Riding the horse of life to death: Vijay Nambisan (1963-2017)
The only place the poet Vijay Nambisan could be himself and find a transcendental value was in the world of words.
In the early 1990s in Bombay, poetry, or prose for that matter, was not about getting prizes. Or even being recognized in a bookshop or a restaurant. It was a defiant and dangerous personal vocation. Something like the helpless inner voice that urges a prospective Christ to climb his cross as a matter of course, and drive the first nail with his free hand.
Poetry was a romantic, seemingly interminable act of self sacrifice. First it required a measure of self abuse. Then with luck words came. And they would sound real. For better or worse, that has changed . Writing is a career now. A performance. A mime of the self. A frantic if studied method to hang on to what may not be there anytime now: an award, a fellowship, a flung nickel, an air ticket. And it involves one of the most tiring tasks an intelligent human can embark on: self promotion.
Vijay Nambisan was capable of neither. In one of Vijay’s prose works, Language as Ethic, he argues from the heart—and shores up those arguments from his phenomenal intellect — that at the core of communication is not even words and images, but integrity. Devoid of it, language assumes a political and manipulative nature. On the surface of it, the premise sounds like the plea of an honest man to all to be good. But it explains, typical of Vijay’s work, as in a flash, why a whole culture is incapable of facing up to truth at just about every level. And a people’s proneness to collective delusions.
In the Bombay of the ‘90s there was a bunch of people from different generations who, more or less, spoke the then young Vijay’s alien language: poetry. Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Nissim Ezekiel, Eunice De Souza, Jeet Thayyil to name a few. In my perception, at that time, among the senior poets Dom was closer to youngsters like us than the others. Dom was particularly encouraging of Jeet, Vijay, and me, regular visitors to Dom’s residence in Sargent House, Allana Road, Colaba.
Dom had written, perhaps excessively kind, introductions and blurbs for the three of us, and recommended us to David Davidar, who published the now landmark Penguin Gemini series. As far as I can recall — and there is not much I am able to forget — most of us were on some mood altering substance or the other most of the time, and had a certain contempt for what Vijay described as the Corporate Poet. And he did not mean just poet. He was against suits, boots, hats. And an equal measure of contempt for time; why else would we all try so desperately to fast-forward our clocks?
One of the accidental meeting points of the younger lot of poets was the Debonair magazine, whose office then was in Worli, housed in an unpretentious building. It would be always hot inside. And then there would be areas where it was wintry. The air conditioning was uneven. At the time, Anil Dharker was running it, and, like a classic literary editor, he was open to new writers. The poetry editor for a while, if I recall correctly, was Imtiaz Dharker.
When Dharker quit, Adil Jussawalla took over. It was at this time that I first met Vijay. I had gone there, mid-morning, to follow up on an article; Vijay was in Adil’s cabin. He saw me and came out, grinning like he had met a cousin long lost. We went down to the bar round the corner and had a few. Sometime in the twilight hours, we parted, and all I could take away from that meeting was that I was supposed to meet him the next morning, at his paying guest room, close by.
I went, nursing the by now familiar hangover, and knocked on the door. Vijay opened it, but his face had undergone drastic restructuring. The night before he had fallen flat down the stairs on his chin, and was lighter for three or four teeth. There was blood on the stairs. I went back, in search of phantoms similar to Vijay. But could not find too many — even over the years.
I mention these details of the inner workings in the literary alleys of Bombay of that rather unchronicled decade because Vijay stuck to that life, took several more falls. Lost more than his teeth.
The others moved on or tried to move from that unforgiving, transgressive life, in which words had to be bought with a little bit of life in exchange, an unsustainable trade.
Vijay bought into solitude, sometimes hating it, sometimes, choice-less, loving it. It gave him, I imagine, a martyr’s identity. He was the knight of poetry, and he was going to ride the horse of life to death. The smarter among his friends veered away from that track.
Through it all, Vijay wrote. Not much, but a little that said a lot. For him it was hard to separate a way of living from a way of writing. To create, he had to destroy. And his own body seemed the closest at hand.
He knew what he was doing. And, to me, it felt like a kind of vengeance. I was not sure vengeance against what. Most likely against himself. Between suicide and murder, he would choose the first. He knew his ways of life hurt people who loved him the most; his family; his very caring wife, Dr Kaveri Nambisan, a fine novelist herself. A few times, he went off alcohol; but he unerringly came back to, as he puts in a different contest, in Reminders of Gain : The call of the arrow/Summons the bow//
There are the usual articles doing the rounds that Vijay was a recluse. That word is a much-prostituted one in literary descriptions because it is used as if reclusion is a kind of extreme glamour of the eccentric. But then this is a place where the press described him as “the first all India poetry champion in 1988.”
