The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A meeting by the Wayside Inn


1. A Writer's Cunning

When Jejuri was published in 1976, I was fourteen years old. I heard about it only the following year, when the Times of India announced it had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and carried a piece on Arun Kolatkar. Later, if I remember correctly, the Times featured, on a Sunday, an article on the poet, the book, and the actual town of Jejuri, a site of pilgrimage in the state of Maharashtra; it was probably when Kolatkar’s droopy moustache and longish hair became familiar to me from a photograph. It seems extraordinary that this newspaper, which, for a decade now, has pretended there’s no such thing as literature, should have devoted so much newsprint to a poet; but the ethos in Bombay was still friendly, in an almost unthinking, unformulated way, toward Indian poetry in English, in a spirit of friendliness towards what it saw to be various recreational pastimes.

I first met Kolatkar in early 2000, when I was in Bombay to launch a novel. I’d extended my stay in order to seek him out; I hoped to ask him to give Jejuri to the international publishing house who published me at the time (for whom I’d just begun to edit a series that would give modern Indian classics, both translated and in English, a fresh lease of life), and so make Jejuri available to the worldwide audience I felt it deserved. At the time, the book was not only not published internationally; it was only available — though it had acquired a reputation as a key work of contemporary Indian literature in the years since it had first appeared — in limited print runs at a couple of bookshops in Bombay and, I was told, Pune from Pras Prakashan. This small press was run by Kolatkar’s friend, Ashok Shahane, a man who was, as Kolatkar said in an interview to the poet, Eunice De Souza, “very active in the Marathi little magazine movement”. Jejuri’s author was, by all accounts, content, even determined, that this was how things should continue to be.

I was told by Adil Jussawalla, one of the most respected and defining figures of Bombay’s poetry scene in English, that Kolatkar could be found at the Wayside Inn on Thursday, after half past three. The Wayside Inn was in a neighbourhood called Kala Ghoda, which means ‘black horse’: so named because of the statue in black stone of King Edward VII on his horse that once stood at its centre, in the space that’s long been converted into a car park. Shaped by the colonial past, reshaped by republican and nationalist zeal, Kala Ghoda had become a cosmopolitan ‘here and now’, located at the confluence of downtown and the arts and commercial districts. Wayside Inn itself overlooked the Jehangir Art Gallery and Max Mueller Bhavan, the centre for German culture; Elphinstone College, the David Sassoon Library, the Regal Cinema, and the Prince of Wales Museum were a short distance away; Rhythm House, for a long time Bombay’s largest music store, was next door. The banks and offices of Flora Fountain, one of the city’s more venerable business districts, weren’t far away either. In the midst of office-goers, students, and people heading towards matinee shows and art exhibitions, were the small families of the homeless who had settled down on the pavements around the Jehangir Art Gallery and Rhythm House, the prostitutes who appeared at night and sometimes loitered about in the afternoon, and the pushers in front of the Prince of Wales Museum, who, by the late Seventies, had come to stay. The friends Kolatkar met up with at the Wayside Inn were from the intermittently overlapping spheres of art and commerce, poets and friends from the advertising world in which, for many years, he’d made his living; but it was the low-life, the obscure daily-wage-earners, and the itinerant families of Kala Ghoda he looked upon from the open window, and whom he’d been writing about for twenty years. The sequence, Kala Ghoda Poems, was published shortly before his death by Ashok Shahane.

I was familiar with the area; I’d spent a year at Elphinstone College in 1978. It was then that I’d bought Jejuri from Thacker’s Bookshop in the same area; both it and the Wayside Inn no longer exist; the latter’s been replaced by an upmarket Chinese restaurant. But in 2000, I found Kolatkar there on the Thursday afternoon; three or four meetings, another trip to Bombay, and long-distance telephone calls to a neighbour’s phone (he didn’t possess one himself) followed in my attempt to make him sign the contract. I found him a mixture of unassumingness, reticence, mischief, and recalcitrance. His well-known prickliness about contracts came not so much, I think, from a feeling of neglect, or a bogus, but not uncommon, claim to nationalist pride among arriviste Indian writers, as a sense of allegiance to a sub-culture that had, by now, largely disappeared; the sub-culture that had given him his wariness as well as his writer’s cunning and resources. At one point, I was interviewed at the Inn by a group of friends, including Shahane — a sort of grilling by the ‘firm’ — while Kolatkar occasionally played, in a deadpan way, my advocate. His questions and prevarications regarding the contract betrayed a fiendish ingeniousness: “It says the book won’t be published in Australia. But I said nothing about Australia.” Only my reassurance, “I’ve looked at the contract and I’d sign it without any doubts in your place,” made him tranquil.

Finally, he did sign; something more extraordinary to me, and of which I’m more proud, than if I’d been an agent who’d secured a multi-million-dollar deal. Why the series fell through, and why I left that publisher, is a matter I won’t go into here. But, in the long term, the bitter disappointment turned out to be a blessing. It’s the reason why the edition you now hold in your hands exists; and I should add that Kolatkar, who died in September 2004, was pleased, without reservations for once, at the prospect of its existence.

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