Remembering an eclectic mind of allusive style
WHEN I HEARD about Vijay Nambisan’s passing in August this year, I was in the midst of trying to compose an essay called ‘The loneliness of the Indian writer.’ I had the title and I had my theme—that we indulge in all the minutiae of the craft, we bang on about the nobility of our subject matter, we discuss the milieus that inhibit or enable us, but we rarely express kinship. The poets in English have, it is true, made something of a tradition out of honouring their peers, but writers of fiction in the language are rarely in each other’s sightlines. Why this great unease with each other?
But Vijay died, and thinking of the benediction of a 15-year friendship, I did not write that essay—the idea seemed to suddenly have attached itself to him. In some ways, of course, this does not fit, for he could be at home in India. He was a bhasha writer—not because he wrote in this or that language, but about bhasha itself, and was deeply, even obsessively, interested in what it means to be an Indian now. The two things often came together for him—the language we use as Indians and the strangely uncritical lives we live. Language as an Ethic, his book- length ‘brooder’s essay’ from 2003, is about just this—how if our care for and creativity with language dies, we die. His defence here of the Indian writer who chooses English or whom English has chosen is arguably the most fervent and funny thing ever written on the subject and inarguably the least read.
But the loneliness of the Indian writer is also the loneliness of knowing there are two Indias and that the writer is doomed to always be surveying the other one from a superior height. Vijay recognises this in his book Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder, an astute and intimate account of living in a small town in Bihar for 16 months in the mid-1990s with his wife Kavery Nambisan, novelist and that rare doctor who has always sought out rural and small town postings. And then he says at once,
‘The hell with it . . . No two Indias for me. I don’t believe in retailing wisdom like ‘Our India is not as real as their India’ or echoing Gandhi’s wistful ‘The Real India is in the villages’ or resuscitating that amber-preserved ‘timeless India’ which Nirad Chaudhuri kept as a pet until it died of nostalgia in Oxford.
Where I am, where I have been, what I have seen and heard, there is my India.’
The cherishing of personal experience, then, and one’s own percipient mind being the measure of all things. Vijay refused to allow abstractions dominate his thinking and he never let anyone get away with obfuscation. And so, for the very vigour of his thinking, for his self-belief and his individualism, he was acutely solitary—and he never tried to disguise his unhappiness with the world. He reports with muted rage on the theft of public funds in Bihar. And caste decides everything there—but not only there, of course. He discovers a national government bravery award given to members of one community or caste for saving the life or property of those from another. As for the planet on the whole, its inhabitants seem jaded and now set on conquering the neighbours. He is amazed that Sunita Williams can say on TV, when presented with the prospect of visiting Mars, ‘Yeah, sure.’ In the poem Neighbours, he asks, ‘Have we become such boors? Are all these worlds/ There simply for our taking? Are we so bored/ By life on earth?’
In prose, Vijay’s stylishly allusive, richly idiomatic style drew from Kipling as much as Orwell and Graves. But there was nothing insular about his tastes
Vijay wrote in many forms— poetry, journalism, reportage, criticism— though his position as a writer sometimes comes across as a series of disavowals. I am not a scholar, he says in Language as an Ethic, and in the introduction to the translated Two Measures of Bhakti—I am not educated in Malayalam and I don’t really know Sanskrit either. Neither, he warns us at the beginning of his Bihar book, is he the typical journalist—impressions and attitudes matter more. As for poetry, after that twinned book of poems, Gemini, that he published with Jeet Thayil at the age of 29 in 1992, Vijay wrote poems sporadically, feeling, after Auden, that poetry makes nothing happen, though he eventually did bring out another collection, First Infinities, two years ago.
