A Journey through Ayyappa Paniker’s Poetry at Midnight

Abstract: Ayyappa Paniker is always talked about for his modernity and constant experimentation in poetry. In fact he carried modern and post modern poetry on his shoulders all alone for a long time in the journey of Malayalam poetry. But he never opposed the traditional ideology of poetics totally. Actually, he believed in a beautiful blend of both, taking good elements from old traditions and going ahead with new ideas. This was what the great poet Kalidas also practised. There is no doubt that Paniker always wanted change in his style, and it is also true that change in style and way of expression came naturally to him; he never tried to create something new deliberately. Not even when he handled traditional emotions like love and themes like beauty. In the collection of poetry which came out in his last days — Poetry at Midnight — we once again see him trying to find new styles and ways of conveying ideas to his readers.

Keywords: post modern poetry, traditional poetic ideology, change in style, different inclusive poetic style Malayalam poetry evolution, poetic sensibility, Malayalam translated poems, modernism in Malayalam literature, Paniker poems, poetic idioms,

The collection of poems was originally written in Malayalam and carried the title Pathu mani pookal — which literally translates as ‘flowers that blossom at ten o’ clock’. The title is reminiscent of a popular flower in Kerala, that blossoms at 4 o’clock in the evening and has been immortalised in a number of poems. This name itself does not seem to suit Paniker’s style of poetry, but he was clever enough to use the old style in a new pattern. These poems were written one after another, continuously for 62 days. They blossomed in the heart of the poet as naturally as flowers. This was during the months of April and May 2002, when days and nights are a little bit warmer in Thiruvananthapuram. Ten o’ clock at night was the time when the sounds in Paniker’s house usually subsided. This was the time when his small old transistor came to life and played ‘Bhoole Bisare Geet — Vividh Bharati’. Yes, Paniker was very much fond of old Hindi songs. Maybe because of their melody. This was his favourite programme especially during moonlit nights and he would walk on the terrace of his house, with a small transistor in hand (lie was equally fond of dawn). Sometimes he used to sit on his favourite armchair and look out of the room through the glass pane of the door opening into the terrace. Perhaps he captured the ideas of his poems during such moments of leisure and scribbled them quickly on pieces of paper, to be given a final shape later. After that, the poems would start their journey in the form of sound to a distant suhrit (meaning ‘friend’, mentioned in the poems.) He kept on collecting these poems with the innocence of a child, who keeps flowers and butterflies in books, thinking that they will remain fresh within. When the season of blossoming was over, he changed the order of the poems, edited them and gave them titles. Now, the poems were arranged in the alphabetical order. The sequence had completely changed.

The main attraction of the style of these poems is that in most of them, the speaker is someone else and the poet is merely a listener. The speaker addresses the poet as suhrit, ‘friend,’ a term which is not popular in love poems in Malayalam. According to the tradition of Malayalam poetry it could be thoza for male and thozhi or sakhi for female, but in these poems both the speaker and the listener call each other suhrit. The word suhrit, in Malayalam, does not reveal the gender of the addressee. But when we go deep into the poems, we feel that most of the time the speaker is a woman.

If we approach this collection with a critical spirit, we find that the core poem in this poetic bunch is ‘Youth’:

For one more year

Give me my youth

Who is the master of all life on earth?

Let him bestow on me a new youthfulness.

I am not content yet with the flowers and fruits

That gives sweetness to my zest and lust.

If not for one year, for one year more

Give me my sensual youth.

In these lines the poet is the speaker and his yearning for youthfulness is not the lust of Yayati, but the desire for creation. The poet who is never tired of newness has to meditate like Yayati, so that he can recapture new youth every time he wants to present himself to his readers. Once this desire grows, the poet becomes a creator, as in the poem ‘The Wheel’ takes time in his hands and turns it backward and forward, like a wheel.

The wheel turns,

The wheel rotates all.

That which doesn’t Is no wheel at all.

The wheel will rotate,

Forwards and backwards.

Impossible even for

The nine planets or constellations

To escape this rotation.

You and I, friend, live

In this rotation.

He goes back and forth in this whorl of memory with his fellow poet. They discuss various things like poetry, poetics, life and society. They know that they cannot remain together for ever as they are not eternal—

– Look, as we say this, that meteor

Has flown, foamed and burnt out.

We too are like that.

Nevertheless, the poets like to weave emotions around themselves. Their journey has started. This journey is headed backwards in time. Or one can say that is from culture to nature. The poets want to find out what they have lost in this journey of poetry and how they can go back in order to recollect all those things which can still be useful. In ‘Celebration,’ he writes:

There is a woodland far, far away.

Shall we go there?

We can build a hut and

Live there, park ourselves there.

Share the chill and the sunshine

Watch the green of the woods

Crawl up your body,

See the songs of the birds

Seep down

Through the branches.

