely, living on translation and journalistic work and support from his family.

During this period of self-exile, as if, he did maintain a love-hate relationship with the Punjabi literary circles. He was also an occasional visitor at the residence of Amrita Pritam, the queen-bee of Punjabi poetry those days. Amrita Pritam published at least two of his poems in her magazine ‘Nagmani’, in1976 and1977. Publication in ‘Nagmani’ was then considered a stamp of authenticity in poetry. He translated, for the National Book Trust, Aurobindo’s biography into Punjabi, and also translated one of Amrita Pritam’s novels, ‘Sippi te Samundar’, into English, which was serialized in an Assamese daily newspaper from Gauwhati. Sometime between 1965 and 1975 he was traumatized by a love affair with a girl of his own community. Because she belonged to a sub-caste into which he could not marry, the girl’s parents absolutely ruled it out. This set him on a course of irreconcilable hostility towards his father and family and the society at large.

It was only in 1982 that he got a permanent job in Deshbandhu Evening College in Delhi as a lecturer in Punjabi. Dr Kanwar published his first and only collection of poetry ‘Rattan di Rut’ in 1984 and it was dedicated to Amrita Pritam, and Dr Kanwar’s friend Raj Gill, a journalist. He obtained his doctorate in 1986 for his work ‘New Criticism and its Influence on Punjabi Literary Criticism’. Dr Kanwar married in 1985. A permanent job and marriage stabilized his life to a great extent but perhaps also tamed the restlessness of spirit that had led him often to tilt Quixote-like at the windmills of commonsense and conventionality. May be it also destroyed his urge to write poetry. In 1995 he was found suffering from lung cancer, and he died in July 1996. He is survived by his wife, Mrs. Usha Kanwar.


‘A Season of Nights’, a collection of 35 poems, along with their original Gurmukhi versions and Devanagari transcriptions, is a translation of the poems of little known Punjabi poet Late Dr. Puran Singh Kanwar (1942-96)[See the biographical note]. Out of these, 28 poems were published in 1984 in their original as ‘Rattan di Rut’. When these poems were published they were characterized as the poetry of ‘a unique individuality and unique paradigm’. This collection was discussed for a short while among the Punjabi literary circles in Delhi. Two or three review articles also appeared. But soon after, the poetry vanished from the radar screen of the Punjabi literary world, which was not surprising since Dr Kanwar did not publish any more poetry after that. In fact he hardly wrote any. Thus this collection of poetry was no more than a momentary flash of lightning that disappeared as soon as it had appeared. No one took the trouble to examine its ‘uniqueness’.

Dr. Kanwar was not only my colleague at Deshbandhu Evening College in New Delhi but also a very close friend. After his premature death due to lung cancer in 1996, I read these poems again and became aware of their uniqueness not only in Punjabi but also any other poetry I had read and was familiar with. While I regretted that Dr. Kanwar had not written much poetry, I also felt that this meager but rare and unique specimen needed to be preserved because its disappearance from our literary memory would be a very sad thing and a considerable loss. Acting on this impulse, I translated these poems into Hindi and had them published, along with their Devanagari transcriptions, in a literary journal named ‘Sandhan’ published by Dr Jeevan Prakash Joshi, a well-known Hindi poet and critic. That was in January 2000. But I was not completely satisfied and thought that the poetry deserved to be circulated among a still wider audience, and decided to translate it into English. That is why this collection, which includes 7 new poems discovered from Dr. Kanwar’s papers after his death. In a multi-lingual society as ours there is no need to further justify this bilingual enterprise except to say that this poetry deserves to be more widely read.

Dr. Kanwar’s poetry belongs to the corpus of Punjabi poetry written mainly between mid-sixties and early eighties of the 20th century, and often termed as New Poetry, or Experimental Poetry, or Anti-Poetry. The most characteristic note of this poetry is one of indifference or rejection or revolt against the contemporary social, political, religious and literary values and ideas. It is the poetry of assertion of the individuality of the poet, or of lamentation of its loss in a world that the poet fails to understand or accept or negotiate. Some prominent names in this movement, often termed as the post-Amrita Pritam-Mohan Singh stream, are J.S.Ahluwalia, Ravinder Ravi, Sohan Singh Misha, Tara Singh, Harbhjan Singh, Sukhvinder Pal Singh Hasrat, Jagtar, Jaswant Deed, Manjit Kaur Tiwana, Surjit-Patar, Harbhjan Singh Halwarwi and Pash. This is what Kartar Singh Duggal and Sant Singh Sekhon, two noted Punjabi writers and critics, have to say about the 20th century Punjabi poetry in their book: A History of Punjabi Literature (Sahitya Akademy, 1992):

‘The Modernists marked a departure from the medieval writing. They tended to be elitist. Bhai Vir Singh steered clear even of the freedom struggle…The Progressives were much too preoccupied with the have-nots, the suppressed and the downtrodden. Between these two extremes there was a silence that needed articulation. The Newest of the New sing of this silence. Most important names among them are: Surjit-Patar, Mohanjit, Tara Singh, Jagtar, Manjit Tiwana, Harbhajan Singh Halwarwi, Jaswant Deed, and Swarajbir (S.B.Singh)’.

This poetry can be seen, in the main, as an encounter between a self-conscious individuality and an external reality, the other, in the shape of the city, the state and the new socio-political and cultural forces in the country, and in Punjab in particular. The response of these poets varies, in philosophical and ideological terms, from Existentialist to Marxist (including its most radical Indian manifestation, Naxalism), to even Iqbal and Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman but without losing its anchorage in the Sikh history and folklore, and pan-Indian traditions.

Although Dr Kanwar was contemporaneous with these poets and his poetry can be subsumed under the names Experimental, New or Anti-Poetry, he remains unique among this group. As contrasted to the encounter between a self-conscious individuality and an external reality, which is the broad canvas of this post Amrita Pritam-Mohan Singh wave, Dr Kanwar’s poetry is an encounter within the individual – between the conscious and the unconscious self. His poetry is a journey into the subterranean world of the unconscious from where it explodes like a volcanic eruption from the dark depths of the earth. This sets him apart from all these poets.

I think Dr Kanwar’s poetry can be best approached through the Surrealist Movement in poetry and art in Europe in the 1920’s. There is no evidence of any direct impact of this Movement on Dr Kanwar. But, of course, Dr Kanwar was familiar with the writings and ideas of Freud and Jung, and some names in the Surrealist Movement. He was certainly familiar with the paintings of Dali. However, I don’t think he had read any pre-Second World War Surrealist poetry. In fact Dr Kanwar wrote most of his poetry between late sixties and seventies of the last century, the period when the Indian poetry in general was still under the pervasive influence of T.S.Eliot and the American New Criticism. It is rather his own personality – his conflictual relationship with his family and the world around him, his quixotic tilting at the mills of the rational world, his flirtations with the radical ideologies, in short his anarchist and rebellious nature - that explains his affinity with the Surrealist Movement of the 1920’s in Europe.

