Kanwar Dinesh Singh’s Thoroughfare: A Book of Ghazals—The Verities and Vicissitudes of Contemporary Life

Prof Dr Shiv Sethi

Kanwar Dinesh Singh, the well-known Indian-English poet who has won the prestigious Himachal Pradesh State Sahitya Akademi Award (2002), the Unicorn Best Author Award (2023), and the Mighty Pens Award (2023) for poetry, among many other awards and honours, has recently released Thoroughfare: A Book of Ghazals, which has received widespread critical acclaim. Kanwar Dinesh Singh is an associate professor of English at a Shimla college and the author of eleven volumes of poetry and five books of literary criticism, as well as books in microfiction, haiku, and translation.

The ghazal, a popular form of poetry in Urdu, Hindi, and Persian, has evolved over time. It increasingly includes subjects other than love and passion, such as serious social and political issues, making it a strong and compelling form of artistic expression. Kanwar Dinesh Singh’s ghazal collection focuses on the harsh realities of modern Indian society while exploring a variety of themes such as love, relationships, social and political issues, and the essence of humanity’s collective well-being.

Kanwar Dinesh Singh’s ghazals are characterised by their aesthetic splendour and profound emotionality and thought. These ghazals showcase his linguistic flair, sarcasm, wit, and irony, effectively portraying the flaws and disparities of contemporary society. Through straightforward language and a mesmerising inner musicality, his lyrical talent catches the reader’s heart, using literary devices such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, refrain, personification, simile, metaphor, and paradox. Through their emotional depth and evocative quality, his ghazals make a deep impression on the reader’s mind. A closer look at the composition of each verse reveals how meticulously he adheres to the structure of the ghazal. Although it is impossible in English to fully capture the poetic artistry of Urdu ghazals, Singh has managed to incorporate certain technical elements into his ghazals.

In ‘This Indecorous City,’ the poet expresses concern for the declining level of politesse and civility in present-day city life. He believes that God only knows the future trajectory of the city and wonders where it is heading: “This city is losing its good manners and civility. I am so much unsettled by this shoving, indecorous city.” (p.11) The ghazal ‘It Is in Vogue’ advocates for a more assertive and resilient attitude towards the challenges of the world, adapting to changing times, learning appropriate mannerisms, and being strategic and self-assured in order to thrive in the modern world: “Let us be a little coarse and tough; / The world around us is too rough.” (p.12) The poet suggests that it is trendy to flaunt one’s accomplishments and abilities, even if they may not be entirely true. It insinuates that bluffing and putting on a facade is a common practice, and individuals should be willing to engage in it in order to fit in and succeed: “Must we learn mannerisms of the day, / Or risk becoming obsolete stuff? / Shake hands, smile strategically, and hustle, / Never mind, it is in vogue to flaunt and bluff.” (p. 12)

The ghazal ‘Befuddled’ explores the concept of autonomy and individual freedom in a society where people want to act without fear of a higher power or moral authority. The poem suggests that individuals have the freedom to act as they please without fear of external constraints: “Carry on, Friend, with your affairs fearlessly here; / God’s far away from sight, you’ve autonomy here.” (p. 13) The poet points at the difficulty in being heard or taken seriously in this society, as people will not believe or pay attention to complaints unless amplified through a loudspeaker, implying a lack of empathy or interest in others’ concerns: “People wouldn’t believe in your cries, howsoever loud; / Until you bellow on a loudspeaker, none will hark here.” (p. 13) The poem also points out the manipulation of truth by some people and the majority’s blind acceptance of these viewpoints as the only truth due to a lack of critical thinking: “The propagandists peddle their strategic points of view; / The chorus of the majority is the one-and-only truth here.” (p. 13) The narrator finds himself torn between the left and the right, suggesting a lack of understanding or acceptance for those who don’t align with either extreme. The poem spotlights the loneliness and confusion experienced by those who are tugged between these two dominant political ideologies: “I am befuddled between the left and the right, / Walking the middle-of-the-road is lonely here. (p. 13)

In ‘In Matters of Heart’, the poet expresses a cautious approach to love and relationships, expressing disappointment and disillusionment with romantic endeavours: “With my cautious bets in matters of heart, / Dinesh, there’s no profit; there’s no gain!” (p. 14) He confesses a secret wrongdoing and pleads to God for guidance on how to remove it from his soul: “My secret felony is flagrant to me, blazing internally. / God, how shall I from my soul scrub this stain?” (p. 14) In ‘In the Lilting Orbs of Your Eyes’, the poet-lover eulogises the beauty and complexity of the beloved’s eyes, describing them as a “leaping, splashing cosmos” that reveals a universe waiting to be discovered and cherished: “There is a leaping, splashing cosmos, / In the blushing lines of your eyes.” (p. 20) The eyes are seen as gateways to emotions, thoughts, and experiences that shape an individual’s being, and the interconnectedness between the eyes and the universe is explored.

