Echoes of contemporary reality in the poetry of O.P.Bhatnagar
Dr. Shelly Mannan
Asstt. Prof. English, D. A. V. College, Sector-10, Chandigarh-160010 (India)
Ph. 9872879954, email: sdshelly02@gmail.com

 

O. P. Bhatnagar is a prominent voice in the arena of the contemporary IPE. He is a multi-faceted genius. A renowned poet-critic, an anthologist, a well-read scholar and a widely known Professor in English, he has seven collections of verse to his credit. With an incorrigible sensibility, he strives to comprehend a wide range of themes through his poetry. It is the puzzled present and not the myth-ridden past that arrests his attention. He does not believe in dragging the wheels of his poetic art towards past which carries negligible importance in today’s context.
The present paper is a critique on the select poems penned by Bhatnagar. His view with regard to the purposeful poetry stands matchlessly parallel to the basic tenet of this paper. He firmly believes that poetry should not shy away from social reality. Whatever hurts the human dignity and value-system, must find place in the living literature. He feels that the poetry must envisage the infinite variety of human form and vision. It must learn to operate in the context of shifting paradigms of times.
With irony and sarcasm as his modes, far-fetched allusions, imagery and parody as his tools, Bhatnagar sketches the inner vacuity, worthlessness and hollowness of human life on his poetic canvas. Apart from presenting his viewpoint emphatically he makes his reader face-to-face with the hydra-headed evils embedded in the very fabric of the society. He calls his subtle and minute observation of the surroundings as a ‘pointed awareness’ and constantly yearns to reflect the same through his poetry.
The poem, ‘The New Scale’ displays how contraries and contradictions co-exist in this world. Bhatnagar presents the paradox of our times by revealing what is poison for one man may turn out to be another man’s meat: “A simple, honest man / In an outworn mode / May still himself find / Measuring life in value spoons / Bribery, corruption and forgery / For him a bitter poison be ” (TP 15)
He brings to the fore a live situation of an honest man who toils and sweats to make his both ends meet, upholds his value-system and never thinks of measuring the height of success by malicious means. Instead of amassing wealth by indulging in bribery, corruption and forgery, he prefers to keep his head high by listening to his conscience. He has no strains of treachery, betrayal, treason, disloyalty, deceit and duplicity on his conscience.
On the contrary, the people devoid of ethical and moral values do not leave any stone unturned to practice these nefarious and wicked acts: “But the clever in it / A meaty situation see / Dispensing poison like a doctor/ Normalizing a disturbed balance.” By using an adjective “clever” the poet perhaps, hints at the evil-minded people who flourish on “bribery”, “corruption” and “forgery”. Their selfish attitude not only makes the lives of the affected people a living hell but also adds to their frustration, dissatisfaction, annoyance, disappointment towards the whole system. This exasperation ultimately breeds law-breaking, offence, illegal and criminal acts in the society. The concluding couple of lines is highly piercing and keeps on haunting the reader for days together, “What is the scale / On which the two may meet?”
Through this poem, Bhatnagar suggests a complete over-hauling of our system to ensure peace and happiness. The flawless diction employed by him, compliments the subject of the poem. For example, “outworn mode” hints at the eroded and rotten state of the society and “Measuring life in value spoons” points at the plight of a common person who is compelled to lead his life in installments.
He liberates his poem from the traditional norms of line-length, syllable count, rhyme and stanza-structure. The style is narrative and the tone is satirical. The title of the poem is highly ironical and captivating. Generally, the scale is a scientific weighing or analyzing instrument which works without any preference or bias. However in this context, the scale apart from exercising prejudice also exhibits diagonally different parameters of analysis for different people.
The emptiness of the politics of fake promises could not escape the poet’s piercing eyes and he makes it the subject of his poem entitled ‘I Have Promises to Keep’. It is a trenchant satire on crafty, wily and self-serving politicians who fondly indulge in the unprincipled game of politics. Corrupt and fraudulent politicians who cheat, deceive and mislead the masses are taken to task by the poet. It is a parody of Robert Frost’s popular poem namely, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. While putting the politicians of our times under scanner, he uncovers the diagonal difference between what they preach and what they actually practice: “I don’t have miles to go / But promises to keep / To keep my countrymen awake / With more dying words to reach / Before I sleep.” (FF 12)
Right at the outset, the clever politician makes his intentions very clear to the masses by revealing his mind that he does not has to cover “miles” distance but has to keep his “promises”. The next line i.e. “To keep my countrymen awake” is piercingly ironical because in reality it is politician’s oratory gimmicks which act as sweet lullabies for the poor and ignorant masses who are swayed by his excellent public-speaking skills. They literally lie down to sleep thinking that their future lies in the safest hands. The expression “dying words” enhances the satirical appeal of the poem. Politician’s target to “reach” to the maximum number of people before going to “sleep” accelerates his disgust for the clan of politicians.