Vijay may not have been a consistent producer of literature but he was literary all the time in the way of anyone interested in the history of language and in literature as habitation, in ‘the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words’ as Kipling said. Writers might have a dubious glamour attached to them, but literature is of little account in our public life and Vijay knew this. His poetry is remarkably good—that whole one and a half books worth of it—rigorous, supple, inventive, playful. But those are not the only reasons it is so affecting. In First Infinities, his lines are clearly wrung from life—this is hard-won verse, songs of experience. A question Vijay struggles with here is—what’s poetry worth? ‘I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end,’ he says in the opening poem, which is a prelude both paradoxical and true. Marvellous poems follow, the lines haven’t quite come to an end but they are always at the verge of.
The ever-present tug of the transcendental—certain death, visions of the other side, the boundless mythic past, the sweet mysteries of the present—is everywhere in his poems. Is the business of poetry up to capturing these truths? Or is it not much more than that—a business? ‘Poets sell their words, and their own worth/ Is measured not in hearts bought but copies sold.’ Another poem delineates ‘The Corporate Poet.’ Elsewhere, Vijay is the languishing poet, certain his gifts are not up to the mark, his tongue impoverished. ‘I grant myself a turn for scripts and signs and silly things/But O the bird of many hues within me never sings.’ And ‘When suddenly the poems die/ Away, when the pen lies bereft/ Of striving hand, what use the day’s/ Long words, of pretence what is left?’
There is something familiar about this. The story of modern Indian poetry in English has been, partly, a story of this public withdrawal from poetry, this disinterest in it as a career. Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza, Gieve Patel have all written sparingly and the books they’ve put out are sometimes separated by the cavernous silence of decades. This is not quite the same thing as Philip Larkin’s thin, regularly spaced-out volumes or TS Eliot writing only a handful of poems each year but hoping for each poem to be an ‘event’. In England in the time of both these writers, poetry was ingrained in the culture, not a peripheral subculture. For us perhaps this reticence is a negative capability necessary for the practice of the art—the art being as much appreciation as production.
For the very vigour of his thinking, for his self-belief and his individualism, Vijay was acutely solitary – and he never tried to disguise his unhappiness with the world
Vijay is a prime example of this condition and his interests ranged wide. His loves were James Thurber, the comic New York writer, Spike Milligan (‘Today you’re going to learn about Keats, I bet not one of you ignorant bastards know what a keat is’) and the English modernists. His poem to Auden, You Wystan Auden, has lines whose acuteness of feeling is surely comparable to Auden’s celebrated poems on Yeats and Freud. He was circumspect about Kalidasa and the high noon of Sanskrit verse and drama, but he valued the Mahabhatara, especially as seen through the eyes of Irawati Karve, whose book of essays on the epic, Yuganta, he held in very high regard. Vijay was struck as an adult by the contemporary sounding poetry of the medieval poets of Kerala that he had been hearing and half-understanding since childhood, some of whose compositions he then went on to translate with his father’s help. He always highlighted his debts to the Bombay poets among whom he had lived and learnt in the late 1980s and early 90s, though he was not nostalgic about Bombay. “Too much drinking,” he said, briefly, when I once tried to talk to him about those years. He published an essay on Dom Moraes later, marked by that raw, almost painful, honesty he brought to anything he wrote about those he knew.
In prose, Vijay’s stylishly allusive, richly idiomatic style drew from Kipling as much as Orwell and Graves, and his talent at combining personal with political from American New Journalism. But there was nothing insular about his tastes. He adored the Modesty Blaise novels and Raymond Chandler and all that hardboiled pulp of long ago as much as GK Chesterton and PG Wodehouse. I recall how my husband, Zac, and I went to meet him in rehab some seven years ago, bringing him a burger in a paper bag made soggy by the long rickshaw ride, he sitting on his bed, looking frail, and yet the two of them, as was their wont, ‘cracking wise’, in Chandler’s phrase. Later, having read the novel by the famously prolific Hindi thriller writer Surendra Mohan Pathak that Zac had got him, he told us that Pathak was clearly ripping off Desmond Bagley. He also wrote to the publisher of Pathak’s translations and the man, he reported with relish, was about “to get his knickers in a twist”. No one, in all these decades, had noticed the liberal borrowing.
