book review

The Secrets of Ishbar

Since I do not consider myself a connoisseur of art, this is my struggling attempt to provide a very brief account of my experience with a book of poetry written by Subhash Kak which a professor friend of mine at the University of Texas at Austin, knowing my interest in Kashmir and Kashmiris, lent me to read a month or so ago. Subhash Kak is a distinguished professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Born in Srinagar on March 26, 1947, Kak did his schooling in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and completed his college education at Kashmir University and IIT Delhi. Should one acquaint themselves with Kak’s work on Indian Science which has been argued to have transformed the understanding of Indian civilization, one comes to know that Kak has been considered as one of the prominent figures in contemporary India as an expert in this area. I had no choice but to appreciate Kak’s personality for his interest and expertise in areas as diverse as physical science, art and history. Kak’s multi-dimensional personality is revealed in his commendable works in many different areas. On the one hand are his many beautiful poetic compositions, and, on the other his service to the information theory and quantum physics as well as to the history of science and Indic studies, especially the Vedas. These include his very many books and articles published from time to time. Great effort, immense patience and dedication are required of one to be able to perform in such broad dimensions.

A leading expressionist poet of India, Kak is the author of “The Secrets of Ishbar, Ek Taal, Ek Darpan,The Conductor of the Dead and other poems” and “The London Bridge and other poems”. Here is what Rani Singh of Asian Affairs, London, said about The Secrets of Ishbar: “For those with a feeling for South Asia but who do not live there and can only visit from time to time, it is difficult to capture at any moment the sights, sounds and smells of the subcontinent. For them or, in deed, for someone who has never been to Kashmir, The Secrets of Ishbar is a ‘must’. This analogy transports one immediately viscerally into the heartland of South Asia. Each poem has to be savored and pondered, and each varies in subject matter from the pleasant to the disturbing. Colors, images and aromas are evoked with a poignant simplicity….Every poem in the volume has a precious quality.” The book was published in 1996.

After going through the contents of The Secrets of Ishbar, I could not help but read each poem again and again and help myself interpret the many different messages offered by the poet. Every poem is a unique experience in itself. The book takes you to a journey that carries images celebrating the days of happiness in the sights of beauty, sighs of pain and regret at the loss of proximity to the “paradise”, the encounters of love, beauty, wisdom and philosophy. As and when I read through some of the pages of the book, the beautiful imagery offered by the author would tickle down my viscera and awaken so many living, dead and semi-dead memories of my time in the homeland: a “Pony ride in the Liddar Valley” across the wooden bridge on to the “smooth grassy slopes”; “Sweet, warm smells from the bakery waft”; “rainy evenings” of Ishbar and a walk in “wooden sandals over deep mud”; “chickens shivering as the cold wind gathers under” a loose shirt; the “sweet waters of the Cheshmashahi spring” and “steaming” samovars; and what not. Despite the fact that they are written in English, the poems dedicated to Kashmir’s beauty, culture, art and tradition are rife in expressions authentic to Kashmiri language and enriched with a taste native to Kashmir which the reader is bound to cherish. The poet attempts at recounting his childhood years through memories living “behind the barred doors”. Here is a verse that enthralls you to great happiness and there is one that puts you to tears. The secrets are revealed in many different ways and many different colors. Juxtaposed together are the historical details and the legendary accounts of the Sharika’s town. The book also offers many poems dealing with the philosophical questions and spiritual issues and conflicts related to his perception of time, space, events and expositions that the poet-scholar has played with. One of the best aspects of the poems is observed in their word play on the one hand and their natural flow, beautiful rhythm, music and sonority in free verse on the other. Putting in much simpler words, the book is a tremendous piece of artistic performance and scholarly expertise.

© Sadaf Munshi (April 3, 2004, Kashmir Observer, Srinagar).