Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, or Cloud Messenger, is one of the timeless classics of Sanskrit and world literature, famous for its exquisite literary language and evocative images of the natural environment and culture of Kalidasa’s day. In the poem, a yaksha or nature spirit requests a cloud to deliver a message to his love in the Himalayas, describing the sights along the way. Having recently translated the Meghaduta, the poet-diplomat Abhay K. continues his homage to it in his new book Monsoon.
His poem travels along the path of the southwest monsoon, which starts in Madagascar (where Abhay is currently the Indian Ambassador) and sails across the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas before returning to its origin. As with Kalidasa’s cloud messenger, here the monsoon is an envoy bearing the poet’s message from Madagascar to his lover in Srinagar, with instructions to carry her reply back.
Gaining strength as it travels across the waters of the Indian Ocean, Monsoon takes the reader on a magic carpet ride across the beautiful islands of Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Zanzibar, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, among others, before making landfall on the subcontinent. It requires considerable verve to take on such variety within a single journey, but Abhay carries it off with great gusto. In Madagascar, one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, he treats us to:
Ring-tailed lemurs feasting on Baobab flowers
Vasa parrots courting their mates
painted butterflies fluttering over fresh blossoms
blooming jacarandas painting the sky purple
Traveller’s palms stretching their arms in prayer
Baobabs meditating like ascetics turned upside down
Giraffe-necked red weevils necking their mates
fragrant Champa flowers—galaxies on the earth
Penned in our contemporary era of heightened mass extinctions, the poem bustles with sightings and songs of parrots, sunbirds, kingfishers, storks, flycatchers, eagles, kingfishers, kites, peacocks, bustards, and hornbills, as well as the antics of numerous marine creatures, reptiles, and mammals, not to mention dazzling varieties of plant life. Reading the poem feels at times like thumbing through a traveler’s photographic archive, with striking images like the one of Sri Lankan stilt fishermen perched on poles among coral reefs.
As with his previous work Capitals and The Alphabets of Latin America, Abhay’s poetic vision aims to be panoramic, spanning the earth’s landscapes, cityscapes, cultures, dialects, and myths. All creatures great and small are catalogued together in the same space along with landforms, monuments, tourist attractions, rituals, festivals, music, and food.
Abhay is a poet of the fairground and the public square, and the poem gives vent to an imagination teeming with the spectacle of life. However, his direct and unvarnished free verse makes limited use of figurative language, turning certain parts of the catalogue into a routine listing. Monsoon nevertheless comes across as a paean in praise of the world as it flits by in all its infinite variety.And as with the classical Sanskrit poets, Abhay’s writing is unabashedly sensual:
frothy white Dudhsagar falls
crashing and roaring in rhapsodies,
the hills wearing misty veils
your rains intoxicating her senses
The Indian Ocean has always served as a pathway for migration, trade, and colonisation, and the author reminds us, through passing references to language and religion, of the spread of Indian culture in islands along the way. In gathering pace across these varied regions, the monsoon winds do not pause in mid-stream over the darker passages of the region’s history, nor do they linger over the local blends of Indian cuisine. However, as a poet-diplomat striving for a truly global consciousness, Abhay is probably the first to bring together the natural history and culture of many different countries in the Indian Ocean in a single poetic sweep.
The monsoon reaches its maximum intensity over the subcontinent, where the poem, brimming over with colors and sights and sounds, turns into a surprisingly extensive guidebook to many of the historic places along the way. Reading along, I couldn’t help taking notes for my next trip to India, which will have to include tasting Bihari kadhibari and Indori tikki chaat, and visiting the hall of mirrors in Tonk. In covering that much ground, which includes not only parts of India but forays to Bhutan and Nepal, the poem proceeds rather swiftly, hopping from Kolkata’s red-light district directly to Bodhgaya, but it all seems par for the course.
The scaffolding of the literary tradition of the messenger poem, with its theme of separation and longing, seems extraneous at the beginning. By the end of the book, however, the reader understands that the beloved in the poem is the world as revealed along the way, for this highly extroverted poem is Abhay’s love letter to it.
(The reviewer is a former professor and scientist from the US who is now a full-time writer based in Thailand. He is the author of the novels ‘Toxic Spirits’ (2019) and ‘The Conquest of Kailash’ (forthcoming). He is on twitter as @InderjeetMani)
About the Book
₹ 54; 100 pages (paperback)