In Robin Williams’ famous film Dead Poets Society, John Keating, the most unorthodox teacher tells his students: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance and love are what we stay alive for.”
Afsar Mohammad, perhaps, stands a living example for the statement. Afsar is a senior faculty at the South Asia Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania and an internationally acclaimed scholar of South Asian cultures. Published extensively in English and travelled far and wide, Afsar is also known as an outstanding professor. He taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas at Austin, before that. But, more than his enviable academic record, he is a remarkable poet in the first place. He published his first poem in 1979 even when he was in high school. Within the Telugu literary sphere, it’s very rare that a poet gets recognition just after his first poem. Immediately noticed as an innovative poet, since then Afsar has published five volumes of poetry. His complete volume of poetry Appati Nunchi Ippati Daakaa Afsar Kavitwam was published by the prestigious Chitra Leka Publications of Hyderabad in 2019, just towards the end of his four decades of fascinating journey as a poet.
The present century is more chaotic than the previous. In the last century, as a phenomenon, people of particular geographical regions collectively identified themselves with that area and fought for freedom and self-governance from their colonial occupiers. But now, the divisions and fights are not with external aggressors but with the polarised, internal traditional and hierarchical power houses. From geographic barriers, the meiotic parameters of identification have shifted to religion, language, caste, and gender.
While man has expanded exponentially in scientific progress, he has contracted to decimally insignificant levels in accommodation, tolerance, equitable distribution of natural resources. This is exactly the realm in which a poet can endeavour to arrest the retrogression and reverse. Colour of the skin, unfortunately, has played an important role in deciding the character and fate of the being till recently. People were judged as ‘sinners’ on that account once. But, of all divisive and annihilating forces that undid the strongest bond between persons, people, communities, and nations… ‘mistrust’ stands at the apex.
Whether it is between white and black of American or the Hindu and Muslim of Indian sub-continent, it has been employed, effectively and with surgical precision, by the powers to be to further their personal ends. Often, they camouflage their real intentions behind hypocritical phraseology like ‘There is invisible love between people’, ‘Faces are just colours, but the bonds are deeper’ or ‘Love and laughter reigns supreme’.
A Black Love Poem by Afsar is a very incisive criticism of this attitude he exposes while paying tribute to an unfortunate soul who was shot on the suspicion of culpability for mere colour of his skin. What is more, once distrust sets in, the language of people loses its flavour and turns verbose, insipid and just a stock of familiar sounds. Those loving and compassionate looks, till then, become scanners. Every move, every word, and every gesture between people passes through severe doubled-up scrutiny. The seed of human interaction becomes unviable and never turn a leaf. The humus in man dries up and he becomes a biped beast. The division between people becomes clear and complete. Afsar brings out this idea succinctly in his poem The Seedless.
Ideation beyond the survival instincts distinguishes man from the beast. An idea can change not only the life of the person concerned but the whole generations of people to follow. What starts as wild and incredulous in thought could become an everyday experience for posterity without that awareness. But, such a remarkable idea is hard to come by. It needs unflinching focus, fervour and faith.
Just Bless Me with an Idea is one such entreaty to the invisible. Alienation from native land is an ineluctable choice for survival. As time passes, the visits to your native place would be few and far between. While the memories of the land, the people and the milieu always remain green, the longing would be stronger if the land of your living is totally different. Elevating a personal experience to collective consciousness is the essence of poetry.
On the Banks of River Kaveri is a nostalgic reflection of two great intertwining cultures that enriched each other and left an enviable legacy of art and culture. Life is a slew of random, absorbing experiences. Each of them is unique and non-repetitive. Yet, we long some of them stay put forever or time to freeze that moment. Sometimes, we will be so overwhelmed by the experience, that we would be conscious of it only after the experience was over. Afsar beautifully captures this in his poem After Bidding Adieu. Death is a recurring theme in poetry. There shall always remain something to say about it though scores of people had written about it before.
Of many things we take for granted and never fully appreciate until we lose it, ‘father’ is one. While memories of mother are always sweet with love and compassion, father always remains an enigma and connotes discipline, strictures and punishment. The realisation that his love is sandwiched between those apparently harsh layers dawns late in life, and most of the time, when the person is no more. Afsar pays tributes to his illustrious poet-critic father in When the Vowel in Me is Lost.
Afsar is essentially a poet of metaphors. He is a leading Muslim poet in Telugu presenting the identity strongly and effectively. His fight is against the prejudice to isolating and segregating people on the basis of religion. At the same time, the undertone is for acceptance and integrating with mainstream. No matter whether it is Seashore, Seed, River Kaveri, Word, or a fleeting experience, they always stand for something beyond what the words mean in common parlance.
(The author is a well-known translator from Telugu to English. He has published a new volume of selected translations from Telugu ‘A Wake on the Horizons’.)