Speaking of a book he admired, “The Death of Virgil” by Hermann Broch, K. V. Tirumalesh noted: “[Y]ou very soon discover that it is not the story that keeps you going. There is some other sheer narrative power that sweeps over the reader— something beyond the story. It becomes orchestra and also painting across an immensely large canvas.” The same can be said of his own poems. The inaugural poetry translation section of The Bombay Literary Magazine opens with a tribute to the late K. V. Tirumalesh, a thought-provoking voice in Kannada literature. We feature a collection of his poems on, apparently, cats, translated by Prathibha Nandakumar.
— Mani Rao
The Bombay Literary Magazine
In banter with friends, light-eyed K. V. Tirumalesh often likened himself to a cat. While his poems are replete with elephants, ants, grasshoppers, horses, snakes, camels and a hoard of other animals, the poems featuring cats are particularly delightful. On the one hand, he seems to be in conversation with a cat, but we also get the feeling that the cat is really his alter-ego. As both cat and poet, Tirumalesh conjures a framework with which to critique society.
K. V. Tirumalesh’s poems are accessible and yet intriguing, and often interpretable at different levels. He often wove in references from Kannada literature into his poems. An example is the line “Nadedu banda daraigale?” (Were they the routes he took?) Here, he is making a reference to the classic poem by M Gopalakrishna Adiga titled ‘Nadedu Banda Dari’ and a book of the same title by G. B. Joshi on the history of Kannada literature. Adiga’s title had indicated a new phase in his own writing, a shedding of the old romantic style and the beginning of a Navya or modern movement in Kannada poetry. Since then, this phrase had become famous in Kannada to indicate a shift in one’s writing, as well as looking back.
KVT took innuendo and the conversational tone to a new height in Kannada poetry. An example: when he writes ‘gottiralillave?’ – though the written words are ‘did not know’, it implies ‘did I not know?’ or ‘did you not know?’ or even ‘how did you not know?’ and ‘how did I not know?’
— Prathibha Nandakumar
The Cat and the Grasshopper
The blazing afternoon sun dims.
A white bundle of a cat between the plants
stays still, unmoving.
A grasshopper jumps before him
from twig to twig
pausing a moment at each.
What a fate, unable to be steady
Now gone, now seen
Is it the same or a different one?
The cat looks at the grasshopper
Or only at its swift movement? In parts or as a whole?
Unaware that the grasshopper is watching too.
The cat plays dead between the plants.
Like a stone or maybe a ball of crumpled paper.
Those don’t look like eyes.
More like a lantern held to the sun.
The grasshopper is on its own, jumping about. The cat has forgotten what it is waiting for.
Watching it all afternoon— the cat the grasshopper the plant and the stone.
Such was the time.
At such a time, the cat shining in the glassy light.
The grasshopper jumping about is magic too.
One cannot peep into this sovereign world
unless it is destroyed.
And once broken, it shatters
And the man who sees it as it is
will remain outside forever,
rejected by both cat and grasshopper.
Is there a single wave?
A solitary ant is definitely dead.
and it’s the same with bees.
I have said this before.
Loneliness is unlike this. It is omnipresent.
Loneliness lurks, even when we laugh or chat.
Sometimes as a memory.
At other times a craving to act.
It’s a secret, like
a pocket within a pocket,
a zipper stuck or caught in a riddle.
Loneliness is the way of a cat.
Why it got lonely, I don’t know.
I have seen loneliness in cats on the streets of Kasargod,
in pedigrees in Hyderabad, and in Sana’s famous cats.
They get together only to mate and litter.
Kittens cuddle in the cold
and go separate ways as they grow.
Yet, I have seen cats that come asking for shelter
scratching the closed door,
just when people are watching Dead Man Walking.
On Being Spiritual
A cat in Bavaria
tangled in a spiritual ball of thread,
winding and unwinding
not knowing the difference
between the two.
A mere cat, tangled,
unable to let go.
This, exactly this,
is spiritual, I said,
but nobody wants to hear me.
Caught up in the daily grind,
consumed by the search for
food and drink, day and night,
Smashing rats and frogs and insects and worms
And gorging on their companions.
A Cat on the Stairs
A cat on the stairs
caught in a bind,
which way to go—
up, or down?
