| Arun Kolatkar
III. The Human Eye
Some time after the demo, Kolatkar, in December 1973, began to write Jejuri. The impetus was provided by the twenty-six-year-old Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who’d just returned to India from the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, and had been asked by its director, Paul Engle, if he’d compile an anthology of Indian poetry for the program’s anthology series. Mehrotra asked Kolatkar if he had a suitable poem for the compilation. It was now that Kolatkar got down to writing the poem. Amazingly, he’d written a version before, from which a single poem, “A Low Temple”, had been published in a little magazine of the mid-Sixties in Bombay, Dionysius. The editor lost the manuscript; there was no copy. Kolatkar finished this sequence, with all its immediacy, a few months later after he began it, in early 1974, and sent it to Mehrotra; though the compilation was never completed, the entire poem was published that year in the Opinion Literary Quarterly.
This wasn’t the first time Kolatkar had published a poem-sequence in English (few poets have cultivated the sequence as Kolatkar did); in 1968, “the boatride” had appeared in Mehrotra’s little magazine, damn you/ a magazine of the arts. With this poem — an arresting record of a steamer-ride taken from the Gateway of India — Kolatkar had announced what his métier would largely be as an English poet: the urban everyday, or a view of the material universe informed deeply by it. The banishment of capital letters, the treasuring of the concrete: these features of “the boatride”, as well as of the magazine it was published in, alert us, again, to the presence of the Americans — e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, the ‘Beat’ poets.
A generation of Indian poets in English (A.K. Ramanujan, Mehrotra, Kolatkar) had turned to the idiosyncratic language, and the capacity for eye-level attentiveness, of American poetry to create yet another mongrel Indian diction — to reorder familiar experience, and to fashion a demotic that escaped the echoes of both Queen’s English and the sonorous effusions of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and the poorly-translated but ubiquitous Gitanjali of Tagore; to bypass, as it were, the expectations that terms like ‘English literature’ and ‘Indian culture’ raised.
Jejuri is, on its most obvious level (and a very rich level that is, in terms of realism, observation, irony), an account of a man who arrives at the pilgrimage town on a ‘state transport bus’, in the company of people whose intent is clearly more devotional than his is, and has less to do with a seemingly unfathomable curiosity. They seem to, thus, reproach him by their opacity, their inaccessibility, their very presence: “Your own divided face in a pair of glasses/ on an old man’s nose/ is all the countryside you get to see.” The rest of the poem is about the narrator’s idiosyncratic reading of the place; Jejuri, which seems to him a mixture of temples in disrepair, unreliable priests, and legends and religious practices of dubious provenance, nevertheless excites him oddly, though not to worship, but to a state akin to it but also quite unlike it. He leaves later on a train from the railway station, still, evidently, in a state of confusion over what’s secular and what miraculous: “a wooden saint/ in need of plaster/…the indicator/ has turned inward/ ten times over”.
The typographical flourish in the penultimate poem, in, and through, which the narrator records the experience of witnessing cocks and hens dancing in a field on the way to the station, is the closest the poem comes to imitating a religious ecstasy and abandon, on the brink where both irony and the verbal are obliterated.
Jejuri was received with unusual enthusiasm by the standards of poetry publishing in Anglophone India ; the book was reprinted twice at short intervals, and then twice again at longer ones. The critical response, by any standards, was unremarkable and intermittent. One of the reasons was that the poem, like its author, was resistant to being pigeonholed into quasi-religious categories; in response to an interviewer asking him, in 1978, if he believed in God, Kolatkar had said: “I leave the question alone. I don’t think I have to take a position about God one way or the other.” This discomfort with the either/or lies at the heart of the poem. Most of the Marathi critics opted, conveniently, for simplification and chauvinism. The response of the novelist and critic, Balachandra Nemade, in a 1985 essay, is characteristic: “Kolatkar comes and goes like a weekend tourist from Bombay.”
There was, of course, the occasionally sensitive retrospective reappraisal, of which Bruce King’s chapter on Kolatkar in Modern Poetry in English is an example; but the poem was to receive, decisively, a fresh lease of life, and the oxygen of good criticism, from Mehrotra in his anthology, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Poets. Sixteen years after the poem had first appeared, Mehrotra seemed to be in no doubt about its place in the canon of Indian poetry in English: “among the finest single poems written in India in the last forty years”. The religious question he settled robustly and acutely, if, perhaps, temporarily: “The presiding deity of Jejuri is not Khandoba, but the human eye.”
I’ve said that in the larger unfolding story of the independent nation, writing poetry in English was a minor, marginal and occasionally controversial activity. This remained so in spite of Nissim Ezekiel’s attempts to invest the enterprise with seriousness, to stir Anglophone readers as well as writers in the vernaculars, both of whom were busy with more important projects, to see it as something more than, at best, a genteel and harmless preoccupation; at worst, as a waste of time, even a betrayal. Ezekiel defied this combination of indifference and moral and nationalistic chauvinism with a critical puritanism, and had a small measure of success. But marginal endeavours have their own excitements, disappointments, and dangers.
Among the excitements was the creation, in 1976, of Clearing House, brought into being by Jussawalla, Mehrotra, Kolatkar and Gieve Patel to publish, in the first instance, their own poetry. Like the writing of the poetry itself, the publishing venture was undertaken as things are in sub-cultures: with love, as a semi-private affair, partly for the eyes of other poets and fellow travellers. Books were supplied to a handful of bookshops, and also on the basis of ‘subscriptions’; that is, orders from friends and supporters. The four titles published that year were Patel’s How Do you Withstand, Body; Jussawalla’s Missing Person; Mehrotra’s Nine Enclosures; and Jejuri. Kolatkar had designed the covers, and chosen the typeface, turning the books — again, this is something we associate with sub-cultures rather than mass markets — into objets d’art.
But, along with their passion and enterprise, sub-cultures are also characterized by disabling forms of self-doubt that often express themselves as doubts about the larger world. In the case of the poets I’ve just mentioned, this took the form of a wariness about committing words to paper, or the written word to print, or the printed word to wider circulation. This is not writer’s block, but a strategic and partial withdrawal from the world; at its best, writing for a handful of readers, some of them friends, entailed a greater sense of responsibility, of judiciousness, about the task of writing.
In Kolatkar’s case, it meant that he wrote steadily after Jejuri (as he had before its publication), in both English and Marathi, but published only very sporadically in journals. Two collections of his Marathi poetry appeared in 2003; but the English works, the Kala Ghoda Poems and the political/ mythological fable in verse, Sarpa Satra, would see the light of day only after he knew he was dying. The book-launches of his final works were, bizarrely, events surrounding a dying man who, on the evidence of his poetry, was still possessed by the youthfulness of the Sixties: both celebration, then, and premature memorial.