Below is an article about Satyendra Srivastava, longtime contributing editor to Ambit, who sadly passed away earlier this year. A shorter version of this article will form the core of Munni’s speech during an event organised at the House of Lords in remembrance of Satyendra on 30 July.
My husband, Dr Satyendra Srivastava, poet and academic, long associated with Ambit, died on 15th June of this year. Much has been written about his poetry and his ‘official’ persona but I would like to tell you about a young man of 23 who arrived in London in the late summer of 1958. It was his first trip out of India and he often used to describe the strange mixture of feelings he experienced as he watched the Gateway of India fading into the mist from the deck of the ship that brought him to Marseilles from where he travelled by train all the way to London.
Satish, as he was known to his family, was born in Azamgarh in Northern India on 5th August 1935 but his parents soon brought him to the family house in the Durgakhund area of Varanasi – the holy city on the Ganges, perhaps better known to older British readers as Banaras – so that his whole childhood was indelibly linked to this extraordinary place. The family were traditional landowners but his father and uncles had broken with tradition in the late 1920s and started a large stationery business so that his and his cousin’s life was very comfortable not to say privileged. Alas this idillic world was marred by the death of his father when Satish was a small child: in fact he hardly had any memories of him. The great influence in his life was his mother who by all accounts was an extraordinary woman. While her husband was still alive, she had heard Mahatma Gandhi’s call and become involved in the Quit India Movement and her convictions and courage are recalled in the much anthologised poem: Sir Winston Churchill knew my Mother which was published by Ambit and reprinted recently. Left a widow at a young age, she raised her son with great love and encouraged his artistic and literary tendencies, sometimes in the face of opposition from his elder uncle who was the head of the family.
His childhood took place against the amazing backdrop of temples and palaces in Varanasi, running round the tiny alleyways, playing on the ghats or swimming in the swollen waters of the Ganges to his mother’s dismay. He had a partner in crime in all this: Kailash Gupta, life-long friend and constant childhood companion. Kailash was a naughty little boy who often got them into trouble. After we were married I met Kailash and we became great friends. I would look at the face of this fifty-something man and could see the grin of a cheeky eight-year-old looking back at me! He is the one who delighted in recalling how, aged ten, they would sneak into mango groves through holes in the fence and gorge on the delicious fruit until an irate chaukhidar appeared, waving a stick. Kailash was always the one who sensed danger and would shout: ‘run, Satish, run’, but somehow, poor Satish was always the one who got caught, holding on to the incriminating bag of mangoes. At the instigation of Kailash, another favourite pursuit was to visit the local cinema – needless to say, minus tickets – to see their beloved Nargis. Like most young men of their time, they were desperately enamoured of the beautiful silkscreen goddess and saw one of her films twenty-eight times! These expeditions often ended in disgrace with Satish being brought back home to a tearful mother and uncles summoned to administer due punishment…
I believe that the tragic beauty and spirituality of Varanasi had an enormous influence on my husband’s development and his becoming interested in poetry and music. Encouraged by his mother, he started writing poetry as a very young boy and showed a talent far beyond his years. There were many poetry societies in the city and it was easy to attend kavisamelan – the large gatherings of poets and aficionados during which poetry would be read aloud or sung – and listen to a rich medley of Hindi and Urdu poetry. There was always a chance for a young promising student to be taken under the wing of one of these poets and allowed to read one of his own pieces at the beginning of the evening – the famous poets would recite late at night once the real connoisseurs were there and the temperature had cooled down pleasantly!
Kailash’s family lived in a section of Varanasi, known as Tulsi Kuan, which was a traditional Muslim area. A close neighbour happened to be the great Bhismillah Khan Sahib who, many years later, was introduced to this country by the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. By climbing on the flat roof of the house, the boys could hear the sweet sounds of the shanai as the maestro rehearsed or taught his students. If you hung around Tulsi Ghat long enough, you could also hear the great classical singer, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, singing under the night sky as he entertained friends and patrons in the old feudal family house. This love of classical music is one of the things that immediately drew us together when we met in London in 1967.
