Ayyappaayanams:exploring the Quest Motif in Ayyappa Paniker’s Early Poetry

Abstract: Ayyappa Paniker, renowned Malayalam writer and poet has to his credit extensive works revolving around topics of life and death. This fascination of his gave him inspiration for his poetry. The paper deconstructs the inner meaning of his poetry by closely analysing the romantic imagery, stylistic narrative that he employs to form a sense of realisation in his poetry. The poems are taken from Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker and Days and Nights.

Keywords: search for life’s meaning, death, life, romantic imagery, romantic literature, Malayalam poet, Malayalam in translation, immortality

Man’s thought, restless, goes on searching

along the highways where dusks float

and the gutters where nights rot.

By the time this vain task ends,

life ends too.

(Days and Nights, September 4).

Modernist, satirist, witty, cynical, dazzling, innovative, secretive, romantic, Ayyappa Paniker at his best is the crown and flavour of Malayalam literature. Widely acclaimed by critics as one who ushered in a new sensibility —the modernist sensibility, that was directly at odds with the romanticism of poets like Changampuzha, Paniker’s poems stand out in Malayalam as the expression of a lone and different voice. At odds with the romantic style, Paniker exhorts us to

`Look at the picture my hands have drawn on my walls:

why do you stare? Look carefully, you fool!’ (Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 9).

The starkness of the picture that is drawn is as singular and different as Paniker himself. The poem quoted above, entitled ‘Upon my Walls’ was written 1952 and is the first poem, both in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker and Ali Ayyappa Panikerude Krithikal (1951 — 69).

The fourth founh edition of Paniker’s collected works titled Ayyappa Panikerude Krithikal (The Works of Ayyappa Paniker) was published in four volumes by D.C. Books with an introduction by Sri. M.V. Devan, a sensitive and discerning critic, in April 2006. Ayyappa Paniker’s poetic works fall clearly into four divisions — works written from 1951 to 1969, from 1969 to 81, from 1981 to 89 and from 1990 to 99. The first volume also carries Paniker’s monumental work `Kurukshetram’ apart from a number of poems of equal note ranging from shorter poems to longer ones. Reading the original Malayalam and its translated version, it becomes immediately apparent that Ayyappa Paniker’s niche among Indo Anglian poets would have been more than what it is today had there been more concentrated efforts to translate his entire canon into English. The second volume of his collected works had all been translated as Days and Nights but all poems of his first volume have not been translated. Only ten of seventy poems in the first volume has been translated and included in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker Significant poems like `Agni Pooja’, `Ayyarkale, ‘Priyatame, Prabhathame’ and ‘Pururavas’ to name a few have not been translated. Similarly all the sections of `Kuttanadan Drishyarigal ‘ have not been translated, only two sections, ‘Chirutha’ and ‘Temple Festival’ have been included in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker. These are the first and fifth poems respectively of the long poem of seven segments.

Attempting to evaluate Ayyappa Paniker as a poet is difficult for the range of his poetry is so vast that all readings are bound to be reductive. One major feature of Paniker’s poetry is its propensity and openness to change and to evolve. This has much to do with the poet’s own receptivity and his ability to change his style and diction to suit his theme. Krishna Rayan describes this as ‘bewildering shifts in manner and attitude’ in his article on ‘Gotrayanam; A Humanist Statement’ (in the sacred navel of our dreams: Essays on Ayyappa Paniker’s Poetry 180). He is a poet on a perpetual quest of new modes of expression, in search of meaning, in search of life, in search of experience, in search of death, in search of the past, in search of roots, in search of tradition as much as modernity and in search of his Self. The quest is an acknowledged and obvious image in Gothrayanam but is implicit and covert in his early poetry.

In the poem `Hey Gagarin’, Paniker is a `wayfare’ like the ‘devourer of space’, Gagarin, whose ‘free thoughts, surge forward breaking all fetters’ and who is asked by the poet to ‘get off my tracks’. The poet is determined to be like the pioneer:

The pioneers have unfurled their flags on the heights: break you your idols and bless yourselves. Nothing is empty any more, nothing is outside of us; the whole universe is filled with subtle sensations. Where is our telescope, where our thermometer? Brandish the torch, fulfill the urge to create, cut off the barriers of time and space keep the spirit ablaze that will burn up every trace of death-dealing darkness

(Selected Poems ofAvyappa Paniker 32).

The exhortation of the poet is to his fellow poets to achieve the same stature that science has managed to scale for the sky is literally the limit. The paper will attempt to trace the motif of quest in the early poems of Ayyappa Paniker that is poetry written between 1951 and 1981.

1. In Quest of Meaning: Kurukshetram

Kurukshetram is described as a ‘watershed’ in Malayalam literature if only for the controversy it created. It was published in 1960 in Desha Bandhu. Paniker speaks of the poem as having lived and developed with him for about six to seven years. The poem as it stands today, reflect every change of perspective the poet had had and the corresponding conscious and deliberate editions and revisions the poet had made, a quest in itself.

Critics were quick to pinpoint the poem as the first modernist poem in the Malayalam language marking a positive transition from the predominantly romantic to the socio- political consciousness of a new school of poetry. Criticism of `Kurukshetram’ centers on its essentially westernised perspective, on its obscurity and on its tonal difference from other works of the period. `Kurukshetram’ embodies Paniker’s views of poetry. He discards the idea of form and prosody as the basic determinants of poetry and looks upon rhythm . and resonance in keeping with emotions. He resolutely turns away from romanticism and advocates rhythmic free verse.

In her critical evaluation of ‘Kurukshetram’ Chandramathy points out that the model of `Kurukshetram’ as far as its form is concerned is T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland ( Kurukshetram – 2000:157). She is however successful in pointing out the inherent differences as well as the obvious similarities of the two works. What makes the works similar is the modernist tone that pervades the works.

The starting point of modernism is the crisis of belief that pervades twentieth century (western) culture: loss of faith, experience of fragmentation and disintegration and the shattering of cultural symbols and norms. At the center of this crisis were the new technology of science, the epistemology of logical positivism and the relativism of functionalist thought — in short major aspects of philosophical perspectives that Freud embodied….’

(Friedman 1981:97)

In a variety of ways suited to his religious, literary, mythical, occult, political and existential perspectives, Paniker emerges from the paralysis of absolute despair to an active search for meaning. The search for order and pattern begins in its own negation, in the overwhelming sense of disorder and fragmentation caused by the modern materialist world.

And here they come,

come to buy and come to sell;

themselves they buy and themselves they sell,

in human souls they deal! (Kurukshetram -2000 270).

The work begins with the blind king, Dhritharashtra’s request to Sanjaya:

Tell me Sanjaya. what my sons and the sons of Pandu did,

When they gathered on the sacred fields of Kurukshetra

Eager for battle (Kurukshetram -2000 270).

– a question with which the Bhagavad-Gita, the Song Divine begins. The epigraph with the memory it evokes of a dharma, the self which is the site of the great human struggle for meaning and the immensity of the Mahabharata that acts as a foreground of the struggle, echoes the helplessness and the powerlessness of man in the face of the mighty forces that shape his destiny. The deep disquiet of the poet and his inclusion of a number of romantic devices — the dream, the memory and the song as well as the stock romantic images — the cloud, sunset and the star to record his experience of the ennui and violence of the modern world combine to add to the potency and the strength of ‘Kurukshetram’ for it examines the validity of a romantic world view. ‘The poem is more remarkable for its anguished response to the present predicament than for the solution it offers,’ says Krishna Chaithanya (Kurukshetram -2000: 270).

Like the Wasteland, `Kurukshetram’ is also a quest poem, something that a close reading of the poem will make apparent. Moreover it is a maze through which the reader has to chart her way with the help of the Ariadne’s thread that the poet reluctantly holds out. The first section of the poem bewails the ruthless commercialisation of life and the loss of faith that the poet suffers but is followed by positive images of the little girls and the fervor and the warmth of the sun at noon.

When the sun at break of day

sheds his gentle golden rays

on the world beneath,

with their double braid of lovely hair

and smiling faces framed in shawls,

the little girl runs fast… (Kurukshetram —2000 272)

The second section begins with a reversal of the order of the images with which the first section ends. From an interrogation of the source of grief-

Rose of my dream

Why do you wear a fevered look?