In addition to the political acrobatics, the poem also brings into sharp focus, the tendency of our countrymen to easily get swayed by the sugary words uttered by the political leaders of our times. The clever speeches over-brimming with fake promises cast a spell on the villagers and they religiously follow the make-believe stories narrated by these wily politicians.
These lines from the same poem reflect a twin perspective: “To shake the universe / With the thunder from my throat / And use the last breath of mine / to keep my countrymen awake.” The former perspective is that of a selfish politician who fulfils his dark designs by persuading and finally, winning over the ignorant masses by his arresting oratory skills. The latter one is a pious one. This perspective is of the poet who with the “thunder” of his poems intends to “shake the universe.” He is the one who is committed to the social cause and will “use” even his “last breath” to keep his “countrymen awake.”
The style is idiomatic and the tone is ironical. The long and short sentences are evenly spread across the texture of the poem. The regular rhyme has been dispensed with. The line, “With the thunder from my throat” depicts a good example of onomatopoeia. This highly suggestive and multiple-layered poem has a universal appeal irrespective of country, clime and age.
The poem, ‘Look Homeward Angel’ is a scathing satire on those Indians who turn their back towards their native land and fly abroad to seek greener pastures. Using a first-person narrative, he opens the poem in a colloquial style: “I don’t blame my friends settled abroad/ Far off in England and Mozambique. / America, Australia or Madrid,/ Driving cabs or trading antiques / Researching in Physics or Aeronautics, / But cutting the chords of country care / Presents an impoverished image / Of their feelings made dull by dollars / And ideals impounded by pounds.”(AR 39)
In a highly ironic tone, Bhatnagar says that he does not blame his countrymen for having chosen foreign countries to settle down to earn their livings. Conversely, using an epigram, he suggests that Bohemian life-style, loose morals, lust for acquiring wealth and affluence are perhaps the reasons behind their immigration. He tickles the readers by disclosing the fact that their vision might “have been blurred / By night-clubs and swingers, / Blondes and ballrooms”.
The succeeding lines prick our conscience and force us to re-access the whole situation: “Performing cultural striptease / Or waltzing national pride / To create self-deluding thrill and calculated space / For their stubborn recondite selves.” The poet has a knack of coining catchy and contrived images such as “cultural striptease”, “waltzing national pride”, “self-deluding thrill” and “calculated space”. These images apart from accentuating the aesthetic experience of the reader, also speak of the heightened and pointed social awareness of the poet.
The poem ironically puts on display, the ordeal of segregation and humiliation which our countrymen have to undergo in the mad spree of acquiring citizenship of a new nation. The new citizenship, like borrowed clothes does not fit well on their “hybrid identity.” He shocks the readers by putting the migration of human beings in juxtaposition with the migration of birds to alien lands: “Even birds that are forced out of home / At the turn of every season / Return to their land / Traversing incredible distances / Flapping dreams with weary wings.” The birds are “forced” to migrate owing to the climatic conditions whereas people willingly fly away to foreign lands in the want of wealth and luxuries.
The poem reaches its climax with the revelation of the fact that even birds return “to their land” but it is hopeless to think of the return of human beings from alien lands. The poet quotes a reason behind their non-arrival: “But their fancy forbids them / To look beyond glamour and gold / And sun-bathe their quixotic dreams / For a sophisticated fear of tanning”. The poem ends with a note of disillusionment and cynicism: “Even Greece had its Ulysses / Who brought his ships back home / But our heroes make no myths / And our imagination no Homer.”
The allusion to Homer’s Ulysses aptly projects the plight of the parents who hope against hope for the come-back of their children. In addition to this, it also reflects the selfishness, indifference, detachment and thanklessness of their children towards them who leave no stone unturned to satiate their demands and wishes during their upbringing. In a mischievous streak, the poet calls these self-centered people as “heroes” who are even lesser than villains. The poem is a long non-metric composition. The adjectival phrases are striking: “cultural striptease”, “self-deluding thrill”, “hybrid identity”, “merry relaxation”, “dandy-decadent ease”, “weary wings” etc. Alliteration and assonance lend rhythm to the poem. The highly evocative and imaginative title invokes the interest of the reader.
Using poetry as a powerful means of communication, Bhatnagar has brought the grave issues of brain drain and immigration of the younger generation to the fore. The poem forces the readers to search replies to a couple of questions: Firstly, is it reasonable to move to other countries for earning money at the cost of one’s dignity and self-pride? Secondly, is it justifiable to leave the parents in lurch towards the tail end of their lives?
The social and cultural pollution is necessarily an offshoot of the political corruption and this corruption cannot escape the critical gaze of the poet. Bhatnagar in his poem entitled, ‘The Living Scene’ presents the panoramic view of the modern living. The “living scene” of our country has upset his mind so much so that he is compelled to state right at the outset: “The living scene in my country / Is worth only for the granite eyes / Insensitive and resilient / For our visions to unfold.” (Special O.P.Bhatnagar No. 37)
