IT was to be a mundane day and an ordinary commute. There were no sublime invitations from the surroundings, yet, it was to be an enlightening journey. I was travelling with Bedil and Rumi in my mind, a notepad with my own verses and a patient passenger.
“Recite it again.”, Rahi said.
He listened intently and repeated, “Recite it again.”
The more he said it, the more confident I became about the verses I’d composed. It’s only later that I realised my patient co-passenger’s curiosity and attention to my work was more about his humility than about my craft.
Posthumous fame is a misery of sorts, inflicted upon great men. So it has to be with Rahi as well, Rehman Rahi, the first and the only Jnanpith recipient from Kashmir. Rahi sitting Le Penseur in obits is inadequate. Obits, reactions and recollections are all identical.
I can go to the market and fetch a Pushkin or Chekhov but I don’t know of any bookstore in the city center where I can have books of Rahi or books about him. Barring scattered shreds of his poetry, I cannot recount any bookstore with enough on Rahi for the curious in Kashmir. None of ‘Nawroz-i-Saba’, ‘Siyah Rood’e Joryen Manz’ or ‘Daryaav Thathis Pyeth’; all these being his main and major creative works.
The first of the books I read on him was a dull xerox of one of his books borrowed from the collection at the Department of Kashmiri, University of Kashmir. At the gates of the University, Iqbal and Ghalib were numerous. Even book carts stationed outside had Kulliyat-e-Iqbal and Diwan-e-Ghalib. Their popularity isn’t an issue. Tolstoy is a hit around here as well. What irks is the neglect shown towards the most versatile poets of Kashmiri language. A neglect which stares at the irony of debates being organised and won by the advocates of language preservation. What claims do we have over a language we claim to love but fail to nurture? A love that Rahi embraced and celebrated through his words:
O Kashmiri language!
I swear by you,
you are my awareness,
my vision too the radiant ray of my perception
the whirling violin of my conscience!
It is the absence of meaningful engagement and celebration of a notable poet from Kashmir which must drive us all to ask and enquire,“Who was Rahi?”
Rahi changed the poetic idiom of Kashmir for good. He changed it by exorcising from it the subduing effect of Persian motifs – motifs which were followed from Mehmood Ghami down to Mehjoor. Poets may come and imitate him, but the grandeur and majesty of his style and artistry shall ever remain inaccessible to finite and meek intellects like that of ours. Look, for example, at his poem “Takhleeq” (Siyah Rod Joryen Manz, Page 66). The poem speaks of the process of creative activity, poetic or otherwise but the erotic imagery deployed in the poem keeps the reader in a state of ambiguity till he reaches the end of the poem where this ambiguity yields all the meaning it has been hiding.
My estimations may seem emotional, almost exaggerated. However, I am calculated in my claims of holding Rahi in the leagues and the likes of Tagore, Iqbal, Faiz and stalwarts we celebrate and idolize in the world of literature. His poetry is a testimony and the sources he drew upon reinforce my claims.
His first hand understanding of Persian and English literature, besides his deep engagement with the literary tradition of the language of his own, had uniquely placed him to bring about a synthesis. A synthesis in which he fused the mysticism and ambiguity of Bedil, the aesthetics and expressionism of Hafiz, the surrealism and abstraction of Persian masters with the poignancy of Wordsworth, the loftiness of Eliot and the polyvalence of Ghalib. He did it in a language of his own – Kashmiri. His way astounded many to the point of dismissal – a fate shared by many who have challenged established literary paradigms and perspectives. Even in the face of these judgments, he unapologetically remained a literary heretic, a zealot and somebody who preferred flying away tangentially to the set orbit instead of revolving in age old circles – the circles which he found too small to accommodate his creative vigour and the elan of his poetic effulgence.
Russian poet and critic Osip Madelstam had said of poets that they were possessed by the “nightingale fever”: an inability to stop singing irrespective of the consequences.
Rahi was smitten by this fever.
‘And there is no hope
For heart still flushed
With Nightingale Fever.’ (Osip Mandelstam, 1918)
This heat is felt everywhere in his poetry.
To those who may go about looking for sloganeering, polemics or existential enquiries, I say, don’t go in looking for these.
Poetry is bewilderment before the beauty and majesty of life, it is the celebration of existence may that celebration assume the form of mourning, it is to look into the abyss of life, knowing its infinitude, but still unwilling to surrender to this infinitude and assert one’s existence in the face of all cosmic and social oddities. That is what Rahi invites to and this invitation shall exist as long as something called literature exists in the world.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, while writing Tagore’s biography, had said that great poets have no biographies in the usual sense of the word. By this he meant that as far as the poetic aspect of their personality is concerned, they are timeless, ahistorical and eternal. This shall also not lead us into the fallacy of leaving his life unattended and unscrutinized. In fact, there is a growing need, particularly in the wake of interest that people are gathering in Rahi on his demise to have his works translated and to have introductory works on his life and comprehensive research on his literary oeuvre.
Much has been expressed on Rahi’s demise. Perhaps, my personal grief can only be explained by a stranger’s tears who, moved by Rahi’s odes sung by Vijay Malla, had asked me for its translation once. He didn’t know the Kashmiri language but had still been moved to tears, possibly by the nightingale fever?
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