Saturday, December 7, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Rarest of the rare
Khushwant Singh

EVEN those who don’t read Hindi know the name of the poet Nirala (rare) as a highly eccentric character, a moonh phat (face spitter) who took on Bapu Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had a crush on Vijayalakshmi Pandit (who never reciprocated) and went crackers in the last years of his life. Now for the first time I have been able to read him translated into English: A Season on the Earth: Selected poems of Nirala (OUP), translated by David Rubin, once Professor of Hindi at Columbia University. I have come to the conclusion that besides being a crackpot, Nirala was a great poet and Rubin is a great translator.

Suryakant Tripathi was born in 1899 in Mahishadal village Midnapur district, West Bengal, in a family of Kanyakubja Brahmins which had migrated from Kanauj (UP). He spoke both Hindi and Bengali fluently. He took on the poetic pseudonym Nirala in 1923. He lost his mother when he was only two years old. He married Manohradevi (then 11) from Kanauj. He failed in his matriculation examination and was thrown out of his home by his father. He lived for many years with his wife’s parents where a son and a daughter were born to him. Despite early setbacks, Nirala made his name as a poet. He went to Calcutta to edit a magazine for the Ramakrishna Mission and then another journal Matwala. He then moved to Lucknow where he lived for 12 years and saw the publication of his collection of poems Anamika. He came to be known as the "Tagore of Hindi."

Begums and their sahibs
November 30, 2002
A policeman who is a poet too
November 23, 2002
The power of silence
November 16, 2002
Cultivating the art of conversation
November 9, 2002
Thus spake Sant Kabir
November 2, 2002
What is the strongest thing on earth?
October 26, 2002
Have you seen God?
October 19, 2002
Mocking at one’s own people
October 12, 2002
Keeping Urdu alive
October 5, 2002
How a rapist should be punished
September 28, 2002

Gandhiji made the mistake of asking his hosts at a meeting of Hindi litterateurs in Indore in 1936: "Where is the Tagore of Hindi?" Sometime later he happened to be in Lucknow. When Nirala went to see him, Gandhi’s secretaries stopped him, saying he was seeing some important politicians. Nirala snapped back: "I am an even more important poet". Another time he cornered Pandit Nehru in a rail compartment and demanded why he had failed to pay tribute to Munshi Prem Chand on his death. In his later years, Nirala began to have delusions of grandeur. He claimed to be a wealthy man, attached university degrees in his name and talked of his dialogues with Queen Victoria. He coined his own obituary a long time before he died. When visitors came to call on him, he would tell them "Nirala doesn’t live here. The man you are looking for died long ago." He died in a mental home in 1961.

Nirala was a poet of rare sensibility towards nature and feminine beauty. In an early composition, he describes a young girl:

She sat on a rock,

her blue skirt gently fluttering — thus,

uninhibited, the evening breeze

held some silent conversation with the lovely girl and smiled.

Her curling hair,

black and luxuriant,

blew loose and fragrant over her pale face,

tumbled over her breasts,

teased her affectionately.

From the open sky

the chill spray scattered,


on her shapely limbs.

In a poem composed in 1916, which roused some controversy, he compared the blossoming of a jasmine bud to that of a young girl being embraced by her lover:

On a vine in the deserted wood

she slept, blissful in dreams of love,

pure tender slender girl —

the juhi bud —

eyes closed, languorous in the folded leaf.

A spring night. Her lover,

tormented by separation in a distant land,

was that wind they call

the southern sandal-mountain breeze.

He recalled their sweet reunions,

the midnight drenched in moonlight,

the lovely trembling body of the girl.

And then? That wind

crossed over grove lake river mountain wood

and vine-entangled jungles

to reach where he could dally

with the budding flower.

She slept —

for, tell me, how could she suspect

that her lover was at her side?

The hero kissed her cheek,

and she swayed, shivering from it,

but even now she did not waken

nor ask forgiveness for her fault.

The long curved sleepy eyes stayed shut

as though she swooned, intoxicated

from the wine of youthful longings —

who can say? Ruthless, her lover,

of a sudden cruel,

struck that tender body hard,

slapped her pale full cheeks.

The girl started up,

stared all about her, astonished,

and found her darling by her bed.

She smiled, gratified in her desire,

and blossomed in her lover’s arms.

It’s okay for everybody

Okay is one word common to all mankind from Red Indians, Eskimos, Canadians, Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese — even Bedouin Arabs of the Sahara. When was it first coined and in which country? No one really knows but many guesses have been made. Professor Allen Read who spent his lifetime studying origins of words put forward many versions of the origin of okay. Americans believed that it came from badly spelt Orl Korrect. G.Is who went to Europe during World War II found the word was commonly used all over the continent. Germans claimed it was derived from oberst kommandant (over-commander) the French said it came from aux cayes, a town they established in Haiti. Another version is that it came into circulation in the American Civil War with the popularity Orrin Kendall biscuits. Others put it earlier to Van Buren who became the eighth President of the USA. He was widely known as Old Kinder hook:"Vote for O.K" was easier on the ear than his Dutch name. And yet another claimant is a Red Indian tribe which has a word Okeh meaning ‘Yes’.

American quotes

Trust in God, but lock your car.

Marriage is one of the chief causes of divorce.

Work is a fine thing if it does not take too much of your spare time.

Hard work never killed anybody but why take any chances.

A man who wants to do something will find a chance. A man who doesn’t will find an excuse.

Three groups of people who spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.

Courtesy: Amir C. Tuteja, Washington.

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Boss to office staff:" I'm back! Did everyone enjoy my vacation?

Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur