Witnesses of Remembrance: The Poetry of Kunwar Narain

September 26, 2023


A photograph of a path carved through a grove of trees
Narain’s home state of Uttar Pradesh / Reality Images / Adobe Stock

The cover to Kunwar Narain's book the Witnesses of Remembrancet is a grim reality that many important Indian poets are not yet known by the anglophone readers spread across the globe, sadly, because their poetry could not find translators. However, Apurva Narain, himself an author, has tried to take on the daunting task of translating such an important Hindi poet as Kunwar Narain (1927–2017). Given the wide poetic repertoire spanning seven decades of Narain’s poetic career, Apurva, the son of the poet, has selected an eclectic mélange of Narain’s poems and translated them with great finesse in a collection entitled Witnesses of Remembrance: Selected Newer Poems (Eka, 2021).

Kunwar Narain was a modernist poet who helped Hindi poetry break free from the prescribed molds of tradition and offered an experimental style that could explore new and varied realities of human existence. His poetry offers a multilayered investigation of human life and experiences with refreshingly incisive and simple language, as the following verses from the poem “Up to the Limit of Obstinacy” suggest:

To understand a person fully
It is necessary
to go a long way into her past
up to the limit of obstinacy
Not just trailing an animal smell
In line with the nose
Down to the amoeba, but
One will also have to read
The entire ephemeris of her existence
Embedded in fossils

Narain’s poetry offers a multilayered investigation of human life and experiences with refreshingly incisive and simple language.

Narain does not convolute his verse, nor does he embellish it with ornamental words just to display poetic complexities; instead, his poetry is exquisitely sharp and palpably nudges the reader to think and to feel. For Narain, poetry should be “in the language of the people, it should be / alive somewhere, somehow, that’s all.” And with such colloquial diction and intellectual capaciousness, Narain interestingly captured a wide array of themes in his poetry encompassing nature, love, politics, ethics, and history.

However, underlying all such themes is the exploration of individual human experiences and emotions. That also often exchanges with the collective experiences and emotions of the people as in the poem “Living an Ordinary Life”:

I know that
You can’t change the world,
Nor even fight it
And win it . . .
Living ordinary lives too
People have been seen
Quietly getting martyred

Probably all Narain’s verses reflect a sincerity of thought and somber tone even when he writes about love. Apurva Narain has succeeded in carrying the originality of tone in his chiseled translations:

in the enfolding darkness
Under the tree there
Eyes shut
Two shadows clinging
Before the farewell
Time to embrace

Charged with the warmth of life, Narain’s poetry represents his time with sublime imagination. And his poetry, of course, deserves a wider readership, which the translator has made possible. Apurva Narain as a translator preserves the original poetic freshness in his translation with exquisite skill, thus making Witnesses of Remembrance a feast for connoisseurs of poetry.

Jamia Millia Islamia

Mohammad Farhan teaches English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He’s a regular contributor to various reputed newspapers and literary magazines including Wasafiri, among others.