‘Amber Shafts of Light’ explores themes of love, relationships, light, perception, and identity, portraying light as a powerful force that can distort and reveal: “The shafts of light flare the edges ruthlessly, / And always too cannily they blur my sight.” (p. 16) The poet expresses a struggle with the manipulative nature of light and encourages others to embrace their true selves and inner light: “Dinesh, you’re happy in the shade of your button-down identity; / Illumine your true self in the radiance of an unclouded inner light.” (p. 16) The abstract and poetic language allows for individual interpretation and reflection.

‘A Gordian Knot’ depicts how people frequently portray themselves as something they are not, mentioning the disparity between one’s true nature and the veneer they exhibit to the public. “Oft we speak of ourselves for what we are truly not; / While we’re icy within, how highly we feign to be hot!” (p. 18) It pinpoints the inconsistency between an individual’s outward appearance and their inner reality. It connotes that people regularly offer a false impression of themselves, manipulating others through deliberate behaviour. However, despite their efforts, they frequently find themselves in complex and difficult situations. The poet uses the metaphor of a Gordian knot to illustrate the complications and difficulties that result from their deceptive behaviours. This implies that even though individuals may try to control and manipulate their surroundings, they often end up entangled in their own web of deceit: “How we keep spreading our politely scheming tentacles, / Yet on every cord we loop a Gordian knot!” (p. 18)

‘The Providence’ portrays the speaker’s intense emotional anguish caused by haunting recollections of the past, and he feels helpless in the face of the ongoing and ever-changing pain. Despite his efforts to move on and forget his faults in the past, the poet admits that even a higher power may not be able to erase these memories. His attempts to disassociate himself from his transgressions fail: “Reminiscences of days bygone scrape my heart again and again; / I cannot do anything but acquiesce to the crawling, protean pain.” (p. 21) The ghazal also considers the global battle for survival and the difficulties of quantifying the great misery endured by many. Numerous people, according to the poet, are breathing in this sorrow and eventually succumbing to a sense of spiritual powerlessness: “I try hard to forget my past, but maybe even God can’t repeal that; / All my efforts to disavow my indiscretions peter out in vain. / Who could ever itemise the excruciating impasse of existence? / Too many inhale and succumb to a spiritually impotent strain.” (p. 21)

However, the ghazal ‘Our Own Deeds’ explores the idea that people are accountable for their own pleasures and misfortunes. It implies that the consequences of our deeds follow us through numerous cycles of birth and death. Here, Krishna’s teachings in the Gita are thought to be true and accessible because they help people understand and connect with their own situations: “We are ourselves accountable for our glee and cares; / Our own deeds resurface in recurring birth-death layers.” (p. 22) Furthermore, the ghazal points out our flaw: we frequently blame God for what happens to us without realising our own responsibility for creating those circumstances. It underlines that happiness and misery are the results of our own actions, and we are fully accountable for the outcomes: “We reap the results of our own good or bad actions; / Dinesh, why should God meddle in our affairs?” (p. 22)

Nonetheless, the poet admits that he is not a perfect being free of all bad thoughts and intentions; rather, he is well aware of his own shortcomings and the capacity for malevolence inside himself. Despite this self-awareness, he stays steadfast in pursuing his aspirations, as he expresses in “I Am Not an Angel”: “I know well I am not an angel shorn of varied, dark malevolence; / Yet rooting for my dreams, I prepare myself for the litmus test.” (p. 25) In ‘Sin’, the poet defines sin as failing to attain something that others have done successfully. This ghazal effectively underscores the people’s tendency to criticise others’ failings while excusing their own: “It’s sin when somebody else commits it; in one’s own case, a silly slip-up, / That’s how, Dinesh, to conveniently cleansing moralities we conceive.” (p. 30)

