Linger Like Moisture Within – On Viren Dangwal’s Pitr-Paksh: Prasanta Chakravarty

Guest Post by Prasanta Chakravarty

Pitr-paksh/ पितृ-पक्ष (also pitru-paksh) is the 16 day lunar period in the Hindu diurnal calendar when believers pay homage to their ancestors, through specific food offerings. Most years, the autumnal equinox falls within this period, that is, the Sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere during this time. In Northern and Eastern India and Nepal, among the cultures following the purnimanta or the solar calendar, this period usually corresponds with the waning fortnight of the month Ashwin. The souls of three preceding generations of one’s ancestor reside in Pitr-loka, a realm between heaven and earth.

Crows Fed on Pitr Paksha
This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the soul of a dying man from earth to Pitr-loka. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God; so Shraddha offerings are not given. At the beginning of pitr-paksha, the sun enters the zodiac sign of Libra (tula). Coinciding with this moment, it is believed that the spirits leave Pitr–loka and reside in their descendants’ homes for a month until the sun enters the next zodiac—Scorpio (vrichchhika)—when there is a full moon. Devouts are expected to propitiate their ancestors in the first half, during the dark fortnight.

The very idea of pitr-paksha cements one of the most settled notions of human interaction: the filial or the apatya/अपत्य. These 15 days of ritual propitiation mark a particular equation within the very innards of the community structure. So there is this cultural-anthropological axis to this matter. One has to also take into account that the settlement of debt by enacting the rites of pitr-paksha is effected through a reverse gaze upon one of the fundamental rasas or aesthetic impulse: vatsalya, a filial emotion often marked by pride, happiness, ardency and a fear of mishap affecting one’s child.  Finally, one can ill afford to miss the coordinates of a gendered encounter and the maintaining of a generational continuity, a line—between the father and the son.

Speculating upon after-life is a major human preoccupation. What characterizes the pitr-loka before one takes a flight to deva-loka? Do these different lokas say more about our own states of mind rather than actual locales? What is the nature of our debt to our ancestors? What about our unfinished worldly desires? What about other creatures—plants, birds and insects, in this scheme of things?

Viren Dangwal
So, when Viren Dangwal took up his pen to compose one of his most evocative poems, these and more such catechisms must have been playing on his mind. He has the enviable twin task of making a point or two about our filial condition, without losing the poetic sheen and compromising on deftness of expression.


मैं आके नहीं बैठूंगा कौवा बनकर तुम्हारे छज्जे पर

पूड़ी और मीठी कद्द की सब्ज़ी के लालच में

टेरूँगा नहीं तुम्हें

न कुत्ता बनकर आयूँगा तुम्हारे द्वार

रास्ते की ठिठकी हुई  गाय

की तरह भी तुम्हें नहीं ताकुंगा

वत्सल उम्मीद की हुमक के साथ

मैं तो सतत रहूँगा तुम्हारे भीतर

नमी बनकर

जिसके स्पर्श मात्र से

जाग उठता है जीवन मिट्टी में

कभी-कभी विद्रूप से भी भर देगी तुम्हें वह

जैसे सीलन नई पुती पुरानी  दीवारों को

विद्रूप कर देती है

ऐसे तभी होगा जब तुम्हारी इच्छाओं  की इमारत

बेहद चमकीली और भद्दी हो जाएगी

पर मैं रहूँगा हरदम तुम्हारे भीतर पक्का

The Father’s Epoch

I won’t turn into a crow and sit on your cornice
Craving puri and sweet pumpkin
I shall not summon you
As a dog I shan’t come to your door
Or like a cow on the road, shunned,

I will not eye you
Jumping up in filial hope.

I, for one, shall linger in you forever

As moisture,

With its magic touch

In soil, life burgeons

Sometimes with irony too shall it fill you

The way damp, fresh putty

Mocks the ancient walls

It shall happen only when the edifice of your cravings

Turns deep bright and obscene

But I shall abide in you forever for sure.

This is a poem of anticipation. Foremost: anticipation of death and the dramatization of it. Then an anticipation of a reworked inner trajectory within the core of the father-son relationship. And finally the anticipation of a certain relocation in the outer, social economy of our living, by changing the very dynamics of such a timeless and settled ritual enactment. Consequently, the very fulcrum of the commune and communal partaking changes by the time we arrive at the concluding lines. It gets situated in something more tangible and yet powerfully evanescent: precipitating moisture. The poem operates at three levels actually, each tied to the other two: the personal-relational, the social-ritualistic and the generational-otherwordly. Much depend how this intertwining begins to tilt in a particular way, as we progress.

The poem is neatly divided into two sections. The first stanza underlines the nature of this projected new relationship, once the father is no more—by emphasizing what it refuses to become. Two stark images are summoned. First the crow:  do our crow forefathers dance around fires, their bodies sweating, and minds reaching a state of transcendence as they commune with the Gods? As responsible children, this bridging of generations we must usher in by participating in a series of ritual enactments. The Garuda Purana says that every householder must propitiate his ancestors (pitrs), gods (devas) bhutas (ghosts), yakshas, kinnaras and guests. This is for the sake of moksha/salvation. Markandeya Purana says that if the ancestors are content with the shraddhas/tarpan, they will bestow health, wealth, knowledge and longevity, and ultimately paradise and salvation upon the performer. So, one offers pinda, morsels of propitiatory food, to the crow. The crow links this our existent world and the temporary repose of purgatory, pitr-loka, where the deceased souls await food expectantly. The crow, the voyager, shall facilitate our ancestors’ path to salvation, his moksha-marg.  Much of this has to do with lakshana—the connotative signs of how the crow tackles the morsels offered. The raven is preferred. Once the food is pecked at , and if the crow takes a flight from right to left, the pitrus are supposed to have accepted our offerings and we move one step forward in that divine, inter-generational bond. If no crow is spotted or if ravens are not to be seen, then it does not augur well at all.

But the poet is already reworking this relationship. Reappearing itself is not only a mythical possibility but also a form of greed to be part of a world that one has relinquished. This move by Dangwal therefore, is the first assault on the traditional notion of the patriarch gathering his flock.  No, the cornice ( छज्जा) is too close and too prying a possibility for a generation to reappear again. Such a shrill appearance will be irksome to the changed world, the poet believes. If that hint was not sufficient—लालच /’greed’ and टेरूँगा/’summoning’ in the following two lines clinch the argument.  The departed need not call out to the earthlings. He need not be voluble, harking back to his earthly moorings. Certainly, he should not arrive in avarice. The sweet possibility of puri and kaddu notwithstanding, the very enunciation of that ritualistic route is also a gluttonous one: hankering for power and continuity, rather than relinquishing and detachment.

Dangwal shows a similar skepticism with the idea of canine incarnation. Kukur Tihar is observed in Nepal and in some parts of India. The dog is believed to be the companion of Bhairav and thus a crucial link between the dead and the living. Offerings are made, and sometimes a red tika is applied on our canine friends on such occasions: in awe and reverence to their supposed power. Feeding black dogs has anyway been a standard feature in order to escape the malefic influence of Shani (Saturn) and Raahu. But the poet rejects any such possibility even as he deploys such early images, holding up a setting, so that he can eventually reframe the archetypal filial mode of interaction. Again, much like the cornice before, the doorway and threshold to an entrance—तुम्हारे द्वार, is obviously a metaphor for a certain expectant hope of a mnemonic continuity. By negating that route, Dangwal once again closes off such pressing proximity with the living. He is setting up the stage, eventually to stress the significance of a minimal, skeptical form of materialist interaction in the closest of our relationships—in this case the filial.