The truth was that Vijay was dysfunctional. The only place he could be himself and find a transcendental value was in the world of words. He was close to a few people. That kept shifting. For a while, or so I think, he was quite my comrade in arms; in alms, too. The early years in Bombay for instance. Then we drifted. In his later phase, he was perhaps close to Jeet.
In between, I moved to Pune to head the Times of India’s edition there. Vijay and Kaveri had taken up a house in Lonavla, where he said the “clouds passed through his head, if he opened the window.” I never did make it to Lonavla.
In the car from office to my house once, Vijay said, “You have become a different man.” All the while I wondered how to tuck him in bed, given his slightly accusatory mood. This was around the time he had done a rare, cadenced translation of selected portions of Poonthanam’s Jnana Paana, (Song of Wisdom).
Poonthanam was a great 16th century Bhakti poet who more or less wrote the rules of the Malayalam language and literature. He was a devotee of Krishna, especially after the accidental death of his infant child. Poothanam’s rival in Krishna bhakti was Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, a rather superior — he was one of India’s first astronomers, and he was a great mathematician and linguist as well — brahmin who wrote, Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit. Poothanam’s work made literature accessible to the Malayalee non-brahmin. One of the great questions in Malayalam literature has been: Which work is better? Or which works better?
When Vijay said he was going to translate these ancient poets to English, I remember asking him, who’s going to read it. Vijay asked for some salt. Because he sweated a lot, he would mix salt in alcohol. It was all quite scientific at one level. I got him salt. He blew some smoke in my direction and grinned his famous grin. He didn’t care. That’s what he meant. The market did not enter into the world of his words. His integrity was a voice that he could ever rely on to impel him to triumphs and disasters.
Later, he said the translation was no easy job. Though Vijay, like quite a few IIT-ians, had a photographic memory, he was not fluent in reading or writing Malayalam, even though he asserted his provenance and ethnicity wherever possible.
What he did was to ask his father — who, when I met him once at his home in Bangalore, seemed both proud and worried about his prodigal son — for literal translations and then trans-created it beautifully into rhythmic wisdom.
Consider the opening lines of his work: “O yesterday the things we did not know would come!/And O the things we do not know will come today!/Now we behold those soon pass away!/ We are not told how long they’ll stay with us”.
There is a touch of Hamlet here: “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.”
At the time when the book came out, it was mostly criticized for his self-confessed ignorance of the vernacular, and his own agnosticism. To my mind, it was a spectacular act of literary courage, though not easy to distinguish from self indulgence, and dare.
Through it all Vijay drank. Went into detox. Came out. Wrote. Smoked. He smoked, I had often thought, as an antidote to alcohol. It was a break from what he was doing to his liver. For this, he had to destroy his throat and lungs. Either way, he would pay a price.
He paid it. Because the rest of the world of his 90s had changed. They had become gentrified. All the more reason he had to stay the course. He was the last man standing. What he thought of the change he said a few years ago in Outlook: “Eighteen of the happiest months in my life were spent in rural Bihar. It may sound like reverse snobbery, but I can’t help that. My wife and I were honoured members of the community, no one tried or wanted to shoot us, and the nuns looked after us like friends. What more could we want? A Learjet?”
This was the stay that went into the writing of his funny and insightful work: Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder. It explained, as perhaps only a poet could, the intricate workings of a place that failed to work. And still survived like a trick that explained the tawdry magic of India. This book too was commissioned by David Davidar of Penguin, with whom Vijay had a productive relationship.
That’s saying a lot. Vijay’s ties changed with the tides of his mind. People betrayed him, by just not calling him up. In his mind, and I believe he is right, he was one of the few genuine artistes who deserved recognition, but would do nothing outside the covers of his books, to wangle it.
His latest collection, which was released last year, First Infinities, has some remarkable poems. It was perhaps justly brought out by an alternative publishing house, Hemant Diwate’s Poetrywala. Some of the poems suffer from a certain vulnerability to fall into the rhymes and rhythms, which take the poet away from the place he intended to end up in when he set out. But more often than not, the music ends in notes you did not think resided in them. It’s only the fine permutation of the words that makes possible a beauty which was not there till Vijay thought it up:
Crisp in the winter’s morning,
Softly all through the night,
What is this without warning,
Falling and white?
I have never seen snow
But I can imagine it quite –
Not how it tastes, but I know
It falls and is white.
One morning I’ll open the door
To bring in the morning’s milk,
And all around there’ll be snow –
Fallen and still.
How I’ll roll in the stuff!
How I’ll tumble and spin!
Until the neighbours cry, Enough!
And send me back in.
These are times when people die to live. Vijay lived to die. And write. I am glad I walked part of the way with him. He was the light. And he burnt furiously while he was there.
C P Surendran is a poet, novelist, and journalist.