Thursday, June 20, 2024

Modi gives a peek inside his mind in his own words

New Delhi: Many say letter writing – for all practical reasons – is becoming a lost art, but India’s finest film writer has translated a host of poems written by Narendra Modi in Gujarati into English and proved us wrong. 

We need to remember Modi was not the Prime Minister when he wrote these poems to himself. He wrote it over sometime, some years. His collection of poems, Aankh Aa Dhanya Che, was originally released in 2007, the year Pratibha Patil was elected as the first female President and India won the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup by defeating Pakistan in the finals. 

A decade and a half have passed since then. 

Letters to Self is a compilation of those poems by Bhawna Somaaya, the genial chronicler of Indian movies and an authority on the legendary Amitabh Bachchan. 

Published by FingerPrint, the poems stretch through Modi’s imagination. It has India at its heart because for Modi there is no bigger emotion than his country. Sometimes, the poems – beautifully translated – look as if you were rummaging through your hallway closet. Sometimes, the poems look like a bunch of marigold flowers offered to the rising sun.

I picked up the first in the book, Gratitude, which felt like a tribute to the planet, Mother Earth, by a writer drawing his inspirations from the soul of the world. 

Let’s read through the lines:

This planet is splendorous, And these eyes privileged

To feast on it

The sunlight drapes the lush, green grass

The sun rays intense and unbearable

The universe is awe-inspiring

This planet is splendorous

The rainbow rotates, makes circles in the sky

Sketches and fills colours in the air

Is this a blessing from previous births?

Gratitude, deep heartfelt gratitude

The waves bounce and touch the sky

Wonder what lies in the embryo of the clouds?

The completeness is the beginning

The planet is splendorous

In a large fair of faces, I meet so many

I feel ill at ease

In their company

Their disquietude
Is unsettling

And some of it, unimaginable

Gratitude, more gratitude

This planet is splendorous

Modi pays a fitting tribute to his nation, he wants it to be filled with hopes and dreams, he wants the earth to be both perfect and imperfect, but splendorous. He sees himself as one who has crossed over a million births to be born again in this nation, this very earth.

The letters are not all about the future but are snapshots inside the mind of the man who is the Prime Minister of a billion plus nation. The poems are emotionally evocative like a grandmother’s embroidered kantha quilt that is stored for generations. The poems – full of depth and optimism – deliver some unique personal insights of the Prime Minister than any work of fiction, or a movie could ever provide. 

Writing poems to self is not easy, you repeatedly walk in and out of two characters, of a giver and a taker. You have the nation, its people and many things at the core of your heart. At times, the writer is being idealistic. I have a feeling he expects Indians to be nationalistic, he does not want Indians to stay home and watch terrible television and wait for that unexpected thing to happen to change the nation.

The letters show Modi wants Indians to be agents of change by looking forward and by looking back at where they had been. 

I liked the one titled Trouble. 

Once a beautiful, nubile river

Has scattered, turned ferocious

Like a tigress on the prowl

Lashed by heavy rains

She has overstepped

Shed all inhibitions

Lost control, 

Like a woman

Who has lost her mind

She flows insanely

Probably unaware

How hard and cruel

Her water has transformed

In the drowned villages

Disrupted structures

Swept away corpses

So many lives lost

So many shrieks

So many cries for help

All dissolve into water

And flown away

The fury of nature

Expose the cruelty

Of life-threatening sea

I have a feeling the writer is explaining the vagaries of nature, tensions that often grip the nation and create both pain and anguish, tensions and sorrow. Modi is open about the pains one suffers; he has not sealed his thoughts in a notebook and shoved it in a desk drawer. The poems are a uniquely visceral experience, a style of communication that takes time, dedication and patience of the writer and his recipients. In many ways, it is antithetical to the modern ideas of communication.

Letters to Self, appeared to me like a cardboard box filled with words, images and sketches, written in ink with care and purpose. In the first lines of the book that says Dedicated to My Mother Tongue, the writer makes it clear that he is neither a litterateur nor a poet. “At the best you may call me an admirer or words.”

“For a long time, I have been in the process of accumulating my half-baked, part-delayed, part-scattered outpourings published at different times on different platforms. Finally, they have been strung together and compiled in this book,” writes Modi.

And then he writes: “I plead you to not equate my expression with my post or position, rather celebrate it for the merit of the thought and the emotion. The prose poetry in this book reflects my feelings, experienced from my little window of life.”

He wants you to feel the excitement of physically holding a letter that is written in ink with care and purpose. It is a practice in both intimacy and formality. His letters give space to open up with unparalleled casualty and familiarity.

Like the last one in the book, Eleventh Direction, the one that is rarely ventured into by mankind. It is the place where the Self resides, a point where it becomes only a witness to the periphery of the wheel of life. 

Fearless mind

A tuneful song

Everlasting

Love in the heart

A smile like a dream

A cheerful wind

A scented sky

It’s the seeker who makes

Every moment precious

The earth

Is forever

Affectionate

Fragrant

The Lord, my beloved

I stare at unblinking

There is no past

Nothing unknown

Just immortal

Moments

No rituals

No ceremonies

Just quietude

Reflected

On my face

Far away

From ten directions

A song plays quietly

In the eleventh direction

A wonderful read.

How come I do not see it on the stands of bookstores?

(Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets.  He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.)

Read More

Penguin’s homage to Satyajit Ray is a library of his works

The Penguin Satyajit Ray library is like a new Sun emerging out of your terrace. It is a cultural masterpiece, a rare subject of...