A few months ago, I had a call from Mohan Rana. His calls tend to come out of the blue: they neither give nor need an introduction. We live far apart, but have been friends for 30 years, and our conversation is like a path that follows a river: sometimes the land separates them but when they reconnect, it’s the same ground and the same water.
Mohan wanted my opinion about the possible title of a forthcoming collection of his poems, translated into English. Over the next few days, we exchanged thoughts about ten or a dozen candidates, any of which, to be honest, would have been fine. Another Word for It is very fitting for a book that makes Hindi and English embrace each time it is closed. Did You Hear It Too? might be the unspoken thought that makes the poet pick up a pen. Personally, I’ve always loved A Standard Shirt, the poem which closes this book with its quiet moment of hopeful acceptance, in which ordinary is enough and life, this life, is possible.
At the end, as it did at the start, The Cartographer fitted best, like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, like one hand in another. It fits because Mohan Rana is the cartographer of a territory that gets too little attention, the space between or beyond those we claim and pretend to own in the everyday life of getting and spending, having and holding. He maps in poetry the space where nothing happens.
You might think that in-betweenness arises from the fact that Mohan lives in a different country to that of his birth and upbringing:
… resident of an unclaimed place / With two windows, one on each side / Looking out on two stateless placesOf No Fixed Abode, Mohan Rana
It is a standard fact, common to so many lives, but one that defines a linguistic border this poet has learned to make prosper, like a smuggler, although his poetry is nothing if not above board. L. P Hartley’s assertion that ‘The past is a foreign country’ has become famous for its ache of nostalgia, but Mohan is not a nostalgic poet; indeed sentimentality is absent from his poetry and, I can say from our years of friendship, from his character too. He is not nostalgic, but his past is another country, even if it is one to which he always returns and where his poems are published and celebrated.
Nevertheless, that diasporic removal is an ordinary fact (though still open to interpretation) and anyone who uses a language away from its main current risks opening a gap between their private imagination and that of its community of speakers and writers. Perhaps that is why Mohan writes:
I have faith in poetry, but my trust in language is goneOf No Fixed Abode, Mohan Rana
I do not speak Hindi, but I trust the English translations so meticulously crafted by Lucy Rosenstein and Bernard O’Donoghue. In them, language releases its grip on chronology and geography. Timelessness is the quality I most often sense and value in this poetry.
For all the specificity that allows the reader to see a robin, a parasol pine or a yellow shirt, it is impossible to fix any of these poems to a year, a decade or even a century. Nor do they bind themselves to place, despite their roots in small and common things such as a door or a cloud or a leaf. Indeed, Mohan has a rare ability to make simple nouns universal and abstract ones concrete, without ever losing the reader’s confidence in the lived reality that is each poem’s genesis. His poems are not difficult to read, or even to understand; but they can be hard to fathom.
Mohan Rana’s concerns are not with the minutia of the day’s events, or the constantly renewed feelings that blow through our minds. He is in search of deeper, more elusive ideas that touch on the nature and meaning of existence. That involves testing other borders than those humans make between countries or even languages: nameless, invisible boundaries, in his own words.
Although I have little affinity for science, I have often been captivated by Mohan’s exposition of new ideas in physics and the natural world, and his ease in bridging scientific and spiritual ways of apprehending reality. The American philosopher, John D. Caputo, writes that:
The natural sciences give us causal explanations of mathematically measurable phenomena, while in the humanities we reach an interpretive understanding of […] phenomena which have a non-mathematical meaning.Hermeneutics, John D. Caputo, Penguin 2018
Mohan Rana’s poetry accommodates both these ways of understanding the world, declining politely to see any meaningful opposition between them. This ability to apprehend profound, unchanging truths in the specificity of things seen and felt is one of the most precious aspects of his poetry.
W. H. Auden’s dictum that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ is usually taken to express the political limitations of the art. But I prefer another interpretation. Nothing, like something, must happen somewhere: and one of the places it comes into being is in Mohan Rana’s extraordinary poetry.
The Cartographer is published in paperback by the Poetry Translation Centre: click here to order a copy
This text was written for an online panel presentation of The Cartographer by Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre in Durban (South Africa) streamed on Facebook Live on 28 February 2021. The other speakers were Dr. Ram Prasad Bhatt, University of Hamburg, Germany, Prof. Mini Gill, University of Delhi, India, Dr. Bhoowan Prakash Singh, Author and Educator, South Africa. Mohan read three of his poems in the original Hindi, and I had the pleasure of reading the translations by Lucy Rosenstein and Bernard O’Donoghue.