Dangwal concludes this set of three images, all propped up to accentuate the futility of occluded emotional states that mark the traditional bridging of the human and the other-world, mediated via the world of the beasts—the birds and the animals, at the time of pitr-paksha tarpan. The final image is that of a cow. But notice the verb forms here, carrying forward the same thwarted impulse that we have encountered before. After आ कर बैठना and टेरना, we now have ठिठकना (to recoil, balk) and ताकना (to eye).There is a schizoid emotional state in which the dead craves to reconnect with the living. It looks wistfully at the world of the living. And yet is not able to fully partake in the worldly events. On the one hand there is a sense of recoil, that the world of the living is too busy, too self absorbed in its everyday dealings to even care for those who are no more. Hence the recoil, like the thwarted bovine creature. But at the same time there is a subterranean hope, a fleet-footed traipsing energy therefore (वत्सल उम्मीद की हुमक के साथ) in the departed. This is the fatal and residual hope, a schizoid quest for reunification with the world, a hope for reconnecting in a continual generational renewal. This simultaneous hope and recoiling is the pathos of such divided minds, of those who partake in the bridging act in faith and a wish for cosmic continuity. The ritual enactments of the propitious lunar fortnight (pitr-pakhsa) are supposed to be the guarantors of this ancient and timeless renewal. Both sides are supposed to be assisting each other. But the mutual assistance is of course for maintaining a social and personal status quo in this world itself. Dangwal, in quick painterly brushes, tells us that his is not the route of wish fulfillment. Or shrillness. Nor is it about renewal of an array of thwarted protocols in order to cement our communal partaking in naked material hope and recompense, disguised in and through ritual extractions.

Vatsalya or vatsalyata-sneha is a fundamental bhava, or emotional state. This could turn into a miraculous state, depending on the calling forth and expressive acumen of the one who experiences the power of the shaft. Acharyas like Someshwar, Bhoja and Vishwanth have extensively dealt with this filial condition. After pride and happiness, by and by does arrive daya, vidya and shourya in the child and the parent revels in these developing conditions. The father partakes in these changes emotionally, as it were. As material manifestations of such a filial relationship, one latches on to embracing, touching, kissing the forehead, simply gazing, tears of joy, having goosebumps and so on. The filial is wielded masterfully by such poets like Suradas and Hariodh. Poets like Bharatendu have tried to relate vatsalya to dasya, sakhya and madhurya—definitive outcomes of the gaudiya-bhakti influence on him. Even in Maithilisharan Gupt’s Saket and Yashodhara we see how the personal filial is always surpassing and hierarchical in nature and the poetic manifestation of the filial is passed through a process of sacral ritualization. Viren Dangwal reworks that relationship even as he simultaneously wishes to give a twist to the marsiya-threnody-elegiac tradition. He is trying to modernize and democratize the father-son relationship without compromising on the miracle that the two keep on forging.

Hence: moisture. Fatherhood is a stubborn trace. A lingering faith. A shimmering and moist precipitate, that remains a sediment forever. It is a principle that abides. The first half of the second stanza is a testimony to the deepest wellsprings of love between the father and the son. Moisture is life, the kernel that makes us living beings: जिसके स्पर्श मात्र से /जाग उठता है जीवन मिट्टी में. If the earlier forms of ritualization of the pitr-paksha are dry and self-serving wish fulfillment, this new found moistened possibility is like manna in enacting vatsalya. This is how a giving relationship takes shape. Foremost, by emphasizing the lingering quality of limitless love of a father for his son. This new miracle is certain and confident about its nature since it is fully invested in the child. It is no more about our giving shape to our addictions and aches that we wish to thrust upon others, least of all our vain attempts to refuel our hankerings through the serial ritualization of pitr-paksha.

But Dangwal goes one further step. He gives us a superb image of an ancient wall that requires restoration. The wall obviously is the heart and mind of the son. The father’s touch is again like a trace, in this case, the putty stands as a metaphor for his arrival whenever the son might need him—his love and wisdom. The rich irriguousness of the relationship is particularly marked through the use of the word सीलन–dampness. From time to time, the child will be bereft and clueless in the wide world when the father is no more. But he is never an orphan. For he can summon that moist trace of a precipitate. A balm surely. But it is also more than a balm. He irrigates the son’s life through a different and singular furrow.

