These musings, poems, and essays by Sundaram, a well-known Gujarati poet and a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram from 1945 until his passing in 1991, represent in English some of the different facets of his writings. The first, long section comprises pithy expressions of some inner musings and insights, presented in a journal format covering ten years. The second part, "Vijaya Poems", is a collection of English poems written for Ashram students and teachers. Parts Three and Four are English translations of some of Sundaram's Gujarati poems. The final section contains eight essays, including a long piece, "Sri Aurobindo: The Poet".
This volume of 445 pages containing various examples of Sundaram-bhai’s creation appears huge, yet it represents only a part of his entire life’s literary work. I had of course known of him since my schooldays and was familiar with his poetry, but this volume has revealed so much more.
My first glimpse of Sundaram-bhai came in November 1951 in the Ashram Dining Room when a friend pointed him out, saying, “That is the well-known, famous poet Sundaram.” I was surprised. I had expected all the hallmarks of a “poet’s look”, but saw no long flowing hair, no unkempt, crumpled dress, not even the characteristic bag dangling from his shoulder. But, yes, the eyes at once reminded me of a line from his poem, “Where are you hidden in the temple?” Yes, I remember his eyes always, as if searching, looking for something.
Other features of his personality were his soft smile and his meticulous way of handling material objects. For example, he was always neatly dressed in well-ironed white Ashram shirt and pyjamas and carrying a cloth bag. When taking his meals in the Ashram Dining Room, he first selected a table, placed his bag there, went to wash his hands, quietly waited his turn at the counter, and gave his trademark smile to the ladies serving there. He placed his plate on the table very carefully, fetched a glass of water, settled down on the stool, turned his plate the way he wanted his food placed before him, closed his eyes in a silent prayer of offering, picked up his spoon, and began to eat. There was no hurry or sharp movement of any sort; everything was done in a quiet harmony.
We can see this trend evidenced in full flow in the first section of this volume. In few but significant words he expresses his radiant thoughts, mentioning the date and even the time of writing—5.15 night, 1.52 night, 2.41 night. Whatever the time of day or night, he must be fully aware of not only the time but also the experiences around which he has woven such lines as
She builds anew our body—
To be Her Eternity’s abode.
5.28 night, 21-2-81
The world needs Thy manifestation.
2.41 night, 2-6-82
“Open the supramental way.”
11.30 night, 24-12-82
The first time I read a Japanese haiku I was amazed at how much meaning one can put into four short lines. But here Sundaram-bhai has fully let himself flow, gathering the mundane, the universal, the beautiful and supra-beautiful gems, and expressing them in just a few lines. He is one of the early poets of Gujarat to break away from the fixed rules of writing prevalent up to the early twentieth century. He does not need a set of four lines, even one or one and a half will do. He is fully liberated, expressing profound insights in such a refreshing way. The first 225 pages are really a feast for people whose knowledge of literary English is limited. Sundaram-bhai is able to render his sublime thoughts in such simple words that a child of ten years will understand and love them. A quotation from the introduction to this section gives in gist the beauty and importance of these meditative musings:
Reading quietly with an open mind and awareness, we begin to live with the writer and along with him we begin to feel the silent Presence. Gradually we grow silent, go deep, deeper within and fade away into absolute Silence.
The last few entries for the year 1991 are significant in the sadhak
-poet’s life. He had become very aware and, just one month before he passed away, could sing
related to You,
made part of Your action,
of Your will.
As a poet and translator, Sundaram-bhai understood the importance of precision in language. Years ago when we were preparing the publication of the Indian language translations of Sri Aurobindo’s works for his birth centenary, there was a meeting to decide who would translate which one of the major works. The often excessively literary style of vernacular translations was discussed; some of the translations were even more difficult than the English! “Can’t we simplify?” the translators were asked in 1970. Sundaram-bhai replied, “No, the subject is so weighty and rises to such high peaks that the language has to justify it.”
The remainder of the book contains other examples of his writings. The Vijaya
poems, a new one written each month, were posted on the Ashram school’s Vijaya
bulletin board, initiated and put together by Sundaram-bhai when he was a teacher. As the book’s editor writes, “Young people as well as grown-ups will enjoy reading these varied-topic poems, wherein the poet begins from an ordinary casual event, leads us lovingly onwards, and ends by giving us a new thinking and a new feeling which make us happy and keep us smiling.” Here is a passage from one of these poems:
Someone was full awake,
when I was deeply sleeping,
And Someone was heartily laughing,
when I was crudely weeping. [page 274]
The next section of the book contains Sundaram’s poems in English, written between 1935 and 1985, and translated by him from the original Gujarati. These are followed by a section of his poems translated into English by his former student Dhanavanti. In her short introduction to her translations, she describes the poet:
Sundaram—the name evokes several meanings depending on how you look at his versatile personality and his manifold contributions to the cultural life of Gujarat. To the lovers of literature he was a multi-faceted genius whose writings embraced the entire gamut of literary creation: poetry, short stories, travelogue, literary criticism, translations, anything that had to do with Shabda-artha, shabda-laya, the WORD, its meaning and music.
There are many easy-to-follow poems she has translated, proving that everything a sadhak
of Sri Aurobindo wrote was not beyond common understanding, such as the following passage found on page 323:
In my soul’s sacred mansion,
Do set thy feet, O Lord!
Let a storm of delight invade
The spaces of my heart!
I have cleaned all the temple premises,
. . . . . . . . . . . .
And then on the doorstep,
Dumbly for thee I wait—
There is a short poem titled “I Love” on page 331 in which his love for beauty is evident:
All that is beautiful on earth, I love.
And all that is still not beautiful,
I shall beautify with my love,
With my deep transforming love.
The fourth and last section gives us some autobiographical statements, completing the sketch of the journey of a sensitive village boy through the richly kaleidoscopic outer world into the invisible world of subtle bounties opened to him by Sri Aurobindo.
Before closing, I would like to add some touching incidents from his life. In 1967 he was travelling in Gujarat to procure a piece of land on which to build a city meant for spiritual aspirants dedicated to the ideals of Sri Aurobindo. There was a place where Sundaram-bhai and other followers of Sri Aurobindo had planned to hold a camp. This place required cleaning before the meeting could take place, but as there were no cleaners available and no one else ready to help, Ambupremi from the Baroda centre and Sundaram-bhai began cleaning the filth. Sundaram-bhai remarked that work for the Divine, small or large, crude or refined, was equal in his eyes.
Even before he joined the Ashram, his love of beauty was evident in all his works as well as in his life. While in Ahmedabad, he had started reading The Life Divine
, published earlier in instalments in the Arya
. Another person who joined this weekly reading described how Sundaram-bhai would gently pluck roses from his garden, clean and arrange them very quietly and lovingly, place them before Sri Aurobindo’s photograph, light an incense stick, and settle down to read, study, and meditate.
Sunanda PoddarSunanda came to stay in the Ashram in 1951, when she was sixteen. She began working at SABDA while still a student at SAICE and continued until 1994. In 1952 she also began her work of telling and writing stories for children. She has been looking after Sri Smriti museum since its inception in 1989.