Book Title: Book of Rahim & Other Poems
Author: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Ihave seldom read a book as slim (just 67-odd pages) that took me so deep inside myself. This whimsical collection of poems, translations and a searing essay, are so quintessentially Arvind Krishna Mehrotra that I have to declare our relationship.
As a flamboyant rebel-teacher, who looked like Jesus Christ, he had our university enthralled with his antics almost 60 years ago. He wrote then to shock his readers and published a mimeographed bunch of similar works by his friends from an ezra-fakir press (like ee cummings, all small caps) and we all helped in selling it. At a time when four-letter words were never used, he called his ‘magazine’ ‘damn you’. Allahabad, the city of venerable poets such as Mahadevi Verma, Sumitranandan Pant et al, almost died of shock.
The next stage was his evolution as a memoirist who wrote searing essays for niche magazines (such as ‘Civil Lines’ in the 1990s), among them his haunting tribute to a friend lost to leukemia, titled ‘Partial Recall’. Few writers can match this record of a boyhood that was rudely ended when he lost his closest friend. The birth of Arvind, the Modern Young Poet featured in the Penguin series that we all grew up reading in the ’80s and ’90s, was his next stage of growing up slowly.
How shall I describe this collection then? Rahim’s poems (not just his dohas) written when he was a general in Akbar’s imperial Mughal army are a record of scraps found hither and thither in old letters and despatches from Gujarat and the Deccan. This navratna of Akbar’s famed durbar has left a huge body of aphorisms that all Indian schoolchildren were made to learn by heart. Unable to understand the wisdom they contained, these dohas were the bane of our lives then. Now they come unbidden to mind and an old memory branded on a young brain, nudges itself to give direction to our old age. Like the Kabir translations he did a few years ago, these are unconventional translations that Mehrotra manages to own in another language.
The next segment is titled ‘Ghalib, A Diary. Delhi 1857-1858’. Elegiac, as is Ghalib’s favoured form, it recounts the horror of those exiled from Shahjahanabad after the Sepoy Mutiny and left to fend for themselves. Bewildered, penniless and unskilled at any menial work, these lost aristocrats and their hangers-on, stumbled across the wilderness outside. A similar account is available in another recent translation by Rana Safvi called ‘The Tears of the Begums’ (‘Beghmaat ke Aansoo’ in Persian).
But the jewel in this collection is tucked away at the end like the crescendo of a musical symphony. ‘11 Temple Road’ is the core of this section, called ‘Book of Lahore’, a requiem for a family home left behind in Lahore, and all its inhabitants old and new. Ved Mehta’s ‘Daddyji’, who was Mehrotra’s uncle and wrote this as a companion piece to ‘Mummyji’, was an account of his years in Lahore when his family home was a part of the Mehta clan’s enclave. After Partition, it was occupied by a displaced Muslim family from Panipat and this tangle of lives and characters is brought alive by Mehrotra. Perhaps because we are all at that stage of our lives when nostalgia and regret are the modes that attract us most, each reader will be able to sense how deeply rooted we are in old geographies and histories. They are the maps of our broken lives.