And here the most crucial stage of modernization is happening in this new found filial relationship. Restoration does take place but it does so only through irony and criticality. Mitigation is not the sole aim whenever we are perturbed. We seek love and criticality simultaneously—a certain suffusion in a dewy condensation—the secret of the pater principle. The father must mock the child, critically chide and upbraid him whenever the other veers away. And veer he will: since the era is that of spectacle and sheen. We come back to desire and the architecture of wish fulfillment. There will come a moment sooner or later in the son’s life when he would fumble and give in to glibness and razzle-dazzle. The juxtaposition of brightness and grossness (चमकीली और भद्दी—what Leeladhar Mandloi has termed रोनी दीवार चुने सा चमकना) is a superb exercise in antithesis. The more the wall turns bright, the more will it exude obscenity. It is at this point that the trace of moisture—the father’s apparition will come to haunt him and make him grounded. The stubborn putty will be a reminder forever for all that is lasting, humorous, democratic and discursive in the new filial formulation. This filial does not require thwarted hopes for a paradise. It is in this world itself, in full materiality, that vatsalya can be effected most powerfully and irreverentially. This is how the relationship matures and yet deepens in love for each other. The significant point is that Dangwal wrests the filial away from a relationship of likeness between the father and the son. The son cannot afford to be propitiatory in his encounters with his irreverential father. It is rather a lovingly combative relationship that plays out between the two. Instead of teaching his son actively the virtues of humility, prudence, patience and planning (as does Odysseus with Telemachus or Bhisma with his protégés), Dangwal takes a mock serious, tentative, and self-reflective route.  And by doing so, he turns the entire tradition of pitr-paksha on its head. The son is not a demi-god between the father and the created world. They are not created out of the same substance—homoousios, no. He is not begotten of the father. The son is also not wrought in the image of the father. There is no filial sanctification whatsoever. The father is a powerful trace whom he has encountered and re-encountered on the earth. That encounter continues in democratic exchanges after his death. And the material presence is felt in the dynamic principle of the warm, loving, restitutive moisture, running in his veins.

Viren Dangwal, or Dr. Dang, as he would be lovingly called by some of his acquaintances and loved ones was a man of deep social engagement and political commitment. He was also a man who would singularly revel in wit, irony and limitless love for every soul that he touched with his singular personality.  Even as he engaged with some of life’s deepest conundrums, he would simultaneously use प्यारे and चूतिये to address people who were his dearest.  This democratic, self-critical and ironical mode arrives with its full seriousness in this profound poem.

Two terminal considerations. Death has been a constant refrain in the poetry of Viren Dangwal. Often unusual ways of dying attracted him. Murder and accidents, graves and death-threats are a constant preoccupation. Especially death touched a raw nerve in his final collection Syahi-Taal, the poems appearing in Jalsa 4, Pakhi and so on—a facet rightly touched upon by Ashutosh Kumar in a memorial festschrift on Dangwal. But never does this preoccupation take the elegiac route. Death is life refracted, a blind date with all that is a happy mystery. Death is one more encounter. The transience and immanent glory of life is a celebration since death, dissipation and disappearing is a presence.

The final point is about something that I had briefly mentioned in the beginning of this essay but never elaborated: the gendered trajectory of this particular filial mode. There is no gainsaying that Dangwal could not alter his subject position when he conceives of the father-son mode. There is a particular economy of stag-ness even in the finest of contemporary Hindi male poets—which is not about active misogyny always but operates more at the level of choosing of themes, reworking of the images and so on.

Regardless, Dangwal powerfully challenges the law and law’s command in this poem. Unlike John Donne, Dangwal’s intense materialism shall never allow him to uphold in apatya-sneha any “all-healing grace and spirit/revive again what law and letter kill.” The ritual enactments of pitr-paksha mean not a jot in this altered relationship. It is equally noteworthy that Dangwal has skirted any overt Charvaka-panthi position. But with Donne he would perhaps agree that the pater-principle is such a severe abridgement of paternal laws and divine stringing of those laws that in the final account only the self reflexive trace of the moisture shall remain: “thy last command is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!”

Prasanta Chakravarty edits and teaches English in Delhi University.

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