Surrealism, along with the anarchist Dadaism, grew out of the Western mind’s frustration with rationalism and its deep awareness of the discoveries of Freud and Jung. Beginning in France in 1924 (Andre Breton’s famous Manifesto) Surrealism spread quickly through out Europe and America. As a movement it was totally hostile to conventional morality, had few affinities with the humanist tradition, was antithetical to classical tradition (that had excluded the irrationality of the poets)) and rejected all aesthetic, moral, social and political constraints on self-expression. It was, in short, ant-art, anti-government, anti-church and was dedicated to bring to the centre of artistic expression the Freudian unconscious – ‘the kingdom of the irrational’. Surrealism discarded the notion that habituated common sense pattern of the world was a sufficient and reasonably accurate account of the reality. Art - whether painting, sculpture or poetry - gave the Surrealists the way to locate and record aspects of the unconscious mind. Into their art went all their predispositions towards the unconscious – their interest in dreams, trance states, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia – evocations of the states of mind wherein processes apart from reason might manifest themselves. This is what the art critic Herbert Read, who himself was associated with the Surrealist Movement for sometime, had to say:

‘What (the surrealist poet) offers to society is not a bagful of his own tricks, his idiosyncrasies, but rather some knowledge of the secrets he has had access, the secrets of the self which are buried in everyman alike, but which only the sensibility of the artist can reveal to us… largely made up of the elements from the unconscious, and the more we learn about the unconscious, the more collective it appears to be…’ (Italics mine)

Carl Jung wrote in 1930:

‘Nothing would be more erroneous than to assume that the poet creates from the material of (literary) tradition. He rather works from primal experience… the primal experience is word and imageless for it is a vision of the dark mirror…that which appears in the vision is the collective unconscious, that curious structure inherited through the preliminary psychic condition of the unconscious.’(Italics mine)

It is this hidden world of the unconscious, ‘the forbidden zone’, that is at the root of Surrealist art – the world which manifests itself in our dreams, and which Freud so painstakingly explored and which, according to him, lay at the back of our conscious acts. And it is this relationship between the waking state and the dream world - their juxtaposition -which is the subject of exploration of the Surrealist artist. No literary movement had ever understood so clearly the relationship between poetry and dreaming, and so thoroughly blended poem and dream. The Surrealists in fact went beyond Freud – ‘ affording to the dream an ontological reality ultimately superior to the waking state.’ However, Surrealism did not seek a romantic retreat into the dreams or a psychological reduction of dreams to the language of reason but a dialectical synthesis of dream and reality.

This dialectical relationship between the world of ‘objective fact’ (the waking state) and the world of subjective fantasy (that comes alive during sleep in dreams) creates a qualitatively new experience which is expressed not through a conscious deliberate choice of words or images, but by bringing in ‘the element of chance’ (Andre Breton’s automatic writing) into the poetry, which generates a ‘mysterious luminosity’ of the poetic image. Surrealism sought to regain ‘ the use of powers we once possessed before they were emasculated by a materialist civilization, powers which children, primitive people and insane seem to be the last among us to retain.’*

Dr Kanwar’s poetry seems to fit into this Surrealist framework quite well. The title of his collection - A Season of Nights – is extremely suggestive. It conjures up a mysterious phantasmagoria of nightly images. Night, of course, is associated with sleep and dreaming, when there is a ‘lowering of resistance’ created by the superego against the repressed and secret world of the unconscious, and when desire has free play – desire in all its manifestations, desire to love, to murder, to destroy, to inflict pain or enjoy its infliction, delusions of grandeur and grandiose wishes and infinite longings that rise from the depths of the primal experience and float on the surface to find expression in dreams. There’s a breakdown of barriers erected by the waking state leading to a free flow of what has been repressed and hidden.

Almost every poem of Dr Kanwar’s is a first person narrative-cum-theatrical presentation of a non-ordinary state of mind - a dream, a nightmare, a fantasy, a trance, a delusion, a hallucination - each poem diving into the bottomless pit of the unconscious and bringing out the forbidden and subversive elements that surprise, shock and overwhelm the reader and shake the ground beneath his feet earthquake-like. Each poem illustrates a way of seeing the world that is radically different from the sanitized framework through which the world is perceived in terms of categories of thought devised by the intellect, the world given shape by the whole range of philosophies and ideologies invented by man. It comes close to a rejection of the rationally apprehended world of Sancho Panza by the fevered imagination of Don Quixote – what are windmills to Sancho Panza are fearful monsters to the Don, to be subdued and conquered but with little success.

Dr Kanwar’s poetry is thus a subversion of the commonsensical and neatly categorized world of everyday reality in favour of the primal world of the collective unconscious, the mountain heap of human experience – uninhibited, undefined, chaotic, and ultimately inexplicable to the human intellect.

It is this aspect of Dr Kanwar’s poetry that makes it unique and sets it apart from all literary movements in Punjabi poetry. His poetry is not a turning away from one movement and trend in favour of another. It is rather a rejection of all movements in poetry, and anti-poetry and anti-tradition in that sense. There is no conscious attempt to cultivate style or form; no attempt to use or reject rhyme or rhythm or to deliberately construct; no attempt to clothe or dress the poem in a literary mould. All this, in spite of

*My sources for this brief summary of the main tendencies in the Surrealist movement are Edward. B. Germain’s Introduction to ‘Surrealist Poetry in English’ Penguin (1977) and ‘Dada and Surrealism’ by Robert Short in ‘Modernism’ A Guide to European Literature (1890-1930) edited by Malcolm Bradbury and James Mcfarlane (Penguin 1976).

the fact that Dr Kanwar was so well read in the modern European literary criticism, more particularly the American New Criticism (his doctorate was on its influence on Punjabi literary criticism) which saw poetry as pure form and hardly as content. Although Dr Kanwar was an admirer of the American New Criticism and its theoretical formulations, his poetry is almost their complete negation. Dr Kanwar’s poetry has no form in that sense; it is all content and closer to Blake’s prophetic poems, amorphous rather than crystallographic – though often exuding the brilliance of a crystalline object. Or, rather its form is determined by the dialectical relationship between the conscious and the unconscious states, between intellect and desire, which results in a dynamic interplay between irreconcilable forces, often generating a tension to the breaking point.