The flowing rivulet

Gently tickling

Our feet

Sunken in the sand

We can go there

Rollicking, friend?

On the surface, their imagination is impressed by the romantic spirit; but Paniker does not forget his black humour and enjoys a dig at fake Progressives—

Progressives may ridicule it as

That old theory of escapism.

Don’t worry.

We can take them also with us

There while romping home.


These poems look like personal dialogues, on love, passion or quarrels, but inside them there is a universal dialogue about the future of poetry, futurism in poetry and the role of poetry in society. If we want to know what they think of poetry, we must read these lines in ‘Writing’:

Do you know how

you wrote my poems?

Do you know why

you wrote them?

Do you know that all good works

are written by the other self?

We do not know ourselves.

The other self may know.

Poetry is a means to know.

Poetry is means to know our inner self, and the poet is trying to understand his poetic journey, his pains and his sorrows but at the same time he knows that poetry is not a manifestation of what is known. Thus Poetry at Midnight makes us start thinking about the use of poetry in this contemporary world. Why should, we write poetry? How should we write? We feel that the primary purpose of these poems is to find an answer to all these questions. The poet and his poet friend discuss this issue by employing different approaches — sometimes by telling stories, sometimes by sharing folk songs, sometimes by entering a completely imaginary world, sometimes quarreling with each other and sometimes by sharing a dream:

A dream has come and stands there, coy and bashful,

Let us share it, friend.


It comes in sleep.

The conscious zone is put out.

So, both can see the same dream.

Poetry is a dream which is to be shared by its creator and reader. Paniker, in his typical playful manner, talks not about a dream, but a pair of dreams – a male dream and a female dream.

At night

In darkness

In sleep

Beneath the closed eye-lids

Dreams rule.

Male dreams and female dreams.

You take the female dream.

I will take the other.

It is almost as if the poet is entering the world of Romanticism for a while and coming back with a new meaning. Who else can talk about male earn and female dream in such a beautiful way?

We can reach the pond-side.

Not pond. A big lake.

Swans glide over the water.

Lilies are in full bloom.

There is music

When the water ripples.

Come, friend, this is our world.

Here life and death are alike.

A bunch of smiles blossom

On the face resting on the shoulder.

This dream is eternal—

And again the life..

The day has not dawned.

The milkmaid has not arrived.

Nor the newspaperman.

The alarm has not rung.

The neighbours have not called.

From this dream we need not wake up, friend.

Personally speaking, this poem ‘A Dream’ conjures up scenes of the last days of the poet, when he was put under sedation. Was he coming out and going back into the dream land like this? But this poem was written long, long before his death. Did he foresee his future? Perhaps he did, for poets can see the future too. If we link this poem to the future of poetry, we realize it is very much true that reality needs the help of dreams, of fantasy also. Does the poet think that this is the time when poetry has to get some life from the dream world, without forgetting the reality of life? He does want to go into the dreamland all alone, take progressiveness with him and try to bring out some solutions for the problems in society, as we see in the poem ‘Again’:

Retrieving all that is lost

Is onward journey indeed.

Whatever dripped from the finger tips,

Whatever dropped from between the fingers,

Whatever slipped out of hand, all

All have to he regained.

Great enterprises are all

Poems of retrieval.

He raises a number of questions about postmodernism in poetry. Poetry is like a place of worship. But is it only for the individual self or does it have something to do with society? The friend asks in ‘The Temple’:

Don’t we also feel, friend, that

Temples give to man

Freedom from fear.

And reply to this question is –

All places of worship are not like this, you know?

Most of them are walled in and locked up

—And the reply is in same way-

Last week I went to a church.

When there was no Mass and no one inside or outside

How peaceful and how beautiful!

Even God may not like keeping away.

Peaceful like a church without festival.

I wonder whether I can speak like this

Or ask like this.

Now another query lies hidden in this question. We see a big contrast in society. Fake secularism and fake spiritualism have both gripped modern society. The result is that as soon as a poet talks about something related to faith, he is thrown out of the poetic world. But the poet wants to reread alt the aspects of life. He argues:

It’s the same way poetry creates problems.

When something is said it may be considered

Post-modern to question or suspect the manner of saying.

Yet, can’t you be a little more simple, friend?

This problem is not so simple, the poet knows. Thus he concludes this poem with an uncertain reply:

Okay, okay. You know that when you say so

I wonder – Can I be anything but simple?

Or don’t you know?

But the poet is certain that every singular person has his or her individual identity. And one has to understand as well as respect others’ rights. This could be the identity of a poet ton. So imitation or blind following should be avoided. The beautiful poem ‘Light Breeze’ seems to suggest this argument:

Light Breeze has an elder brother- Mountain Wind.

He usually comes jumping down the bamboo grove.

A terrorist.

Stomping on the chest of Light Breeze he comes.

Are you jealous of him, Light Breeze?

