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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

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Essay

Trekking to Tilicho Lake

Photographs & Narrative by Ravi Shankar

Tilicho Lake

I ran through the dark narrow corridor into the cold night air. I had been having a pounding headache since my arrival and lacked the appetite for my evening meal of spaghetti and eggs. My stomach churned violently, and the bile rose in my throat ejecting the contents into the frozen ground surrounding the lodge. Vomiting always makes me uneasy and brings back unpleasant memories of my early childhood when vomiting accompanied most maladies. Luckily this was the only serious episode of altitude sickness that I had during my high-altitude travels.  

We had broken most rules of acclimatising to the altitude during this trip. We had flown to the Humde/Hongde airport at Manang from the lakeside town of Pokhara, a day before. Pokhara is at around 800 m above sea level while Humde is at around 3400 m. Most flights to Manang are from Kathmandu and many Manangis are rich and sophisticated traders. The pilot did a visual inspection tour walking around the twin otter aircraft. He seemed satisfied and we were soon skyborne. The view of the Annapurna Himal (snow mountain in Nepali) in the morning sunshine was breath taking. We had lunch at the Airport Hotel in Humde and then hiked up to Khangsar at 3800m. We spent a night at a lodge run by a relative of our Humde didi [1] and started walking to the Tilicho Tal[2] after a substantial breakfast of buckwheat bread, late in the morning.

A cold wind was blowing, and the trail wound through scree[3] slopes. The hike was becoming treacherous, and we did some of the worst sections on our hands and knees. The mountain views were becoming spectacular as the Himals closed in on the valley. Our heavy backpacks threatened to unbalance us and push us over the edge to the Khangsar Khola and Marsyangadi river far below. Thorny bushes grew in the arid landscape and snagged our down jackets. We were worried about the condition of these jackets that we had rented in Pokhara. The shop owner was a patient of my fellow trekker, Dr Praveen Partha.    

We could see the Tilicho base camp lodge far below. The descent was along sheer scree slopes. The soil was loose, and the ground could vanish at your feet! Running descents down 45-degree slopes were battering to the knees. Time seemed to stop as we negotiated the vertigo-inducing slopes. Eventually, we reached the valley below and the final stretch was a short level walk. The lodge was dusty and cold. There was some problem with the solar lights and only the dining room was lit.

The next morning dawned cloudy and grey. It had snowed the previous night and I was still feeling nauseous and light-headed. The lodge owner told us about an ultra-marathon race being held that day and that we might meet the runners on our way up. It was a long climb to the lake. The trail initially wound through scree slopes and then climbed more slowly through snowfields. A freezing wind was blowing, and we wore sunglasses with side blinders to protect our eyes from the reflected sunlight and avoid snow blindness. My nose was becoming numb due to the cold. We were struggling at the high altitude (above 4500 m) and in my weakened state, I was finding the going difficult.

The runners were racing through the landscape. Their fitness was astounding. The ones we had met during the early stages of our hike were now returning from the lake. We saw the trail to Yak Kharka[4] and Thorung La[5] in the distance. Our plan was to cross the pass and descend to the holy site of Muktinath and the city of Jomson on the other side.

The mountains provided a stark contrast. The north-facing slopes were cloaked in the snow while the south-facing ones were bare. The power of our star, the Sun even at 152 million kilometres was awe-inspiring. We continued climbing. A steep climb along a snow-covered slope and the dark blue waters of the lake could be seen in the distance. The race organizers had set up stations for the runners and race flags and posters were seen on both sides of the trail. The wind was bitterly cold. The snow-cloaked landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is located at an altitude of 4940 m.  No aquatic organisms have been recorded in the lake.

Snowfields

Tilicho lake is believed by Hindus to be the ancient Kak Bhasundi lake mentioned in the Ramayana. The sage Kak Bhasundi told the epic to Garuda, the king of birds near this lake. The lake was also the location of the highest scuba dive by a Russian team in 2000. A trekking route skirting the lake and reaching Thini Gaon in the Kali Gandaki valley is becoming popular.

This route requires at least a night of camping as there are no lodges (tea houses) after Tilicho Base Camp till you reach Thini Gaon[6]. I have never camped during my travels in the Himalayas. Camping gives you more options but may be more challenging in terms of logistics. Many lodges also have well-maintained camping places.

The trekking lodges in Nepal started as converted tea houses. They were places to have tea, exchange gossip, and eat food. They had been around in the hills for a long time. People hiked the trails for different reasons ranging from trade, visiting family and friends, and pilgrimage. As trekking became more popular many of these started offering travellers a place to sleep. They used to charge only for the food. Later the rooms became more elaborate and private accommodations were created. In big towns and popular locations, some have become hotels.

The cold soon drove us down from the lake and the descent was easier on the lungs. Runners were still running up the slopes. The weather was becoming cloudy, and the sun was soon cloaked by clouds. Light snow started falling. In the mountains, it often snows around noon. I was beginning to feel better but was still weak. It was around four in the afternoon when Dr Partha and I reached the base camp lodge. My appetite was slowly returning.

Climbing to the village of Khangsar

The next morning, we started mid-morning to the settlement of Khangsar and eventually continued to Manang village. The village has some excellent hotels and spectacular views of the Gangapurna glacier. Manang is at 3500 m and the plan was for me to rest here and see how I felt the next morning and then decide whether to continue to do the circuit trek through the pass or return down to the road head of base town of Besishahar.  My bout with altitude sickness had sapped my confidence and we decided discretion was better and slowly headed down. I felt bad for Praveen who was keen to do the circuit before heading off to the greener pastures of the United Kingdom.

The Thorung pass still remains on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I will be able to do it. The Annapurna circuit trek has steadily contracted over the decades as roads have made deeper inroads into the mountains. The trek used to start from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, then the trailhead shifted to Besishahar, and with the construction of the new road to the district headquarters of Chame. On the other side, there are regular buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Muktinath.

Tim Cahill, a travel writer from Montana, wrote, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” Praveen was perfect company. We gelled well together, we were adaptable and took the rough with the smooth. We did some interesting treks together and I am sure he must be continuing his walks in the cold English air as he thinks about medicine, health, love, happiness, and eternity! 


[1] Elder sister in Nepali

[2] Lake in Nepali

[3] Mountain slopes littered with loose pebbles and rocks

[4] Alpine pasture in Nepali

[5] La is pass in Tibetan

[6] Village in Nepali

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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