Another feature of Dr. Kanwar’s poetry that links it to the world of dreams is the nature of its materials – its language and imagery, and its predominantly visual aspect. Freud tells us that a dream draws its materials from childhood experiences that have been forgotten or repressed and combines them with materials which are new and recent, and these two under a somatic stimulus bring forth the dream, the whole process involving condensation, distortion and displacement. Something similar seems to happen in Dr Kanwar’s poetry, but what is of interest here is the nature of its materials. As already pointed out, Dr Kanwar was familiar with the modern Western European and American poetry and literary criticism, yet almost all the material of his poetry, its constituting world, its language and imagery, is overwhelmingly rural and related to his childhood and adolescence. The images that emerge are all of the rural landscape – the brick kiln, the mirasis (the village jesters), the midwife, the village well, the water-wheel, the fields, the barber, the fodder barn, the owl, the dove, the spider, the wasp nests, the kikar, dhak and neem trees, the milkweed pods, the glow-worms. Dominant, among these, are the primal images of the sun and the earth, of death and birth, of father and mother with all their prohibitions and commandments and the feudal framework. Only here and there do we find references to the city, and to compasses and magnetic fields, perhaps under the influence of the English Metaphysical poet John Donne.

The language is almost purely the dialect of rural Amritsar, the district Dr Kanwar came from, almost absolutely raw, barely touched by the urban or literary idiom and devoid of almost all classical, Indian or Western, allusions, though one can often hear the echoes of the Punjabi Sufi poetry, even of the Gurbani occasionally. In his language and imagery, his sheer rusticity, Dr Kanwar is closer to the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah (1680-1758) rather than to any modern educated poet of his own times.

However, the most distinguishing feature of Dr. Kanwar’s poetry is the wide range of the non-ordinary states of mind revealed and their uninhibited presentation. Each poem, beginning as a first person narration, almost invariably settles into the dramatic present as if catching the poet in the act of experiencing. More than narration the poem is an enactment of the process of experiencing that almost implicates the reader, making him an accomplice.

Often his poetry is a fierce battleground between intellect and desire. One very dominant aspect of this conflict is a feeling of revulsion against the body, against desire, and the attempt to wrestle with it, to deny or overcome or uproot it:

Am I libidinous?
It is my father who is libidinous
It was my grandfather who was libidinous.
I did not break out of an egg
I did not drop out of a womb
I did not breed out of sweat
I’m of spontaneous origin
And like the mushroom
Have sprung up
All by myself. (Of Spontaneous Origin)

I shake off my body
Shake off! No! No!
I tear my body
Limb by limb
And fling it away.
Dismembered thus
I’m complete. (Possessed)

Here is an attempt to regain, in the face of so many temptations, the primal innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall:

Why does she hold the hand
Of this mad man?
She’s stripping herself,
And now she is naked
Through and through!
She laughs and says:
Without Eve
Is incomplete.’
Both of us vanish into the air
She my Eve
I her Adam. (Naked Through and Through)

Here is a reliving of the trauma of birth and death:

They have put me
Atop the chimney
Of a brick-kiln.
Burning coal rises up in flames.
The hot wind in winter?
Is it the hot wind
Or, has someone
Set the air on fire?

But why these afflictions?
I’m born every morn
I die every evening. (He’s Born Again)

Here is an awareness of the endless afflictions, which no trial by fire can ever end:

The offerings from the bag
Know no end
Know no end
The priest’s hands
Begin to shake
Begin to shake…
At last
At his wits’ end
He tosses the bag
Back to me
Back to me (The Bag of Afflictions)

Deadly snakes haunt our ways…
And flying snakes…
If I sleep I’m stung by scorpions
While awake I’m tormented by my pledge
My chest huffs and puffs like the bellows (The Jungle of Relationships)

Here is a sharp sadomasochistic awareness of the aggression and violence within:

Bhrigu is mum
Thrusting my eyes
Into his
I laugh through them.
He starts –
The mad man might
Suddenly charge
And strangle him
In broad daylight…

He is the maser of his art
And has peered
At the innumerable lines
On my palm.
One of these
Spells suicide
And hundreds
That speak murder.
(Lines on My Palm)

And here is that acute sense of smallness, and self-denigration:

You were accursed right from your birth.
Doomed to accomplish nothing
You have been smearing ash
On your mother’s face.
(Smearing Ash on My Mother’s Face)
Your destiny is
To drift like a pariah
To catch the flickering light of the glow-worms
To stare at the water channels
And, like foolish peasants
To turn away from the irrigated fields
And play with hairy seeds of the milkweed.
(A Poem)

Here is a deep sense of persecution, and defiance in the face of it:

They had tested their brute strength
And now this weapon of conciliation?
The messengers of time sniggered…
One tried to strangle me
It failed…
The next could only threaten:
I’ll blister your tongue with red-hot iron…
The third began to whimper:
He is still alive
His tongue wags
And there’s not a lash mark on his body…
How shall I skin him?
Listening to him
I smiled to myself… (Time’s Defeat)

But it is not merely the conflict between the instinctual drives and the superego, and a deeply wounded ego that are revealed in Dr. Kanwar’s poetry, there are moments of triumph and grandeur too. One might call them delusions of grandeur or visionary states that transcend human limitations. Here is identification with the sun as a primal force:

I adorn the images of a hundred delusions
In multi-coloured dresses
And stand them
In a row.
The sun comes
And devours them all
One after another.
His own mother’s assassin
This sun
Fixing his eyes into mine
Breaks into rattling laughter

Each day the sun is born with me…
Each day he sun dies with me… (Each Day the Sun is Born with Me)

Notice the luminosity of the image of light here:

I can fertilize
A barren land
I can illumine the face of the night
With the bridal lotion of light
I can with stars eclipse the sun (No Sun can Sweep Away)

Here is identification of the self with the power of love beyond all human computation:

The magnetic field
Of my earth’s magnet
Is only a point
Using which as centre
I have drawn a circle
Whose circumference
No human numbers can express.
Even this circle
Is contained
Within that magnetic field.
Whose inspiring power is this?
All the world’s iron
Has today come flying towards me. (Inspiring Power)

And look at this metamorphosis:

A short while from now
This dream
Will be appropriated
By my beloved,
To satisfy her lust
She will steal me
Out of my sleep
And after satiation
She will
Swallow me
And then she will
Bring me forth again…
My new form shall be
One of eternal silence
And in each limb
You will see
My uni-limbed form
And terror-stricken
You will cry out:

And here is a step by step movement from ‘being’ as defined by the intellect in terms of worldly relationships towards ‘being’ systematically denuded of all rationally constituted identities and attributes:

After endless supplications
Shying away from friends
Depriving myself of my father’s wealth
Turning my back on my mother’s love
Scoffing at the rays of the sun
Extinguishing all the lamps
For my own joy
I have nurtured
Within the jungle of my heart
A season of nights.
I have the voice of words.
My words are dumb
My speech is lifeless
Companions of my being
I have nothing…
(A Season of Nights)

This comes very close to a Sufi poet’s experience of movement away from worldliness towards ‘fana’, self-annihilation and merger with the eternal:

The more I polish the mirror of my heart
The less I see myself,
The light becomes brighter and brighter
And absorbs my shadow
Until I am lost…

But, of course, this is not to suggest that Dr. Kanwar was a mystic or a transcendentalist (he was not, and transcendence for him was a frustrating search within the human domain), but only to emphasize the wide range of the non-ordinary states that one encounters in his poetry, from ‘the supreme identity of cosmic consciousness to a drastically narrowed identity of the ego’.

To have a better understanding of these non-ordinary states of mind one needs to go beyond the Freudian model of the unconscious. Freud’s strictly rationalistic approach made it difficult for him to deal satisfactorily with non-ordinary states of mind including the mystical experiences. As a result, these states of mind have often been labeled as psychotic symptoms by Western psychiatrists. But, these very states have been treated as ‘privileged moments of existence’ by the Surrealists, who were, as pointed out earlier, not interested in reducing dreams or such states into the language of reason but treated them as entities that revealed the secrets of the self not possible for reason to unearth.

Indeed post-Freudian psychology, influenced by Eastern and other non-Western mystical traditions, has further explored and expanded the domain of the Freudian unconscious into a broad spectrum of a mental cartography in which these experiences are not necessarily psychotic. This spectrum envisages many levels of consciousness such as the psychodynamical, the perinatal, and the transpersonal.

The psychodynamic experiences are autobiographical and involve a complex reliving of emotionally relevant memories from various periods of an individual’s life. These experiences include the psychosexual dynamics and conflicts described by Freud, particularly the infant-mother relationship, which is ‘the prototype of all later love-relationships’ in an individual’s life. Referring to the uniqueness of this relationship, Sudhir Kakar says, in ‘The Inner World’ (1981), that it is within this dyad that a person first learns to relate to the ‘other’, and begins to develop his capacity to love (in its widest sense); it is here that an individual originates as a social being. ‘As adults, all our affiliations and intimacies bear the stamp of our particular kind of infancy’.

The perinatal experiences relate to the biological phenomenon involved in the process of birth and involve an extremely realistic and authentic reliving of various stages of one’s birth process – the state of bliss in the mother’s womb in primal union with the mother, the claustrophobia of being enclosed, and the trauma of enormous struggles for survival during propulsion through the birth canal. These experiences may be relived and emerge in the form of symbolic and visionary experiences. For example, the experience of enormous tensions that is characteristic of the struggle in the birth canal is often accompanied by visions of titanic fights, natural disasters, sadomasochistic sequences and various images of destruction and self-destruction. One of the most striking aspects of the perinatal domain is the close experience of birth and death. The perinatal level of the unconscious is the level of both birth and death and a domain of existential experiences that exert a crucial influence on a mental and emotional life. The visions associated with this experience frequently involve symbols of death.

The transpersonal experiences go beyond the individual boundaries and transcend the limitations of time and space and involve the expansion of the boundaries of the individual. They give a large sense of identity – transcending the usual limits of sensory perception. The transpersonal is the level of the collective unconscious where the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole. This mode of consciousness transcends reasoning and intellectual analysis approaching the direct mystical experience of reality. At the end of the transpersonal level is the level of cosmic consciousness at which one identifies with the entire universe. All boundaries are transcended and all individuality dissolves into the universal undifferentiated oneness.

Post-Freudian research and investigations have confirmed that such experiences can be induced with the help of LSD and other psychedelic substances. At the same time such experiences have been observed in meditative practices, trance states, shamanic healing ceremonies, in near death situations (remember Dr. J.S. Neki’s reference to a similar experience after his accident) and other biological emergencies and in a variety of other non-ordinary states which may occur spontaneously or may be induced by special techniques without any drugs. **

It seems that Dr. Kanwar’s mind was very receptive to such non-ordinary experiences. What is really amazing is that his poetry encompasses a wide spectrum of these experiences – from the purely egoistic through the existential to the transpersonal – to such an extraordinary degree that a purely commonsensical view of reality seems almost always excluded from his poetry. Was he, then, a schizophrenic out of tune with the world of everyday reality? But it is not only a schizophrenic who is out of tune with that world, so is a mystic, and the line dividing the schizophrenic and the mystic is very thin. If Dr Kanwar was a schizophrenic, it pushed him towards both the mystics and the ‘mad’. His preferred personalities were Shaikh Farid, Bulleh Shah, Guru Nanak, Vivekananda, Aurobindo (he translated Aurobindo’s biography into Punjabi for National Book Trust), Walt Whitman, Dr Mohan Singh, and of course, Kafka, Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

A man so completely at odds with the world of everyday reality is a lonely man – so was Dr Kanwar. But he enjoyed being lonely, whether he was drinking or wandering aimlessly in the open fields, shunning all human contact. It was during such moments that he composed his poetry, when he was alone and at peace with himself and the world, the moments so lucidly described by J. Krishnamurti:

‘To know the deeply concealed activities, the hidden motives, responses, thoughts and feelings, there must be tranquility in the mind; that is, the conscious mind must be still in order to receive the projections of the unconscious… When the superficial conscious mind is fully aware of all its activities, through that understanding it becomes spontaneously quiet, not drugged by compulsion or regimented by desire; then it is in a position to receive the intimations, the hints of the unconscious, of the many many hidden layers of the mind – the racial instincts, the buried memories, the unconcealed pursuits, the deep wounds that are still unhealed.’ (The First and Last Freedom, 1954). Freud might have said something similar about the ideal condition for the production of dreams and poetry.

** This brief and limited account of post-Freudian psychology is based on my reading of the chapters ‘Newtonian Psychology’ and ‘Journeys beyond Time and Space’ in The Turning Point (1982) and ‘Swimming in the Same Ocean’ in Uncommon Wisdom (1989), both by Fritjof Capra.