The opening terse remark, apart from setting the tone of the poem also clinically represents the insensitivity, flexibility, suppleness, unresponsiveness of a modern man towards his immediate surroundings. The amazing ability of human beings to immediately recover from the set-backs; bruises the tender heart of the poet and he aptly uses the adjectival phrase i.e. “granite” eyes to project the indifference and insensitivity of modern life and living.
Bhatnagar vividly catches the pulse of the corrupt and eroded scenario and with the use of poetic devices to name a few - similes, alliteration, allusion, imagery and rhyme. In the concluding stanza, he stimulates the reader’s dignity and self-respect by saying: “One can respect humility / But not humiliation.” While announcing a rebellion to the existing state of affairs, he calls upon the elite class of poets and awakens them of the mighty power of their pens which could be utilized to reform and rebuild the mental make-up of the people.
He advises the clan of poets to play a positive role towards the re-construction of the milieu and social set-up through poetry: “So now, at least, let poets / Cutting the edges of their style / Have their political dimensions / To fight the terror become / Image of itself:/ The aesthetic distance renewed / Before annihilation and art created / In its abolished form like paths in deserts / Always tread anew.”
He is perhaps, one amongst those Indian English poets who strongly believe that we can make our lives better and happier if we hold a protest towards the old conventions and strive to change the system with the changing times. Old practices, ritual, myths and traditions have lost their sheen and glitter in the present context and it is high time to substitute them with new thoughts, principles, philosophy and ideology so that we may succeed in lessening, if not eliminating, the social and political discontentment and unrest smouldering in the hearts of the common masses.
The poem has three stanzas and each stanza consists of unequal lines; four, thirteen and eleven respectively. Instead of laying stress on regular rhyme, Bhatnagar prefers to focus on the thematic progression. The first stanza of the poem epigrammatically comments upon the sad scenario; the second one expands the theme with series of similes and other rhetorical devices while the closing stanza is an ardent request to the clan of poets.
Contemporaneity is one of the remarkable features of Bhatnagar’s poetry that makes him a representative poet of the post-independent India. The turmoil, violence, corruption and degenerated value system glaringly surface in his poetry. He pens down his experiences of the repugnant tragedies of partition, hopes and aspirations of the citizens in an independent country and their disappointment and dejection in a self-ruled nation.
While attempting a fresh interpretation of Bhatnagar’s poetry with reference to the Keatsian idea of Negative Capability, P.S. Kasture avers:
He variously displays Keat’s original idea of the Negative Capability as the capacity to face reality without forced irritable efforts, to arrive at the understanding of reality naturally. Even a bird’s eye-view of his poetry indicates the full existence of this capacity in Bhatnagar. (Considerations 24)
Throughout in his poetic journey from Thought Poems (1976) to Cooling Flames of Darkness (2001), he daringly portrays the plight of man in the contemporary social and political context. His powerful voice strives hard to mould the conscience of today’s man. He has made his poetry to stand on the firm ground of realism. He reflects: “Poetry must explore man, sufferings, conflicts, and predicaments, hopes, dreams and joys more than the possibilities of his commitments to ideologies, doctrines, redemption and salvation.”(qtd. in Judgements 73)
Kanwar Dinesh Singh’s findings perfectly echo with the above-quoted observation:
The angst and stress of contemporary life have, by and large, shaken the faith of the modern poets, both male and female, in God. Their soul-searching, their self-discovery is an effort towards realizing the hidden potentials of human beings and finding newer ways of living with poise and peace in this mortal world. (CIEP 162)
Though Bhatnagar projects the abject state of the modern man on his poetic canvas but he can not be termed as a pessimist at all. On the contrary, by painting the general plight with his poetic brush, he shakes the sleeping conscience of the readers and stimulates them to become aware of their duties towards their nation and society, at large.
He is a poet standing at the cross-roads who firmly believes in reformation. He intends to bring a positive shift in the age-old, stubborn and dogmatic mindset of the people towards a new, enlightened and scientific outlook. This shift can ultimately pave the path of progress and prosperity not only for a selected few but also for the whole nation. Hence, inspired by this ideology, he chooses poetry as a powerful medium to rectify and renovate the whole matrix of our society.

WORKS CITED

Bhatnagar, O.P. Thought Poems. Aligarh: Skylark Publications, 1976. (Abbreviated as TP)
- - -. Feeling Fossils. Dehradun: Paul Jacobson, 1977. (Abbreviated as FF)
- - -. Angels of Retreat. New Delhi: Samkaleen Prakashan, 1979. (Abbreviated as AR)
Mirza, Baldev, ed. Special O.P.Bhatnagar’s Poetry Number. Aligarh, 1999.
Mohanty, Niranjan, ed., Considerations: Critical Responses to O.P.Bhatnagar’s Poetry. Berhampur: Poetry Publication, 1985. (Abbreviated as Considerations)
Singh, Kanwar Dinesh. Contemporary Indian English Poetry: Comparing Male and Female Voices. New Delhi:
Atlantic, 2008. (Abbreviated as CIEP)
Singh, R.A. ed., Judgements: An Anthology of Papers on the Poetry of O.P.Bhatnagar. Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2002. (Abbreviated as Judgements)

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(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2013)