Are you angry with him?

When he snorts and gets on top of you

You don’t scream, don’t sigh either.

Your breath is always gentle

You don’t cry, you don’t even murmur.

Aren’t you too a wind, Light Breeze?

These questions seem to come from his own life experiences and form a poetic response to the harsh criticism flung at him by the media and the people about his status as a poet. He never wasted his words in arguments or counter allegations. He never criticized other poets’ works either, because he knew that:

As you blow with a light mind

In light blue colour

when it is slightly warm or

Slightly cold

Cool droplets will fall on the surface of the earth.

In the gentle sounds of that the terrorists will crumble

And the earth will become habitable again.

It is not the hardened minds, friend,

But tender minds

That deserve to be hailed Long Live.

So, distressing experiences,

Do keep my mind as a light breeze.

Yes, he always chanted these words in his life — distressing experiences, do keep my mind as a light breeze. As he used to say earlier, poetry is the medium to understand our self.

The poem ‘The News’ makes a list of these ‘distressing experiences’:

News of death fill up

the newspapers.

The number and size of speeches

Continually go up.

The ears are rendered useless

The eyes turn blind seeing

The endless hardships.

Mankind, affected by these painful incidents, is trying to find different ways of getting rid of these experiences. Some use meditation as a form of sedation and some just run away from the world and make their own private, worlds of enjoyment. Do we ever try to get back our ears and eyes to find solutions to these problems?

When will I get back my ears, eyes and mind?

Tell me, friend,

Aren’t you omniscient?

Another poem in this collection which makes us think is ‘The Bird Tree’

If the bird tree does not bloom

Should it be cut down?

If the hibiscus does not bear fruit

Should it be uprooted?

If the milk flow is scanty

Should the cow be killed?

If my mother is raped

Would she cease

to be my mother?

The bird tree is the poet himself where birds of poetry perched and sang songs, mostly of pain although the poet himself longed for the joyful passion of love. Yet, he never felt that poetry should run away from the realities of life. As he says in ‘The Peacock and the Moonlight’:

Not the peacock

Or the moonlight alone

That is beautiful.

There is beauty

Even in starvation

And hunger, remember.

One must not think that the poet enjoys starvation and sorrow. Rather, he wants to say that one must not run away from these sorrows and pains; they are not ugly. One must feel them and try to be with the society at the time of pain and spread awareness among people.

As if to add greater thrust to certain ideas that he wanted to convey, Paniker also turned to the folk rhythms and songs that were very much part of his childhood in his native village. An earlier use of this technique can be seen in his blessing song of Gotrayanam. But what is the new in Poetry at Midnight is that here Paniker deliberately creates songs in what can be called a contemporary folk style. ‘As Such’ and ‘Light Breeze’ are examples of his trend. ‘As Such’ employs a method that is characteristic to folk songs – that of telling a story and giving a message related to everyday life. The poem is about a worrisome problem in a contemporary times – the tendency of one-upmanship that ruins all relationships (ranging from personal or professional friendships to conjugal bonds):

The sky asked the earth:

How can you lie like that?

The earth told the sky:

Don’t get over me and shine like that.

The sky asked the earth again:

Why are you, who do not lie still

Even for a day, wrangling with me?

The earth and sky are very popular characters in folklore, but the end of the poem is cast in a style that is typical of Paniker:

The sky again:

I cannot move

You cannot rotate

So can’t we

Continue as such?

There are also a few poems that break away from the general conversational format of the collection (between the speaker and his suhrit) and adopt a satirical tone that readers of Paniker are familiar with. In The Tree Climber’, for example, the poet pokes fun at people who talk big but do little:

Then our sir tucked his non- existent tail and jumped down.

Came near me and said:

`Without you why should I sit on the tree?

Big deal!’

`I’ll say!’

I retorted.

Then we sat down on the ground munching groundnut

And speaking of unknown things about Korea and Japan.

As night wore on, we said `Shouldn’t we sleep?’

And both went to sleep.

The collection also contains poems which are woven with golden threads of emotions. A fine love line is seen in several pieces. Love in these poems is not lust or passion as it was in Days and Nights or Holiday Whispers. It is very gentle and soft, like morning breeze. Except in one poem, this beautiful relationship denotes a sweet bond which is different from the so-called love relations. Here, it is a dialogue between the speaker and the poet, sometimes they want to run away from the cruelty of the world with the innocence of youth; sometimes they discuss various topics like poetry, society and life; sometimes they go down memory lane and complain to each other and sometimes they wander in an imaginary world to see new dreams. It is a wonder how a man, who had completed 70 years, could write such youthful poems.

Sometimes they console themselves, that living apart is not the end of any relationship. A bond can be maintained even without getting a chance to live together. He says in One and Two’:

Won’t the hope to become one

Be born

Only if we are two?

