REFLECTION OF CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE POETRY OF R.K.SINGH AND P. RAJA
Jayshree Goswami * and Md. Mojibur Rehman **
The paper aims to make a comparative study of the depiction of culture, both societal and personal by R.K Singh and P.Raja, one belonging to eastern India and the other to southern. It focuses on personal/ individual identity; depiction of Indian culture; Indian rituals and myths, family, man/ woman relationship, and treatment of love and sex; and reflection of modern societal system-- political, academic, cultural, economic, and social.
Poetry is both personal and social criticism. The contemporary poets are dissatisfied with the present state of unrest, corruption, ignorance, misery, and identity. For them poetry serves as a medium through which while denouncing the societal blemishes they reveal their ideology, attitude, prejudices and vision, highlighting their personal culture. Apart from this, a writer also confronts the problem and challenges to one’s identity in a multicultural nation; where one feels alienated, rejected and rootless. Sometimes they even suffer the politics of rejection at the national level. R.K Singh and P.Raja highlight the agony and disillusionment arising out of rejection in one’s own land. R.K Singh, in spite of being an insider feels an outsider. He expresses his disgust, saying:
I do not question the sun
adding wings to wounded giants
or depressing them to crouch down
the memory’s lanes or erect
new walls with odours of hate
and love cagily crumpling
the shades between earth and sky.1
The persona expresses his grudge against the superior authority, as denoted through the image of the “sun”, who either privileges the fragile and the marginalized men or deprives them of their individuality and freedom. There is repetition of the expression “I do not question”, which implies the annoyance of the character and at the same time, it reveals his agony at being alienated and distanced. He is forced to “crouch down with odours of hate”. In spite of being an insider, worthy of identity, the persona shrinks into himself, unnoticed and unrecognized. This is hinted through the words “cagily” and “crumpling”.
A similar condition is also expressed by P.Raja when he writes :
Hailed by fans from all corners
the writer is
a non- entity at home. 2
The speaker, by providing the background of a ‘home’, connotes to his homeland, India. He adopts the image of “unsympathetic eyes/ of a practical housewife.”3 for the unsympathetic readers and critics who are professional enough in rejecting and ignoring the “cerebral excitement”4 that refers to the creative composition of the writer. He presents the anguish and trauma of a native writer who, in spite of receiving acclamations from abroad, is treated as a non-entity at home. In other words, he is subjected to rejection. When we compare these poems, we find R. K. Singh’s images to be more complex and ambiguous than P.Raja’s. Raja is more direct in his expressions.
Singh also depicts rootlessness, existential crisis and alienation in poems like ‘Sweet Savours’, ‘I Seek the Roots’, ‘Wordless Plaints’, and ‘Aloof’. The poet expresses his crises of identity in the lines
The colour of night is the same everywhere
what if my identity is not known.
lets’ fuck the moment and forget the place 5
The directness in tone generated through the expression “what if” clearly states the grudge of the narrator. The trauma and anxiety for being unknown, and lacking an identity is implicitly expressed through the image of “night”: a similar darkness, like that of the night, prevails in the heart of the poet. He expresses his loneliness resulting out of his identity crisis in “I feel alone/ like a wandering bird/ without a nest:”6 Singh carefully chooses the images of a “wandering bird” and “an island” to express the present state of rootlessness, seclusion, and isolation. The persona encounters this state because of his being away from roots, the cultural ties and people. He is like a forsaken island, deserted, unable to adjust in an alien culture and land. However, we do not find instances of alienation and rootlesness in Raja’s poems, for the writer is rooted in his native place unlike Singh, though the former, too, is in search of establishing his identity through the medium of poetry. He even projects the commercialization of prose writings and the marginalization of poetry in:
Poems don’t bring money.
Sometimes they fail even to fetch
a complimentary copy.
…Perhaps that’s why wife
-the inspirer of my works-
advises me not to write poems,
but concentrate on remunerative prose-pieces.7
Identity created through poetry is at stake and/or suffers marginalization. While Singh is reflective in presenting the questions and challenge, P.Raja’s poems are humorous, generating pathos at the same time.
INDIAN RITUALS AND MYTHS
Apart from expressing their individuality, both the poets project the culture of the Indian society. Being rational and visionary, they sound critical of certain rituals that retard progress, but advocate those which are cultural icons. In Singh’s poetry, one comes across the depiction as well as the criticism of many Hindu rituals. He questions:
Is it the love for ritual
or the ritual waste:
every year they steal light
to illumine puja pandals 8
The narrator projects the hypocrisy of the practitioners of rituals. Moreover, most rituals have lost their sanctity; rather they advocate corruption. It is demeaning to glimpse such cultural degeneracy in a country like India, which boasts about its cultural multiplicity. Singh unveils cultural corruption through his contemplative question: “Is it the love for ritual/ or the ritual waste?” stealing of lights and blaring of non-stop nasty songs enhances the irony when “but the goddess keeps mum/ perhaps self-loathingly/ sleeps for demons to write histories”9. The words “mum”, “self-loathing” and “sleeps” hint at the helplessness of the goddess. The line “sleeps for demons to write histories” projects the hegemony of corrupt and shrewd men in creating histories since ages.
