DASHBALBAR OCHIRBAT AND THE ART OF BEING PROUD
by Batkhuyag Pürevkhüü
Thinking about it now, it seems like many years ago. I was a child in tenth grade, there were many poems written on the back of my algebra book. But if I had met the man who had written the book of poems called A Shining Love, I would ask him just ione thing. Slowly, I practised in front of a mirror, planning how I would stand, how I would speak. But I met him suddenly, in a corridor, one autumn evening when the leaves were falling. With barely a word of greeting, I asked my question:
“How should a poet carry himself?”
“Poets are good-for-nothings. But of course they’re about.”
I didn’t really understand, but it didn’t show.
We walked along together and I can remember what he told me as though it had happened yesterday.
“An Indian ascetic said that, when we’ve finished cutting down all the trees and catching all the fish, we’ll understand that we cannot eat gold. In just this way, when one agèd eagle is left in the mountains and one dark wolf is left on the steppe, then people will understand the wisdom of being proud. These creatures were born from a divine lineage and it seems that they have more pride than we humans do. So that we might be proud, we can learn one small thing from the eagle and the wolf, which is to speak the truth. In our behavior, we should appear to be just like the eagle, just like the wolf rushing over the steppe.” The next day, I decided to let my hair grow.
For a whole year I kept the scissors away from my hair. My hair grew long and fluttered in the wind and I imagined myself somehow to be an eagle of incomparable pride and boundless beauty. For a whole year I didn’t meet with the poet, the student of the wolf and the eagle. But I met him suddenly, in a corridor, one autumn evening when the leaves were falling. The place seemed charged, he looked at me strangely. His glance cut through me like a knife, it was the love of a father for his eldest son. I had not encountered such a glance before. I left him and went home and, on the way, I felt profoundly disappointed in myself. The next day, I cut my hair. I felt sure I couldn’t be the proud student of the wolf and the eagle, for this is what he had said to me:
“All things in the world are art. Not one thing on the earth is not art. If you do not sense this art, it is pointless to write poetry. Moreover, poetry is attitude. The person who expresses attitude in a poem is a real poet – so there are very few poets in Mongolia.” And he sighed.
After this, the time passed in a daze. While people seemed to passing by me like flashing arrows or like lightning, the import of what he had said to me flowed in circles. I would have liked things to have gone just a little slower. There was no point in worrying, though. If only he had made me aware that autumn evening of the inevitability of aging and, more so, of death. I never realised that, as the time passed, it would be difficult to write about those things. The leaves withered and crumbled in my palm and slowly they poured out onto the table like the sands of time. We came together and talked about the Buddha, or else shelled cedar nuts into a table draw. During every day of four years of study, I gave myself completely, I stepped out and with shining eyes read the poems of Blok, Pasternak, Whitman, Ravjaa, Kipling, Baratshvili, Nyamsüren and Burns. I carried a big leather bag and while I couldn’t protect my body from death, I imagined that death might be afraid of my bag. Whatever I did, I needed this, so as to contain every sentence.
“The weakest person bends the knee before Death. The person who has no fear of Death is the one who knows Death best. By thinking again and again about death, we know our life has meaning.” He spoke about all of this in one of his poems:
A flash of great, inextinguishable beauty darts through the mind.
Here and there it whispers the annihilation of death.
I really think that he wanted to “annihilate death”. His pride was disgusted by deceit and lies. For him, it was appropriate to speak hard words generously, to make friends with unsympathetic people and to keep away from ingratiating people.
A bend in a river doesn’t need to be moved.
The Buddha watches over everything.
In this poem he is saying that there is no point associating with people who are flattering, vicious or who are prone to backbiting. Generosity and kind-heartedness are too rare.
While many words are used to ignore people and to do them harm, it is probably true that proper and true words do not occur to the mind. One autumn night, I followed him to a party at someone’s appartment. I was showing off, playing the guitar, and he sat there, smiling a little, and sang the following verse:
Upon the brown steppe of stories,
I grow up, wrapped in the mantle of cloud.