Singer of my vision

Why do you droop and wilt (Kurukshetram -2000 274).

the poet moves on to the image of the star that offers him strength and guidance t of the labyrinth of both ‘our daily grind’ of the first section and that of ms fleeing at the mercy of demented Time and Space’- an image prominent the second section. He finds that he shares much of the star’s anger, my soul too does rage like a star caught in the grip of the nuclear dance (Kurukshetram -2000 274).

The second section is a maze of claustrophobic images of entrapment enclosures — the shut and locked door, the curtained window, privacy of closed chambers, convent walls, fortress, cage, the bosom of the family and circumambient void.

The images of entrapment in the second section surface briefly in the third section, in the phrase ‘memories of cast iron’ but gives way to contemplation. The third section discusses the impossibility of distinguishing the right and the wrong in the present age. This places the present at odds with the age of heroes Rama or Arjuna.

Arjuna heard the Gita;

but that Arjuna I am not.

In the earthly sphere

in the similitude of a nest of pain

I greet the living hour…. (Kurukshetram -2000 276).

Man needs to find a solution for his complex problems all by himself. The answers are not the same ones that Arjuna found for the problems are not the same. The poet can be Arjuna’s true inheritor only after he has embarked on a quest to find a solution to his problems. In the fourth section, the poet looks clearly at life that carries the dualities of light and dark, dream and reality, good and bad — all functioning like the twin shutters of a door. Only death can close the shutters. Dreams create awareness of the complexity of life and it is the dream that leads us on. When one dream fades, another dream rises. Yet dreams must he rooted in reality. The section ends with a resolve:

Here at cross roads

as time lengthens

let us watch and witness

like wayfarers

this fabric of life

so like a dream

erected by Time .. (Kurukshetram -2000 279. 80).

It is significant that the images with which the poem ends are those of the wayfarer/traveler/ quester of meaning. waiting at crossroads. The last section of the poem is an attempt to understand the dream that led him on. If dreams match reality, the dream would become redundant. Then the babe begotten by the dream, that is the poem, would act as a lodestar to the young who dream. The divine dream is itself hidden by ideologies. It is not necessary to meditate under a Bodhi tree to be the Buddha or sing the song of Mount Cal very to be Christ. On the contrary, it is necessary to follow the bloody paths of life to attain one’s particular salvation. The quest for meaning and expression might be over but the dream and creativity is not:

If indeed for a rare moment

we could all just humans be…

If only we could redeem

the visions that hurtle

through our dreaming soul… (Kurukshetram -2000 282).

2. In Quest of Fulfillment: Mythic Explorations

Paniker’s treatment of myth is characterised by a rejection of allegorical and didactic attitudes, complexity of meaning and diversity of suggestiveness. Myths run implicitly through a number of his poems. The most obvious presentation of myths is in the two poems Pururavas’ and The Song of the Cowherdess’ and in the two dance dramas that Paniker wrote — Parvathi’ and `Urvashi.’ The myth is merely retold with no conspicuous difference in Parvathi.”Pururavas’ is lyrical and romantic and is a quest of beauty and creativity, while `Urvashi’ is a quest of immortality and love. Different in tone and treatment of the myth is the poem ‘The Song of the Cowherdess’ where the poet, in the voice of Krishna addresses his beloved Gopika.

The tale of Pururavas and Urvashi link the first two volumes of Paniker’s poetic works. The poem `Pururavas’ (1959) is included in the first volume of his works from 1951 to 69. It is a love song written by a young Paniker shortly after “his momentous `Kurukshetram’. The myth of Urvashi who was turned into a : creeper when she entered Kumaravanam is invoked in the epigraph:

It is said that Urvashi rose, hidden as a creeper

Clinging to the slender nerve of memory… (My translation)

The quest in `Pururavas’ is the soul searching for fulfillment and like ‘Kurukshetram’ the poem is in five segments. Pururavas is like Prometheus, the bringer in Indian mythology. The poem begins with the dominant image of that burns life itself and the soul that perishes in the fire. The segment is led ‘Fire’. Pururavas is symptomatic of man who is forever fascinated by the man who playfully hides herself always out of reach like an impossible dream.

In the second segment, ‘The Creeper’, the poet exhorts the goddess of beauty to cling to the strength of his arm and raise herself. His plea to the goddess ages into a hymn and the change of tone is of great significance. He responds beauty as an auditory and sensual treat as the song of the cuckoo and the sensuous curves that had clung so sinuously to him and which awakens even in toes a deep memory. The marriage of rhythm and music of the lines with the picture that the lyrics perfect, creates an aesthetic emotion that is rich with sexual overtones, the energy of which flows into the next segment— ‘The Song’. the plea to the dream of love, the poem moves to a prayer to one’s own to immerse itself in a soulful song that sang of the silver clouds that spread ‘le at dusk, of the tiny flowers that soothed him at infancy and of the birds soothed him to sleep with their songs, seemingly oblivious to their melancholy intent only to offer solace to the poet. The self- sacrificing love of the mother pervades these lines. Memory in the poem proceeds from the present to st, from the state of the lover to that of the child — in the reverse order characteristic of memory.

The fourth segment entitled ‘Hermitage’ talks of the tiny hut fashioned in the yard of his home — a space sacred to the goddess of beauty. Home is undoubtedly life itself for the poet repeats the metaphor to make his concept clear. The segment is the quest of the poet to see and embrace the concept of beauty enshrined at the very heart of creativity. Yet the quest is both fruitless and impossible. The poet gives voice to the melancholy that is consequent on the realisation of the impossibility of fulfilling the desires and goes on to raise another monument for his memories, both sweet and bitter. The repetitiveness of the activity is echoed in the repetition of the lines,

O dream, steeped in the silver whiteness of forgetfulness

Sleep on…..

(My translation)

With this, the sustained thread of meaning that Pururavas uncoils is broken for the last segment is a prayer that functions as an epilogue.

The musical dance drama, ‘Urvashi’ is included in the second volume of Ayyappa Paniker’s collected works and was written between 1959 and 60 almost on the heels of the poem `Pururavas’. If the last segment of `Pururavas’ bewails the breaking of the thread of meaning, the thread of the tale itself is in the hands of the Gandharvas:

The remaining ones are the Gandharvas

The thread of the story is in their hands.

(The Gandharvas enter from both sides with a thread

in their hands, gesture to the audience that they will be

back later, and after saluting the audience, leave the stage)

(Days and Nights: 43)

The quest in the dance drama is a quest for love that is true immortality. `Urvashi’ is a one act play of just three scenes. The first scene functions as a prologue, introducing the main characters in the play and proceeds to exposition, introducing us to the Mahamuni Narayana who is meditating and on a quest of the supreme knowledge and the secret of God head itself. If Tururava’s is a quest for beauty incarnate which does not manifest itself, `Urvashi’ presents the goddess of beauty:

Like the very seed of fancy,

Like the joy absolute arising from

The golden dream

That brings the message of the king of gods,

Like the bow, strung by the pride of the god of love,

Looking for the arrow,

The arrow of sensual passion,

Comes the eternal maid Urvashi,

The lady unfolding the pride of paradise…

(Days and Nights 45).

The play begins with Urvashi’s quick and unconsidered attraction for the sage and her attempted seduction of the ascetic that results in a curse that she is born on earth in human form. She declares however that his curse is a boon for she was tired of heaven and the daily chore of dance. The second scene begins with the abduction of Urvashi by the demon Keshi and her rescue by Pururavas in a sword fight in which Keshi is defeated decisively. The beauty Of Nandana is the backdrop of the love scene for both Urvashi and Pururavas smitten by Kaama. The lovers are to meet on the banks of the River Ganga on following full moon night. The duo lose themselves in sensual love. Thedance of the seasons is followed by the lover’s perception:

Pururavas: When the body and soul unite,

It is joy that awakes.

Urvashi: When the lord of the land and Urvashi are


It is joy that awakes…

(Days and Nights 56).

They are convinced that never had two people loved each other as they d and that never would two people ever love as they had done. The joy is ort lived for the Gandharvas arrive and the vow that Pururavas had made is ken for unthinkingly he pushes her when she restrains him and forgets his to of undress in angry response to the Gandharvas’ exhortation to fight. h the loss of Urvashi, Pururavas feels that he has lost truth, beauty and happiness too. His despair and grief arouses Urvashi’s compassion which results the delivery of her ‘Gita’ that centers on the ultimate perception that only love that is free from desire is true immortality. The play ends with Pururavas’ resolve embark on his quest:

This grief will not be useless for me,

Since death and separation are my wealth

Let me now go by this path to claim

The seed of happiness that has no end…

(Days and Nights 60-61).

