book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Kala Ghoda Poems

Arun Kolatkar

Kolatkar, Arun;

Kala Ghoda Poems

Pras Prakashan, Mumbai, 2004 [Rs 360 / $25]

ISBN 819021103X

topics: |  poetry | india | english

As can be seen from the wrapper on this dec2006 3d reprint of the 2004 book, there is a loud buzz about Kolatkar's poetry, and this particular book. Its been there for some years now.

I first encountered him in Mehrotra's Twelve Modern Indian Poets, but no copy of Jejuri was to be found... I made do for some years with pieces from Mehrotra, and also from Nandy's viral anthology, strangertime and eventually, I picked up the NYRB re-issue (with the Amit Chaudhuri intro), which was well worth it. By then Kala Ghoda Poems was making waves and the snippets I saw here and there on the web and in Jeet Thayil's 60 Indian poets whetted my appetite further. Eventually a friend who was also on the hunt, managed to have them picked up from Pras Praksashan itself - both this volume and Sarpa Satra, and we read both at breathless speed.

I found KGP far stronger and easier to relate to than Sarpa Satra, which uses a mythic base to reflect on modern times. In contrast, KGP explores the urban setting of Bombay, occasionally using historical vignettes. It was clear that the poems were constructed with the same jaundiced eye that informs Jejuri - a similar disinterested view of events and juxtapositions, with the mythical elements replaced by the historical. To give a quick flavour of the terrific originality of vision, here is a fragment from the longest poem in the book - Breakfast at Kala Ghoda (#14), where at a charity meal, a huge box of idlis is opened:

		with the collective
		of a hundred idlis

		waiting to exhale
		by a rush to the exit

		-- a landslide of fullmoons
		past each other,

		to tumble in a jumble,
		and pile up
		in a shallow basket,

		an orgy,
		a palpitating hill
		of naked idlis

		slipping and sliding
		clambering over
		and suffocating each other.

the kAlA ghoRA (statue of king George) in S. Mumbai, the statue was removed in the 1960s, but the area still has the name. Many of the poems relate to buildings and roadside scenes in the Kala Ghoda area of Mumbai, noted for its many art museums. Kala Ghoda [kAlA = black, ghoRA=horse] is a reference to a blackened bronze statue of king George which stood in the district until the 1960s, and lent its name to the area for posterity. Kolatkar went to art school in this area, and the Artists' Aid Fund center on Rampart row was where according to Dilip Chitre, he and other struggling artists "assembled every day, hoping for a buyer to turn up." It was here that he met his first wife, Darshan Chhabda, and he spent much of his life hanging out at the shops and art galleries and restaurants in this area. At the time these poems were written, there were many slums in this part of the city, most of which have now been extirpated; however many of the scenes described, such as the running after kerosene, or the jostling crowds at a charitable food distribution, hold for many of the poorer areas in any city. Some of the architectural landmarks (such as the relief of David Sassoon's face on the library named after him) relate more specifically to this area of Mumbai. There are several references to "Wayside Inn" - a bar in the Kala Ghoda area frequented by Kolatkar over five decades. The history of Mumbai is tightly interwoven into these poems, and is anthropomorphized, as in the pi-dog who looks "a bit like a seventeenth-century map of Bombay", or with Sassoon who lives through much of the history of this district, and is often mocked gently, as with the incongruity of importing foxhounds to India by a British administrator, or in this monologue by a drunk: Shit city, he thunders; the lion of Bombay thunders, Shit city! I shit on you. You were a group of seven shitty islands given in dowry to the Shit King of Ing to shit on The poems are full of strongly contrasting juxtapositions - as in the intense love of a young girl for her lover - in the scene described he has just been released from jail, and he is resting with his head on her lap, as if it were a harp. But it is lice that she is picking: producing arpeggios of lice and harmonics of nits... Much of the text excerpted here was available on many websites. I have stitched up some fragments and typed in a good bit to create a fairly extensive set of poems; eleven poems (marked by "*", are available in their entirety.


