At the first glance, the cover of Ankur Betageri's collection of poems, with the portrait of a man in a turtleneck and a jacket, and a crow perched on where his head should have been, reminds you of a Milan Kundera novel – somber, philosophical, and abstract. You read the title – The Bliss and Madness of Being Human, and it sort of fits. Don't be in a haste to judge the book though. It has more to offer than either bliss or madness, or for that matter, the secrets of being human. Here lies the beauty of this brave collection; it defies your expectation at every stage. As you start reading, you come close to catching the pulse of the young, serious poet and when you think you have nailed him, he offers you another poem, and you are caught off guard. You are up for an adventure. As Betageri himself defines poetry: “(it) simplifies/ the humdrum, amplifies/the hum,/ until the hum rearranges your essence.” His poems promise to do simply this.
And, like Kundera, Betageri too ponders over the meaning of life, not as an abstract philosophical exercise but with an urgency to connect with the universe, to make sense of his life and his surrounding and its place in the universe. The collection contains 51 poems, including a long 'dialogue' on the nature of poetry itself, titled 'The Grasshopper and the Ant', divided into four sections. At first glance, the sections seem meaningless, as the theme, content and concern of the poems arranged accordingly cover diverse issues, from issues of what poetry is to the issues of the economy-driven materialism that surrounds us, to the troubles of the common man, to the 'unfamiliar familiar feel'. Yet, you finish the book and a pattern emerges. The dates at the end of some of the poems help. This book is a poetic journey of a young man in modern India, grappling with himself, his environment and his place in the universe. This is the everyman's journal of growing up. This is a personal journey seeking the universal. And suddenly, the title makes perfect sense.
In this post-post-modern world without a discernible centre, personal becomes the political. In his poetry, Betageri attempts to connect personal with the universal. In the cosmological sense of the word. “The centre of the universe is where my/consciousness begins to throb…” he says in the poem entitled 'At the Centre of the Universe': “… I fling myself like a handful of sand/ over the sad limited space of the earth/ and begin to grow unchecked, unrestricted, uncontrolled.”
This is Betageri's poetic ambition: To grow unrestricted. “I am water: I am where there are tears/ of happiness or of pain/ I am water: I am without borders and am never fully contained…”
This he achieves in fits and starts as the real life catches up, where he is lost in the city, in the market economy, in the confusion of love and other mundane issues. He is a stranger in the city: “I pay—enjoy—and I must be gone!” At the end, what keeps him together is poetry. “… and when I write/ I am touched/ by the miracle of what is/ and thus slowly/ I become real/ and the world becomes real/ in me.”
For Betageri poetry is not a flight of fancy. For him, poetry is not a hobby or a means of expression. For him poetry is the means of survival. For him, poetry is the only way he can make sense of himself and everything else. “Something beautiful/ is brimming at the horizon of/ my brain/ I do not know what/ neurotransmitter it is, do not/ know what secretion it is/which is so filling me/ with bliss.” Betageri's poetry is an endless search for this bliss.
The field of Indian English poetry is a curious one. There are more poets on the horizon than there are readers. Apart from self-published collections, the cyberspace is filled with young poets bleeding their hearts out over keypads. Without going into the fine prints of good and bad poetry, the voluminous outpouring of current Indian English poetry can be classified into two broad categories: personal and incomprehensible. There are the poets whose only concern is the self, their inner-most feelings, which has rarely anything to do with the real world. Then there are big-name poets, who are more concerned about how they say it than what they say, ending in a futile exercise of word-play, making their poetry incomprehensible and distant from the reader.
In this context, Betageri's poetry, to use a cliché, is like a breath of fresh air. His poetry is more concerned about communication than anything else. He is more interested in what he is saying than how he is saying it. Purists may complain that in this concern for matter over manner, some of his work lack poetic grace. Which may be true, but to a certain extent, it is deliberate, for he doesn't want his concern for the subject to be lost in fancy poetic expression. For, Betageri can be as poetic as the next poet: “Art is a bell and a tombstone/ it's quiet as a bell/ and rings like a tombstone.” But, the urgency of his poetry lies elsewhere: To communication, to make sense, to find the true. He understands this and in the poem titled 'For the Indian English Poets', he explains it succinctly: “You who fail to see/ that poetry is a voice against injustice/ and assert your vain gentility;/ you who shield your soul from the spark/ of sincerity…” Betageri's poetry sparkles with this sincerity.
When you say that Betagri's poetry is an attempt of the person to reach the universal, it is not to say that his poetry is unconcerned with the “real world”. Instead it is the city life of malls and machines that acts as a conduit for the poet's journey from personal to universal. As a poet, he is a 'stranger in the city' who is fully aware that 'our desire is disintegrating.' He is at war with the reality that surrounds him, yet he is not dismissal of it. Despite the contradiction that the country offers, he finds a meaning in it: “The Indian soul is us, a will that has found its sap/ the Indian soul is us, a light that cannot be stopped.” Yet, he is not blind to the hypocrisies that surround us: “Why is kissing in public awkward/ when a stare of hatred is not?”
In the context, Betageri's poetry is neither despairing nor optimist, but stoic, to say the least. Beneath this stoicism, this quiet rage, there is an attempt to make a connection, to find a point of alleviation. Sometimes he fails, sometimes he succeeds: “You look around and see/ your whole inner self/ in all its trembling/ irritably burning/ nakedness/ splayed out in the shuddering body/ of the 'boy' who serves chai.”
For the uninitiated, this is poetry in its most raw, primitive sense, unadulterated by the sheen of the 'arts and crafts'. It is a shaman's chant, it is a prayer for the universe, where language is not the concern, the heart is. The heart hears.