On the steppe, blue with smoke from the ger,
I grow up, close to the shining sun.
I really admired how he could retain his pride while singing. But slowly I became blind to his weeping. And I suppose he was weeping because of his pride. The reason was that he had seen a picture, taken around Golden Hill, and his eyes were glistening with tears. We took examinations in winter and spring, our pride was also tested. In his examination, the people who got a recommendation were those who had quite a bit of this pride.
“Read a lot. But don’t read – there’s no point.” And while he was giving us advice to choose well in what we read, he would be asking us things like, How long ago did Yasunari Kawabata die?
He taught us,
Everyone passes from the cradle to the coffin.
Make friends with each other, not with yourself.
He talked of how he imagined the pleasure of having a powerful enemy and the pleasure of taking revenge upon that enemy. Was it true that only a few people understood the explosive force of his “proud” world and the “pride of the world”?
Nowadays, there are no poets who have never left their homeland. But there are few students who have studied books. We accept them all, we watch sadly from one side as some get blown about in the air, and, though we may become quite close with some of them, they hit us smack in the face. His “pride” responded directly to this question when he wrote,
Why do people today place such value
Upon rash and petty behavior?
I compare sober people, poets of stillness,
With a shining Buddha image, placed in a box.
“It is hardly necessary to hope that sober poets with still minds will produce fine poems. Watching how miserable our people are, their impertinent words, how they refer to a great river as gentle, how they refer to scholars as calm, these so-called sober poets write many sober and undemanding poems, and teachers make little contribution. In the USA,” he would shout, “they don’t want democracy. Just be happy you weren’t born in Africa!” And then, “We no longer have days when we smile when we wake up, we try to do useless things and we have cast away our memory.”
I remember the difficult days in the city, later on, before I went to university. Hungry and thirsty, I went to his place. I hinted at what’s on my mind. He didn’t ask me in, the lovely smell of tea and bansh hit my nose. He pointed a large cup at the stuffed bansh and the tea and then, in scornful amusement, at my stomach. His wife gave me a full cup of tea and three bansh. In my annoyance, the tears came pouring out and I couldn’t drink the tea. So, having accomplished nothing in the city, I went home, the country mouse longing for “pride”.
At that time, he wrote out his “pride” in a poem,
The tractor ploughs
the virgin soil to pieces.
The bulldozer destroys
a building of rotting mud,
as though rubbing dirt from a pot .
On the way from home to work, we bumped into some acquaintances in an alleyway. We all shook hands and asked after each other’s health. Most of them were women. They said they wanted to meet celebrities. He looked up on purpose. He really showed no sign of aging. He read with interest what he tabloids wrote about him. He tended to treat them sneeringly.
The more they exaggerate, the more their true colors show.
The seven Buddhas shine like the stars.
“My passionate spirit is tough on everyone. Starting from today, I shall have a pleasant spirit.” His body had recently been a little weak, there had been many, many meetings, the result of his many connections. I met him one last time, it was in a corridor, one autumn evening when the leaves were falling, he was wearing a button with the national flag on his deel. Looking at him from behind, he again seemed proud, like an eagle or a dark steppenwolf. When he reached the end of his path, we gave him a rapturous farewell. Evening came, and I wrote him a poem about beginning and ending, in the form of questions.
Questions to Dashbalbar
Your first thought?
What does it mean to be boastful?
Your middle thought?
Who exactly is the person I was searching for?
The very center of your middle thought?
How can I write about that?
The thought at the end of your middle thought?
How can I speak the unspoken truth?
Your final thought?
I’m looking tired.
Your thought after your final thought?
Am I living as an invincible person?
Did I live “proudly”, like a poet?
Your last thought?
How do I hold onto my power?
He was a “proud” man up until he died.
May I come back to meet him in my own proud and happy autumn.
translated by Simon Wickham-Smith