Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | What Modi’s poetry says about him and about poetry

The artists who have been signing petitions asking people to defeat Modi are in reality his literary rivals

In one of his poems, Narendra Modi is a kite, who is soaring with “the grace of the sky", towards the sun, held back “only by the string". In another poem, he is a honeybee who is very busy, joyful, free, and his life a burst of colours. In his poems, he is often happy and in good places. Also, he is an energetic lover, “an ocean that leaps with energy", a man who is as “upright as a mountain" and as “pure as the river".

Modi has said about his poetry that he does not consider it “an extraordinary literary creation". I have no quarrels with that.

Poems do not always reveal the poet—the reason why many poets are still loved. Modi’s poems, some of which have been translated from Gujarati into English by his friend Ravi Mantha, may not reveal who he really is, but they do show a broad personality type, a sort of man who thrives in the physical world but is usually doomed in literature.

He venerates the idea of strength and has disdain for the idea of weakness. The disdain is not for misery, but for surrendering to it. He rates joy superior to melancholy, even in poetry. The reason this type of person is doomed in literature is that the arts are a flea market of frailties—the only sphere of human activity that has special reverence for human weakness, miseries, defeats and fears. Beauty in art is like the sweet gloom in a lullaby. Here, joy is too light, too trivial, and “clever" is not a compliment. Language itself may have risen to mourn the primordial confusion of an exquisite brain that can do a bit too much in a world that has no meaning. As the writer J. M. Coetzee’s character speculates in the novel Disgrace, “…the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul". Art’s defence of its laments is formidable, but this quality of art does not enslave many intelligent people. For a particular reason. There are people who venerate strength and joy, and those who venerate vulnerabilities and misery. They despise each other.

Over the past few days hundreds of artists, whose moral pedestals are their artistic crutches, have been signing petitions asking people to defeat Modi. They behave in this manner because they are in reality his literary rivals. The two personality types are not defined by innate traits. Rather, they are creations of circumstance. For instance, a man in the mainstream of society who is placed well to excel in the material world may believe that he is reaping the rewards of superior genes, a superior religion and an exuberant joyous outlook. On the other hand, those who are underdogs in any given situation develop great respect for human wounds, elevating them to human nature.

Literature is in the sway of the second group. They have natural advantages in storytelling. Readers are self-obsessed. Often they are searching for themselves in every page of every story ever told. And miseries are more memorable than soaring kites and happy honey-bees. There is a reason for this. If I may paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all happy people are alike; every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way. Joy is banal and uniform, while misery is diverse and interesting. As a result those who are on the side of strength are no match for those who can linger on fragility and melancholy.

This is the reason I wish there were a special category of literary awards for the sort of writer who is truly at a disadvantage—the happy upper-caste family man, the reliable bore who will never hurt his children, who has no mental, physical or social problems, and who does not ingest any narcotic substance, and who takes on all adversities standing akimbo, if not spitting on the palms and slapping his thighs. It appears that the way we must live life is not what we must celebrate when we write.

The fact is, even though I am on the side of the strong, the writers I relish are on the other side. Wisława Szymborska, for instance. In her poem, Hitler’s First Photograph, she writes:

“And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?

That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy

Will he grow up to be an LL.D?

Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?

Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?

Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know…

Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine, honey bun."

A few weeks ago, after a man shot down over 49 Muslims in New Zealand, and a newspaper ran a photograph of him as a child, marvelling at his “angelic face", there was much outrage against the paper. But Szymborska had shown, long ago, through an intellectually superior veneration of tenderness, that a killer is primarily a tragic figure, and the most tragic thing about a murderer is that he was once an angelic infant, “mommy’s sunshine, honey bun".

There are tender moments in Modi’s poems, but even they are a tribute to himself, like the time when he cried at the headquarters of Facebook in 2015 while recounting his journey from a difficult childhood to becoming an alpha male. There are, of course, writers who can make an invocation of pride and strength pure literature. For instance, this sentence in one of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." This, if you take away all its beauty, is the central message in Modi’s poems, too.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’.

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