                                              Pi-dog   15 *
                                        Parameshwari   25
                                               Meera   26
                                     Song of Rubbish   34 *
         A Note on the Reproductive Cycle of Rubbish   35 *
                                           To a Crow   36
                                          The Ogress   39 *
                                     Silver Triangle   45
                                            Pinwheel   49 *
                                 An Old Bicycle Tyre   52 *
                                                Lice   56
                                            Kerosene   59
                                        Knucklebones   66
                                    To a Charas Pill   70
                          A game of Tigers and Sheep   72 *
                The Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads   74
                        Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda   80
                                 Words for a Cellist  114
                                     The Shit Sermon  115
                                         Watermelons  120
                           The Boomtown Lepers' Band  124 *
                                         Bon Appetit  125 *
                           A Blind man Strings a Cot  127
                                  The Potato Peelers  132
                     The Rat-poison Man's Lunch Hour  134
                                       David Sassoon  142
                                     Man of the Year  155 *
                                      Traffic Lights  162 *

also see below for extracts from Reviews by
	* Bruce King
	* Menka Shivdasani
	* Prabhakar Acharya


Pi-dog : p. 15-24


This is the time of day I like best,
and this is the hour
when I can call this city my own;

when I like nothing better
than to lie down here, at the exact center
of this traffic island

(or trisland as I call it for short,
and also to suggest
a triangular island with rounded corners)

that doubles as a parking lot
on working days,
a corral for more than fifty cars,
when it's deserted early in the morning,
and I’m the only sign
of intelligent life on the planet;

the concrete surface hard, flat and cool
against my belly,
my lower jaw at rest on crossed forepaws;

just about where the equestrian statue
of what's-his-name
must’ve stood once, or so I imagine.

seven islands of mumbai circa. 1700, when ceded to the british by the portuguese. (image: tifr)
2. I look a bit like a seventeenth-century map of Bombay with its seven islands not joined yet shown in solid black on a body the colour of old parchment; with Old Woman's Island on my forehead, Mahim on my croup, and the others distributed casually among brisket, withers, saddle and loin - with a pirate's rather than a cartographer's regard for accuracy. 3. I like to trace - no proof of course, just a strong family tradition matrilineally, to the only bitch that proved tough enough to have survived, first the long voyage, and then the wretched weather here -- a combination that killed the rest of the pack of thirty foxhounds, imported all the way from England. by Sir Bartle Frere in eighteen hundred and sixty-four, with the crazy idea of introducing fox-hunting to Bombay. Just the sort of thing, he felt the city badly needed. [Sir Bartle Frere was a British colonial administrator.] 4. On my father's side the line goes back to the dog that followed Yudhishthira on his last journey, and stayed with him till the very end; long after all the others - Draupadi first, then Sahadeva, then Nakul, followed by Arjuna and, last of all Bhima- had fallen by the wayside. Dog in tow, Yudhishtira alone plodded on. Until he too, frostbitten and blinded with snow, dizzy with hunger and gasping for air, was about to collapse in the icy wastes of the Himalayas; when help came in the shape of a flying chariot to airlift him to heaven. Yudhishthira, the noble price, refused to get on board unless dogs were allowed. And my ancestor became the only dog to have made it to heaven in recorded history. 5. To find a more moving instance of man's devotion to dog, we have to leave the realm of history, skip a few thousand years and pick up a work of science fantasy - Harlan Ellison's'A Boy and his Dog' [ 1969 science fiction short story ] a cultbook among pi-dogs everywhere in which the ‘Boy’ of the title sacrifices his love, and serves up his girlfriend as dogfood to save the life of his starving canine master. 6. I answer to the name of Ugh. No, not the exclamation of disgust; but the U pronounced as in Upanishad and gh not silent, but as in ghost, ghoul or gherkin. It's short for Ughekalikadu, Siddharamayya's famous dog that I was named after, the guru of Kalidevayya's dog who could recite the four Vedas backwards. My own knowledge of the scriptures begins and ends, I'm afraid, with just one mantra, or verse; the tenth, from the sixty-second hymn in the third mandala of the Rig (And to think that the Rig alone contains ten thousand five hundred and fifty two verses). It's composed in the Gayatri metre, and it goes: Om tat sat savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi dhiyo yonah prachodayat. Twenty-four syllables, exactly, if you count the initial Om Please don't ask me what it means, though. All I know is that it's addressed to the sun-god - hence it is called Savitri - and it seems appropriate enough to recite it as I sit here waiting for the sun to rise. May the sun-god amplify the powers of my mind. 7. What I like about this time and place - as I lie here hugging the ground, my jaw at rest on crossed forepaws, my eyes level with the welltempered but gaptoothed keyboard of the black-and-white concrete blocks that form the border of this trisland and give me my primary horizon - is that I am left completely undisturbed to work in peace on my magnum opus: a triple sonata for a circumpiano based on three distinct themes - one suggested by a magpie robin, another by the wail of an ambulance, and the third by a rockdrill; a piebald pianist, caressing and tickling the concreted keys with his eyes, undeterred by digital deprivation. 8. As I play, the city slowly reconstructs itself, stone by numbered stone. Every stone seeks out his brothers and is joined by his neighbours. Every single crack returns to its flagstone and all is forgiven. Trees arrive at themselves, each one ready to give an account of its leaves. The mahogany drops a casket bursting with winged seeds by the wayside, like an inexperienced thief drops stolen jewels at the sight of a cop. St. Andrews' church tiptoes back to its place, shoes in hand, like a husband after late-night revels. The university, you'll be glad to know, can never get lost because, although forgetful, it always carries its address in its pocket. 9. My nose quivers. A many-coloured smell of innocence and lavender, mildly acidic perspiration and nail polish, rosewood and rosin travels like a lighted fuse up my nose and explodes in my brain. It's not the leggy young girl taking a short cut through this island as usual, violin case in hand, and late again for her music class at the Max Muller Bhavan, so much as a warning to me that my idyll will soon be over, that the time has come for me to surrender the city to its so-called masters.