Where have I come from, and where am I going,
why am I here? Puzzled, he glances
upwards and downwards.
Which is genuine and which is fake?
The top is identical to the bottom.
What shadows are these, and of what shapes?
The door was opened and shut several times.
Who came in and who left?
Night becomes day in the blink of an eye.
The cat perks his ears.
At such silent moments, even
thoughts make noise.
A mile away, there’s a dense forest
where another animal roams
in the pristine fearlessness
of a bygone era.
A fat cat walked into my living room,
and halted, finding me there.
Maybe he wasn’t expecting me.
Definitely, not on a Monday afternoon,
when all are busy at their offices.
He gave me a discontented look.
Our eyes locked,
a sort of undeclared war
began between us.
Who should look away first?
That a cat’s eyes can be so still,
I was unaware.
Tail upright, hair stiff, claws dug in,
he was a bow well strung.
Conquered my entire territory.
I was lost in prehistoric continents.
Sunk into unknown oceans.
Yet, I dared not blink,
for he did not.
Something fundamental to man and beast
stood before me, persistence personified
as this cat.
That a cat’s eyes can be so bereaved,
I was unaware.
Finally, was it the feline that lost,
or did I think so?
That pinched body slowly relaxed,
and he walked away in a catwalk.
Left me looking vacant. Really,
I should have lost to him.
He had his feline pride to defend.
What was in it for me?
One must win like Bahubali
by giving in.
That a cat’s eyes could hold such grief,
I was unaware.
In the back alley
a cat wrinkled here and there
“Sir!’ he stopped me,
“Don’t you recognize me?
Currently, there is no poem in Kannada
that compares to ‘Encounter’, Sir.
Can you hand me eight annas, Sir?’
The cat made a long face,
gripped by obscure memories.
Were they roads he had taken?
Alleys he had searched?
I had never met him.
Our neighbourhood is more dog friendly.
Please adopt me, sir,” asked the cat.
“I only need some rice,
Through me you can bridge
the gap between poetry and reality.”
No critic had ever said that to me.
‘Hey no not possible’, I said,
‘it’s a dog’s world here.’
I gave him a rupee.
The miserable cat meowed.
I’ll run into you like this someday, he said,
and vanished, just as he had appeared.
I was lost in my thoughts
as is typical of poets.
What was that noise?
Didn’t I know
a cat’s yowling,
until that moment?
K. V. Tirumalesh (author)
K V Tirumalesh (1940 – 30 January 2023) was prolific across genres – as a poet, novelist, translator, critic, essayist and author. For his collections of poems Akshaya Kavya in Kannada, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010.
He held a master’s degree in English literature and a doctorate degree in linguistics. He taught at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.
Beginning with his first collection of poems Mukhavadagalu in 1968 he spearheaded the modernist school of writing in Kannada literature. This was followed by Vathara, Mahaprasthana, Mukhamukhi, Avadha, Paapiyoo, Akshaya Kavya, Aayda Kavitegalu and Arabbi.
His work in other genres include two novellas Tarangantaranga and Dawn Quixote and eight collections of essays and criticisms.
Tirumalesh died in Hyderabad on 30 January 2023, at the age of 82.
Prathibha Nandakumar (translator)
Prathibha Nandakumar (64) is a leading Kannada poet, journalist, film maker, columnist and translator. Her publications include 17 collections of poems, two collections of short stories, three biographies, one collection of essays, one autobiography. Her translation into Kannada includes Shashi Deshpande’s short stories, Anand Neelakanthan’s novel The Saga of Sivagami, Mani Rao’s poems Love Me in a Hurry, and Arlene Hutton’s play I dream Before I take the Stand. She has translated from Kannada to English Agni Sreedhar’s Kannada novel The Gangster’s Gita, Surendranath’s novel Slices of the Moon Swept by the Wind and others. Her poems are translated to English, Swedish, Chinese, Finnish, Danish, Spanish, German, Hebrew and other Indian languages.
Her poems are included in major anthologies including Unbound – 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing, Interior Decoration, and Beyond Borders- Anthology of SAARC poets, and In Their Own Voice – Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women Poets.
She has won major awards that include the Infosys Foundation Award for Literature, Bangalore Literary Festival Award, Dr Shivarama Karanth Award, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Book Award, Mahadevi Verma Kavya Samman.