Koee Naon Na Jane Mera
(Nobody Knows even my Name)
Literary profile of Dr. Neki's autobiography in verse


Koee Naon na Jane Mera (Nobody Knows even my Name) by Dr Jaswant Singh Neki was published by Navyug, Delhi, in 2000. This work is the author's magnum opus. It is his autobiography in verse. Autobiography in verse is a genre most rarely exploited by writers. Altogether, there do not appear to be more than a score of verse-autobiographies in the entire world literature. In the Indian literature, Guru Gobind Singh's autobiography Bachitra Natak in Braj Bhasha is the most well known such work. In 1641 one Banarasi also produced an autobiography in Hindi but, though rhymed, it could not be considered a real poetic work. To my knowledge, there is hardly any other verse-autobiography in the Indian literature certainly not in the Punjabi literature.

In the introduction to his work, Neki contemplates the possible poetics of such a genre, possibly with the unacknowledged intent of relying on them as a manifesto for his work. First, he examines why this genre has been in such rare vogue. One reason that he proposes is that poetry requires a focus while an autobiography is essentially devoid of one. " Yet", he says, " in spite of being devoid of a definitive focus, a life may yet have an ideal or an overriding value to which it may be attached. If an autobiography does not deviate very much from such an ideal, the aforesaid difficulty may well be overcome". Another reason he discovers for the rarity of this genre is that an autobiography in fact any kind of biography deals with factual and substantive realities such as individuals, events, dates and places. But poetry deals more with the imaginative than with the factual. He proposes a way out of this impasse as well by suggesting that a verse-autobiography would do well to base itself on poetic truth rather than historic truth and present not bare events but rather their emotive vibrations.

The author examines the variety of purposes with which an autobiography is written. One of them, he says, is to prove, "Who I am". An autobiography written with such a purpose, he says, might become exhibitionistic or even worse as almost worshipful reverence for oneself. Another purpose may be to describe what kind of relations one has had in one's life. Such an endeavor has limitations on both extremities. Life is beset, on the one end, with a nameless impersonality, and on the other with the uncertain moment of certain mortality. One can say nothing substantial about either of these except through imagination. A third purpose, he believes, may well be to demonstrate the philosophy of one's life. However, contemplation of philosophy is essentially inactive and so distances itself from the dynamics of life. Moreover, philosophic autobiography does not tell us anything about who one is, but may tell us what life is. The author tends to override these three purposes and says," I have had a life full of faith and gratitude and I have tended largely to gratefully talk about the blessings I have received of education, of love, of travel, of mystic lore, or whatever else." "Again and again", he says, "I have repeated in my mind the following verse of Guru Nanak:

All greatness rests with You, my Lord
Nobody knows even my name.

It is from this that the title of the book was derived.
One of the predicaments of autobiography is that it must neither conceal nor confess anything. If it is secretive and conceals things, it becomes indicative of lack of self-confidence. On the other side, confessional autobiography, in a way, reminds one of the Christian ritual 'confessional' that supposedly leads to expiation of sins. That is, perhaps, why the confessional style became prevalent in Western autobiographies. In the Eastern religions, man is considered to err morally due more to ignorance than to sinfulness and ignorance can be remedied not by confession, but by knowledge. Hence, 'confession' would be totally unnatural for the Eastern psyche. By confession, one tries to be truthful in one's own eyes. As a result, many autobiographies in the West, and blindly emulating them many in the East also, have made it a point to confess not only some actual sins but also many imagined ones. In fact, memory and invention often jointly weave such confessions. Many autobiographies, under the banner of realism are really of this nature. According to a modern critic, Modern realistic autobiography is as prevalent as rape, but is equally despicable. Neki says that the dictates of the cultural cradle in which he grew up did not permit him to indulge in such vagaries.

He also examines the significance of the pronoun 'I' in an autobiography and concludes that it does not indicate an egoistic position of the author. It rather indicates a referential point for cognizing the reality juxtaposed with oneself. It is the essential requirement for the manifestation of empirical reality thus acting as a mirror of the universe. The above-mentioned considerations seem to be among the philosophic underpinning of the work that we have under our consideration.

This work has its own specific architectonics. It is comprised of four books, each one roughly corresponding to childhood, maturity, involution, and senescence. Each part begins with its own preamble and ends with its own epilogue both with significant import. Here, for example is the epilogue of the first book:

My life is a journal, a diary, in it
I wrote one tale but another got writ.
My fancy built but castles of sand,
My effort drew but lines in brine.
Enrolling my name in destiny's scroll,
A spot I got on the slopes of Time.

And here is the one with which the book closes:

Water that flowed through arches mine
Now doth ripple by threshold thine.
Fragrance that left my balmy glade
Carries a message to your gate.
Dried up leaves dropped from my bough
Heaped are in your mansion's shade.
Mysteries the Time revealed unto me,
As much I could, I passed on to thee.
What so 's left shall go with me, at reckoning of avail shall be.

Not unexpectedly, the poet switches over from one manner of expression to another - descriptive, narrative or reflective - with natural ease and as required by the content. Similarly, he employs a meter that can be halved or even quartered as and when required. Thus the basic rhythm is preserved without allowing monotony to creep in. Such techniques he handles with unusual dexterity.His portraits of the innocence of his childhood, of his variegated love-experiences, of his days in the dissection hall, of the tragedy attending upon the partition of India, some of his clinical experiences, and a series of mystic excursions, all are variously impressive.

Here and there, he provides metaphysical interludes that add special profundity to his throbbing lyricality. The sections dealing with intrauterine life, experiences heralding the advent of poetry in him, thoughts on the creation of human body, insights from cases of physical and mental illness treated by him, confrontation with death, the 'tale that transcends life' are sections particularly replete with deep insights.

He has been a very extensive traveler. He has captured in impressive lyrics his mood on visiting many a place he has been to. His odysseys are spread over all the continents. He includes in this work lyrics on many places in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Asia. These lyrics weave his personal geography.However, the sequence of events is only incidental in Neki's poetry. Preoccupation with meaning is the core of his poetry. His search for meaning acquires the tangibility of images of human values. Meaning for him seems to have become a counterpart of beauty. His work seems to blend the human and the existential with natural ease. With his deep knowledge of science as well as of human behavior, he feels that man is not just a physical entity, but a wonder-world of variegated mysteries. Science, he feels, though powerful within its boundaries is powerless without. He says:

What I see with my eyes, my instruments enlarge.
Beyond their grip is the real at large.
        
The visible is by the invisible blest
Ever 'tis an idea becomes manifest.

The earthquake of Quetta that left thousands dead and in which the author, then nine year old, was buried under the debris for hours, stupefied him, but did break his spirit. His humanism survived that calamity. However, it seems to have suffered a great blow when he witnessed man's barbarity against man. The suffering unleashed by the holocaust of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and then the widespread rioting during India's partition made his faith in man collapse. He finds to his dismay that the psyche of war-mongers is still active. As a result he is greatly perturbed, and humanism as well as nationalism appear as caricatures in his imagination. The pain that he feels has entered his poetry and stands out in relief in this autobiography. He craves to be one with the whole cosmos and his craving is mingled with vismad, the ultimate wonderous freedom. The several personal mystic experiences he chooses to portray are a testimony of this. In these, he appears to stand face to face with his artistic uniqueness.

This autobiography, then, transports the reader into a cosmos of mystiques and beauty, and exercises a liberating influence over his psyche.