Reflecting on the Pandemic Through a 20th Century Telegu Poem


The movement of men in Telegu poet Srirangam Srinivasa Rao's—popularly known as Sri Sri—poem 'Some People Laugh / Some People Cry' may not be relatable to the lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic but its last lines ring a familiar note.

Sir, when will this end? / Son, this is endless.

The poem first appeared in the 1966 collection Khadga Srushti (The Creation of the Sword) but is known to have been written in the 1940s when Sri Sri was a poet and political activist, and was experimenting with surrealism. 

A critique of human existence in urban society, the poem provides a fitting lens to reflect upon the current pandemic and the relentlessness of being.

Efforts and Ends

Meet the suicidal philanthropist of Stanza One, who gives away his watch and wallet. However, what begins as an altruistic act ends in death, in nothingness. 

He throws his coat into the river and follows the / coat into the water.

There is something to be said here about finding one's 'true purpose'—especially during lockdown when we have time on our hands, or so say the influencers and productivity enthusiasts—and seeing one's efforts meet an unfruitful end.

Or, as the man in Stanza Three depicts, one may be near one's milestone—waiting endlessly for the perfect opportunity—but one may never cross it as one loses all sense of time.

A man sits silently near a milestone... / He forgets all / time looking at a cloud.

Pandemic and Poetry

Don't believe those who say that art can save the world for ennui is just around the corner from creativity—pandemic or no pandemic.

Meet the poet in Sri Sri's poem, who is engaged in mechanical tasks, interpreting "messages that he receives in secret code" and being the reason for "the fall of prices in the market". This commodification of art is even more obvious in the lines:

A man loves only one woman. She dies. Follow the rest of the story / on the silver screen.

Creativity is dead and predictability has taken over as platforms like Netflix—the 'new silver screen' of isolation—peddle us the same, stale scripts for mass consumption.

Even the musician—who is perhaps the only soothing image in the poem—finds it hard to make "stars catch fire" as "Winter begins to bud".

Who Laughs / Who Cries

In this world of continuous chaos, who laughs and who cries? Stanza Two may have an answer in the image of a man who knows "all the ins and outs of this trade", whose money multiplies like "golden eggs" though "tears (possibly of those who he exploits) drip from them like yolk".

This businessman benefits from this chaos as do the god-men of Stanza Nine. But perhaps most of all, it is the corrupt State that benefits by further propagation of chaos. Stanza Twelve tells us that instead of proactive measures, leaders become great by making speeches—need I even make a comparison here?

The law too washes its hands off delivering justice in Stanza Eleven, as it hangs an innocent man, while society "buys peace with his death". The man is remembered only by a dog.

One man's crying makes you laugh; another's laugh makes / you cry.

Memory and language lose purpose; boredom, frustration, and meaninglessness take over—all an increasingly big part of our own 'new normal' in this pandemic.

The last line of the poem (quoted in the beginning) is perhaps a final attempt at communication. However, even this short exchange between a shishya (pupil) and the guru (teacher) provides only one answer, which is that this state of existence is truly endless. 

And on and on andonandonandonandon ...

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POEM TRANSLATED FROM THE TELEGU TO ENGLISH BY VELCHERU NARAYANA RAO.
FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: ANAND BOOKS, ALTERED BY THE LITERARY EDIT 

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