Vijay Nambisan:

The last of the sages

While discussing RK Narayan’s The Guide in the classroom, Dr R Raj Rao of the University of Pune had explained to us the difference between ‘sage’ and ‘saint’. As opposed to the Judeo-Christian connotation of ‘saint’, in India, we use both the words interchangeably, to mean someone who is wise and who has discarded the worldly concerns. However, as Rao explained, in the context of the eventual journey of Raju Guide, there’s is a difference between being a saint and a sage. A ‘saint’ remains tethered to the world in some way. A ‘saint’ needs disciples, followers (as in the case of Raju, after his con becomes a reality for the villagers). A saint needs to make something happen (as Raju needs to make rain). But a ‘sage’ elevates these saintly concerns. A ‘sage’ turns himself into a perfect being, where nothing matters, not even existence (as Narayan implied Raju achieving this at the end of the novel).
As I heard of Vijay Nambisan passing away, I was thinking about this distinction in the context of Nambisan as a poet (people tend to forget that he was also a brilliant essayist, a form largely forgotten today. He also wrote the most original treatise on ‘Language as Ethics’ and looked at a Bihar with a fresh pair of eyes before talking about ‘New Bihar’ became fashionable in the 2000s, in ‘Bihar in the Eye of the Beholder’. He has also translated classical Sanskrit poetry, a language he knew well).
My Face book timeline was flooded with quotes from Nambisan’s poetry. It was an interesting development considering it was Nambisan, the most reluctant of poets. He was one of the key poets of the second generation of the Bombay School of Poetry (if you consider Ezekiel, Kolatkar, Jussawalla, and others as the first generation), a generation which under the influence/tutelage of Dom Moraes, focused more on intellectual rigour rather than the socio-political concern of a changing India of the previous generation.
Nambisan’s contemporaries, Jeet Thayil, CP Surendran, Ranjit Hoskote, among others, are all established poets today, with several collections to their names, but Nambisan seemed to have lagged behind. His first published book of poems was Genini (a two-poet project published by Dom Moraes; the other poet was Jeet Thayil) in 1992. His second and last, and the only solo collection of poems First Infinities was published in 2015. Simply he did not want to publish a book of poems. He was already well known, since his poem Madras Central won him the first ever All India Poetry Competition award organised by the Poetry Society of India and the British Council in 1988.
He wrote in Madras Central:

To think we have such power to alter our states, 
order comings and goings;
know where we’re not wanted
And carry our unwanted mess somewhere else.

He was an aberration to the norm. He did not need fame and recognition. He would accept it if it came his way, but he wouldn’t crave for it. He did not need the outside to validate his existence. He did not run from the outside either. Largely a private person, he wasn’t a recluse, but a gracious host when the occasion demanded, ever willing to talk poetry, and literature in general, with a witty sense of humour — a great company to spend time with.
This is how I remember him.
I met him and his novelist/doctor wife Kavery when the couple settled in Lonavla in the outskirts of Pune sometime in the 2000s, thanks to my teacher R Raj Rao who knew Vijay from the Bombay poetry days. I don’t remember him as a poet, but as a lover of poetry, who would be the happiest to give me a tour of his personal library, filled with books signed by their authors. He inspired me to collect autographed books. He inspired me to reread one of his favourite poets Robert Graves, including his autobiography ‘Goodbye to All That’.
Most of all, I found him to be the generous and humble man I have ever known. This humility was hardwired into him as a man who is extremely erudite, knew it and did not expect others to be as smart and well read as he was. He was a perfect teacher any student could ever hope for, though teaching was not his thing.
Once, he was invited to give a guest lecture to the MA students of the University of Pune. At first, he was uncertain. He had nothing to tell the students, he said. Finally, he decided to discuss one of his favourite poems with the students — WH Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. It was not a surprising choice. Auden wrote:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

I think Vijay understood this more than anyone.
Personally, for me, he was a source of inspiration until the very end. When I first met him, I was working on my second collection of poems. When he heard that he offered to look at the poems. At first, I was uncertain. He was a poet of rigour and discipline. I wrote poetry to let off steam. I was sure he wouldn’t even bother to go through the manuscript. Finally, I sent him a hard copy of the manuscript and three months later, I received an SMS. He was in Pune for a few hours and he would like to see me, as he was carrying my manuscript and he wanted to talk about it.
I was certain he would ask me to junk the idea of the book. Instead, we sat in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying and went through the poems, page by page. At some places, he had made comments. He said some poems did not work, and most were largely fine. Then he gave me a crash course in poetry — the importance of music in poetry; the dangers of mixed metaphors and most importantly, the need to edit poetry.
Now, you take this manuscript and keep it away safely for one year, he said. Exactly one year later, he said, open the manuscript, sit on a desk and work on it. Make sure that you sit on a chair and use a table, he insisted, not on the bed, or elsewhere, where it’s more comfortable. Then go through each word, each sentence, and each line. After that, if you are satisfied, go ahead, publish the book.
It was the most inspiring moment of my life. And since that day, I have been shamelessly recycling this advice.
The book was finally out four years later, and I was happy to hand over a copy to Kavery during the launch of Vijay’s book First Infinities in Delhi (He was busy being a host). Kavery said Vijay would be happy to see the book and I trusted her.
The last conversation I had with Vijay was late last year, on email. When a publisher showed the interest to publish my short story collection (the publisher was in a hurry, she had grand plans, nothing of which came to fruition; it’s a different story!), and needed a blurb from a ‘famous author’, I could not think of anyone other than Kavery Nambisan. So I dashed off a mail, without expecting much, because I knew that she had been busy with her job as a surgeon and with her writing.
Vijay and Kavery shared the email ID. Two days later, I received an email from Vijay. He read the manuscript, liked it and he would be happy to give a blurb if I would have one. Of course, I said yes, and he gave me a glowing blurb. But he had a caveat. The stories are great but it needed another round of editing. I could do it for you if you have the time, he wrote. Unfortunately, I did not have the time; the publisher was unreasonably in a hurry (I would regret not asking him to edit the book for the rest of my life.) Okay, then, I will edit your next book, he said. I said okay, I will finish my next book as soon as I can.
The book is not complete and Vijay is gone.
People would say he was a genius who never received his due. It may be true. But I don’t think he wanted his dues. I don’t think he had any expectations. He was what he always was — a sage.