The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Recreating Kalidasa’s unrequited love
Arun Gaur

Ujjayini a fiction-poem
by O.N.V. Kurup, Translated by A.J. Thomas, published by Rupa, Rs 250.

O.N.V. Kurup’s Ujjayini reminds me a line from Robert Browning’s The Patriot: "Thus I entered, and thus I go!" In both the poems the hero enters as a victorious general (or a poet laureate) and departs from the city in the end beheaded (or defeated).

The poet and the city — it is one of the focal points of modern criticism (the "soft" city of Raban’s imagination). Though in that modernist or post-modernist sense the present work of Kurup (recipient of the Central Sahitya Akademi Award — 1975, along with many other prestigious awards) hardly seems to evoke any complex nuances, the title Ujjayini does succeed in complicating the matter a little bit. Should the primary significance go to the poet (here Kalidasa) or to the city? Or to the poet in the city? The subtitle — a fiction-poem — creates another problem. Is the present text a poem (like Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction)? Or maybe, it is a fiction. Or even a kind of mixed breed (no aspersions please!) Whatsoever the case may be, this title and the sub-title are comfortably set on a very pleasingly coloured roseate jacket painting (water-colour by H.L. Merh), where Meghadoota’s Yakshini, or Ujjayini’s Malavika sits wiping her tears — her countenance is not that overwhelming fallen on veena. In the backdrop is the ambiguity of luminous and dark sky that sets the tone of the narrative to come.


In the 14 sections of this longish poem, Kalidasa’s poetical-spiritual biographical segment is conceived through an inter-textual imagination. The apparently simplistic plot has a deeper symbolic pattern that narrates the story of two lovers — Kalidasa and Malavika. The beloved is taken away to the court of Vikramaditya at Ujjayini, and when the fame of the wandering lover-poet grows, he is also called to the same city by the king. However, on being sounded about the hushed meetings between Kalidasa and Malavika, the former is exiled by the jealous Vikramaditya to Ramagiri. When the poet returns to the city, he finds that his beloved has already died. Placing his Meghadoota at the white marble memorial of the beloved, he finally disappears from the city of Ujjayini. Allegorically, Kalidasa is the Yaksha, Ujjayini is Alakapuri, and Vikramaditya is Kubera.

The poem begins with a laborious exposition "Into the Prison of Solitude," but soon it becomes different. Translation too becomes better, and occasionally even luminous. The intermittent but intense series of images are the life-force of the poem. In section three Malavika longingly casts the parting glances at the twilight sowing tawny paddy in the distance/ and it vanishing, like paddy sunk in mud/and like the song of the boatman reaching the shore/ahead of the night boat. She thinks of her father telling stories, in the wick lamp’ glow. It seems that such a kind of water and rice imagery becomes all the more eloquent not only because of the conscious or unconscious literary inter-textuality, but also because of the interfused derivatives from the local Keralite landscapes (Kurup was born at Chavara, Kollam dist., Kerala).

When like Manu of Jaishankar Prasad’s Kamayani, the love-lorn Kalidasa wanders amid the expanding landscape, again and again the journeyman is reminded of his guru’s prophecy: Your words/would one day reach Ujjayini. Portentous enough! So city is the destination for the poet where, like all the resplendent dynasties, he would suffer his final calamity. But the crux of the problem is: Even if he reaches Ujjayini, would his word win back his beloved? Can the word put right the law of the sword?/ Can the word save wounded souls? This riddle Kalidasa’s guru had not solved for him. The Derridean poet dies, while the poetry lives.

The Jungian Anima chases Kalidasa in section six like the blood oozing from/his soul’s bruises unseen by others. She is the unknown primordial beloved whose claims cannot be denied: Who is she that rises near him/like an autumn dusk with a veil of mist turning away her "moist" eyes? Kalidasa seeks respite in thanatos: Everything will be over with a single cry/at the moment when I hit the ground. But it is not that simple.

Ujjayini proves to be an erotic city par excellence, its eroticism springing from the amalgamation of nature and human body. The ironic edge gets sharper with this enhanced eroticism. The city is the perfect/imitation of heaven; Vikramaditya, the poet’s rival in love is "incomparable." There crops up an implicit Shakespearean moral dilemma (Cf. Macbeth), when the king addresses the poet thus: Remember! You are our trusted friend. Kalidasa’s reply is abrupt, prompt, and ambiguous: that Lord lead you through auspicious paths/away from deeds of darkness.

After this sustained poetic effort, comes the "moon’s waning phase" and there is a noticeable decline in the creative impulse in Kurup’s poem. The much anticipated meeting between the lovers nowhere becomes palpitating, and the potentially dramatic situations are nowhere exploited either through imagery or through fine rhetoric. It seems to be an assemblage of more or less informative reports, unnecessarily prolonged. Only after a long gap, the lyrical intensity is regained in pages 110-11, where burning embers glow/after a cremation. It is an introspective futility: did he walk all this way in the middle/of the night to arrive at this place...? Once again, the imagery becomes haunting, the rhythm eloquent, and the translation good: moonbeams... became short bits/and lay in a corner of the sky...

Over-all, it is gratifying to read a poem in which a classical poet of the stature of Kalidasa is relived, though I cannot feel very comfortable with some of the "As if...," "What for..." clauses, and some intrusive idioms like "to lend him ears," "apple of the eye," "horns of a dilemma," and "a bosom friend." Dramatic intensity seems to have been clinched more successfully rather through an image-shift than through the dialogic components that often lack spontaneity and lyricism.

One word for the publishers — Rupa. They must learn and correct their basic spellings — "curiousity" (3), "fromt" (40), "breats" (40), "emply" (41), "noble-mined" (42), "must-deer’s" (45) "born-bills" (46), "hights" (46), "firs time" (55), "unberable" (57), "relfect" (60), "filfilled" (147)....