A poet-diplomat's ode to Latin America

The book of poems can also serve as a travel map

Abhay Kumar

If TS Eliot's Prufrock was to visit the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, he might sing: "In the Sambadrone dancers come and go/showing off their torso," or so poet Abhay Kumar reimagines the famous lines in Eliot's lovesong in his latest collection of poems The Alphabets of Latin America

The very first poem which Kumar wrote in the book was 'Carnival: Prufrock at the Carnival in Rio'. The dancers, the swelling crowd, the sounds, lights and colours at Rio's "modern Rasleela" are images that stayed with the poet-diplomat during his stay and travels in Latin America from 2016 to 2019, during which time he also served in the Indian mission of Brasilia.

Currently serving as India's Ambassador to the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar and Comoros, Kumar has crafted a joyous ode to the rich cultural and literary heritage of a beguiling continent which was once the ground beneath his feet. 

“The common expectation is that literature born amid social and economic crisis by nature must be didactic and polemical, obsessed with simplistic affirmations of identity and written in a raw idiom unconcerned with nuance,” but that a look at Latino/a poetries “will frustrate that expectation.”  wrote Martín Espada in El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (1997).  Latin American poets like Pablo Neruda, Octavia Paz, Gabriela Mistral and Jorge Luis Borges inspired Kumar to take up a diplomatic assignment in the region. Kumar himself has published eight collections of poetry, including 'The Prophecy of Brasilia'. His poems have been published in 60 literary journals, including Poetry Salzburg Review. He's also edited collections like New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems. 

So, the poet in him heeded the call of a fascinating continent waiting to be explored more than geopolitical interests. "In fact, Latin American poets like Neruda, Paz and Mistral were all poets and diplomats at the same time. Neruda was Chile's ambassador to France, Paz was Mexico's ambassador to India and Mistral was the cultural representative of Chile," says Kumar. "All of them went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. They created a special group of poet-diplomats who have excelled in both poetry and diplomacy," he says. 

In over 100 poems, Kumar has enthusiastically dipped into the dizzying, many-splendoured wonders of South American society and culture for poetic inspiration. From Amazon, Atacama and Ayahuasca to quetzal, Santiago and Tijuca, there is a sense of yearning and childlike joy upon discovering an exciting new geography. Hence, Brasilia is a "piece of cake", "a fantasy island in the lake", a "Dominican night shake". while Cartagena is a "city that squirms, then revels inhaling its smell".  In a delightful poem on Colombian figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero and the larger-than-life women he painted, Kumar calls them "xeroxed/yearning/zoomorphic/but not fat." The book of poems can also serve as a travel map in the way it covers a rich mosaic of cultural and geographic terrain. 

What about versifying the great human churning at this point in history? "I have not been infected by the poetry virus this pandemic. But I have used this time to translate Meghdoot and Ritusamhara of Kalidas from Sanskrit," says Kumar who is editing an anthology of great Indian love poems, out in October.