The play ends as it begins with the same meditation. Only the person who is meditating is different. It is not Narayana Muni but Pururavas who contemplates on similar lines. The play presents four different aspects of Puravas — the lover, the warrior, the estranged lover and the mendicant/the quester of true love that is eternal.

The quest of fulfillment is even more central in the musical dance drama entitled ‘Shiva Parvathi’ that is included in the first volume of his poems 1951 — 69. It has not been translated into English, A one act play in seven scenes, the play is based on the events of the Kumarasambhavam, the epic that Kalidasa penned. The play begins with a dialogue between Mena and her husband Himavaan in which they talk of the beauty of their abode and their equally beautiful daughter, Parvathi. The Sage Narada, who arrives then, is welcomed traditionally by Parvathi and her hand-maidens. Parvathi is blessed by the sage who prophecies that she would be the bride of Hara himself who would cede for her half his body.

The second scene reveals Indra who is plagued by the demon Tharaka and who has sought the refuge of Brahma. Brahma tells Indra and the other gods that only he who is born of the union of Shiva and Parvathi can destroy the evil demon. In the third scene, Indra meets the God of Love, Kaama and tells him of his predicament. He is successful in eliciting Kaama’s support. The fourth scene falls into two clear cut divisions. In the first section is the picture of Kaama who along with his consort Rethi and Vasantha, the God of Spring creates an ambience of love and sensuality, They see Shiva as an ascetic and the sight so unnerves Kaama that he unconsciously lets fall his bow and arrows, His courage and enthusiasm returns when he sees the lovely Parvathi who along with two wood spirits had come to offer homage and to tend Shiva. Kaama chooses the moment that Parvathi garlands Shiva to loosen his arrow. For a second Shiva’s penance is broken when he stares, smitten at Parvathi. Then in anger his third eye seeks out Kaama to turn him to ashes. The scene ends with the bereaved Rethi grieving for her husband. She is consoled by the voice off stage saying that the day Uma weds Shiva, she would be reunited with her husband.

The fifth scene tells us of Parvathi’s penance and Shiva’s final capitulation while the sixth celebrates the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi. The last section is the dance of Shiva and Parvathi, the dance of creation, the birth of a new order. Like the dance drama `Urvashi’, the play is one that embodies the quest of love that is true and pure and which ultimately can make a slave of God or Shiva himself, The dance dramas are noted for their simple and communicative style with no new departures from the myths as they are presented in Puranic texts, In the interview with Kavalam Narayana Paniker that we carry in this issue, he says that the dance dramas that Paniker had written were staged.

Clifford Endress has the following comment to make on ‘The Song of the Cowherdess’:

In an extraordinary revelation of himself, Krishna recounts his boyhood adventures, his youthful awakening of desire, his affection for his beloved, his dedication to the heroic deeds of his manhood, and his yearning ‘to wonder and merge in the night here/ that is beyond the light and sight of the day…’ (in the sacred navel of our dreams 88).

The poem is a quest of the purest love that religion extols, the love of the Sod and his worshipper. While this is the theme of ‘Shiva Parvathi’, the poem plores Vaishnavite variation of the union of the human and the divine. The poet ps the reader to understand the gopika as ‘the nectar of moist remembrance’, ‘a frozen song’ and as ‘loveliness merged in the pain’ of Krishna’s forgetfulness. picture of the lonely gopika, lost in contemplation of Krishna, oblivious to fact that she had not heard the call of the flute is an image that is steeped in Bhakti tradition. Krishna longs to be held by her and wants to share the garland wild flowers ‘which is a gift of the bride of spring’. He longs to see her smile so gently like the rainbow swaying in the tears…’ He is aware that life in davan follows a set pattern and the one reality is that of the parting

I understand that these are

but memories today and I understand this too, that we

have to part

when the time for parting comes… (Days and Nights : 211)

History and legend await Krishna at Mathura and Dwaraka. In a few evocative lines, Paniker moves through the death of Kamsa, the city of Dwaraka throbbing inside the sea, the grotesque Jarasandha who awaited salvation, the tears and prayers of Draupadi and the rhythm of the Bhagavad-Gita itself. His understanding of the gopika is greater than her understanding of herself. The eternal angst of the village born who finds himself in the violence of the city is by Krishna Himself. The poem closes with Krishna’s depiction of the fate that eventually awaited man — the destruction of the human race. Yet He is sure of what will survive:

there will last for long, O sweetheart, the wounded refrain of

your unfinished song of love, when I understand you as the earth, the nurse,

the inn which is the destination all men should reach in the end and as a holy hymn.’ (Days and Nights 213).

The quest of what endures and the ultimate fulfillment is the main thrust Song of the Cowherdess’. Even God needs human devotion for survival:

O Cowherdess, without you, without your penance and devotion

this black Krishna would be mere charcoal,

this I realise again and again. (Days and Nights 213)

3. In Quest of the Lighter Side of Life

Myth could also be a source of humour and even problematic in Paniker’s oeuvre. The poem entitled `Kishkindha’ is a case in point. The poem is a short one of seven lines only:





Huyi Sugriva

Huyi Hanuman

Huyi Kishkindha (Days and Nights 74).

The problem of `Kishkindha’ is to do with its obscurity and because of the bond it affects with myth and nonsense. The two words that are problematic are the words `Kisukisu’ and that have no lexical meaning in Malayalam. Faced with the puzzle that `Kishkindha posed, the Malayalam critic, B. Unnikrishnan asks, Is this a poem? If so. what makes it a poem?’ ( Ayyappa Paniker: Vyakthiyum Kavithayum 130). He attempts to deconstruct the poem and examines the words ‘kisukisu’ and ‘huyi’ as signifiers without a signified. I would read the poem as one in which Paniker indulges in playfulness and word play, his favourite games. He refuses playfully to fulfill the reader’s expectation that he would follow the mythic implications of the word `Kishkindha’ that he invokes and leaves the suggestions open to the reader himself to create a poem of his own.

Apart from `Kishkindha’, Paniker has to his credit a number of humourous poems. However critical opinion on his humourous verse is sharply divided. In `Kaleidoscopic Perceptions: An Outsider’s Reading of Ayyappa Paniker’s Translated Poetry’, John Perry strongly differs from Sachitanandan’s evaluation of Paniker as a true humourist in the vein of the legendary humourists like Tholan and Kunjan Nambiar. Perry’s view is that, ‘the puns, parodies, pastiches, witty ripostes (are) occasional rather than manic, but usually decreasing rather than increasing the ironic bite’ (in the sacred navel of our dreams 114). Irony however can be read as a manifestation of the lighter side of the expression of experience. In fact, a close reading of Paniker’s poems reveals that he uses devices ranging from wit and humour to satire and irony even nonsense to present the lighter side of life.

`Indan’, like `Kishkindha’ is a poem that repeats a number of lines but hick is focused on the meaninglessness of actions that are repeated. The ‘mud’ in the poem that Uncle Indan is desperately trying to wipe becomes a metaphor because of the repetition of the verb ‘wipe.’ It is the action that is the source of Uncle Indan’s identity for he is unaware of the absurdity of his action:

One day Uncle Indan wiped the dirt

off his right foot with the left foot

then off the left foot with the right foot

then off his right foot with the left foot

then off the left foot with the right foot off

the right with the left

off the left with the right

off the… ( Days and Nights 78).

Very different in tone is his poem Panchatantra’ a work that imitates in tone the great classic with a plethora of advice to the ingénue. The poem begins with negatives:

do not tread on this grass

do not pluck this flower

do not play on this reed

do not spit in the yard

do not enter this room

do not walk around with your dhoti tucked up… ( Days and Nights 88).

It goes on to portray with unmatched with the pseudo secularism that is rife in India

do not ask about caste

do not talk about caste

but do not do anything forgetting our caste. (Days and Nights 89).

The poem shifts to positives in the final stanza but they are as sharp as negatives that the poet uses:

choose to be born in a worthy family

make a name in the street corner

get something in return for your back bone

be the beloved of millions by crossing the floor

take off underclothes to change affiliation

go up the MLA stairs

come down as an ex- minister

grow a fig tree where the tail should have been

stand in the shade and bask in the breeze

but do not try to blush, please;

the patient Earth will put up with all else

(Days and Nights 89).

