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Spanning Continental Narratives

He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit to English and then imbibed them to create Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing in a similar vein. Meet the poet, Abhay K, who also juggles multiple hats of diplomat, editor and translator. He tells us how he tries to raise awareness and create bonds through poetry. He is the author of a dozen poetry books and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins India). He has received the SAARC Literature Award for 2013. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into more than 150 languages and performed by Kavita Krishnamurthy, a well-known Indian voice.

Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has 150 quartrains and is split into chapters. A passionate poem that yearns and sends love through the salubrious journey of the monsoon from its point of origin, Madagascar, to Kashmir, the verses caress various fauna, among them some endangered like indri indri, sifaka and more. Spanning the oceans, lands, nature and a large part of India, it reaches his beloved with his message from Madagascar.

Is it eco-poetry? Academia might be moving towards that decision. Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has been chosen by a Harvard University’s assistant professor, Sarah Dimick, for a book project on Climate and Literature. In this exclusive, Abhay K describes not only how his passion for beauty, turned him, a diplomat, into an award-winning poet and translator but his subsequent journey.

Abhay K

What made you opt to translate Kalidasa’s poetry?

It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that I read a poem by the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, titled ‘Lockdown’ which made a reference to Meghaduta. At that time, I was posted as India’s 21st Ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros and I thought of writing a poem on the lines of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. This is when I decided to closely read Meghaduta and in the process I got inspired to translate it. However, later, I did write a book length poem titled Monsoon which was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2021. 

Did you translate both, Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, one after another? These are both books that have been translated before. Did you draw from those? Or is it your own original transcreation of the texts?

Yes, first I translated Meghaduta and after its publication, I decided to translate Ritusamhara. There are over 100 translations of Meghaduta available, I have read some of them, but none had been translated by a poet. Therefore, I decided to translate Meghaduta myself to give it a poetic rendition in contemporary English. I had studied Sanskrit in my high school, and it came handy while translating both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara

Your book, Monsoon, is based on Meghduta. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it part autobiographical?

Monsoon is inspired from both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara. It begins near Madagascar where monsoon originates and travels along its path to Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman, and the Indian subcontinent. It carries a message of love and longing from Madagascar to Kashmir valley. It is purely work of imagination. 

Tell us a bit about Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, which is supposed to be especially relevant in the current context of climate change.

I have not come across any other poet who describes the lives of diverse plants and animals in such detail and with such empathy. In Ritusamhara, Kalidasa delights us with these vivid descriptions of plants, insects and flowers in the rainy season.

Like jade fragments, the green grass rises
spreading its blades to catch raindrops,
red Indragopaka insects perch on fresh
leaf-buds bursting forth from the Kandali plants
the earth smiles like an elegant lady
draped in nature’s colourful jewels. 2-5

Aroused by the sunrays at sunrise,
Pankaja opens up like glowing face
of a young woman, while the moon
turns pale, smile vanishes from Kumuda
like that of the young women,
after their lovers are gone far away.  3-23

The fields covered with ripened paddy
as far as eyes can see, their boundaries
full of herd of does, midlands filled with
sweet cries of graceful demoiselle cranes.
Ah! What passion they arouse in the heart!   4-8

Kalidasa’s genius lies in bringing together ecological and sensual to create sensual eco-poetry of everlasting relevance. Ritusamhara highlights this fundamental connection between seasons and sensuality. As we face the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution owing to our ever-growing greed and culture of consumerism, we face the challenge of losing what makes us human. It is in these unprecedented times, reading and re-reading Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara becomes essential.

True. Closer to our times Tagore also has written of the trends of which you speak. But there is a controversy about the authorship of Ritusamhara— it is supposed to have been written earlier. What is your opinion?

It is an early work of Kalidasa. There are many words from Ritusamhara that are used in Meghaduta

What were the challenges you faced translating Kalidasa’s poetry, especially in mapping the gaps created by the time span that has passed and their culture and ethos to modern times.

I think Kalidasa’s works bear strong relevance to the modern times. He can easily be our contemporary eco-poet. In fact, Ritusamhara is a fine work of eco-poetry because of the sensitivity shown by Kalidasa in handling the plight of animals in scorching summer, treating rivers, mountains and clouds as personas among other things. 

You have also translated Brazilian poets? Are these contemporary voices? Did these come before Kalidasa’s translation?

I translated poems of 60 contemporary Brazilian poets and compiled them in a poetry collection named New Brazilian Poems which was published in 2018 by Ibis Libris, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My translation of Meghaduta and Ritusamhara was published in 2022. 

Your range of translations is wide. How many languages have you translated from? What has been the impact of translating both Kalidasa and other poets from various languages on your poetry?

I have mainly translated from Magahi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Russian, Portuguese, and Nepali. Translating the work of Kalidasa and other poets has enriched my own poetry writing. Translating poets whose works I love and admire, offers me the opportunity to read their work very closely and provided rich insights which in turn inspires my own poetic works. 

How as a diplomat did you get into poetry? Or has this been a passion?

I started writing poetry in Moscow where I started my career as a diplomat. It was the beauty and grandeur of Moscow that turned me into a poet. 

