Portraits of India is a book of poetic essays, with an attempt to portray India. As we all are limited by our own experiences of what India is, so is Sanjay Yadav. Though he thinks he is talking about India, he has restricted himself primarily to Delhi, its people and around. He does not even touch South and North East India. Barring when he is mapping India in words. Within the rest of India, too many states like Gujarat and MP are not touched.
Sanjay Yadav starts by explaining what the poetic essays are and quotes a fine piece by Philip Larkin. He discusses the poem and prose at length. And the merits and demerits of writing the essay in prose and poetry. He explains the meters and the rhymes. And tries to justify the reader why he chooses this format. He also discusses his disappointment at India’s development. Despite all the noise about double digit growth, he points out how the standing of India on various parameters has actually declined while we were consuming the story of shining growth. He represents the frustrations of a common man that may have changed in their shape and size. But they remain there, sometimes have even become bigger than ever.
The first section of poems talks about the well-known faces of Indian political leaders. And these are the faces that are there on the cover page of his book. His personal bias obviously comes across very strongly. For what else can make you say that Bihar progressed under Lalu Yadav, and call him a genius and an all-time great, but the bonds of the same surname. The same goes for Mulayam Singh Yadav who incidentally also hails from the same region as the author. Sanjay Yadav calls Indira Gandhi the greatest, only for one reason that she won a battle for us. He, in fact, demeans anyone – be it Nehru or Vajpayee for losing wars, and for this sole reason, Indira Gandhi is the best Prime minister ever. And for this reason, he quotes and pardons her hundred sins.
He calls Advani 24 karat gold and ‘a noble leader of an epic mould’. And I am trying to think when and where did he display epic mould. I liked his take on Sonia Gandhi – Kings do take a foreign queen, and sure history everywhere has many examples of that. For Mayawati, he says a two-liner that she makes million hearts dance and a million hopes soar.
Next section talks about the character of the country, where authors start at the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. He advocates nuclear bomb. He expresses frustration and sometimes sheer optimism shines through. And this is probably the state most countrymen are in. They suffer the government machinery, the corruption but somewhere we still believe that somehow things will turn for better for us. I like his lines where he says ‘ Primary cultures lead and innovate, Secondary ones follow and imitate’. This is so true, today the primary culture comes from the west, while in the past and looks like in the near future it may emanate from the east.
He calls 1950-90 as the years the locusts ate away. His unsung hero is a chaiwallah. Surprisingly, he also writes a poem praising the Indian postal services. And I seriously wonder when he wrote this poem because most people I know, including myself have horror stories like stolen parcels and letters that never reached. He makes fun of those in powerful positions be it a collector, a General or a CEO in the boardroom. Sanjay Yadav questions the MBAs and what they know. Though I was smiling while I was reading these pieces, I think he was softer on them than the others. He could have been more vocal… now is that my bias talking… maybe
In the section on Locals, outsiders, and castes he repeats what he said in his earlier book ‘Environmental Crisis of Delhi’. The author blames outsiders for every crisis that Delhi faces. He wants the Bengalis, Punjabi, Oriyas, Biharis, and Malayalis to be out of the city. He is particularly fond of Marathis who he mistakenly thinks is not outside their states… do you know certain Mr. Pandit of Citibank? I think this comes from his fondness for Bala Sahib. On immigration, my views are simple… we are all immigrants, just the time or generation when we migrated is different. If we keep stretching the argument, we will all have to go back to jungles of Africa.
Portraits of India Book’s last three poems talk about the pilgrimages in Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Mathura i.e. the Braj Bhoomi. I wish a son of the soil who feels so strongly about his mid-Yamuna Braj Bhoomi should have at least gone around Braj Bhoomi, which is much larger than just Mathura. That land made me write poetry and it would have definitely inspired someone who has a flair for poetry. It is a beautiful land with its own unique culture centered around Radha and not Krishna as the author keeps claiming.
I would have liked the poems to be dated. For some poems, the author has mentioned that they had been written before certain time or event. And should be read in the same perspective. But others since he does not mention anything sound recent and that is quite confusing. For example, as of today who feels grateful to Manmohan Singh? But if you say you wrote in before 2004, maybe I will trust you. I think a lot of them had been written in the nineties and a lot has changed since then. Including how we deal with things and how they influence us. Otherwise, for me, poem is a very ‘in the moment’ thing. You write when you feel it and it belongs to that moment, even if you write for a subject as broad as a country with billion+ people.
In the book Portraits of India, some of the poems are good, but most are highly opinionated. Some lines here and there would make you think. But most are what you know as a citizen of this country that either talk of the past glory or the future potential but has many issues left unresolved in the present.