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
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:
Shall I add an appendix
or hold back
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
is what a man must do.
To love people
mute animals, birds, creatures,
the forest creepers,
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