Poetry | Kunwar Narain (Transated by Dibyajyoti Sarma)

photo by Sashikumar J

from Kumarajiva, a narrative poem by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Dibyajyoti Sarma

[We had such plans. I was lucky enough to meet Kunwar Narain at his home in CR Park on 17 September 2016. He had just completed 89 and his hearing was weak. That did not stop us from discussing poetry, and our favourite poets, Eliot, Yeats, Auden. He had translated almost all the major 20th Western poets into Hindi. He also told us about his trip to Turkey and meeting Nazim Hikmet. The Turkish poet had just been released from one of his jail sentences, and Narain was still a starry-eyed young poet. I can still hear his voice narrating the story. “He (Hikmet) was an imposing personality. He sat next to me and put his hand on my thigh. He had huge hands.”

I identified the awe in the voice because that’s what I felt meeting Narain, hearing him tell the tale. I gave him my book of poems and since he had already lost his eye-sight, Apurva Narain, his son, suggested that I read a few poems from the book to him. I did. And he said he liked them. There couldn’t be a bigger reward.

On leaving, with the promise to meet again, I received a copy of Narain’s last masterpiece, the epic poem (Kavya) Kumarajiva published by Bharatiya Gnanpith. I found the book a tad difficult. A poetic biography of Kumarajiva, the man who introduced Buddhist literature in China, the book tackles deep philosophical questions on existence, life, death and everything in between. But the prologue, ‘In Tathagata’s Company’ moved me beyond words. I read and reread the passages a thousand times until I was ready to attempt a translation. This translation is my humble tribute to the legacy of Kunwar Narain.]
In Tathagata’s Company
from Kumarajiva, a narrative poem by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Dibyajyoti Sarma

I’ve embarked upon a thousand-year journey,
with Tathagata;
we have an eternity together –
on our path we will find who knows
how many cities, how many deserts.

We’ll not stop anywhere;
we'll carry on like the blowing wind.

We’ll leave behind, just a few words –
some reverberation of ideas,
etching on thresholds –
footprints of roving mendicants.

The way trees and leaves soak in
light and air and
carry to the soil
the fertilisers,

the same way will spread
the fire of spiritual ideas – breathing
from flowers to roots.

Digesting ugliness, there will always bloom
the fragrance of beauty in the air,
breaking the walls of darkness,
there will always sparkle joy, and
we will always be visible
in the wholeness of lost past,
sometimes like a star
sometimes like the sun.

Kumarajiva can be resurrected again
the way he resurrected Tathagata;
because no one, Buddha or Kumarajiva,
remains dead.

His was a life of ideas,
which can be experienced any time,
by going to his time
or by bringing him to our time,

the way at one time Kumarajiva
had found completeness,
inhabiting the Buddha’s ideas
in his own time,

the way man inhabits
his memories and past customs
rehabilitating them
in present time.

Every dedicated follower – thinker – artist
draws parallel to the Time where he exists
an Alternate Time of his own.

It is a life at once contemporary
and universal
where resides permanently
the essence of
his ideas and his achievements,
where they grow continuously until eternity.

I, Kumarajiva, am a vehicle of
Buddha’s words, not just a translator.
Through him, I’m a message for myself too,  
interspersed with his message.

With Tathagata’s teachings,
there contain my dedication too.

Wrapped in my achievements,
I too am my Alternate Time
where I’ll endure
even after me — with Tathagata —

the way Tathagata is alive
even after him, in his self-created
Alternate Sub-Time,
even today, with me.

In every moment,
I live several moments.

Time cannot not divided like matter,
like matter, it’s neither whole nor separate.
It’s us with our knowledge of matter that
we divide Time into tiny little pieces.

Whichever epoch I fancy,
I resurrect it like the present day,
and the ones I don’t, I discard them.
            Bringing lifelessness to existence, a conscious being,
            I myself transform into my past, my yesterday,
            my today and my future,
            my eternity.

            It all comes to us,
            through our dreams, our ideas.

This is my present which has arrived after thousands of years,
and it can endure for thousands of years after me,
sometimes ancient,
some prehistoric, sometimes medieval.

With all humility, I invite Tathagata
from his epoch to mine.

Like a book, I open
his epoch in mine.

A lot is hidden in these writings
which are not visible
in the folds of time.

I study the closely-knit
threading of ‘present’, when loosened,
from its holes is visible a light
completely different from the
permanent razzmatazz of today.

Each book is a closed door
opening which I  
immerse into the words
and shower under words’
waterfall of time
which is the time of that language.

I notice
In the beauteous past somewhere,
I’m reincarnated — in some unknown place.

My mind is Jetavana,
somewhere there’s a Shravasti, an Amravati
and Tathagata’s flesh and blood companionship,
a disciple listening to his teachings,
where there’s Sarnath, Sanchi and Patliputra.

            Matching wheels to wheels with the chariots
of Licchavis, Ambapalika rides her chariot —
a Ganika who claims proudly, ‘Today in my
mango orchard, Tathagata will be my guest.’

‘Take thousand cowries, Ganika,
            and give us the pleasure to host him…’
‘I refuse even if you offer a thousand cities.’
The Licchavis heard and her chariot marched on.

I humbly return to Kucha — my own epoch —
where in the caves of Kinjil,
there is a festival in the honour of Maitreya’s return.

Who knows in how many different lives,
in how many different ways, I have experienced
            the different meanings of Home.

Who knows how many times I have experienced
the joys of being a householder
and then the pains of losing the household,
the happiness of setting up a home
and the sadness of witnessing its ruin.

Who knows how many times
I have uttered in exasperation —
I would not build any more homes
and who know how many times
spring up like tides,
mounds of termites on the body,
another home and family.

Who knows how many times
I have uttered with conviction,
like enlightened Buddha —
‘Oh, householder,
I would not allow you to build any more,
another home — this is your last shelter.’

Yet, I am forced to return again and again,
from the other world to this,
carrying in my hands the same begging bowl,

            writings or a torch of wisdom.  

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