on This Number Does Not Exist, poems by Mangalesh Dabral (BOA Editions)

In October 2015, Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral was awarded the Sahitya Akademi prize by India’s National Academy of Letters. He turned down the award and its cash prize in protest over the death of the scholar M.M. Kalburgi, a progressive voice among a caste group called the Lingayat. Dabral was objecting to a wave of intolerance and increasing violence against minorities and dissenters. As George Szirtes has noted, if Hindi poets hew generally to either the cosmic or the humane, Dabral stands firmly in the latter camp.

Yet he repeatedly implies that we can’t understand a thing merely by looking at it. In “Skin,” he sees “dermal bodies dermal objects / all universe made of skin / whose roving and spinning images the TV / flashes day and night.” As a displaced person in his own country, he stands at the edge, seeing and seeing through:

spirituality is like spirituality’s crust
only periphery is spread out everywhere
new miracles being worked on it
beneath a beautiful surface an ugly
thought hides easily
the crowned god appears wearing
a divine skin

DabralB.jpgSince arriving in Delhi in 1970 from his Himalayan village, he has made his living as a newspaper literary editor. His poems blend elegy with a keen attention to daily matters, what he sums up as “the difficulties of coming to terms with the place of refuge.” His perspective is dually focused on India’s turmoil and worldwide “oppression, global barbarism and hegemonies.” He speaks firmly from a sense of poetry’s planetary force, having translated work by Cardenal, Ritsos, Rózewicz, Neruda, Brecht, and Herbert. Although his social attitude is unmistakable, his appeal extends well beyond the didactic.

Now, This Number Does Not Exist selects work from Dabral’s five collections of poetry. (His first book, Lantern on the Mountains, was published in 1981.) Below, the title poem in an Anglophone version by Sudeep Sen, one of eleven contributing translators.

THIS NUMBER DOES NOT EXIST

This number does not exist.
Wherever I go whichever number I dial
At the other end a strange voice says
This number does not exist yeh number maujood nahin hai
Not too long ago at the number I used to reach people
Who said: of course we recognize you
There is space for you in this universe

But now this number does not exist it is some old number.
At these old addresses very few people are left
Where at the sound of footsteps doors would be opened
Now one has to ring the bell and wait in apprehension
And finally when one appears
It is possible he might have changed
Or he might say I am not the one you used to talk to
This is not the number where we would hear out your grief

Wherever I go numbers maps faces seem to be changed
Old diaries are strewn in gutters
Their names slow-fading in the water
Now other numbers are available more than ever with and without wires
But a different kind of conversation on them
Only business only transactions buy-and-sell voices like strangers
Whenever I go I desperately dial a number
And ask for the voice that used to say
The door is open you can stay here
Come along for a while just for the sake of it any time in this universe.

DabralCover.jpgRooting his poems in quickly recognizable situations, Dabral has always extended a familiar tone towards his reader as if his shifting pessimisms and hopes are matters of the neighborhood, which indeed they are. The raucousness of Dehli is often in the foreground while his childhood home in Tehri Garhwal is visible in the distance of memory. But in the present moment of speaking, his identity is hazy even if his situation is sketched. It is a shaken persona still managing in moments to flare up. Below, the first stanza of “An Act,” translated by Christi Merrill:

I shore up confidence each morning
as I set out from home
hoping to maintain my composure
I meet a man and smile
He suddenly sees my sorrow
Eagerly I shake hands with another
Who senses the agony deep inside me
I sit with a friend in silence
He says you look sickly and gaunt
Those who never set foot in my house
Say oh we saw you on TV the other day

Separation from origins and simplicity seamlessly morphs into alienation from the rapacity of civilization. In “Before Going to Sleep” (translated by Sen) he writes:

All night will a despot keep staring at me
All night shall I keep seeing displaced people roaming
Moving towards some unknown arid land
All night will my breath suffocate due to earth’s rising temperature
Will a bazaar keep knocking at my head
Before going to sleep I close my books
Where tree hills buildings people are all drowned in black-n-white sorrow
And love looks like a disheveled nest

Dabral.jpgIn a prose poem, “Poem of Paper,” “sheets of paper that were once important” become a distressful burden and must be ripped up, “poems we believed would remove the world’s hunger get reduced to shreds.” The piece ends: “We have become wordless, and all but lost our speech. We go on tearing the paper. It’s our only hope.” One realizes that there is no accommodation for delicacy in Dabral’s work; certainty of stance should not be misconstrued as peacefulness. The anxiety is constrained, the cause of anxiety is rampant.

Dabral's work is infused with the sense, as Robert Duncan put it, that "the drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate." But the work is equally inhabited by the hurdles. This tension is also the core of Dabral's artfulness -- his polemics lean to the side, obliquely, burdened by something more gravely consequential than his singular desire. Consolations are few. Even so, Dabral’s lyrical rhythms defy his griefs through transmutation – as specified in his “way” of functioning as poet:

MY WAY

Whatever was registered like noise
here there everywhere
I tried to inscribe
like music.

[Published June 14, 2016. 160 pages, bilingual format, $16.00 paperback]