Gandhian Poet

Bhavani Prasad Mishra was a Hindi poet and author, who was born on March 29, 1914 and died at a rather early age on 20th February, 1985. A true Gandhian in spirit and letter, he went to extremes by promising himself never to ride a vehicle pulled by a human being, the rikshaw being, in his time, a gentleman’s preferred means of local transport in some parts of India. His reason: no human being should be treated as an animal by another human being.

Among his prolific output of poetry, he published a volume of 500 poems celebrating Gandhi and his philosophy, and one riotously popular poem, a national cry of sorts, against the imposition of emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975. I have translated this poem called “Four Crows or Four Demons.”

A recitation of the poem “Sannata.”

Modest, Unassuming Man

He described himself and his life as “small.” Born in a small village along the banks of a small river, surrounded by small hills of the Vindhya, he lived among “small” (i.e., ordinary) people. According to him, his own life was uneventful and his achievements “unremarkable.” No poets influenced his writings; he admits only to being inspired by Rabindranath Tagore.

I met Bhavani Prasad Mishra for the first time at a poetry recitation function where I was impressed by his poetry, its simplicity of language and sentiments and the vigor of his style. In these four translations of Bhavani Prasad’s poetry, I have tried to create the same vigor and pace that is so unique to his poems. Needless to say, I have loved these poems for a long time and wanted to translate them for a wider audience. A labor of love, you might say.

Dense Jungles of Satpura

Recitation of the original Hindi version.

Drowned in sleep
Dreamy and distracted
Fitfully sighing
These jungles dense
of Satpura.

All is silence above and below
Grass and reed
Plant and brush
Sal and Palas
All is hush.
Sink in them if you can
Where even the air
Dare not pass the ban
These fitfully sighing jungles dense

Rotting leaves, sodden leaves
Green, brown and burnt leaves
Mired in mud and bog leaves
Layer upon layer of jungle ground
Press your luck
Plodding and Slogging
If you can
Among these loathsome jungles dense

Root and stem
Shoot and blade
Creeper, climber
Intertwine, web and tangle
Like a bed and wall of vipers
Black and deadly
Every direction, every angle
Totally random
Devouring bees and flies
And denizens too
Grabbing intruding leg and limb
Choking, frightening
Heart and mind
These fitfully sighing jungles dense

On their faces and their foreheads
Spider web and spider hair
Bloody mosquito, black and bare
Pouring rain and windy squall
Forever the folks must endure
These fitfully sighing jungles dense

Snakes and pythons
These jungles populate
Huddled hills Seven deep
A million trees
Big and small
Roaring and growling
Tiger, leopard and carnivore
These jungles harbor
Shivering ear-tingling winter’s cold
These fitfully sighing jungles dense

Deep in these jungles, unperturbed
Native Gonds
Dark and strong
Feed and care
Four and four
Hen and partridge
Running and scurrying
Before their huts
Roof-ed over
With bamboo and brush

As the season of Holi nears
Grasses roll and ripple, whistle and sing
Mahua trees leap and spurt
Filling the jungle
With liquorish air
Native drums and human feet
Beat and throb
Belting songs that cut the nightly air
Fitfully sighing
Satpura’s jungles dense

Pits and holes
Dens and caves
Stretching awake
Grass and reed
Sal and palas
Creeper and climber
Branch and twig
Wind and leaf
Fowl and partridge
All go mad and happy
At this time of the year

Straddling horizons two and two
Heaving black poisoned waves
swelling and churning
To bring forth towering Meru
Hoary Mahadev Timeless Vishnu
And the venomous restless Serpent Nag
Do you know this one vast ocean?
Likewise
Fitfully sighing
Are these jungles dense?

Plunge in and fear not   
Death dwells not here
These jungles feed and coddle
River, stream and waterfall
In numbers countless
Talking and babbling in their hilly lap
Where tigers and leopards
Rip and roar
A hundred thousand wings
A rangale of hundred deer
A hundred clusters of moonlit rays
Drunken, swaying flower and fruit
Sprouting by eyes unseen
Bud and leaf, baby-green
Here comes Holi
With its offerings sweet
Among the vines and tendrils 
Of Satpura’s jungles dense

Four Crows Urf Four Demons

Written during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. 1975-77.