Similarly, P.Raja, too, comments on certain superstitions and religious practices. However, his comment reflects the religious hypocrisy and not the political one. He through a religious and cultural satire presents the condition of Indian gods and the Hindu believers:
India speaks through its temples.
Its hindu pantheon boasts humbly
of just two million gods.10
The poet depicts religious tolerance through the expression “Hindu pantheon”, but at the same time, he mocks at their pantheism with the reference to “just two million gods”. Moreover, the poet deepens the satire by contrasting India with other nations:
All other countries are paupers.
They can’t afford to spend on their god.
For them charity begins at home.11
The poet also reveals the hypocrisy and irrationality of these rituals:
While babes whimper for a cup of milk
cauldrons are poured on sacred stones.
Tonnes of pure ghee drench our gods
to their very stones.
But hotels here display the broad:
“The sweetmeats sold here
are not made of pure ghee.12
The poet highlights the mere superstitious beliefs of the Hindu rituals; the use of “while” and “but” presents the stark reality. Besides, these rituals also project the ignorance of the societies promoting these rituals.
Apart from these pretensions, P.Raja also reflects his concern for the disappearance of certain traditions, which fail to serve any purpose of the materialistic world. He evinces the cultural decline, resulting from the present generation’s disregard for the traditional values. In ‘My Grandpa’s Desk’ he ponders over a similar situation where a “desk” is considered an inheritance of loss, due to its non-utilization. The persona expresses his agony and concern in the lines:
My son, I do not know, what he would
do with the desk! Kep it as a momento!
Or simply reduce it to splinters
to feed his empty oven!13
However, Raja is not critical of all the rituals, superstitions, beliefs and cultural practices; he in certain cases even highlights typical south Indian cultures that are revered. For example, drawing of kolam, a traditional art form. He also presents the mindset of a Hindu wife as shaped by the religious texts: she believes that “…God sleep/ in that lump of sod?”14 However, it is to be noticed that P.Raja presents a common Indian male ideology where a woman is considered to be irrational, emotional, and gullible. This is evident from-
Believing is feeling.
…Isn’t God omnipresent?
Oh, yours may not be.
But hers is.15
The title ‘The Hindu Wife’ indicates the perception of the poet, guided by the preconceived notion of a female psyche.
On the other hand, R.K Singh is critical of most of the cultural practices and rituals. It is because they have undergone a transition in both their purpose and practice. In poems like ‘Orgasm’, ‘Fresh Future’, ‘God’, and ‘They Call God Loudly’, the poet presents the retarding nature of the myths and rituals, therefore, he wishes to “…recoup/ the elements’ balance/ and create new suns/ and moons that could light the cave”16
Apart from the social criticism, both the poets also highlight the concept of family in their poetry. Indian family system is known for its togetherness and unity. However, both Singh and Raja trace urban family life, where there is segregation of the family after marriage. Singh deals with the discordances and distancing of couples in his poems. In the poem ‘Bulli’, the poet presents an Indian situation where, in spite of discordance, disregard, hatred, and dissatisfaction, the wife does not leave her husband. The persona expresses:
many faults in me
points out all I shouldn’t do
rolls on mocking
compromise of living
to keep home she conceals within
In spite of all complaints, an Indian wife adheres to the cultural values, and goes on compromising. The persona, through the expression “to keep home”, presents the Indian concept of home. Further, the agony and helplessness of an Indian wife is suggested through “she conceals within / our angst”. This statement reflects the ironic situation of an Indian wife which she accepts as her destiny. The poet presents bitterness and strangeness in relationship in the poem ‘Sleeping Light’ where the persona conveys-
“The anxiety/ on her face tells of/ the gap in relationship”18. Singh tries to present the bitter relationship of a husband and wife, reflecting only one aspect of the relationship.
P.Raja, on the other hand, highlights that aspect of family where a daughter-in–law is seen to be the cause of distancing and enfeebling of familial ties. In poems like ‘Fool and God’ and ‘Curtain Lecture’, he presents the relationship shared by a daughter-in-law with her in-laws. The persona in latter poem speaks: “My brother is now an acquaintance. / My parents are only occasional guests.”19. The reference to “an acquaintance” and “only occasional guests” highlights the intense bitterness of the relationship, which is a condition that is encountered in many Indian families. However, the poet fails to portray a holistic picture; in fact, he reflects his chauvinistic attitude in presenting only that picture of the Indian society where women are responsible for misfortunes and discordance. He writes:
Forget, you stars!
