A myriad-minded man
A myriad-minded man: That was how Coleridge described Shakespeare. There was no other way I could think of describing Prof Shiv K Kumar, former...
Maybe the headline suggested itself to me because, peeping into his life, as I tried to do at his house in Habsiguda in Hyderabad in 1995, was not unlike opening the door of a china shop: the wind may (very often does) blow violently and, before we realize what has happened, some vase of immense proportion may descend on our innocent heads knocking out our preconceived notions.
Little wonder, then, that since I met him I have been feeling as if crazed by a head wound! Born at Lahore, Professor Kumar felt he belonged to Hyderabad where he taught English for almost 30 years and really came into his own. When I went to interview him, I found him a tall, handsome and rather gaunt man with an aristocratic air about him that led one to suspect that he was perhaps an Austrian archduke or a lost Hapsburg.
Suddenly, however, a memory came to him like a shaft of sunlight through a traceried window: "While at school, I was fond of ghazals, and would even sing them to myself though I knew nothing of classical music. One day my father overheard me humming an intensely romantic ghazal and said that was not the kind of thing one ought to do in brahmacharya," Professor Kumar said in a manner that would put to shame even a celebrated humorist, putting his fingertips together and pursing his lips both for the sacerdotal air it gave him and for its usefulness in hiding the fact that he was struggling with laughter.
Thinking aloud, he said: "It's time every Indian got Partition out of his/her system." He twitched into a violent movement, and as suddenly returned to his nervously intent immobile state, but the face had suddenly turned grave. The eyes were, no doubt, still frank and smiling, but behind them I thought I detected a touch of wistfulness, perhaps for some shattered dreams, and in their gaze now was the sorrowfulness of a heart consumed in passion, and the desolation of a sense of loss. "My fourth novel, A River With Three Banks, is based on Partition and set against the backdrop of the riots that rocked Delhi in its wake," Professor Kumar said.
The mood was clearly one of despairing anxiety, sometimes hardening and deepening into anger, irony and occasional bitterness, and thence changing gradually to a passionate pity and to stoicism and, in the end, there was a hint of something more than the courage of mere acceptance. These were among the emotional experiences he travelled through in the course of that evening's reverie.
Here is one of his off-the-cuff remarks: "As a writer, I believe in the utter unpredictability of life. Without it there would perhaps be no literature worthy of the name." Who could be more competent to pronounce such a judgment than a Fellow of Royal Society of Literature (one of three Indians), a visiting professor at several foreign universities and, above all, one who has several anthologies of verse, short stories and novels and a play to his back? Could he be thinking of some tragedies of his life, I wondered. His eyelids creased, his upper lip lifted in a crescent over a fine row of teeth, and he nodded meditatively. Directness, concreteness and precision, so fundamental to writers and poets, can result only from the conviction that suffering is another tragedy in man's experience, for in tragedy the Self is not destroyed from within; with it you know where you are, always in mortal combat.
"But my life has not been without its share of miracles," Professor Kumar said, staring out at the dull grey twilight sky overhanging Hyderabad. The flow of talk, which had run continuously and quite easily, became suddenly checked; pauses grew longer and their interruptions seemed to be at the mercy of memory.
First, while acting as Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad University, he was fed up with the files that seemed to dehydrate the literary impulse. Just as he was toying with the idea of quitting, he received an invitation from the University of Oklahoma in the USA to be its Distinguished Professor. Again, he had sent the manuscript of his novel Nude Before God to Graham Greene, knowing full well that the latter was just then being persecuted for writing a novel fictionalizing a real mafia, and realizing that there was little chance of even an acknowledgement. Yet Greene wrote back that he had read the manuscript and found the book highly amusing. Curiously enough, the recapitulation was uninflected!
Yet again, it was while in the USA that Professor Kumar made his first serious attempt at writing. "That was at an evening with some friends who, like me, were great admirers of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His poetry was being recited and praised. When I went back to my apartment I asked myself why I could not write too, at least in English." The result was a poem Border Guards, depicting the sentinels on the Indo-Pak border. This tentative attempt at writing was sent to the New York Times which published it on the editorial page in both its editions. Professor Kumar thus got launched on a literary career.
"Though I write in English, my first love is Urdu. I have translated into English 100 poems of Faiz, and Viking-Penguin (India) published the collection in June 1995," Professor Kumar said. Grief had thus passed from pain to poetry. When he wrote Border Guards, he felt like a sculptor learning to handle his tools; who practices on clay from models and, after he has mastered the elements of his craft, copies life; when he can copy life, he begins to create from life.
"In Hyderabad, I experienced no culture shock because, born and bought up in a culture permeated with Urdu, I found myself in a similar culture here. Trapfalls in the Sky, a collection of my poems which won the Sahitya Akademi award, has been beautifully translated into Urdu by Dr Yusuf Kamal under the title Aasmaan mein kamigaahen, and its Hindi translation is titled Ek de ke do mausam, all translations, including the one in Kannada (then) underway, having been sponsored by the Sahitya Akademi," Professor Kumar said.
The spectacle of a man of his stature speaking with frank intensity about deeply emotional and personal matters seemed to create a sort of half-embarrassed, half-rapt, astonishment from which he, however, rescued me with humour. "If I had my way, I would insist on teachers of English literature being subjected to clinical tests! They are killers of creativity. How on earth can anyone teach a love poem without understanding, if not experiencing, it? But here is a paradox: students have the right temperament to identify themselves with the romance of the poem, but because of the clinical approach adopted by their teachers their spirit gets stifled and, consequently, they cannot grasp the emotion in a poem. It would, therefore, not be a bad idea to play in the classroom cassettes of the poems to be taught," Professor Kumar said.