Is it not better to be two

And then become one

Rather than be one

And then become two?

The meeting place of two is their heart, where a whole world is created,

a world of poetry which is different from this cruel world. As ‘A Story’ mentions:

Then, when we met each other

And became one

The rains came,

Rainbow came

Feathers came, wings came,

Nests came, birds came,

Branches came, trees came,

Forests came, earth came,

The sky and the stars came,

And fishes in the oceans—


There, love is a light which can come at any time. Even though it comes late, it should remain with us. In love nothing is lost, everything is to be regained. The poem ‘Again’ promises:

The question here is not of return,

But of retrieval.

Retrieving all that is lost

Is onward journey indeed.

Whatever dripped from the finger tips,

Whatever dropped from between the fingers,

Whatever slipped out of hand, all

All have to be regained.

Here the poet remembers the story of the river Kannadipuzha, which is ‘,denied its right to flow. The story unfolds itself in Paniker’s typical style:

The Collector has sent a report to the government.

What happened?

A policeman dirtied the river.

So the water decided not to flow.

He swung the lathi to threaten the river.

Yet the river did not budge.

Then the Tahsildar came, wrote down the order and put into the river.

That paper also did not flow.

He reported to the Collector, as protocol.

These lines can be taken as Paniker’s famous satire, his interest in nature protection or his statement about a social misfortune. But when we reach the d of the poem we find something more interesting.

If all the children of the land come to the riverside

Put flowers into the river, please the river

By singing and dancing and assure it

That waste will not be thrown into it,

Then the river may flow.

Only then will it become the real Kannadipuzha.

Paniker feels that innocence was disappearing from society and even from literature. Is that the reason why the river of poetry has stopped flowing in the hearts of people?

The love that is lauded in Poetry at Midnight has an Upanishadic spirituality. It is not Anna maya kosh (mere body) or even Manomaya kosh (only mind.) It is not even Pran maya or Jnan maya kosh (life and brain). But this love is Anandamaya kosh (spiritual love). The Upanishads say that the Ananadmaya kosh is the place where the Atma meets the ParamAtma. This is a place where nothing remains, no body, mind or knowledge. Only ANANDA remains. The poet and his friend try to reach this spiritual stage. When the poet says in ‘Yesterday I did not’:

Yesterday I did not see you or hear you.

Yesterday I did not touch you or prod you.

When you were sleeping with your eyes closed

Did not come to you to rouse you with a kiss.

Did not re-arrange the bangles on your wrist

Or caress the toe-ring on your foot.

Did not stroke the tip of your saree,

Or sing to you any youthful melody.

He is coming away from all thoughts of desires that can limit the span of love. There love is eternal, in the company of eternal truth. They remain in that truthful world-

Yet what is in my memory today is the

Sweet remembrance of finding

A place for the five senses yesterday,

Not related to food (annamaya kosh), or life (Pranamaya kosh)

Or knowledge (jnaan maya kosh) in the realm of mind, (manomaya kosh)

But the two of us fused together in a spiritual bind (Anandamaya kosh)

Like pleasure that was brimming over.

Yesterday I . . . . . .

Poetry at Midnight is not like Kurukshetram; here the poet of Kurukshetram has covered the journey of the world and learned that realism is to be blended with romanticism. Here the journey of Gotrayanam reaches its end. This is not even like Days and Nights, as the poet has learnt to tame his passion in a positive manner. It is not like Holiday Whispers either as the poet has left the plane of physical love and gone far above, into the realm of the mind and knowledge. These poems are not only about emotions; they also contain the essence of life. They tell us about poetry, life, friendship, happiness and sorrow. They also throw light on the advantages of yoking traditional systems of thought with modern views.

In the end, they tell us that as we do not know when we will part ways, we should bid farewell with a kind heart. In ‘Forgetfulness’ he writes:

Friend, try to remember

All the good things we have forgotten.

I wonder how we were able to forget all of them.

I had decided not to work wonders.

I forgot that as well.

Once I wished I could forget something some day.

But I remember only the fact that I had forgotten it.

Is not life just a matter of memory?

And is not forgetfulness a kind of memory?

The end of life is a journey towards another life. The seeds of love may sprout there. So let us wish each other a happy journey, as he says in ‘The End’:

I haven’t forgotten the stories you told me

In those times of closeness and wonderment.

The end will be abrupt.

There may not be time to say farewell.

So, Happy Journey!


RAXI SAXENA. Eminent Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar authored three collections of poems in Hindi and one each in English and Malayalam (in translation). Among the several awards she has received, the most coveted is the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation in 2000. Editor of the web journal Kritya (www.kritya.in) 

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Eminent Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar authored three collections of poems in Hindi and one each in English and Malayalam (in translation). Among the several awards she has received, the most coveted is the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for Translation in 2000. Editor of the web journal Kritya (www.kritya.in)

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