Recitation of the original Hindi version.

Only four black crows just that many
Decided all winged beings however many
Must eat sing fly stop like them
What they alone festivity call better suit the rest of them

A magical wind blows through the world sometimes
When all virtues seem a halo around demons at times
As these four crows crowned themselves in glory
Their servants became eagles, hawks and kites, bloody and gory

Swan, peacock, sparrow what do the crows care
Stand with folded hands unable to dare
Order is given, cuckoos must not piu-piu repeat
Instead kaw-kaw sing on every beat
Countless chores from sparrows are demanded
Eat drink and make merry from yes men expected

They came into their own with both hands in the cookie jar
They dreamed big dreams with no par
Even changed the rules for flying
Grounding all the winged creatures as good as dying

What happened next
Is difficult to tell or text
This isn’t the poet’s, but the crows’ day
If you’re curious what happened day after day
Come inside
A long story in short
Cannot be told outside

Geet Farosh (The Song Seller)

Recitation of the original Hindi version.

Right honorable sir, peddling songs
Is my life, my business
Different kinds of songs I sell
Every type of song I write.
Please, examine the goods
I’ll promptly name the price
They are not useless, be assured
I’ve written some in joyous abandon
Some when I was down and out
Here, this song will rid you of your headache
Or this one, to bring your beloved near
Yes sir, for a time I felt great shame
But then I figured by and by
Many sell their self-respect for way less
Don’t be shocked therefore
After some serious reflection
I began peddling my songs
Yes, your honor, I sell my songs.

This song is a morning song, consider it
This one is muscle-powered, weigh it
I wrote this one in loneliness, in my ivory tower
This I penned in Pune’s garden bower
See, sir, this one can scramble up a hill
And this, given the slip, stretch out forever
This song will banish hunger and thirst
And this will wake the ghost
In the desolate burning grounds
This one blows infected bhuwali air
And this is a herb to cure
The dying lungs’ thirst for air
I peddle songs both simple and nonsensical
Yes sir, I sell my songs

Sir, I have lots more to show you
I can sing them if you wish
Rhyming or rhymeless
Immortal or promptly dying
What is there to take offence?
Have paper and pen ready by my side
Should your honor not care for this lot
Shall I write one to suit your flavor pot?
If you don’t like new
I can copy something old
These days the poet must do double duty
Pen to write and shoulder to hawk
Some time for writing, some time for peddling
Won’t cost you extra for my effort
I write songs, new and old
Yes sir, I sell my songs

Your Honor, shall I write of birth
Of death perhaps?
Of victory or of defeat?
This song will give the feel of silk
This of khadi
This one smacks of jaundice
This one is about badi
Wait please, I have other designs too
Here, this one is classic
This newly popular, filmy
This song is fit for thinking much too long
And dying
And this to hum while going home, ambling
Why should I tease and joke?
I am always writing, all day all night
Molding songs of different types
The pile has grown big, let me remove it
Customer is always right, accept my apology
Please sir, let me show you one final song
You may go inside and ask if you like
But what can I do, helpless as I am with no way out?
Yes, honorable sir, I sell my songs

Poverty of Words

Poverty of words my own
I know
Meaning they carry twiddle-thumb
But uttering them is neither futile nor on the bum  
Mouthing them brings serenity
Poverty of words my own
I know

Forgetting things close by and all around
Swinging back and forth, all the world round
A child is gathering pebbles by the river bank
Poverty of words my own
I know

Pebbles unique and strange
Blue, red, rainbow and yellow
A child’s own arrangement
According to its skill and preferment
Poverty of words my own
I know

Sound of footsteps nearby
Prompting daily a new arrangement
Poverty of words my own
I know

Knitting words
Picking pebbles
Do not deserve any distinction
Nor must it come for discrimination
Poverty of words my own
I know

Only habit and nature
Passion for picking
Keeps one alive and kicking
And urge for life compounding
Poverty of words my own
I know

Yashoda Singh

Yashoda Singh taught English at the Indian Institute of Technology for several years. He left India to work on his Ph.D. in English at Loyola University of Chicago. He taught English at Bowling Green State...