Book Review on Dr Mahendra Bhatnagar’s Struggling for Life by Neil Leadbeater

The  full  title  of  this  collection  is Struggling  For Life:  Lyrical Glimpses  of  Life  and  Experience  (A  Philosophy  of  Life). It  is  a fair summary of its style and content and gives the reader an insight into what is to follow. The title suggests a hard contest that  is  fraught  with  difficulty.  For  Bhatnagar, the mystery of living requires us to expend considerable effort and exertion as we try to comprehend and make sense of our conscious existence. “Life” here is not just the period between birth and death, it is also related to the now and forever: it is the struggle for eternal well-being.

The  cover  of  the  book  gives  us  a  glimpse  of  heavenly intentions. It  is  a  photograph  taken  from  an  aeroplane which is above the clouds heading towards a sunrise or a sunset. It is the infinite freedom of the firmament. It could be the start of a new day, a new age or the end of a day: a dichotomy  that  reflects  so  much  on  the  direction  of  his poems  which  veer  alternately  between  acceptance  and resignation.

In   his   helpful   introduction,   P   C   K   Prem   states   that Bhatnagar  believes in  a  panoramic  vision  of  life.  To  this extent,    his    themes    are    universal.    Prem    says    that Bhatnagar is a poet who scrutinises the human world and the   natural   world. He   is   also   a   poet   who displays indomitable fortitude and accepts with faith and courage the transience of life with all its trials and tribulations.

 The  present  volume  comprises  199  poems  of  varying length.  Most of the poems are short and concise enough to fit on one page. For the most part they are written in a lyrical  vein  that  sometimes  verges on  the  dramatic –a reminder that he once worked for All India Radio as one of the  members  of  an  Audition  Committee  for  Drama  and was  contracted  as  a  songwriter.  His  poems  reflect  the mood of the time: the experiences, aspirations and hopes of an individual living in a complex age.

The writings of Munshi Premchand (1880-1935) have been influential  in  shaping Bhatnagar’s poetry. Indeed, in his introduction,  P  C  K  Prem  states  that  this  Indian  writer, famous for his modern Hindi-Urdu literature, left a lifelong impression on Bhatnagar. Premchand is considered to be the first Hindi author whose writings prominently feature realism,  with  particular  reference  to  the  problems of the poor and the urban middle class. He used literature in the same   way   as   Bhatnagar   does,   to  bring  about  public awareness  of  national  and  social  issues.  His  poems  are rooted  and  grounded  in  social,  economic  and  political issues.  Premchand’s  realism  comes  to  the  fore  in Bhatnagar’s poem Realism:

Living life is difficult,  burdensome,

For  Bhatnagar, bitter  experience  is  the  forerunner  of maturity.  There  are  lessons  to  be  learned.  At  the  same time, many of his poems affirm that each moment in life is to  be  welcomed.  At  times, he may feel defeated but he is not despondent.

In  an interview    with    Dr Nilanshu   Kumar Agarwal, published  in Wild Violet,  Bhatnagar  said  that  he  was  not attached  to  any political dogma or political party. He said that he believed not only in Gautam Buddha’s philosophy but  also in the views, thoughts and ideology of Karl Marx and   Ghandi.   Bhatnagar   believes   that   free   thinking  is absolutely   necessary   for   all   intellectuals,   writers   and poets.

Stylistically, his  poems  are  straightforward  and clear. For Bhatnagar, communication is a priority. The poet must be able  to  communicate  with  his  audience  otherwise  all  is lost. Poetry must contain high and noble thoughts. It must possess a certain dignity for every poet should be a “rishi” (a sage)…a torch-bearer of society.

Many  of  the  poems  in  this  volume  are  declamatory  in style.  The  use  of  repetition,  often  at  the  beginning  of stanzas,  lends  itself  to  this  kind  of  dignified oratory. In A Wish, for example, each couplet begins with the command “Let…” In Duty all four stanzas begin with the words “To love…”  In Recognition the  first  four  stanzas  commence with  the  word “How…”and  in Unexpected all  the  stanzas begin with the words “Like all times…”The Worship of Artis held together by the repletion of the invitation to “Sing O sing”.

Imagery  comes  directly  from  nature,  landscape and  the natural  elements. Extreme  emotion  is  described in terms of  fire  and  snow  and  thunder.  Pain  is  depicted  as  a scorpion’s sting, confusion as a forest, a hurricane or a dust storm and loneliness as stony ground or barren land. The  use  of  these  very  general  terms  and  the  absence  of specific place names helps to make these poems universal in their appeal.

Throughout,  his  writing  is  marked  by  a  certain  stoicism. This  is  particularly  prominent  in  a  poem  such  as Ascetic where he states that the ascetic

… finds no difference

between dying and living

for him no difference

between drinking  poison or nectar.

In Courage he writes that each challenge is welcome. Bhatnagar  admires  the  man  who  can  face  any  disaster. The  man  who  exercises  restraint  is  capable  of facing  all calamities. In How To Suffer Pain: A Point Of View he writes: Smile if the heart aches.

Several  poems  focus  on  the  transitory  nature  of  our existence.  Life  is  a journey, it is one that is imbued with a degree   of   uncertainty,   it   is   a   voyage   with no   prior knowledge of direction. Life cannot be planned. Expect the unexpected.  Ultimately  it  is  like a flower that blooms and is    no    more.    Some    poems    look    forward    to    the abandonment of self so that the soul can merge with the collective consciousness or sleep in the depths of oblivion.

His  poetry  is  not  overtly  didactic  but it is philosophical in its approach to life’s experiences and offers up a degree of wisdom in the process. In Arrogancehe says:

Hate a sinful act

and not a sinner

and in Renunciation –Consciousness he counsels:

Nothing  is gained

if you curse anyone.

In Acceptancehe says:

Good things  come slowly

be patient

be diligent

and in A Particular  Thought he writes:

Dreams do not come true just like that

 It takes generations to realize…

Several  poems,  such  as One  Sunday,  Companionless and Unexpecteddwell   on   the   theme   of   loneliness   which Bhatnagar  says  we  must  accept  willingly  and  embrace wholeheartedly.  In  the  poem Incomplete–which  is  short enough  to  quote  in  full –the  mystery  of  loneliness  is captured in a masterly fashion:

Something  remains


Shall I add an appendix

or hold back

Something unendurable


Here, he writes about the elusive nature of our existence. Something  is  missing  which  he  can  feel  in  his  heart  and yet he cannot state exactly what it is.

For Bhatnagar, the source of creating poetry lies in intense and  emotional  experiences.  This  is  the  first  and  most essential  element.  Thought  comes  next –the  rational outworking    or    analysis    of    the    original    emotional experience.  Imagination,  language and style make up the other elements.Each poem is an exposition of logical thinking, a weighing up  of a particular situation which comes to a well-argued balanced  conclusion.  We  cannot  change  the  past.  Life  is stable for all time. We have no choice but to accept it.

His creed is summed up in these words from Duty: To love this life

this world

is what a man must do.

To love people

mute animals, birds, creatures,

the forest creepers,

the trees,

is what a man must do.

Thanks are due to the team of translators who have once again  brought  Bhatnagar’s  poems  before  an  English audience.  The  translations  are  accompanied  by  helpful footnotes on the names of specific individuals, references to  Indian  mythology,  technical  terms  in  Sanskrit poetics, and other “foreign” details as an aid to comprehension.

Title: Struggling  for Life
Author: Neil Lead beater
Publisher: Indian  Publishers
Available: Amazon

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