from Magadh

Shrikant Verma

The People of Magadh

The people of Magadh
are sorting the bones of the dead

Which ones are Ashoka's?
And Chandragupta's?
No, no,
these can't be Bimbisara's
they are Ajatashatru's,

the people of Magadh say
shedding tears

It's natural

those who have seen a man alive
only they
can see him dead
those who haven't seen him alive
how can they see him dead?

Just yesterday
the people of Magadh
saw Ashoka
going to Kalinga
returning from Kalinga
Chandragupta riding his horse to Takshashila
in tears
flexing his muscles

The people of Magadh
had seen
and they
can't forget
that they had seen
those who

can no longer
be found


The courtesan whom
Kalidas loved
like musk
An auspicious

the stars
are so aligned

Now who
comes looking
Mahakaal himself –
Is this her city,
who was
like musk

The courtesan
whom Kalidas
has she
passed by
this road

Wait, stop,
is this
the Kshipra


Those who've left Shravasti
come back –

Mendicants still pass by
Those who've left
fearing sorrow
will find sorrow

Those who come
find sorrow
Those who go
find sorrow

In Kosal there's as much sorrow
as there is
in Shravasti

Those who've left Shravasti for Kosal
come back –
Shravasti wants to say this
but can't

Disillusionment of a Courtesan from the Time of the Buddha

With each caress
the breasts quiver

From the navel a fragrance rises

these thighs
only the mighty
can ride their
horse into the river

In search of unending pleasure come
the general,
the prince.

Women swoon.

it won't be the same tomorrow
The breasts
will be filled
with pus,
the thighs
will lie shattered
like monuments

You'll only be able
to hear footsteps –
The general's?
Or the prince's?

The river of pleasure
will have run dry

They'll joke
those who rode their
horse –
you too will laugh.

Fetching a corpse from the river
people leave it
at the ghats
and say –
Here lies Time

No one sees Malati.

With each caress
the breasts

Only the mighty
these thighs.
In search of
unending pleasure
came the prince.

Women swooned.

The irony
you've always been

translated from the Hindi by Rahul Soni

Read the original in Hindi

Read translator’s note

Shrikant Verma (1931–1986) was a central figure in the Nai Kavita movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Born in Bilaspur, he did his Masters in Hindi from Nagpur University in 1956, and then moved to New Delhi, where he worked in journalism and politics. Verma served as special correspondent for Dinman, a major Hindi periodical, from 1966 to 1977. In 1976, he was elected a member of the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket, and served as spokesman of the party through the late 1970s to the early 80s. He published two collections of short fiction, a novel, a travelogue, literary interviews, essays and five collections of poetry. Verma was a visitor at the Iowa International Writing Program twice (1970–1971 and 1978), and won the Tulsi Puraskar (1976), the Kumaran Asan Award, and the Sahitya Akademi Award (posthumously, for Magadh, in 1987).

Rahul Soni is an Editor-at-large at Asymptote, as well as a writer, editor and translator based in India. He founded and, from 2008 to 2012, edited Pratilipi, a literary journal, and Pratilipi Books, an independent publishing imprint. He is chief editor at Writer's Side, a literary agency and manuscript assessment service. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Almost Island, Biblio, Dhauli Review, Hindi, Indian Literature, Out of Print Magazine, Poetry International Web, Pratilipi, Recours au Poème, Tehelka, etc. He is currently working on a translation of Geetanjali Shree's novel Tirohit (HarperCollins, 2013) as well as on Shrikant Verma's Magadh (Almost Island Books, 2013). He was a Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in 2010, and received the Sangam House Fellowship in 2012.

Shrikant Verma's Magadh invokes names from history, myth and literature – of places (Magadh, Vaishali, Kapilvastu, Amravati, Hastinapur) and of people (Chandragupta, Amrapali, Vasantsena, Rohitashva) – to chronicle the decline of once great empires. In a language that is at once sparse and richly allusive, direct and elliptical, repetitive and paradoxical, he lays bare the confusions and contradictions of an era of decadence.

The 56 poems that make up this collection take on a variety of voices – commoners, wanderers, people close to power (but never in power) – that range in tone from nostalgic to ironic to bitter to outraged. While Cavafy, Borges and Calvino are easy touchstones, it is Verma's keen political eye that sets him apart, and Magadh remains a unique book – one of the most important collections of Hindi poetry, and the masterpiece of one of India's greatest poets.

For immediate context, it is useful to remember that Verma, besides being a poet, was also a politician – a member of the Congress party which stayed in power for 30 years after independence only to taste defeat in 1977 after having forced the country into two years of Emergency, which in effect turned the nation into a police state, and are widely seen as the blackest hours of Indian democracy. Verma was the spokesman of the Congress party then, and had the opportunity to observe at close quarters what the abuse of power could turn a once idealistic government into. The poems are undoubtedly a product of their time, yet remain both historical and timeless.