Vijay seemed to know everything— he threw out quotes from the Bible and Tom Wolfe, Kipling and Father Brown, the Rig Veda and Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare and Josh Billings. His erudition was of an old-fashioned, pure, unmotivated kind and he could be gently mocking of the strivers. “It happens to the best of us,” he said to me once when I told him I was writing a novel. And yet it had happened to him too—in some measure. He lived in language, and like it does to all writers, or at least all sensitive writers, language gave him joy and language tore him up. Apart from the poems about the wrestling with poetry, his talk and letters were always littered with jokes, puns, allusions, wordplay, puzzles, rhymes—and poems. He shrunk from clichés and platitudes, bringing some sliver of his lovely, easy wit even into a quick email. “I hope it’s deposited now,” he once wrote me about a cheque owed to him for an article. And then at once, “That’s such a horrible word, no, ‘I hope’? ‘Hopefully’ is even worse. I challenge you to write a poem, say 4 quatrains, each beginning with ‘hopefully’. Send it to me, do.”
We’d talk about language—how both he and I, with our imperfect Kannada, often mumbled the endings of sentences; we knew the word but not always the right verb form. Why people were always saying ‘begging the question’ when they were only asking it. His attempts, and mine, to learn Urdu. Recipes for writing rhymed verse. But he did sometimes wonder if we spoke the same language and was appalled when I said a poem of his was Miltonesque. “When I hear the name Milton I see black.” And “Is there really a generation’s difference between you and me, as poets? No, I’m not upset… as the song goes, ‘Tujhse naaraaz nahin zindagi/ hairaan hoon main.’” I told him I’d been thinking of ‘On His Blindness.’ He reminded me, certain I had meant Milton as a put-down, of Robert Frost’s view. “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”
So there was wit and there was angst. (“Tough balancing wit and angst. Wittandangst was Wittgenstein’s cousin.”) Sometimes the angst had the upper hand and he was particularly hurt and unfunny when one tried to work with him as an editor, regarding even the small details, on his usually impeccable prose. “Why do you send this to me, Anjum?” he would say over the phone when I badgered him. He could not bear to reread what he had written and he hated revisions. “I’ve not been especially witty in this piece but your copy-man could do with some. Do you want to hassle me with these queries when I find it tough to work at all?”
I realise I have still not completed this task he’d set me circa 2007. “Berlin wall has fallen down,/ Fallen down,/ Fallen down,/ Berlin wall has fallen down,/ _____: supply the missing rhyme.” And don’t have the answer to this riddle. “Two in the morning —How long did the train stop? Two to two to two two. What’s Chinese dentist time? Two thirty. Got it?” It seems ridiculous that I can’t ever ask him now. Our friendship was an ongoing, sometimes interrupted, occasionally even severed, conversation—over the ether and in Kavery and Vijay’s many homes in the peaceful outback—Lonavala, Ammathi, Halligattu. To meet Vijay after a hiatus was to find him shakier perhaps but essentially unchanged— still readily pulling out a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica to check a fact or three, sharing poems, smiling, cracking wise. I imagined I’d come to Goodbye to All That and Napoleon of Notting Hill and Let your Mind Alone and then more threads would be picked up and intertwined. I didn’t realise time was short, I hadn’t read all his lines closely enough. ‘But now it is dark/And the song has been sung,/The vision is stark/Of when I was young/ And would dream of the lines/I was meant to write…’
Now Zac and I talk with Kavery about Vijay. She told us he was reading a volume of Kipling’s short stories when he died. And the subdued hope in one of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s lovely stanzas immediately came to me and became a prayer for Vijay.
Years from now, may the sap-filled bough
Still print its shadow on running water,
And a dusty March wind blow its leaves
Towards a page of Kipling, a home-grown page.