The poem entitled ‘Theft,’ the second poem in the cluster ‘Cartoon Poems’ like ‘Panchatantra’ is as witty as it is reflective of contemporary reality yet has a touch of compassion for the thief questions the epithet that he had been given. To the accusation that he had stolen clothes, chicken and the cow, he replies that he had stolen clothes to protect their sense of shame and the chicken to eat it. The cow provided him with milk:

My doctor, please note, hasn’t said no

to fried chicken or cow’s milk. ( Days and Nights 117)

The poem ends with the thief locating the problem of thievery on the laws themselves It is the fault of your laws

It is the fault of your laws,

Change you then your laws,

I say lest your laws should change you! ( Days and Nights 117)

The first poem of ‘Cartoon Poems ‘The Cockroach’ is more ironic than the second carrying as it does two different perspectives, the angle of the naïve man shocked by the orgy of eating — the cockroach who ate the cat, which used to eat the rat, the rat which is persuaded to eat the cat and who persuades the cockroach to eat it and the cockroach who ate the rat as well as the cat — and the informed perspective of the seeing and experiencing narrator of the poem. Both the irony of the ingénue and the impersonal irony of the narrator shifts to the watcher in the gloom, the reader, who is thrust in the lime light:

Is the rationalist, watching in gloom

The cockroach tail, a man?

Is that man a rationalist? ( Days and Nights 116).

The ironic presentation of ingénue is repeated in `Thankachan’, who is afraid of everything that happens to him from the birth experience, rain and women to fear of himself and fear of fear itself. The poem is linked to the last poem of the cluster, which is another pen picture, that of ‘Rosily,’ the daughter of Muthuveli Papacahan. The irony is however aimed at Muthuveli Papacahan who is the active presence in the poem, while Rosily is the ghostly presence in at background being wedded, bedded and confined while around her bubbled lad foamed the alcohol her father consumed and which caused her to fret and “tune. The poem ‘The Donkey,’ included in the first volume of poems in ‘Malayalam and which has not been translated also carries an ironic presentation At the alcoholic who tries to acquire Dutch courage on the eve of his wedding and who jumps off a bridge.

Ayyappa Paniker’s irony is not just directed at others, he directs it at self too. Self disparaging irony is nowhere better expressed than in his poem, ‘ Fear of the Enemy’, where he identifies himself as the enemy.

I had an enemy called Ayyappa Paniker.

At times he used to stare at me and frighten me.

When I stared back at him,

he might have felt frightened too.

Some day or other he is likely to come back.

Since he left, I have been depressed

for want of someone to frighten.

Why should I frighten anyone

That doesn’t frighten me?’ (Days and Nights 174)

In the poem ‘O God, I clasp my hands’, the poet indulges in a spot of y too for the poem is linked to the well known prayer still sung in various cols of Kerala exhorting God to look after the innocent ‘me’. Paniker’s poems as follows:

Hear me, O God, I clasp my hands before you,

I am a bore but look after me

Let me be strong enough to utter falsehoods

Let me find ways to make money through unfair means…

(My translation)

The substitution of the word ‘bore’ for innocent and the prayers that the innocent/ the bore intone is a hilarious parody of the hymn.

In the poem ‘Song of Myself’ (Njanapaana), the poet in disparaging himself, satirises the monstrous ego that people have. The poet indulges in a little lay with the title, ‘njan’ which in Malayalam indicates just ‘I’ but which is hone of `jnana’ or knowledge. Another poem ‘The Song of Wisdom’ of the Bhakti school is well known to all Malayalis. The theme cannot be more different. The megalomaniac who is presented has no link with the poet’s self:

Because I remain quiet at home,

The earth still goes on its rounds;

Because I snore lying in bed,

The solar systems shine;

Because I chew and munch and spit,

Time is on the move;

Because I care for the girl I married,

Birth and life and death do merge…. (Days and Nights 110).

As abhorrent to the poet as the megalomaniac is the opportunist. The fly In ‘The Fly’ is adaptable enough for it blesses its short stay in the elephant’s trunk and the fact that it had lost its sense of smell. The poet is noncommittal but the critics discern in the poem a satiric disapproval of the opportunism of the fly rather than an approbation of its optimism.

More satiric are the ‘Maharaja Tales’, which like ‘Cartoon Poems’ is a cluster of six poems. Except for the fifth poem, ‘The Maharaja’ and the Toad, which appear in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker; all the other poems have been translated in Days and Nights. The ‘Maharaja Tales’ are as open ended as a Sufi teaching story that allows the reader to draw his own conclusions. They are also reminiscent of the North Indian parables ofAndher Nagar’ and its king, Chowpatt Raja. The first of the poems, entitled ‘The Maharaja’s Diarrhea’ is about the maharaja’s illness, which the poet has no difficulty in associating with his gluttony. He does not go to the physician or take the medicine that the physician prescribes after examining his messenger. He asks the minister to take the medicine:

By that time on account of his royal meal

The maharaja had become immortal (Days and Nights 104).

The fourth poem in the cluster also has the same theme of appointing deputies. Entitled ‘The maharaja’s wedding’, the poem depicts the foolishness of the king who asks the minister to represent him in the queen’s bed chamber `since even birds and beasts repeatedly confirm that the greatest hurdle was the first night’ (Days and Nights 107). In the garden to which he retired he noticed the cooing birds and courting ants and blushed shyly. He remembers the broken-tailed lizard, the handle-broken ladle and the rod-broken umbrella and is grateful that the trusted minister is his proxy. He missed his shadow for of course the shadow, the minister was in the women’s quarters. On the minister’s assurance that ‘all obstacles were now removed’, the maharaja performed ablutions in the garden pond and marched in triumph to the palace. The tale of the maharaja is recorded by the court poet.

In the second poem, ‘The lesson the spider learnt from the maharaja’, the poet inverts the tale of Robert Bruce and the spider for it is the spider that learns from the king of endless effort. The third poem, The prince’s tail’ is what is irresistible to the poet — the tale of the tail. The prince born in the ancient, royal family was a throwback. The raja, the queen and the minister were all set:

Suffice it not to say that the sight of the prince’s one-inch long

Stump of a tail put the maharaja also

Into a meditation on the evolution of the species.

(Days and Nights 105)

The minister proposed a remedy. All were made to wear tail stumps. n it became the rage. A tail dance was introduced, the tail was worshipped, mars on the methodology of tail worship were organised, virgins dreamt of tail and even more absurdly.

Someone added a story in the puranas about how at a crossroads

of history man had lost his tail.

Prophets, who were delighted to hear the celestial voice

Proclaiming that the miserable epoch had ended

Propagated it.

The entire country was immersed in bliss. ( Days and Nights 106).

Only the prince was unhappy for he was the only one who suffered the siness of the tail.

The fifth tale of the maharaja and the toad is about the toad that squats on maharaja’s head. The king tells the minister, who in turn tells the commander of the army about the danger of the toad entering the royal head. The commander to use the weapons of the army and crushed the toad along with the crown on which it had dared to sit on and the head of the monarch that was under it. The monarch has the final word:

the Maharaja

declared with no trace of ambiguity: ‘See what

happens when a toad has the temerity to confront

a Maharaja. (Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 70).

The last of the Maharaja poems is called ‘The Maharaja’s Education’ and reveals the Maharaja’s lack of education for he is ‘familiar with almost all the letters of the alphabet’ and is adept enough to draw ‘something like the first of his name’. He is therefore only too glad to agree with the equally ‘educated’ minister that something ought to be done about the alphabet.

Thus the academy had to agree to the reduction of the

total number of letters in the alphabet

(Days and Nights 109)

As the maharaja felt sleepy whenever he looked at a book or a document, he was all set to research the nexus between sleep and study.

He had the greatest skill to go to sleep at the mere sight of letters.

Only in his bedroom he used to take his books.

(Days and Nights 109)

The poem entitled ‘The horns of a horse’ is linked to the maharaja tales in a satisfactory way for the poet announces his intention to tell a story:

I will tell you a story, will tell you a story;

There is a story within a story, an inside story

I will tell you that: let every one stay.