O, moon! Drive the nights.
Worry no more,
O, Sun! about the day.
Stop, O Stop,
till the dead God
and creates a new Adam
who never in his life
will ask for an Eve. 20
The persona in this poem presents an unacceptable and discrepant perception, as we find the poet fails to depict those situations where women lack the power to decide, feel, think, and act. The true picture is that majority of women are still harassed by the male dominance. They still have the status of subalterns.
Nevertheless, it is true that there is discrepancy in the treatment of woman in P.Raja’s verses. Both the poets have a different attitude, perception, and ideology with regard to man-woman relationship. Singh believes the soul to be androgynous, where woman is considered the feminine principle; the initiator or Shakti in the Indian context. “her shiva and/ shakti a dual-single/ me and she, one”.21 Shiva is the male power and Shakti the female. He believes that both of them are incomplete without each other just as Purush cannot exist without the assistance of Prakrati. Creation is possible only when “lingam and yoni harmonise”22. Here, the union is divine, generating harmony. In this instance, we find Singh to present a contrary code to that of the Indian society; where male and female are binary oppositions. Similarly, P.Raja too, addresses woman as Shakti. The persona in the poem ‘A Opportunity Missed’ speaks:
In vain did I wander
in the temple of Shiva
while my Shakti prayed for me 23
The narrator considers himself to be Shiva, the male principle and woman as the embodiment of Shakti. He realizes that love and peace resides in the presence of Shakti and not in the temple of Shiva. The persona considers his quest for himself, Shiva, to be “vain” because union and harmony is possible only when man and woman become one. This concept of the poet is devoid of all the societal values and prejudices. It is the poet’s perception of man-woman relationship. Moreover, not only the relationship between man and woman but the concept of love and physical union, too, highlights the culture of a nation. In Singh’s poetry we find the concept of sex playing at various connotative levels, most of them adhere to the Indian philosophies that have permeated into its culture.
It’s part of prayer
to have the lingam kissed
or kiss it to feel
the creator’s pulse 24
Sex is a ritual, “the climax of creation”25 just as the lingam of Shiva is divine and one can feel the divine pulse of Shiva by its sacred touch. Similarly, through the union of bodies, one can realize God. The poet writes: “thank the body too/ that houses the spirit”26 The poet considers the body to be a temple; bliss, for the spirit too, requires the body to realize the divine. He wishes “to recreate / the body, a temple/ and a prayer” 27
INFLUENCE OF SANGAM LITERATURE
P.Raja also presents his concept of freedom of love. Moreover, P.Raja’s love poems exhibit traces of influence of ancient Tamil poetics, as embodied in Sangam poetry and expounded in ‘Porul Athikaram’ (The Book of Meaning). Tolkappiyam part III is unique in its combination of ecology and aesthetics, for it codifies literary themes and forms based on categories of space and time. The basis of Sangam poetics is the division of life and literature into ‘akam’ and ‘puram’. ‘Akam’, as Thaninayakam puts it, is supposed to be “the most internal, personal, and directly incommunicable human experience, and that is love and all its emotional phases.”28 In addition, puram is “all that does not come under this internal and interior experience”29 while, love poetry is akam, all the other poetry, elegiac, panegyric and heroic, is puram. The aspect of love is called ‘uripporul’, or the subject matter of the ‘tinai’, the region, the season and the hour are called the ‘mutalporum’ or the material, the objects of environment are denoted as ‘karupporul’.
However, Tolkappiyam clarifies the relative importance of the three components of tinai. According to him “karupporul’ is more important than the other ‘mutalporul’, and ‘uripporul’ is more important than the other two”.30 That is, the aspect of love is the most important part, the objects of environment come next and the region, the season and the hour are less important.
Considering this notion, we find in P.Raja an adherence to ‘uripporul’ only, as also found in some of the poems of akam poetry. In akam poetry, the poems on the theme of love are all in the form of dramatic monologue and name of the hero and the heroine is never mentioned. Similarly, in P.Raja’s collection To Live in love we find his characters expressing their feelings and thought, without reference to any particular person/ name. His characters are intended to be universal and common to all times. However, he deviates from the strict pattern of form and writes in free verse. The persona speaks to her ladylove:
You are an oasis
In my life’s vast desert.
… When we came face to face,
we had no attack of lock- jaw.
crazy, fervent kisses,
-our very existence now.31
The lover’s life of desolation in separation is suggested through the image of ‘desert’, indicating aridness, and hope in love is suggested through the image of an ‘oasis’, which would quench his desires. The excitement of the lovers union and the consummation of love is hinted through the words like “warm embracing”, “crazy”, and “fervent kisses”. Here, the poet presents that aspect of love when a lover separates and re-unites with the beloved subsequently followed by the expression of their feelings and thoughts. Next, in the poem ‘Burden of love’, the poet presents the trauma of a lover who earlier shared a loving relationship but now is separated.