In 1950 as my husband had turned fifteen, tragedy struck and his world changed for ever. His beloved mother died of cancer and he would later recall in a poem how he managed to give her a last drop of water as she lay dying and it is easy to imagine what this experience must have been like for a young impressionable boy of fifteen. He somehow finished his schooling and went to Study English Lit at Poona University. After completing his degree, he hit the brick wall of graduate unemployment which blighted so many young talented lives in India in those years and this prompted him to come and study journalism in Britain.
While he was at university in Poona, he really found his voice as a poet, some of his first pieces were published then and some were turned into songs which were performed regularly on All India Radio.
So it was that he reached London in 1958 with £20 in his brand-new leather wallet – this being all what an impoverished Indian Exchequer could allow its citizens to take with them and build a life for themselves. The London he arrived in was a very different place from what it is today. The city was dark and dingy and still bore the scars of wartime bombing; proper peasoupers were still common and expressions of overt racism were never far from the surface. Rationing had only been abolished quite recently and food was still scarce and basic – not easy for a good Hindu boy, brought up as a strict vegetarian, which he remained to the last. I remember him saying to me once that at some point in the early 60s he found one of the first Indian grocers offering fresh bindhi for sale and he and his friend Murari had a celebratory meal. Until then okra had only been available in tins – a slimy horror which had very little to do with the real thing.
He soon forgot about the course in journalism and joined London University instead, studying history and eventually doing a PhD. By the mid 70s he was writing poetry regularly and having it published in India. The thing which was remarkable about him at that time is that while so many of the young Indian men he became friends with during his early years in London had been interested in poetry back home, some of them had even had work published, but somehow once they came here they lost their poetic voice and stopped writing. He, on the other hand, not only continued to write but widened his field of inspiration, wanting to reflect his experience of Britain and of life here in his work. In his long poetic piece, Mrs Jones aur wah galli – Mrs Jones and that little lane – he chose to look at the life in a traditional working class area of London and the changes brought to it by immigration from the Commonwealth. He was fascinated by the ways in which these various groups interacted or failed to. Although his early years in the city had been far from easy, having to work at a variety of uncongenial jobs to finance his studies and keep body and soul together, he developed an almost visceral love for London so that with Varanasi, the two cities became the poles between which his poetic life revolved. He published several collections of poetry in Hindi and also started writing regular columns for a variety of Hindi papers and Magazines in India but also in Britain. At the same time, he pursued a university career, teaching at Toronto University, then for several years at City University in London and eventually joining the department of Asian Studies at Cambridge University.
But his ability to reinvent himself never left him. In the early 1990s he had met Dr Martin Bax, the founder and editor of Ambit magazine. Dr Bax was impressed with him and encouraged him to have a go at writing English poems. This opened new doors for him and enabled him to make his work accessible to a western audience. Some four books of English poems appeared in India and in Britain and some of his poems were widely anthologised. He joined the editorial team of Ambit and his friendship for Martin Bax never lessened. Another friendship that should be mentioned is that of Mrs Jutta Austin. She had approached him during his Cambridge years as she wanted help with her Hindi studies. This chance encounter blossomed into a genuine meeting of minds and a great collaboration. She was responsible for translating many of his best known poems from Hindi into English. The importance of her role cannot be overstated.
In 2003 he retired from Cambridge and, suddenly free from teaching commitments, he was able to indulge in his passion for travelling. He decided to put his experience of world travel to good use, embarking on a series of travelogues which were published in India and for which he received several awards. Some wonderful poems came to life during that time and God knows what else he might have had up his sleeve had his health not deteriorated so drastically over the last eighteen months. Heart and other organ failures finally stilled that voice on 15th June but it will go on resonating in the hearts of many of his readers and friends. Fittingly he died in London and in December I will travel home to Varanasi and take his ashes to be scattered in the waters of the Ganges, off Deshaswimedh Ghat as he wished, in a place we both loved. The circle will be complete.