The listeners often call the tales empty ones and the poet is resolved seek out an ideal audience:

…perhaps not to withered flowers

But to buds yet to awaken

Must I tell my stories

( Days and Nights 145).

A number of poems like ‘Itch’ are rich with rollicking humour. The short poem was often in included in a number of presentations that Ayyappa Paniker made in various poets’ meets.

the first of my itches

came to squat on my right knee,

the last of my itches

leaned on my left knee,

shall we not scratch, O my people,

shall we not scratch?

some say that the world was born

of a divine itch;

others say the lord himself

was born of an itch:

the disputationists!

all I know is this:

the pleasure of scratching an itch-

all else may be illusion

this is truth eternal.

( Days and Nights 64)

4. In Quest of the Heart-lines of the West: Passages to America and Europe

Paniker takes up another kind of itch in poems like ‘Passage to America,’ ‘Days, Nights’ and ‘Here Life’. This is the itch to travel for the poet is bitten by the travel bug. The travels that the poet undertakes are not just journeys but attempts to deal with the experience both from the, preparations before the actual journey and a series of diary entries that attempt to capture the essence of the living experience. The first cluster to be looked at is of course ‘Passage to America’ a cluster of seven poems. The first one is entitled ‘The festival’. In contrast to the temple festival that the poet describes in ‘Kuttanaadan Drishyanagal’,

Oh yes, there are elephants,

Four or five of them, and festoons and flags,

And quite a crowd to see all these, and of course,

The lord too is there who doesn’t make a stir

When the Vedas are chanted. (Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 12)

death predominates the feast of Christmas and instead of the sleeping, innocent villager is the figure of the boy returning from the rally and the girl going to the grocer’s. Instead of the drumbeats, the colour and the sleepiness that hang over village festival, there is the dark, brooding presence of death. The poem introduces the inherent dualities that underscore the cluster poems — both ‘Passage to America’ and ‘Days and Nights’. The contrast between the difficulty to live and the ease of death is the note on which ‘The festival’ ends:

and it is easy enough to die in these circumstances

but think of the horror and the glory of having to live.

(Days and Nights 81)

The dualities in the second poem, ‘My sitar, my guitar’ is between the east and the west, between the sitar and the guitar, between the dizzying rise to sensual heights `to gather star-lust’ and the fall ‘like flakes of feathered snow sprinkled with star dust’. In the third poem, ‘In search of roses’, the poet wakes to the realisation that contrast and dualities rather than sameness is necessary in his quest to understand the alien culture of America:

having learnt

in a short life time

that chalk doesn’t write on chalk

he turned

to look

for sunflowers

in beds

of roses ( Days and Nights 82).

The fourth poem ‘The silver belle’ is another poem of contrast and dualities. The silver belle that is ‘twice penetrated is suspended in the cerulean … sea of tranquility’ but below her is disturbance, stress and darkness. Dualities of light and darkness, tranquility and disturbance, bashfulness and (metallic) aggressiveness, the (softness) of the dream and the (hardness) of the metal, the state of being suspended and the state of being anchored suggest the binary polarities of the masculine and the feminine. The fifth poem is entitled ‘Poetry reading’. K. Satchidananadan in Ayyappa Paniker’s Poetry: An After word’ says that the poem is dedicated to Snyder (in the sacred navel of our dreams 102) who is engaged in the serious business of reciting his poetry ‘chewing the afternoon like his moustache’. The dream world of the poem with. the mystery and enchantment of words forming sutras and mantras is a contrast to the starkness of the mundane world of reality with a sleeping girl, a dog and the smell of sweat.

The focus of the sixth poem is on the parting rather than the journey, though its title is ‘Journey’:

How shall we part then

Write an autograph

and put a period after it

Take a long walk

and sigh with the wind

Recite a few verses

and smile at the end

Perhaps a last smutty story

to leave a scratch on the memory… (Days and Nights 84 -5).

In the final poem of the cluster, entitled ‘America’, the walk of parting is transformed into the walk of meeting:

it’s as if I suddenly meet you on the way

when I go for my usual walk in the evening

the earth that begins at your feet

seems to end in mine

the air you breathe out

enters my lungs

and the light that escapes from your eyes

focuses on mine… ( Days and Nights 85).

In the second stanza the poet becomes a cartographer as well as a palmist, identifying the Mississippi as the lifeline and St. Lawrence as the head line of America. New England is the Mount of Jupiter, while Florida is the Mount of Venus. The Californian beach shimmers in the Mount of the Moon. Yet his quest in search of America’s heart line is fruitless:

but America

where has vanished your heart line

has some test explosion

sucked it underground

The poet wonders if

the fission and the fusion

your scientists envision

offer your palmist nothing but confusion

sailing back from mescaline to marijuana…

He finally wakes to the realisation

there never was such a line

in this ancient newborn land… ( Days and Nights 86).

What disgusts and disillusions the poet are the materialism and the consumer culture of America with its colour TV sets, movies and rock bands. Promiscuity is rife as is a shallowness of life that is appalling.

The next cluster of poems that continue the quest in search of the American heart line is the twenty one poems collectively called ‘Days, Nights’. Written in twenty six days between September 4 and November 9, 1969, they are bound yet separate for each poem stands by itself but is at the same time linked to the rest of the cluster. P. K. Rajashekharan aptly calls it a ‘symphony’. (Ayyappa Paniker: Vyakthiyum Kaviyum 122). The cluster poems continue the theme of contrast and polarities that ‘Passage to America’ began and this acts as a link. The duality that informs these poems as Paniker searches for the American heart line is evident in the title, which announces the polarity of days and nights. Yet the central image in the cluster poems is the image of Sandhya or the twilight. Sandhya signifies dusk or twilight but it also stands for a proper noun, a common feminine name in India. In the footnote to the poem, Satchidananadan points it out. Apart from being the dusky lady in the cluster poems like the dark lady f Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sandhya is also the merging of the day and the night, ight and dark and even metaphorically, the east and the west.

The lines carrying the central idea of the first poem of the cluster form e epigraph of this paper. The dualities of night and day, darkness and dusk, life and death that inform the rest of the cluster surface in the very first poem. The second poem written on September 5, describes the meeting with red Indians. Dualities of past and present. Whites and Red begin to co exist:

Two worlds, two times, two

Islands of grief, two lamps, two

Wingless birds, two colours: they

Bleed in this, today’s daylight! (Days and Nights 20)

The fourth poem in the cluster expresses the problem of the farmer to fit into an industrial culture. The poet has failed to find the heart line of the land for he has irreconcilable differences with America:

I don’t believe in this

Celebration of triumph.

I detest success.

Press failure close.

This culture defeats

All the values I cherish

Whatever I hate Succeeds here… (Days and Nights 21).

The quest of the heart line of America is over by the fourth poem of the cluster. The poet takes up the quest of the heart or love in America, which is equally disappointing. It is in the fifth poem written in September 29 that the poet first mentions Sandhya, the one image that is predominant in the cluster. In the seventh poem, the poet is unsure if she is shade or light and wants her to remain twilight forever:

please remain in shadow

Not growing into night

Not paling into day:

To me you are twilight, Sandhya, forever (Days and Nights 24).

In the ninth poem written from October 10 — 15, the longest poem in the cluster, Sandhya comes alive for she is both life and death, both the mother of night and the beloved of death. She is in quest of the hells and the heavens of the poet. In turn he wonders if she is ‘nectar, poison or grief. The poet is smitten by her for he loses sleep. When she does not turn up:

Today there is a funeral in my heart.

The sky waited for you

Knowing well you won’t come.. (Days and Nights 27).

The estrangement between them is complete for the poet struggles with his grief and his resolve not to show any evidence of it He demands a monument of his defeat from Sandhya:

if ever a sun that does not burn,

a moon that does not pale,

and a star that does not tremble comes

if ever you see a sea

that does not roar,

a mountain that does not freeze,

a tree no wind can shake—

there erect for me,

Sandhya, the monument of my defeat. (Days and Nights 28).

He does not want her to meet him again. He is sure that

Dead too, dead and burnt out,

are the candles you lit, Sandhya!

There are no more lamps,

no more lights; don’t bring

light again to me!

Vanish, O night scented Sandhya. . . (Days and Nights 29).

The poem ends with the consciousness:

The life you gave,

and the death you gave,

both you carry away, O Sandhya!

This is the end, this is the end,

this is the final journey,

this is the end, the end… (Days and Nights 29).