I have intentionally brought together J. Krishnamurti and Freud, two very different personalities, taking diametrically opposed routes to truth and understanding of life but talking of the same things in two different epochs of the 20th century. Freud, in 1930’s, in ’Civilization and Its Discontents’ referred to the death instinct, ‘the instinct of destruction’, as a force inimical to the ‘programme of civilization’. He was writing after the end of the First World War and had clear intimations of another catastrophic war waiting to engulf Europe in the wake of the rise of Nazism in Germany. He is deeply pessimistic about the fate of mankind because of its instinct for self-destruction:

‘The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally mortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?’

And this is what Krishnamurti is saying a generation later in 1950’s:

‘To bring about peace in the world, to stop all wars, there must be a revolution in the individual, in you and me. Economic revolution without this inward revolution is meaningless for hunger is the maladjustment of economic conditions produced by our psychological states – greed, envy, ill will and possessiveness…We will discuss peace, plan legislation, create new leagues, the United Nations and so on and on; but we will not win peace because we will not give up our position, our authority, our money, our properties, our stupid lives…To put an end to outward war, you must begin to put an end to war in yourself.’

Krishnamurti is also talking of the same tendencies – the aggression and violence within man – but gently admonishing mankind to give up its perverse ways. He, of course, has in mind what he saw – the Second World War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Chinese Revolution, the cold war, the Indian partition, the African experience, – the events that Freud missed but had hinted at. He also sounds pessimistic, like Freud. And the last fifty years of the 20th century have not done much to change this pessimism into any great optimism. The list of wars and holocausts during this period is very long indeed.

At the beginning of the 21st century, even though the threat of a total annihilation in a nuclear holocaust has greatly receded, the prospects for civilization to triumph over greed, aggression and violence seem quite bleak because greed, aggression and violence are the driving forces of the mainstream politics, economics and lifestyles the world over, and precipitating ever newer crises. Reading Dr Kanwar’s poetry is akin to seeing the individual unconscious mirroring the collective unconscious, the universal schizophrenia of mankind. Dr Kanwar’s achievement lies in having given us a devastatingly authentic poetical map of the human unconscious with rare courage, often having to hurt himself in the process by taking on Sancho Panza’s windmills for giants.

Finally, I should confess that I have only tried to provide a framework in which, in my view, Dr Kanwar’s poetry needs to be understood and analyzed. I have restrained myself from analyzing individual poems because I think that only a critic well trained in psycho-analytical techniques can do that, and it is my hope that someone will undertake this challenging task. I end by saying that, apart from the richness of the poetic experience this small corpus offers to a student of poetry, it also is a small but rich mine for a psychoanalyst. In that sense too this poetry is rare and unique.



They have put me
Atop the chimney
Of a brick kiln
Burning coal rises up in flames
Through my body.
The hot wind in winter?
Is it the hot wind
Or, has someone
Set the air on fire?

But why these inflictions?
I’m born every morn
I die every evening
Every morning
The village jesters come
To my father’s mansion
They dance
They mimic
They perform many skits
Then tucking wads of currency notes
Into the waistline folds of their dirty chadders
They say: ‘ May he live long’,
And slink away…
Sniggering up their sleeves.
Everyday the midwife
Carries on her head
A bundle of nappies and soiled clothes
To wash in plentiful waters
At the well.
This old woman,
My grandmother’s age, weeps
And lets know the women
Come to wash their dirty linen:
He’s born again…


A deaf black night
The whole world sleeps.
In the midst of slumber
I hear a sudden flap of wings:
A mind-shattering din!
Is it for a broken egg?
For a fallen hatchling?
I switch on the light
To look up at the nest on the fan…
And break into rattling laughter
At my nightmare.
My crazed outburst
Rouses the whole neighbourhood
They come running –
They talk
Of my mother’s long illness…
Of my wife’s recent suicide…
Listening to the babble
Of a hundred insinuations
I freeze into silence…
Then lifting my finger
Towards the nest
I tell them:
No hatchling has fallen…
No egg is broken…


The earth is barren
Let her be
In my world
What is barren
Is fertile enough
Your night
Is my day
My stars
No sun can sweep away
In my skies
The sun borrows its light
From the stars

On my earth
A newly sprouted shoot
No rain
Can ever uproot
I can fertilize
A barren land
I can illumine the face of the night
With the bridal lotion of light
I can with stars
Eclipse the sun
Your artificial rain can spell only disaster
I do not know
How to destroy
I only know
How to shield.


What a dream !
The bliss of the life hereafter
And all the pleasures of this world
Seemed dwarfed today –
My cancerous body became whole, and
Each moment greeted me with open arms.
I laughed at their welcoming stance.
Was it laughter
Or a wound ripped open?
They had tested their brute strength,
Now this weapon of conciliation?
The messengers of time sniggered…
One of them tried to strangle me
It failed…
The next could only threaten:
I’ll blister your tongue with red-hot iron…
The third began to whimper:
He is still alive
His tongue wags
And there’s not a lash mark on his body…
How shall I skin him?
Listening to him
I only smiled.
I did not challenge him
I somehow reined my temper
And quietly said:
Only the freshly dead
Can be skinned with ease,
The hide of one long dead
Or a living corpse
Will rather shred
Than come off.


I gather thorns
From the brambles,
The kikar and the dhak.
The cactus has been uprooted
On my father’s command.
My father
Scoffs at my plantations…
I’m a unique thing
It is not in me
To fondle
The cheeks of flowers
I was born of lust
But am free from lust…
My grandfather used to sprinkle
Wheat flour on anthills
To feed the ants, piously.
He was a jagirdar
The village overlord.
People say,
He used a new woman
Every night.
We’re high born!
I have descended from that libidinous grandfather
But I’m not libidinous…
I laugh at the hideousness of flowers
And use these thorns
To prick their eyes
The art of blinding the sightful
I have picked up from my mother.
She says,
As an infant
I did not feed on her milk
But clawed at her dry teats
I was reared on another’s milk.
Am I libidinous?
It is my father who is libidinous
It was my grandfather who was libidinous.
I did not break out of an egg
I did not drop out of a womb
I did not breed out of sweat
I’m of spontaneous origin
And like the mushroom
Have sprung up
All by myself.