Parameshwari 25

The faint but unmistakable smell
of cheap tobacco in the air
betrays the presence of Parmeshwari,

the pipe-smoking mama
the old lavatory attendant
sitting all by herself ...

Meera 26

A footloose coconut frond
a dropout,
bored with life at the top

Song of Rubbish 34

[Grapes underfoot aspire to greatness,
Clay in potter's hand... ]

We too
have our own tryst with destiny, and feel
the birth-pangs of a new

but prepare for a long period of exile
in the wilderness of a landfill


Note on the Reproductive Cycle of Rubbish : p35

It may not look like much.
But watch out
when rubbish meets rubbish

in the back of a truck,
and more rubbish
in a whole caravan of trucks,

and then some more
in a vast landfill site
where it matures.

Rubbish ovulates
only once
in its lifetime.

releasing pheromones
during the period
of its fertility.

Driven wild by the scent
speculators in rut
arrive on the scene in droves,

their chequebooks hanging out,
and slug it out
among themselves.

Rubbish waits.
And copulates with the winner

To a Crow : p36-38

That was smooth,
Mr. Crow
- a perfect landing.

You swoop down
from the Y axis of the tree
(a black blur in free fall)

stretch your wings
and level off
along the baseline of the pavement,

a perfect hyperbolic curve
with throwaway ease,

until you just skim along,
give yourself a slight lift,
and touch down.

Oh, that was just beautifully done
-you, you, you

And you did it just right;
you landed
a twiglength away from it.

Because you can't
just jump on it with both your feet, you know,
as you would on a dead rat.

And you can't just walk right up to it
and pick it up either.
No no no no no.

The frontal approach will never do;
this is a delicate matter.
You can't afford to let your interest show.

You saw it first.  Sure,
but does it belong to anyone?
Look around carefully.

Is there anyone in sight
who looks like he may have
a legal claim to it?

What about that bearded man
with a briefcase in his hand?
Does he have an eye on it, you think?

What about the lady lawyer
accompanying him?
No, they're just waiting for a taxi.

Sneak a look at it.
It's not just a crack on the pavement, is it?
Are you sure?

And it's not about to crawl away eiter, is it?
Well then - now.
Tactfully, tactfully.

Move sideways, without looking at it.
Not all at once, but in two steps;
a side shuffle, more like.

And there you are.
Stand on it.

A twig! A twig! A twig! A twig! A twig!
You got it!  You got it!  You got it!
It's all yours, now.


The Ogress : p.39-44

One side of her face
(the right one)
is human enough;

but the other,
where the muscles are all
fused together,

burnt perhaps,

or melted down with acid
- I don't know which-

is all scar tissue
and looks
more like a side of bacon.


The one-eyed ogress
of Rope Walk Lane
(one breast removed,

a crown of close-cropped
moth-eaten hair,

on a head half-covered
in a scarecrow sari)

has always been a kind
of an auxiliary mother
semi-official nanny

and baby-bather in chief
to a whole chain of children
born to this street.