If the ninth poem ends with the ending, the next poem in the cluster with the beginning – the initial hug, then the kiss and then the churning Milky Sea’. Words fail the poet,

May be there are things on earth

that one can never properly tell… (Days and Nights 30).

The quest of the heart is over with the return to the beginning. By way of ion of the theme, the poet, in poem fourteen of the cluster, addresses his

Heart, are you reluctant

Or bored with your beating?

Tell me, do you forget

Your old gallop and gaiety? (Days and Nights 35).

The reassurance that his heart gives him is that it would go as well as it can, convincing the poet that it is his closest friend. In the last poem of the cluster, the poet strolls in the autumnal twilight with Sandhya but the maples in golden hue and the dance of the present evokes in the poet only memories of his heritage:

`Dear Sandhya,’ I said .

‘In India Time is an endless flow.

As the Meru we saw today and the Ganga

Together enact the play of life

Only men forgot the joy of life,

Splitting the twilight apart

Into day and night, turning into lies

The harmonious joys of human life.

The four stages of life lie

In four thousand fragments now.

May be the blessed ones of posterity

May retrieve the lost times…

(Days and Nights 41).

The passage to East Europe is marked by a series of thirteen poems that Paniker wrote between 1975 and 79. It lacks the involvement, the passion, the grief, the disillusion and dissatisfaction that are evident in the American poems. The predominance of the mellow mood and the gentle spirit make the poems as gentle as the quietly flowing Volga, as steadfast as Elbrus and as soothing to the spirit. What comes across is the warmth and the strength of a number of East European people the poet met during his sojourn there. The poems all go by the name of a city and are all dedicated, with one exception to a person the poet met there. The second poem is addressed to save and lists a number of places in it neighbourhood but as

clouds gather over the hills from centuries B. C.

the sheep and the shepherds bleat no more

and the map drops on the floor like a ruffled napkin.

(Days and Nights 127)

In the very first poem titled ‘Beograd’ the poet watches the clothes line: with the washing hung up to dry and is convinced:

Here is light, warmth, love.

Here is life.

(Days and Nights 126)

In the poem ‘Skopje’, addressed to the Yugoslavian writer, Lilyana, the poet feels the ‘double breasted Balkans’ melting at his warm touch an image that follows on the heel of Lilyana’s statement that her village had its roots in her. In ‘Bucharesti One’, the poet tells Nina Cassian, the Russian poet that the artist ‘pretends to be asleep even when he sleeps’ and that he ‘pretends to be awake although awake’ (Days and Nights 129,30). `Bucharesti Two’ addressed to the Rumanian poet, Gabriella Melinscu begins with the poet chivalrously presenting a flower to the flower girl to cheer her up. It ends as it begins:

…in every home on this crumbling earth

Held together by diaphanous dreams

We asserted our life in terms of love… (Days and Nights 131).

The Rumanian town of Tirigoviste, which is perched between the rivers of the past and the future is exhorted to

rise you bird of prosperity

on the wings of poetry and steel

fusing body with spirit

your poetry shining like steel

your steel strong like poetry…

(Days and Nights 131).

The seventh poem of the cluster called ‘Iasi’, a town in Rumania, is addressed to a student of architecture, Mircea and his lady love, Elena. The poem stands out in the cluster for it is a ballad and reads like a fairy tale encoding a tale of love for the lovers to whom it is dedicated. Lena, the heroine is the daughter of a farmer — physician of Moldova. A gypsy who came from India foretells that she would be the wife of a prince. Her father begins to hoard a dowry fit for a prince. This angers Lena for,

I don’t want to marry no prince, I don’t like to marry no prince

I will marry a builder, a builder of monasteries

A builder of museum and monasteries.

(Days and Nights 132)

The father prays and burns many a candle. Doubts begin to assail him for the gypsy could have been mistaken. Overhearing her parents worry about this, Lena begins to laugh. She walks in the garden, throwing up a plum, which is caught by a parrot who claims that he is no parrot. If she wanted to know who he was, she should tell him the reason for her laughter. Lena reveals that she laughed for she did not want to marry a prince. Her father had hoarded a lot of wealth and she would get the dowry ‘with no prince to worry me’. (Days and Nights 133) The parrot reveals that he is the prince of Moldova and that he had built many museums and monasteries. The ballad ends like the fairy tale in marriage and a ‘happily ever after’. The four golden crosses that mark the graves of the farmer — physician and his wife, the prince of Moldova and little Lena provide the realistic touch.

The next poem, ‘Constanza’, a Rumanian town, is addressed to Aurel Dragos, a famous Rumanian novelist and takes up again the theme of love. The poem begins with the statement that there are many kinds of love. A tender poem, it suggests that it is man’s attitude that can generate love:

When you fall asleep under the quilt of complex memories

It is love

When you jump into a pool and splash water at your friends

It is love

When you prattle with a child and it smiles back at you

It is love

When you bite an apple and it leaves a stain on your teeth

It is love

When you part your hair with great care and leave it dishevelled

It is love

When you tell a stupid lie and own it up as a lie

It is love. (Days and Nights 134-35).

The ninth poem begins with the same abruptness of the eighth one:

All lands look the same from the air

Only he that looks deep down sees the difference

The colours and shapes that spell the character… (Days and Nights 135).

The poem ends with the poet’s gentle touch of love on the forehead of ‘Babushka Russia’ stroking her tousled grey hair.

The tenth poem, ‘Leningrad’ begins with the daughter’s letter to her father:

Dear Papa, I love you so much.’ (Days and Nights: 136).

The poem, like the eighth poem of the cluster, continues to explore various types of love, this time connected with literary men and their fictional constructs:

Is it love to drop one’s life like a broken brick

For a Lily Brik?

Is it love to cry for my sister, life

Or wail for Lara?

One day she disappeared and did not come back

One day, it was one day in the life of Ivan

A little wound and a drop of blood

Turned Pushkin into a speck of moist dust

The same dust received a Lermontov

And made him a hero of all time… (Days and Nights: 136).

The eleventh poem, entitled ‘Kiev’ is to do more with need than love and gins with the statement,

A man is always in need of a nurse

A woman is always in need of a doctor (Days and Nights 138).

The rest of the poem alternates the reasons why the man needs the nurse and the woman the doctor. He needs a nurse to put him to sleep, to stitch in a button, to get him a schnitzel and keep him warm, to buy him his dolls and pay the right price and to warn him of the dangers of dreams. The woman, on the other hand needs the doctor to cure her of a cold, to stop her sneeze, to stroke her chin and to soften the darkness of night into a sheet of foam.

The twelfth poem, `Pyatigorsk’ is rich with the poet’s memories of his other poetic ventures. There are references to his poem, ‘Hey Gagarin’:

Once I wrote about Gagarin, the space man

And felt that poets should rise as high as Gagarin…

(Days and Nights 139).

The maples and the autumn remind him of the last poem in the ‘Days, Nights’ cluster:

I remember an American fall a few years ago

When I became a bird at love’s insistence

And reflected on the Ganga and the Meru… (Days and Nights 139).

Love is fore grounded for the poet talks of his love lighting an oil wet with the light gleaming in her eyes:

Shine, shine forever light in love’s eyes

Till that light overflows the world

And reaches the Polestar and the Southern Cross…

(Days and Nights 139).

The last poem of the cluster, ‘Irkutsk’ focus on the union of man and e that result in the birth of poetry:

where nature and man refuse to part

To see what poetry will be born of their fusion… (Days and Nights 140).

His tears dry up for:

In the depths where the Angara is one with the Baikal

A myth is born today: a jewel for the fishes to play with,

As the morning star wakes up and beckons to the Polestar

And Orion turns his gaze across the Himalayan snows…

( Days and Nights 141).

The return to India is the note on which the poem ends for the quest for the heart line of Europe is accomplished successfully. This is consequent of the poet’s realisation in the twelfth poem that he had to move on:

From here one must move And keep moving, till everything moves, is shown And seen as moving…. ( Days and Nights 140).

5. In Quest of Death

In contrast to the life theme that is part of the title, ‘Here Life’, the theme of death undercuts many poems written by Paniker. In the 18th poem of ‘Days, Nights’, the poet realises that a moment is central to understanding eternity, immortality and time.

A moment: it splits apart

To reveal infinity

Everything flows into the infinity

One moment: Eternity. Immortality. Death. (Days and Nights 38).