Bhrigu is dumbstruck –
Thrusting my eyes
Into his
I laugh through them.
He starts –
The mad man might
Suddenly charge
And strangle him
In broad daylight…

He is the master of his art
And has peered
At the innumerable lines
On my palm…
One of them
Spells suicide
And hundreds
That speak murder.
When I was born,
People tell,
My mother
Had laughed and laughed
That laughter
Was her death-knell.
In my childhood
During his sleep
I had slit open with a knife
My father’s jugular vein.
He has been asleep since then…
I have let him sleep.
At our mansion
Nuptials are performed
The family barber dresses me
In the bridegroom robes of the royal family
The palki-bearers
Seat me in the palki
And move in a trance
As if snake-sniffed.
Every night I sleep
With the living corpse
Of a new queen.
At dawn
The priest
O prince
Wake up
You have to be ready again
For the nuptials…


In the mirror
My own face
Didn’t look my own
I just heard one familiar voice:
Fools are not born with horns.
Reflection of a voice?
Mother explains:
Son, this mirror can reflect many things
It was part of Vinod’s dowry.
I turned a deaf ear
To what she said
And kept on listening to the voices
From the mirror…
Was it a magic mirror?
I could not tell…
I’m none of these.
I said this
And was startled
By the reflection of one voice.
Even after a million attempts
I could not unrivet
My gaze.
The mirror was in front
And her prattle still on:
He’s neither ordinary
Nor so wily
He’s a fool!
A fool!!
And earns
The wages of his tongue.
She was describing me
To a classmate.
People say:
Guddha, the low caste,
Could spellbind fire.
No peasant
Would ever let him come near
The gur-making furnace.
I asked mother
If this was so?
‘Don’t indulge in rigmarole
Go away and sleep
It bodes ill
To look into the mirror
At night.’
‘To sweep in the evening bodes ill.
To stand the cot upside down bodes ill.
Tightening cot-strings at night
Brings forth daughters…’
I babbled.
‘He’s always styling his hair
Like pimps.
You should have been born
In a family of pimps.’
My father is taunting.
In front of the mirror
In spite of the taunts
In spite of a million attempts
I could not turn my gaze away.
What a spell!
My sight was bound.
What kind of a mirror is this?
I ask my mother again.
She’s mum.
Even today
I stand before the same mirror –
The same reflection:
He’s neither ordinary
Nor so wily
He’s a fool!
A fool!!
She’s describing me
To a classmate…


The wind
Has endowed
The world’s musical instruments
With melody
Transmuting silence
Into something new -
Bright and beautiful
Like the new snakeskin.

In the crimson light
The sand waves
Like a new-born babe
On the breast-swell of the seashore.

And then the wind
Bends the reed stems
To one side -
They keep bending
And bending
Until the delicate lines
I had traced
On the breast of sand
Are fractured.


Today I
I and we
Have broken
The barriers
Silence has backed up speech
And a bond
Between us and them
Broken long ago
Has been resigned…
There is no difference
Between crocodile tears
And their smiles.
That myth
I have exploded
Before everyone today.
Wailing and moaning
Chanting their laments
Rivers flow out
From the reservoir
In my home
I send them towards the sea
To break his silence
But that crooked fellow,
The cunning serpent,
Strikes them so
They lose their selfhood.
And the owl
That once sat
In my brain’s tree
Is back again.
I invite the spring a thousand times -
It does not come.
The autumn comes
Knocking insistently
At the doors of my heart…
This artless dove
Cooing her complaints
Against her rival
Reminds me
Of the heart ache of spring…
I empty my torch
Of its old cells
Put the new ones in
And switch it on
In a pitch-dark room
Find a stick
And shoo away the owl
Sitting in my brain’s tree…
You have until now seen
Only the colour of henna leaves
Do you want to see
The colour hidden in them?
You can
If you keep vigil with me
Each day
And forever drive away
The owl that sometimes comes
And perches
In my brain’s tree


You wait for me
With such eagerness!
I know.
I have loved your love
More than I have loved you.
How many times have I caught
And let go
The flickering glowworms
Of your remembrance!
You have stood by,
Like milestones, delineating
My life’s highway.
I have laughed at what I have done
And wept at what I have left undone.
The tracks of my consciousness
Have been strewn over
With the thorns of your memories.
I have stepped over
Some of these.
By drinking
The drops of blood
Trickling from my bloodied feet
You can become pregnant.
I know
While still a virgin
You wish to mother
A child by me.
Your heart is innocent
And this child
Born of your undefiled womb
Shall be pure
Beyond reproach.


From these eyes, many a time he had taken off his glasses
And in their deep oceans
He had found an oyster-shell.
From then on nothing else had stirred his heart
He steered clear of his friends
At home he sat idle, doing nothing
For hours on he would pluck out
And send floating into the air
Plumed seeds from dry milkweed pods
Even a hundred entreaties
Would not shake him.
In his wailing one could hear the howl of jackals
In his yelling one could hear the roar of lions.
In his childhood,
His mother tells,
He used to thrust his hand into wasp nests…
That oyster-shell
That he used to flaunt in front of his friends
He has now flung away into the sun!
Why does the brilliance of that shell
Now dazzle his eyes?
In this brilliance
His eyes see flying at once
Now silken plumes
Now yellow wasps…


To the sun
That emerges from the night’s womb
I offer water,
Stale and used,
And that which is left over
Evading mother’s eyes
Up to Shiva’s sacred niche
In the kitchen
I pour over the Shivalingam –
And break into rattling laughter.

Each day the sun is born with me…
Each day the sun dies with me…

I adorn the images of a hundred delusions
In multicoloured dresses
And stand them
In a row.
The sun comes,
And devours them all
One after the other.
His own mother’s assassin
This sun
Fixing his eyes into mine
Breaks into rattling laughter.

Each day the sun is born with me …
Each day the sun dies with me…


Death has invaded
My door
Someone has put the air
To match:
The wind is ablaze all around
And the night has been aborted
By this doctor before my very eyes.
Humiliated, she has come to me
Seeking refuge.
I have shut my doors
Very tightly on her
And as she rolls
In the burning air
I laugh.
My mother bids me stop,
Using the old threats:
Be quiet
Or I shall lock you up in the fodder barn.
I regain my wits
And stare goggle-eyed
At the city doctor beside me.
He’s telling my mother:
It’s nothing serious
It’s nervous tension
Just depression
And mere hallucination.


I and my wife
Are the same size
We’re midgets
Ours is the world of midgets
She has read
Only the title of my closed book
I have turned and read
Each and every leaf
Of her unwritten book
Each word of hers
Is polysemous
I curse my intelligence
That has worn me out
Before time
Let someone clip its branches
Lest its overspreading growth
Should trample under its shadow
The newly sprouting seedlings.
I’m a midget
And my midget intelligence
My measure


My wife
Rocks our baby
In the cradle
And sings a lullaby
My drowsy eyes
Close into sleep
A third eye
Then suddenly opens
And sees a new image.
I have never seen
A woman with two faces!
How’s it
My wife wears
On her face
Yet another face?
This image is not fearful
It is very lovely
Now I kiss her lips
And now she kisses my forehead.


An elephant can
Pass through the eye of a needle
A paralytic can
In one hop
Climb to the Himalayan top
A god can
Incarnate through a bitch’s womb
Someone can
Hold in his hand the sand
In all the deserts
(I’m that one)
Another can
Carry the sea
On his shoulders
And yet another can
With his Midas touch transform
Gold into copper.

If all that is possible
Well, then tell me,
Why I cannot
In one stride
The eighth ocean
That with its feet
On its shoulders
Circumambulates my home?


I walk
Towards the graveyard
Carrying the bier of a hundred shadows
A voice
Very loud
Falls on my ears.
It’s the cry of a corpse.

Don’t corpses cry?

The mud
On a mother’s grave
Has been clawed at
By a lust born.
This grave is fresh
Is the taste of corpse-flesh
Everything stale
Have you ever known
The stink
Of stale flesh?


Under the shade of the tamarind
I sometimes fondle my summer’s dream
And sometimes
I can sense the presence
Of a dream
Within a dream.
I ask myself
What I see
Or claim
That I see
Or what you see
In me
Or claim
That you see -
Is not all this
A dream
Within a dream?
A dream within a dream
Is a fact
As large
As my own self.
A short while from now
This dream
Will be appropriated
By my beloved,
To satisfy her lust
She will steal me
Out of my sleep
And after satiation
She will
Swallow me
And then she will
Bring me forth again...
My new form shall be
That of eternal silence
And in each limb of mine
You will see
My uni-limbed form
And terror –stricken
You will cry out:


A sheet of paper
Written over
Edge to edge
An empty inkpot
A broken pen
How shall I write?
Teach me how to write.
It was my mother
Who first taught me
With fingers
On a bed of ash
Spread on the mud floor.
That alphabet
I have now forgotten.
I need a blank sheet
And I haven’t found one yet
Whatever sheets
Whenever and wherever
I have seen
Have all been
Written over
Some full
Some half
Some holding just one line
Some just one word
Even a one-lettered sheet
Tells me a complete story
And my blank mind
Curses me
If unwittingly
Thinking it blank
I write something
On its back.
Give me a blank sheet
Teach me, or don’t
I shall be able to scribble
And from the gesticulations
Of a mute
You will infer something.


This is the limit
Sparks fly out
From within me
Squeeze my body
And let those who sleep on footpaths
Drink the drops
That trickle down
And you will see:
Drinking the drops
Of my burning blood
They would no longer be men
But metamorphosed volcanoes
That shall erupt
And incinerate all those
Who have set my blood boiling
On the furnace of their arrogance
And put to match even the steam
With the fuel of their wealth.
But the steam did not burn up.
Why does the air all around
Smoulder today?
Why everyone suffocates?


I have the voice
Of words
To create meaning
But the words I utter are
Companions of my being
I have nothing
Only an attempt
That goes on
And on…
When shall the voice of words
Create silence?
My friend
Has just now shown me a mirror
Have I laughed at my own reflection!
My black image
Has borrowed its blackness
From the darkness
Of a jungle of leafless trees.
And you are looking
For a ray of light!
After endless supplications
Shunning the company friends
Depriving myself of my father’s wealth
Turning my back on my mother’s love
Scoffing at the rays of the sun
Extinguishing all the lamps
For my own joy
I have nurtured
Within the jungle of my heart
A season of nights.

I have the voice of words
My words are dumb
My speech is lifeless
Companions of my being
I have nothing…


The smoke from the smouldering memories
Stains every new thing with soot
My trunk lies bursting
With clothes ten ears old
I have never worn any clothes
And wander in the bazaar all stripped
Young girls
Peer at me
Some with longing
Some with lust
I spit at them
And strut away.
But who has come running after me today?
I have never seen such a beautiful woman!
Why does she hold the hand
Of this mad man?
She’s stripping herself…
And now she is naked
Through and through!
She laughs and says:
Without Eve
Is incomplete.’
Both of us vanish into the air
She my Eve
I her Adam.


The poor fellow
Fell flat on his face
He-spider’s love
Proved fatal
In the act of mating
He forfeited his life…
I pass the days
In the furnace of freezing winter
Meditating on the days gone
And the days yet to come…
The pain of the days to come
Chews my heart
I wish I had chains
To bind my feet
I am driven by the heat of the suns
I see strange suns each day
There’s no heat in them
There’s no light in them
And yet my eyes are dazzled
And their intense heat
Scorches the green…
A kind man comes
To console
And he
Keeps on telling
Keeps on telling
The tree
Will not remain bare
For ever
Will not nest here
For ever
After the autumn
The spring is
Sure to come
Sure to come…
He knows not the heartburn
Of the love-sick
And adds fuel to the flames -
Feeling for a spring
Yet to come
The spring that may
Or may not come
Today’s pain
Today’s pain…
Let someone bundle up
These afflictions
Into a bag
Call a priest
And tell him
To consign them all
Into the sacrificial fire
And he will see
How the offerings from the bag
Incense the holy fire
The holy fire…
Like Draupadi’s robes
The offerings from the bag
Know no end
Know no end…
The priest’s hand
Begins to shake
Begins to shake…
At last
At his wits’ end
He tosses the bag
Back to me
Back to me
The priest’s hand
Keeps on shaking…
Keeps on shaking...


I have stifled
A hundred memories
Shut all the doors
And yet
Someone has entered
Through the seams.
Hide and seek
Is a game
The grown-ups play
Not children…
Now that you have come
Don’t shy away
And smear my face
With the hot ash
From the cold
Charcoal stove
Underneath my cot.
No one could see
The blisters in my heart
May be
The blisters on my face
Will be visible
To a blind man
To him
I shall be able to tell
How you can assume
Different shapes.
You can turn into a brown ant
To bite
And devour an elephant.
You laugh
At my helplessness
Because you know so well
I can shut the doors
But cannot make them seamless.


The glass cracked
A splinter pierced my finger
The blood dripping down
Drains my life-line…
O send someone
To borrow a leech
Or fish one out from the pond
And stick it
Onto my palm
To save me from myself.
My life is wasted in sleep
Let someone slit open with a razor
The throat of my dream world
Disfigure with fingernails
My breast-swell
To reveal to me
My ugliness.
Who is kicking up the dust
That sullies the face of the wind?
The eyes of my destiny
Are cataract-stricken
Time and again
Now clear
Now clouded…


Day and night
I chew the cud
Of the shadows of the past
From the star-studded sky
A meteor comes shooting downwards
I cup my hands
To catch it.
In this fragment
I can see your image
I know
You’re not a trickster
But this image comes to life
And to this I offer a bed.
You sleep with me with your body
And in the dark hours before daybreak
You vanish
Leaving me lonely in my sleep.
Won’t you reveal to me
The secret paths
That bring you to me
And then take you away?