You are a polyglot. What made you pick up this many languages? Do you read poetry in all of them? You have already translated from Portuguese and Sanskrit. Do you want to translate from all these languages? What makes you pick a book for translation?

As a diplomat, I get posted to a new continent every three years and I have to pick up the local language to communicate more effectively. I try to translate from as many languages as possible as it helps in building literary bridges across continents. I translate books I truly love and admire. 

Do you have any more translations or your own work in the offing? What are your future plans as a poet?

I have translated the first Magahi novel Foolbahadur and Magahi short stories, which is likely to come out in the near future.

My new love poem of 100 rhyming couplets titled Celestial, which takes one on a roller coaster ride to all the 88 constellations visible from the Earth, will be published by Mapin India in 2023. My new poetry collection, In Light of Africa, a book of light and learning and unlearning the myths and stereotypes about Africa. The narrative spans the continent of humanity’s birth through time and space—from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to modern bustling cities…introducing you to Africa’s rich history, culture, cuisine, philosophy, monuments, personalities—and its remarkable contribution in shaping our modern world. This collection is likely to be published this year or in 2024. 

Thank you for giving us your time.

(The interview has been conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to read an excerpt from Monsoon

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Musings

Taking an unexpected turn

By Nitya Pandey

In the world of short-lived relationships, I used to believe that taking chances with strangers was a folly.

While trying to learn Korean, something that I did during the pandemic while locked up in my hometown, I chanced upon a post on a language learning community. A woman, not much older than me, from Incheon in South Korea, was looking for a language partner, who could help her with English. In return, she was happy to help out the partner with Korean. She was fairly comfortable with English, just that she needed somebody to have conversations with to build fluency.

In one of my rare bouts of extraversion, I told her that I would love to be her partner, the only caveat being that I was just starting out with Korean and would therefore need a lot of help. She agreed.

My efforts with learning a third language (English and Hindi being the first two) had turned out to be major disasters in the past, with multiple failed attempts at mastering French and Italian. I thought that my journey with Korean too, would not be very different. Writing it off as a fleeting distraction, I was sure that I would turn to other things once the world opened up. But…

With the days of handwritten letters and pen pals being a thing of the past, I never thought that this exchange would be anything more than a dusty memory, locked away in my mind’s attic after a few months.

Avid planners that both of us were, we started by laying down a pretty elaborate map to conquer the languages ‘foreign’ to us, painstakingly chalking out the routes we’d take, the pit stops we’d make and the milestones we’d cross together. We were both equally excited to embark on this journey, with all the prep work done successfully– books bought, stationary stocked and motivational quotes ready on the walls to fire us up. We took the first steps cautiously, like accidental travelers thrown together by the circumstances. We had no choice but to lean heavily on each other. With mutual support fueling our desire to keep moving, we gradually broke into short walks and came to enjoy them. We were soon walking about in abandon, with our conversations peppered with Korean and English phrases, slang and more.

A few months in, we started sharing glimpses into our lives: the spaces we lived in, the people we loved, the films we adored, the music that inspired us, the food we loved and the places we wanted to travel to. She had studied in Moscow, been all over Europe and Southeast Asia, being a textile trader and now lived in South Korea. I, on the other hand, had lived all my life in India with a few years spent in Colombo. She preferred films to books and cats to dogs, unlike me.  I loved collecting old books and postcards, a pursuit she couldn’t fathom in this day and age.

I often wonder about the point when we made the transition from unfamiliarity to friendship to sisterhood. I started calling her Unnie (Korean for a woman/sister older than you) and we started speaking in Banmal (casual Korean) instead of formal Korean. She would try out my mother’s recipes that I shared while I would listen to Korean music and watch films she recommended. She agreed to give reading fiction a shot and ended up crying over characters who fell on hard times. I used to help her make posters for a pet shelter that she volunteered for while she helped me build study material for English lessons that I would take for an NGO. I shared snippets of the refreshing monsoons and chai while she sent me pictures of the remarkable cherry blossoms, the snow piling up and steaming bowls of ramen.

We were soon sharing our hopes and dreams across the countless miles that separated us, across cultures that had moulded us into two very different people. We had grown to find a ‘home’ in each other; long conversations in Konglish (a mix of Korean and English) about joys and sorrows of moving jobs, leaving our families behind, losing a pet and thinking about the kind of future we wanted for ourselves. Calming my frantic soul, Unnie had opened a new world of living and of simply ‘being’. Learning to be my own woman, I could have never imagined that a stranger, I hadn’t met and who lived countries apart, would become a cherished part of my life.

A year down, I still wonder about the stroke of fate that got two kindred spirits together, trying to navigate their way though the confused age of late 20s and 30s. Wrapped in the wind, feeling aflutter, I am learning to take chances, bet on people and drench myself in the ‘kaleidoscope of experiences’ that life brings.

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Nitya Pandey is an Organisational Learning Advisor with a degree in History. An avid Austen fan, she loves all sorts of fiction and prefers staying in to read over weekends. She likes to journal her experiences as a way of capturing some of her cherished memories and has a fascination with all things ‘old’– forts, art, books, music and cinema.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL