Essay: A tribute to Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri
Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri, a Malayalam poet and a professor in English Literature, often wore just a dhoti and a thorth (traditional coarse cotton towel from Kerala) thrown across his chest, over his left shoulder. The sartorial simplicity appealed to the cynical Malayalee; yet, in full view was Vishnunnarayanan’s sacred thread, the tradition which he could not but honour but was not quite correct in these polarised times.
Last fortnight, Vishnunarayanan, 81, died at his home in Kerala. He had come a long way since graduating in Mathematics and Physics (he continued to be interested in science throughout his life and wrote poems like Einstein’s Guest. Also adept at the scriptures, Vishnunarayanan believed that the Vaiśeṣika school of Vedic thought anticipated Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, that perception changed reality. Heisenberg is the “guest” in the Einstein poem). Vishnunarayanan switched from science and took his Master’s degree in English Literature before becoming a professor in the early 1960s when he also started writing poetry.
Modern Malayalam poetry came into its own in the early decades of the 20th century with Vallathol Narayana Menon, Ulloor Parameshwara Iyer, and Kumaran Asan. From the 1930s, shaped by the freedom struggle, the Communist Party, and other progressive movements led by men like Narayana Guru, in close to 100 years, Malayalam has produced a crop of great poets. Vishnunarayanan, like some of his contemporaries, the late Vylopilli Shreedhara Menon, Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri, and Sugatha Kumari (the last two died recently) found a way to sing new songs in old cadences.
Ezra Pound said poetry should never stray far from music. In the best of Malayalam poetry, some of which Vishnunarayanan wrote (for example,The Nights and Days in Ujjain, an invocation of the spirit of Kalidasa’s Meghasandesh; a prayer for rain on parched earth), the meaning is nothing without the music. This, of course, is one reason why translating poetry is often a lost cause. Much of great Malayalam poetry is so inextricably entwined with native culture, symbols, and tropes that an attempt at translation is an act that may wrest simpering suicide from what began as raucous murder. There are exceptions in reverse. Balachandran Chullikad’s translation of Neruda’s Tonight I can Write the Saddest Lines is a work of genius. But the Saddest Lines is a rather universal poem. That helps.
As the communication of the individual experience becomes fraught in a world of bubbles and groups enabled by social media technologies, which are nothing if not the will of numbers in the formation of crowds/mobs, the poet is increasingly a tribe of one, his poems the wafer-thin isthmus of thought that the sea of babble will one day soon crash over.
Vishnunarayanan was deeply aware of this. In one interview he said his poetry was simply his “response” to the universe. But in another, he said that if he hadn’t written a line, it would make absolutely no difference to anyone. It is with this understanding, of the uncertainty at the core of the logo-centric exercise, the indeterminate nature of the value of the currency of one’s creation that one must still find a purpose in one’s sullen craft, as Dylan Thomas called it.
This is especially true of those writing in the unreal language of English in India where a tradition is still being forged and chaos reigns because almost everyone, empowered by social media, can refer to himself/herself as a poet. Contrast this with Borges’ observation ( in his six-part Harvard series on poetry) that he sees himself more as a reader than a writer. At the centre of the present desperate power play, a travesty perhaps of the all-too-human need for social affirmation, there is a vacuum; a vacuum generated by the absence of a hierarchy of aesthetic values, a certain lack of a framework of standards.
In vernacular cultures like Malayalam, Kannada Tamil, Bengali, or Marathi, where a great poetry tradition is already in place, at least that confusion still seems relatively under control. Not in the English-speaking Republic of India. Here, we see seasoned practitioners, who have put in upward of 30 years of good writing, still “submitting” poems for collections; their final redemption, with luck, would come from abroad, in the form of a kind Anglo-Saxon absolving them with a fellowship or an article. This tradition of little fame, the churning of the soul in the dark, the ultimate dependence on colonial approval, begins right at the beginning of the genre in the sad instance of the prodigious founder of English poetry in India, Toru Dutt, who died in her early twenties, and whose work, brought out first by a press in Bhowanipore, was promoted by Edmund Gosse in 1877. It took only her death and a little luck, and a white man. The Bhowanipore Condition in its various versions continues to attend English poetry practice in India. Writing in Malayalam, Vishnunarayanan was much more fortunate, though he may not have made it to the obit page of The Economist.
Existence is absurd, Albert Camus said, because Man must make sense of a universe indifferent to that enterprise. It is against this hard, unforgiving fact that the poet must build his fiction. This was possibly why Vishnunarayanan found an ally in Hindu traditions, besides his birth and upbringing in a brahmin family. And it summoned to him situations beyond poetry that he was not fully equipped to handle. In 1993-94, when he had retired from academia, he took up the priesthood of a Vishnu temple near his ancestral household in Thiruvalla, by way of a spiritual obligation to his family. At the time, the progressives/liberals of Kerala had campaigned against him. Later, when he had travelled to England for a lecture, the conservative elements did their bit in maligning him because he had crossed the sea, a taboo for the orthodox temple administration. What Vishnunaryanan, though much awarded, went through for a short period was perhaps equivalent to the exilic stage mythically consistent with any great poet’s career, starting prominently, say, with Ovid, who was banished from 8th AD Rome for “a poem and an error.” A poem and an error sums it up nicely, though in Ovid’s case the poem (Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love) was the error.
Beyond groups, Vishnunarayanan continued to be himself, a poet trying to contain his many contradictions in a turn of phrase. In the final count, the poet has nothing but his language, an occult of sounds and signs out of which is conjured a validation of one’s experience. The darkest poems (think of Paul Celan) are still hopeful in this sense. Poetry is the perfect order of words, Joyce said; or is likely to have. Yet, that order must necessarily be pluralist. That’s why we have so many poets, so many poems about the same things. Vishnunarayanan’s poetry invoked an inclusive society, of kindness, of the coexistence of humans, animals, things. Equally, he thought the ideal was not approachable, neither in poetry nor in politics, without the yoking together of the past and the present.
Vishnunarayanan was aware of the dangers of relapse. Yet how does one disown the sea that brought one, battered and breathless, to the rock-strewn shore? Each of his incantatory phrases, therefore, draws at once from the old and the new, the whole poem bound fast with the sacred thread of the past.
(Acknowledged with thanks: Selected Poems of Vishnunarayanan Namboothiri, translated into English by PKN Panicker, published by Authorspress.)
CP Surendran is a poet, novelist, and journalist