Someone’s magnetic touch
Has transformed me into a magnet
All the world’s iron
Has come flying towards me.
The earth, they say,
Is a huge magnet
Let it be
The magnetic field
Of my earth’s magnet
Is only a point
And using that as centre
I have drawn a circle
Whose circumference
No human numerals can express.
Even this circle
Is contained
Within that magnetic field.
Whose inspiring power is this?
All the world’s iron
Has today come flying towards me.


I could not see
My sun
Sleeping in the Night-Queen’s* lap.
Without my sun
I’m lifeless.
By the soft–sweet fragrance
He does not even look
At the lonely blossom
Pierced by his love

The black witch and her black deeds!
The stars cannot tell
For shame
How their mother became
A bride
At night
A widow
At daybreak
She spends her nights
With the sun.
My sun is a playboy
Yet I do not complain
I do not blame
The moment I see my wedded lord
I’m full with life
At every pore

* Night-Queen is Raat- ki- Raani – Jasmine – the flowery shrub famed for its fragrance at night.


We have heard it said:
‘Cowards die many times before their deaths.’
I died once
Only once
Call me a coward, if you like.
I was
My own assassin
Or, I was done away with
By them who thrust a dagger
Into my heart
The ship of my dreams
Sailing on the deep oceans
And bound for distant shores
Was sunk on this side
The ship was built
By them who sunk it
Or, I’m mistaken
The lamp was doomed to remain unlit
I kept on filling
The leaky lamp
And the oil
Kept on spilling
I took flight
Into the world of pure forms
But someone clipped my wings
And I fell to the ground
Like a pigeon
Whose throat had been slit…


When you were born
The gods were sleeping.
‘A great fakir
Or a great emperor
He will be,’
Was the priests’ prophecy.
Three brothers followed
One after the other,
And they said:
‘He came holding the hands
Of his brothers.
He has turned out the lucky one.’
Oh wretched man!
You are nothing
You were better unborn.
Your mother sings dirges
Even while you‘re alive
You are base and spineless
For the last fifty years
You have been composing
Only panegyrics,
O shameless one.
A mere rattle
Sometimes in the hands of children
Sometimes in the hands of the so-called big
A drum
Hollow from within
Making empty promises
In your letters
Even to your dead mother.
Neither a fakir’s renunciation
Nor an emperor’s compassion
(Why not piss on the priests’ heads!)
You were accursed right from your birth
Doomed to accomplish nothing
You have been smearing ash
On your mother’s face.


My friend!
The riddle you have propounded today
About this jungle of relationships
Is yet incomplete.
Today someone has bound me to her honour…
I’m innocent, I’m shamed, may I be damned…
Whenever from the distant horizon I sensed her presence
I started – and I ran
But my way was crossed
Sometimes by a black cat
Sometimes by a black brahmin
Sometimes a stranger sneezed, unwittingly
And every time, instantly, I retraced my steps, holding my head in shame
I’m innocent, may I be damned…
We drift and grope around, unrelated in this jungle of relationships
Deadly snakes haunt our ways…
And flying snakes…
If I sleep I’m stung by scorpions
While awake I’m tormented by my pledge
My chest huffs and puffs like the bellows
My thoughts flicker like the glowworm’s light
My hopes are unfounded, my desires impossible
My neighbours resentful
Scheming to drive me from the neighborhood…
But why has this flight of cranes landed in my courtyard today?
A flight of cranes!
Flying snakes!! Scorpions!!!
While awake I’m tormented
By the same thoughts…my word of honour…


The bucket wheel turns
Dipping my mouth into the channel
I drink bucketfuls
And weep out streams.
She consoles:
People are celebrating,
Silly man, what’s wrong with you?
Foolish son of a foolish mother
No one goes to a well
For these accursed tears.
You’re doomed to live in your dream world
And lose your way
In search of nothing.
Listen to that noise
Within me
Although a mother
My womb has been barren from the beginning
And you were destined
To drift like a stray dog
To catch the flickering light of the glowworms
To stare at the water channels
And, like foolish peasants,
To turn away from the irrigated fields
And play with hairy seeds of the milkweed.
Now stop playing with the milkweed pods
This boyhood pastime is unbecoming
Of a white-haired man.


Lulled to sleep
In the cradle
My ungrown hair
Washed in curds…
I wake up…
What’s this?
My mother died long ago!
My yards long hair
All white
Wrinkled skin
Bare hairy chest
Virile and masculine -
Signs of manhood…

My younger brother’s little daughter
Pulls the hair on my chest
And teases: Uncle, aren’t you a bear?
No? She repeats the taunt.
Silly girl! Can’t keep her mouth shut.
I shake off my body
Shake off! No! No!
I tear my body
Limb by limb
And fling it away.
Dismembered thus
I’m complete.

Look, Vandana, run!
Look at uncle
He’s possessed
His limbs lie scattered
On the floor
Look at his head
Severed from the trunk
It blesses us:


I’m ripe
I may fall
I have to
One day.
No one eats
The bird-pecked fruit.
I was never afraid
Of falling
But I have one wish:
When I fall
I should fall
Not bird-pecked


O, you fire-spitting woman!
Since when have you begun to practise black magic?
I cannot wear this garland of serpents
I’m no Shiva
Neither am I in search of a Parvati
Then why at dawn the priest’s blasts on the conch from the Gurudwara
The mullah’s cry from the mosque
And the deafening peal of bells from the temple -
All harp on the same tune?
Now whenever I hear a man of God speak
I feel like smashing all his teeth out
Pour burning ash on his head
Blacken his face
And parade him around in the city on a donkey.
You ask:
To whom did you go for help then?
Even now your eyes are not open
You’re selfish
No! No! This word for you!
Selfish all men are
You’re mean
Meanest of the mean
Today you have hurt your mother
You he-goat!
You have rammed the womb
That brought you forth
There is no limit one cannot cross
To pour insults on you…
I had told you: This was a fearful earthquake
It has shaken buildings to their foundations
Sent cracks through the bridges.
And remember what you had said:
This is a passing whirlwind.
You simple woman: This was what you said:
Have the whirlwinds ever caused
Bridges to collapse?
Where will you go for succour now?
You foolish man
You’re accursed from your very birth
Even today you live
In a world of dreams
To face the truth
Is the mark of a man…