Similarly, ‘Sinning Against Sin’ emphasises the significance of reacting appropriately or resisting immoral activities. Complete indifference to wickedness is viewed as a moral transgression that isolates oneself from virtue. When committing sin against sin, atonement or repentance may not be required. The poet accentuates the importance of exhibiting virtues conspicuously in one’s demeanour. While private faults may not upset others, it is critical to preserve one’s passions against callous judgement from others. Counterfeit goodness may satisfy or appease most people, but maintaining a semblance of true goodness is critical: “One must show befitting reaction or resistance, / It’s a moral crime to have complete nonchalance. / Sinning against sin gives virtue more distance, / Doing so needs no atonement or repentance.” (p. 39)

‘Between Good and Evil’ looks at how temptations can lead us into harmful situations, underscoring the significance of utilising our willpower to make sound judgements. The poet suggests that everyone has the ability to make decisions and must distinguish between what is right and wrong. They wonder why humans frequently blame the devil for their own errors, claiming that it is our own desires, folly, and misguided beliefs that afflict us. This is illustrated by the reference to Humpty-Dumpty, who, like us, had unmet desires: “Why did Humpty-Dumpty sit astride his wall? / Like us, he had appetites he could not fill.” (p. 38) The poet also wonders why Jack and Jill travelled up the hill, hinting that they were driven by their own personal motivations or desires: “It’s indeed feasible to work out alternatives, / Why did Jack and Jill go up that hill?” (p. 38) The poet is concerned about those who damage themselves and how difficult it is to reform or transform them. Similarly, ‘An Infectious Reach’ depicts the corrupting nature of power, the terrible repercussions it brings, and the lack of faith in those in society who are accountable for upholding justice and fairness: “They don’t have a rock-solid toehold for themselves, / How barely above the ground are these men!” (p. 36)

In ‘Walking Across the Aisle,’ the poet describes himself as walking across the aisle on a tightrope. He is unconcerned about competing viewpoints because he has his own unique approach to coping with issues. The poet describes how others try to drag him down into a world of uncertainty, but his resilience and self-control keep him from being negatively influenced: “I’m at the moment on the tightrope walking across the aisle, / I pay no attention to either side; that’s my saving style. / They each try hard to drag me down into their world of incertitude, / My restraint and hardiness forbid them my world to defile.” (p. 41) This ghazal is about the poet’s perseverance in the face of adversity and his ability to recognise the good in people.

‘Where to Go?’ explores people’s continual travel without a defined destination. It brings to the fore the idea that even at great heights, such as the Himalayas, there is a sense of ambiguity about where to go next: “We may reach the pinnacles of the planet, the jagged Himalayas, / Yet where past those terrific heights have we to go?” (p. 52) The ghazal expresses the modern world’s restlessness and lack of prudence and good judgement for a meaningful path in life. It also delves into the concept of liberation from the body and the significance of letting go of undesirable attributes in order to discover genuine freedom and contentment. In a philosophical churning, the poet contemplates the state of his soul, which is “distraught and downcast” and desperately longs to be emancipated from the confines of the body: “I asked my soul what made it so distraught and downcast. / It demanded dourly from the bondage of the body to go!” (p. 52) Furthermore, the poet implies that letting go of one’s whims, vanity, and ego will lead to freedom. “Dinesh, if you could shed your whim, vanity, and ego, / You’d be free easily, gladly, with one and all to go!” (p. 52)

Overall, Singh’s ghazals inextricably combine the poet’s own feelings and longings with explorations of sociopolitical or religious themes, as well as profound philosophical contemplation on human existence and the sheer complexity of life in the present time. Singh’s artistic expression, the depth of his thinking, the power of his thoughts, and the great force of his words all captivate a sympathetic reader. Although composing English ghazals might be challenging, Kanwar Dinesh Singh has managed to brilliantly explore this art form, ensuring that both its aesthetic allure and profound thought are preserved through his astonishing experimentation. This collection of Singh’s English ghazals is really worth reading and collecting. It gives me tremendous pleasure to recommend this book to lovers of poetry.

Book: Thoroughfare: A Book of Ghazals
Author: Kanwar Dinesh Singh
Publisher: Authorspress, New Delhi
Year: 2023 Pages: 52 Price: Rs 295 USD 25

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