Surviving truth
Ramesh Luthra

Dark Times
by Jagannath Prasad Das.
Virgo. Pages 88. Rs 190.

Modern Indian English literature is highly indebted to Jagannath Prasad Das, a renowned Oriya poet and playwright, whose passion for writing made him resign from the Indian Administrative Services.

Dark Times dwells on the modern city life, which is devoid of warmth and love. The poet offers us a cocktail of 29 poems. The readable collection has been divided into three sections.


Kalahandi is everywhere:
in the gathering of famished crowds 
at charity kitchens, in market places
where children are auctioned off,
in the sighs of young girls
sold to brothels,
in the silent procession
of helpless people
leaving hearth and home.
Come, take a closer look at Kalahandi:
in the insincere tears
of false press statements,
in the exaggerated statistics
of computer print-outs,
in the cheap sympathy
expressed at conferences
and in the false assurances
presented by planners.

The first section, based on events, begins with After Gujrat, which holds a mirror to the times we are living in. It shows the poets’ anguish: "When Babri rises/poetry will affirm/that temples are made/not with blood-scribed brick... are founded on/imagination and faith/are in the hearts of man’.

Kalahandi is the most poignant poem in the first section. It highlights the grim existence of the poverty-stricken, for which he holds nature as well as society responsible. The poem Mahabharat exposes the futility of what is hailed as democracy. These poems reflect upon the wrong that has become a part of modern life.

The poems in the second section speak of urban life permeated with violence and the lack of warmth people have for one another. "The roads deserted/ The houses desolate and forlorn" (curfew in the city). The poet is preoccupied with this theme in Riot too: "No one noticed the corpse lying in the drain."

In Unreal City, he pours forth: "While in the city’s narrow lanes/ evening drags itself through the homing flocks of cars." He wishes, "If only it could bring the sullen silk of coy woman and the cries of a restive child to brighten up the loneliness of this dreary city night!"

In another poem called City, he bemoans: "It is Sunday and the city square is deserted; the last bus has left; all is quiet." He finds that there was a time when the city was sprawled with life and liveliness.

Loneliness and barrenness of city life is again picked up in Metropolis. "There is no one your own there ... life goes on like clockwise in office and shops." He mourns that "traffic moves by on either side of the body lying on the road" and "Life is measured in fifteen minutes of fame."

In the introduction, Paul St-Pierre aptly describes the theme of the final section of the collection. There is "focus on the incommensurability of the outside world and human experience of it." Das is conscious of the "discrepancy that exists between the two’ It is portrayed in Beggar on the Temple Street. "He bows in gratitude for his unasked-for life."

Another poem Mask too dwells on the same idea. "My years grow from mask to mask/ from one deception to another. Some try to know me/ through my disguises/ others knowing seem not to know." He is haunted by the same theme in Talisman. "I see a new difference/ between sunrise and sunset/ between falling in love/ and forgetting". Simultaneously, the poet touches a different line. He transcends the mundane physical world with these lines, "For the first time I ask myself/ whom am I?.....the bird that screams in my body’s cage/ what meaning its there."

At the Traffic Light, the most poignant poem of the section, talks of a driver who is ruffled by the rearview image of "a skeleton with a dead child/ in its bony hands;/ its screaming fingers/ pierce the steel and wipe away the daydream."

The main charm of Dark Times lies in the artistic rendering of stark realism. The poems are laced with beautiful imagery: Culture slid effortlessly/ into the glorious smoke (Tutelage); Along with the empty plate/ we push aside/ the horrors of the battlefield (War News); Religion snatches/... the honour of girls and/ potful of rice boiling on the hearth (Basti).

A versatile poet, Das is good at satire too. These lines from Mahabharata piece of land/ as large as the tip of a needle/ under the Land Reforms Law — showcase his skill in satire. Besides using vivid imagery, Das takes the help of alliterations: "Forlorn future", "lights flutter like fireflies", "short spring", "rare repentance" and "motionless monument."

Dark Times shows that Das is adept at handling translations from Oryia to English too. Most of the poems in the collection have been translated by the poet himself. His writing style wins the readers’ attention as well as admiration but one wishes he could see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.