DEPICTION OF MODERN SOCIETY
Both the poets portray, discuss and criticize all the proponents of contemporary Indian society-- the political, academic, cultural, economic, and social. Singh in his poetry raises basic issues like corruption, poverty, perversion, prejudices and pollution.
Singh’s social consciousness is reflected through the issues raised and the scenario presented by him. He criticizes the political system and their leaders. He considers politics to be a profession of convenience where the leaders:
blinded by politics
…as leaders create
a new elitism
a new tyranny
of mid-term poll 32
The poet presents an Indian picture where there is no democracy. The expressions “a new elitism”, “a new tyranny”, “mid term poll” suggest the fascist regime that is tyrannous and favourable to only one class, the leaders. The expression “mid term poll” also indicates the dystopian system. The words “create” and “new” have a negative implication, these hint at the creation of a society inhabited only by dictatorial and tyrannous rulers. The poet uses animal images to describe their shrewdness, treachery, and deceit in My Silence poem no- 36 and Music Must Sound poem no – 75. He also unveils political perversions by referring to the different scams and scandals in poem no 29 and 47 of Above the Earth’s Green.
On the other hand, P.Raja does not explicitly communicate political depravity. However, he borrows the image of mosquito for the political leaders and in a humorous way and criticizes their misdeeds thus:
How well with your charming song
you mesmerize mankind!
Oh! Scrounger of man’s fuel.
We toil and sweat.
We pray and eat.
Yet our bread is not a full loaf.33
This is an apt comment and image which describes the situation of an Indian, and the political leaders. The “charming song” suggests the gullible promises of the leaders before elections. The condition of an Indian citizen is accurately portrayed through the statement “Yet our bread is not a full loaf”. Being in academics, Raja authentically presents academic corruption in poems like ‘After the Interview’ and ‘Ragging’. In poems like ‘Refresher Course’ and ‘Seminar’ he humorously narrates the reasons behind the falling standards of academics. R. K Singh, on the other hand, depicts the administrative loopholes and politics in higher academic system in the poem ‘Why Should I Suffer’. Apart from this, the poet exposes, discusses and criticizes the contemporary problems of terrorism, population, communal conflicts, and poverty that the nation is encountering. Corruption is a major theme in his poetry, and he exposes corruption of all kinds: Sexual, religious, social, academic, and political.
Both the poets seem to be dissatisfied and unhappy with the present societal condition, as reflected through their attitude, and perception of the society. It is to be noted that both R.K Singh and P. Raja do not provide any resolution, whether implicitly, or explicitly, to the problems they discuss. They do not seek to direct men, to judge events, to reform morals, or to present a philosophy. Poetry is their only object, an art that exists for itself.
1. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Some Recent Poems: 1990-
1994. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, p. 2.
2. Raja, P. To The Lonely Grey Hair. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 1997, p.19.
5. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Flight of Phoenix: 1987-
1989. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, poem no. 26.
6. Ibid., poem no. 17.
7. Raja, P. To The Lonely Grey Hair. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 1997, p.59.
8. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Some Recent Poems: 1990-
1994. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, p. 41.
10. Raja, P. To The Lonely Grey Hair. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 1997, p.34.
13. Raja, P. From Zero to Infinity. Pondicherry: All India Books, 1987, p. 67.
14. Raja, P. To The Lonely Grey Hair. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 1997, p.21.
16. Singh, R. K. Sexless Solitude And Other Poems. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2009, p.52.
17. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Some Recent Poems: 1990-
1994. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, p. 26.
18. Singh, R. K. Sexless Solitude And Other Poems. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2009, p.28.
19. Raja, P. From Zero to Infinity. Pondicherry: All India Books, 1987, p. 32.
20. Ibid., p.38.
21. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Flight of Phoenix: 1987-
1989. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, poem no. 6.
22. Ibid., poem no.52.
23. Raja, P. To Live in Love. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 2003, p.23.
24. Singh, R. K. Sexless Solitude And Other Poems. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2009, p. 64.
25. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; My Silence: 1974-1984.
Prakash Book Depot, 1994, poem no. 63.
26. Singh, R. K. Sexless Solitude And Other Poems. Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 2009, p. 64.
27. Ibid., p. 33.
31. Raja, P. To Live in Love. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books, 2003, p. 2.
32. Singh, R. K. My Silence And Other Selected Poems; Some Recent Poems: 1990-
1994. Prakash Book Depot, 1994, p. 42.
33. Raja, P. From Zero to Infinity. Pondicherry: All India Books, 1987, p. 48.
* Jayshree Goswami- Research Scholar, Dept of HSS, ISM, Dhanbad.
** Md. Mojibur Rehman - Assistant Professor, Dept of HSS, ISM, Dhanbad