Though the poet thinks that splitting the moment apart is an illusion, he is insightful enough to realise that acquiring immortality would be to ‘get out of time’

in the awakening of sleep

and the sleep of awakening…( Days and Nights 36).

The poet’s instinct tells him that to control time one has to take care of the second:

Take care of the second!

then you need not fear

night or day

life or death ( Days and Nights 32).

But at times, the clock’s hands ‘loses its command over time’ ( Days and Nights 26) and allows grey hair and old age to confer.

What do gray hair and old age

whisper to each other?

Let us crush this man,

choke him to death. ( Days and Nights 24).

Time in short, ‘waits with a burning pyre’ the symbol of death (Days and Nights 27).

The quest of death begins in Paniker’s poetry as early as 1953, when he first published a poem entitled ‘Death’. This is not the sonnet that was eventually published as ‘Death’ in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker. The poem of 28 lines has not been translated into English and was written on the 25th of August 1953. It was therefore written about the same time as ‘Kurukshetram’ and is one of the earliest poems on death that the poet has penned. Death is portrayed as a polite visitor, who sees fit to visit a sick man, who has been laid up for a long time. Initially the patient is afraid even to notice death who sits in a chair by his bedside. Death continues to sit there patiently and at length, the sick man asks him if he were indeed death. As the breeze retreats to stillness and death, the sick man prepares to leave,

Stepping out without bidding good bye

Even as my body looked at me greedy for life… (My translation).

The poem ‘Death’ that is included in Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker, is a sonnet and from being the polite visitor, death graduates to be a friend. The meeting with death that the poet had had convinced the poet that death was a friend. All his misgivings about death disappear:

and I who had thought of you as an enemy

Feel very close to you now.

Without you no life, no beauty, no love.

I had often been suffocated

Within the limits set by you;

But today, I perceive your goodness.

The suffocation your absence may cause

Frightens me now, my friend.

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 48).

The sonnet concludes with the insight that life, beauty and love have an existence only as the alter ego of death.

In 1967, the poet wrote another poem on death entitled, ‘Hymn to Death’. The significant presence in the poem is the autumnal night that is slow of pace and dusky of complexion. The poet confesses his ‘dull witted’ infatuation with death but invokes the night with the ‘sweetness’ of ‘tender betel lips’ to

Enfold me in your serpentine arms

Breathe into my ears

Your babble of love

Future beams like a sprite

And the moral of the morning…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 34).

Disillusion creeps in for

The holy ones are all gone

The holiness of the earth

Is a shallow legend…

Chains bind the heart and the spirit of the poet, chains that formerly bound his feet alone. The poet is sure that the venom of the earth would freeze if the cold autumn night gripped it fiercely and result in the return of by gone ages. Lust not love controls man and progress:

From one to two and then to three

The story of man has shown

An ordered progress;

Will it now come to an end? (Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 37)

The sense of the approaching end of the world surface in the poem as the image of the descending Kalki. The imagination of a possible apocalypse is continued in the image of the earth being uprooted by a flying saucer. The irony of man’s demand for light is heightened by the fact that he himself had put out the lights — a truth applicable even to Sri Rama. The poem is about the death of hope and of mankind itself. The poem ends with a supplication, Rama’s prayer for the return of the daughter of the earth, Sita:

For a time the king of the demons

turned into a devil and

performed the dance of death

in my heart; O Earth,

give me back my Sita,

endowed with the power of your womb…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 38).

Man needs the strength of the earth but he is unkind to her and by his actions grieves mother earth. The earth and her lamentation are central in ‘Beyond Death’, inspired by the Bhopal gas tragedy. The poet talks of the factory that blazed in the whirl of gas, killing in one breath.

Death flames all around

and the helpless bird

wings in circles…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 115).

If the sight is horrible, the sounds are worse for what is audible is the groan of the earth, groaning under the tragedy, groaning for the burning citizens and the legacy of pain, heightening to cries of lamentation and clotting into silence.

The first poem in the cluster ‘A Passage to America’ is a celebration of death as a festival: on the day of the feast death had its celebration…

( Days and Nights 80).

The repetition of the word ‘death’ in the stanza that follows heightens the nightmare of death:

death in the morning death in the evening

death in the cellar death in the alley

death in the highway the boy returning from the rally

death in the cornfield the girl going to the grocer’s

death in the valley and high on the mountain

death from pollution and the great disillusion

death in the mind, in the womb, in the cradle

death from belief and its comic relief…

( Days and Nights 80).

The poem ends with the conviction that it is easy to die but there is both horror and glory in having to live. In contrast to the festival of death, the poet in `Nights’ is convinced that nothing repeats itself:

No night is like any other night

Nights do not repeat themselves…

The poet laments the impossibility of repetition even as far as re birth is concerned:

If we could be born again

in the divine navel

of the dreams we embrace!

( Days and Nights 149)

Repetitiveness is taken up again by the poet in ‘Ash Ceremony’ a ritual performed five days after the death of a person by the Hindus. The first line starkly announces the death of a person and the people who gathered there to weep and to mourn him. According to the poet there were also those who thought of laughing. The silence after the cremation is followed by the receptions and the

the insurance claim, the death tax and the tax death,

partition, apportionment, the scuffles and the tussle,

seeing the bride to be, the swelling of the eyes, then again

wedding, breaking the golden pot of pride,

pregnancy and delivery …..

flying at thirty, settling down at forty,

nit picking at fifty, mumbling thereafter…

( Days and Nights 197).

The endless repetition of lives necessary in the journey to salvation is evoked in the poem.

Finally, death is also a theme that he deals with a humour that is typical. In the poem ‘Epitaph’ the poet writes an epitaph to himself, rich with inimitable humour:

Here lies the body of Mister Paniker

who at the end of his panicking days

agreed to lie still for a while.

It’s not known what happened to his soul

if indeed he ever had one.

He wasn’t quite unlike any of us when he lived:

his flesh to tell the truth often revolted

and upset his delicate sensibility.

Space he could never control to his liking;

his sense of time wasn’t strong either.

He had of course in his wallet many a theory;

the things he could touch however

told him a different story.

All his life he was patiently

learning how not to live at all.

Who knows perhaps

given another chance

he might do a better job than before…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 56).

The images of death continued to inspire Paniker’s later poetry, especially `Video Death’. Not just death but a simulation of death has also been dealt with by the poet. The poet talks evocatively of the simulation of death in the poem ‘Shavasanam’. The fading consciousness of the body mass and the gradual lightening is expressed as follows:

Like a mere sob,

a feeling,

a thin ray,

as silent stream of music,

no stream but a line,

the line melting into a dot,

benumbed in that dot,

in my inner soul lying motionless

danced eternity…

(Days and Nights 90).

6. In Quest of Roots and the Past

In the poem ‘Beyond Death’ the poet longs for the a million hands to wipe off the tears of the earth:

The hands of those

not vain about

the light of the day

nor insulting to

the dark of the night

The hands of those

that honour the past

of those that look

forward to the future.

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 119).

Paniker is one of those who honours the past, a man for whom the roots were important. He has always identified himself with the village and the simple life of the country side. In ‘Days, Nights’ and in ‘A Passage to America’ the poet makes it very evident that he identifies with the rural landscape and with the farmer. That is why he is unable to take to the urban way of life.

The rhythms and the music of his verse are tied up with the folk dances and dramas of his native Kuttanaad, an agricultural village of Alleppey in Kerala. In a cluster of seven poems collectively called ‘Kuttanaadan Drishyangal’ the poet tries to bring the sleepy village of Kavalam in Kuttanaad alive for the readers. It is a beautiful land that snuggles in the coverlet of its green paddy fields, laced with backwaters. In the sounds, the sights and the people of his village that Paniker describes, it is easy enough to feel the heart line of Kuttanaad. The picture of Maria Chettathi in a swoon in ‘Maria’, the second poem of the cluster, like the eyes of Chirutha in `Chirutha’, that ‘rained fire’ or that of Savithri, in the poem, `Savithri’, who is engaged in a row with Shanku, is prised out of life itself:

It is said that they fell out

That the head was bashed in

That bodily abuse

Was answered by verbal ones… (My translation)

The here and the now of theses images that throb with life fades into memory in ‘The Temple Festival’, another poem in the cluster:

It is the temple festival I remember

time limps along with the moon light here

and the star light there, while the memory fades…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 12).

Of the seven poems in the cluster, only two, `Chirutha’ and ‘The Temple Festival’ have been translated into English.

The return to the roots/ the past is integral in the quest of identity. It is but natural that the poet in quest of his roots traces his lineage and through the history of the human race itself, pays tribute to his ancestors. The first section of the poem ‘Kudumba Puranam’ (The Family Saga), traces the development of the pomegranate and the manthara from saplings to trees. The traditional cultivation of paddy in Kuttanaad, in fields reclaimed from the bracken backwater is mythologised as the reclamation of Kerala itself from the sea:

…while there stood the brave one,

his mind unperturbed by the thunder storm,

his feet unswerving in the wild roaring billows,

his hands unwearied; the brave one stood there

invoking with magic chants the lord of grains,

who would shower plenty in a virgin land,

rousing her and filling her with grain and gold.

His orders became dams and dykes, his thoughts

manifested as a thousand farm hands; with brush wood

and brambles they erected dykes, the lagoons

drew back and yielded the fertile land, saying

as the sea once said to a Rama long ago:

`O Kesava, may your hands be fruitful, be fruitful;

Immortal thoughts are indeed the glory of the earth;

make you this earth rich with grain and fruit!

O Kesava, may your hands be fruitful!

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 40)

The second section is of the ‘short and simple annals of the poor’. The section traces the slow ripening of the paddy and the bond between the farmhand and the landowner. Interwoven into the tale are the festivals of lights, song and dance ending in the joy of fulfillment:

The measuring basket overflowed: half- filled bellies got over filled; the’festival of harvest sang of fullness at the new year! (Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 40)

The third section begins with the tale of the family with promises yet to be fulfilled. The repetition of the word ‘recall’ heighten the sense of regression of memory that goes back a long way:

Recall now the splendor that crossed

the seas, the country and the city

made fragrant by a full moon in spring,

the light hearted jokes and little acts of goodness;

recall the royal houses, the ministerial abodes,

paved with courage or diplomacy or

simple cleverness, the leadership of universities,

the life at the embassies, recall also

another figure, a figure that is cut up

like shadows into fragments in broken dream or sleep,

like a pledge unredeemed, like a sobbing whisper,

like a wisp of moist memory that makes you restless,

like the scent of a flower moaning through the breeze…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 41).

The cyclic nature of the seasons brings back a memory of old times and other’s love:

Recall again the promises, old times

that were brought home for confinement,

with the future yet to be born, families

that came together only to part, candle flames

that burn in the blaze of parting; the tale

of a family with many a pledge unredeemed yet

lengthens in many ways, many ways…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 41).

The fourth section begins with the perception, ‘Time is spacious’ and that ‘our gentlest smiles’ emerge from great depths. The unfolding disc of the moon that turns the purple of mango leaves and the dance of a thousand peacocks with multi coloured plumes enchants the readers. Shakunthala is invoked as is Chitragupta, patiently recording the history of man:

birth, birth=death, the birth of death,

and death meant the death of birth.

He too was slowly dying…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 42, 43).

The fifth section marks a charge in tempo for the poet focuses on his reader:

If the poet’s tongue matches in length

the ears of those that listen,

it will not bore; the tellers and

hearers will be of one string…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 43).

The present makes itself felt in the tale of Janaki, the hunch back, the gossip festering in the village. and the tragic tales unfolding in the village. Pessimism and optimism struggle for dominance in the concluding lines of the section:

As a child, I had one great sorrow:

it was that my village had no hill in it;

but now that sorrow is gone, for I see

hills of wickedness all around.

I see the social man is the source

of all power, and not the individual.

I see the bridge across the river of sin

built by the Panchayat…

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 44, 45).

Yet the poet tries to see the light and the goodness

Over the mud flows the river,

over the river flows the darkness,

over the darkness are the blue heavens:

all is dark, all; but there is light

even in this darkness; dark is itself light:

(Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker 44).

The sixth section of the poem descends to sarcasm and black humour and makes a savage return to the present:

Praise ye man, praise on

Praise the man that fails not to fill

The belly of the girl next door!

Liberty, equality, fraternity, co- operation —

Truth here is a miscellany,

Praise ye the man who fries the good soul in them

To serve in the gloating world,

Praise ye man, praise on

(Translated by Satchidanandan in Days and Nights 245).

If ‘The Family Saga’ proceeds from the past to the present, the quest of the past in the poem, ‘Where are the woods, children’?’ proceeds like memory from the present to the past. The poem is an elegy for the despoilt earth, a plea for the need to care for the environment and thereby put an end to the ruthless exploitation of the earth. In picturing the land of his dreams, the poet harkens back to the past:

Where is that land of mine, children,

where labor and capital are on par,

where spirit and body do not clash,

where everyone helps every one else

to eat his fill and keep alive at the Onam feast?

(Days and Nights 219). –

Paniker embarks on a quest of the past to add intensity and depth to the present, to issue a warning to his contemporaries and to offer an illusion or a dream for them to cherish.

The quest of the past finds its greatest expression in the later poem `Gothrayanam’, the tale of the Aryan migration to the south and which in terms – of time predates the experiences of `Kesava’ of ‘The Family Saga’ who prepares the land for the seed.


Spiritual quest takes distinctive form in the poetry of Ayyappa Paniker. It is possible to discern a trajectory of personal realisation or spiritual quest in a study of the first two volumes of his collected works. By spiritual quest, I do not imply a flight from the world of violence, death or misery. The spiritual quest is the outcome of the poet facing up to horror and to those exquisite configurations of pleasure and pain by which we habitually draft and sign a contract with reality. The spiritual quest begins with the experience of meaninglessness and an encounter with the dark night of the soul. The quest is also for a reconciliation of the divided and warring contraries that constitute the world of motion in time. These contraries are represented in accordance with the view of unity which is divided by strife, yet which is paradoxically sustained by strife. By the end of ‘Kurukshetram’, with the poet’s perception that it is not necessary to search for a Bodhi tree to be Budha, he is awakened. Awakening also implies the self’s ability to notice what is already there. With the spiritual, a term that many critics may take an exception to, the poet combines irony and attempts to give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of un-idealised existence.

This leads to the next set of explorations that he embarks on, the quest for fulfillment through love, for which he examines mythology. The poet attempts to contain the chaos of the present through mythology. In the search for fulfillment, he limits himself to a representation, not a reinterpretation of myths. As structure, the principle of irony may best be approached as a parody of romance and hence the logical step from myth to irony, satire and humour. Paniker’s works, in short, is a record of his search for the reconciliation of conflicting constraints of temporal experience with the timelessness of experience. The poet’s spiritual quest is coincident with the writing of the poems themselves, which is the seemingly hopeless quest to achieve, in a temporal and mutable medium, the perpetual motion- in — stillness of the form, that is the perfected work of art.


Basheer, M. M. Ed. Kurkshetra Padanam. Kottayam: D.C.Books, 1981.

Friedman, Susan. Psyche Reborn. Bloomington: Indiana. 1981.

Onakkur, George. Ed. Ayyappa Paniker: Vyakthiyum Kavithayunt. Kottayam: D.C.Books, 1990.

Paniker, Ayyappa. Days and Nights. Trivandrum: National Educational Research Center, 2001.

Paniker, Ayyappa. Kurukshetram 2000. Kottayam: D.C. Books, 2000.

Paniker, Ayyappa. Selected Poems of Ayyappa Paniker. Trivandrum: Modern Book Center, 1985.

Paniker, Ayyappa Ayyappa Panickerude Krithikal: 1951 -69. Kottayam: D.C.Books, 1974: rpt, 2006.

Paniker, Ayyappa Ayyappa Panickerude Krithikal: 1969 -81. Kottayam: D.C.Books, 1962: rpt. 2006.

in the sacred navel of our dreams: Essays on Ayyappa Paniker’s Poetry. Ed. By The Editorial Department, DC Books. Kottayam: Current Books, 2003.


HEMA NAIR. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Currently she is UGC Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Kerala and Associate Editor of Samyukta. Was post-doctoral visiting lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Has published widely in research journals. Has many translated stories to her credit.

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Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Currently she is UGC Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Kerala and Associate Editor of Samyukta. Was post-doctoral visiting lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Has published widely in research journals. Has many translated stories to her credit.

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