Give her a bucket filled with water,
a bit of soap
and an unwashed child

- the dirtier the better -
and the wispy half-smile
that always plays

on the good side of her face
its unfinished look

without completing itself;
and she gets a wicked gleam
in her right eye

as she starts unwrapping her gift
- the naughtier the better -
and she is never so happy

as when she has
a tough customer on her hands,
ans she has wishked

his nappy off
- like now
for example.


Soap in eye,
a furious, foaming boy
- very angry,

very wet -
cradled lengthwise
and face down

on her spindly legs,
extended jointly
and straight before her,

she sits on the edge
of the pavement; facing the road,
sari pulled up to her crotch,

and her instruments of torture
within easy reach;
an empty, sky-blue plastic mug

bobbing up and down
in a bucket of water.


As grown fingers soap him,
grab ass
scrub and knead his flesh,

the headlong boy,
end-stopped by the woman's feet
pointing skyward,

nose down between her ankles,
and restricted
by her no-win shins,

is overrun by swirling
galaxies of backsliding foam
that collide,

form and re-form,
slither up and down
and wrap around

the curved space
of his slippery body,
black as wet slate.


She turns him on his flip side
and, face clenched,
he kicks her in the crotch;

starts bawling
and shaking his fists
at the world;

but she grabs both his feet
with one hand,
crumples his face,

pulls his ears,
tweaks his nose,
probes his nostrils,

twists his arms,
polishes his balls,
plays with his pintle

and hits him
with three mugs full
of cold water

in quick succession.


The water cascades down his sides;
it sluices down her legs
that form a bridge

over a lenghthening river
of bath water
flowing down the kerbside

like frothing star-broth
that will be swallowed up
by a rat-hole

waiting for it
further downstream.


And, after the flood,
when the ogress lifts him up in the air
and sets him down

on solid ground
- dripping wet
but all in one piece -

feeling a bit like Noah,
bow-legged and tottering
he stands,

supported by an adult hand
under an armpit,
but still

on his own two feet,
and a street-fighting man


When the ogress throws
a towel over him
and starts drying him,

he nods unsteadily
- for he is still not quite able
to balance his head -

looks around
at the whole honking world
that has massed its buildings

menacingly around him
and he already knows--
what his response is going to be.

He points his little
water cannon
ath the world in general

and (Right!
Piss on it, boy)
shoots a perfect arc of piss,

and luminous
in the morning sun.

Pinwheel 49


A little strip of paper, with
a twist in the middle
and stuck through with a pin,

makes a frail propeller,
no bigger than a dragonfly;
but it begins to spin.

Not all at once.
Halting at first,
a tremor, a twitch,

a pause.  Another twitch,
a cautious revolution,
a small hitch.

A sudden counter-revolution
(not bad)
followed by a longish pause

to assimilate the lessons learnt.
But once it understands
its hidden purpose,

it begins to rev up
in real earnest;
and should be able to develop

the thrust required
to lift
the skinny ten-year-old

boy-inventor of the pinwheel who,
bare-arse naked,
has been running around

the traffic island
in crazy circles that, by now, have evolved
into a figure 8 pattern,

pinwheel held
by he tail-end of the pin
in a pinch;

a streamlined arm
extended before him like
a fuselage in the slipstream

of the paper propeller;
shoulder, elbow, wrist,
all beautifully aligned

to the axis of the pin;
and the other arm
raised sideways like a wing.


A pi-dog, who thinks of himself
as the original
inhabitant of the island,

watches him
out of the corner of his eye
with increasing unease.

He knows he is looking
at that most dangerous thing on earth,
a young boy with a newfound toy;

and just can’t wait for him
to take off –
and smash into the nearest raintree,

come crashing down through the roof
of the principal's house
on top of Elphinstone College,

or, after circling over the city
in an ever-widening spiral,
disappear altogether

into the blue
in a meteor shower

far too insignificant
for any observatory on earth
to record.

An Old Bicycle Tyre

An old bicycle tyre
I may be,
a bald wheel peel
and endless eel,

a wobbly zero,
a spastic shunya
but that doesn’t mean
I’m ready

to hang myself
up on a finial yet,
or rot
on a mossy rooftop

in the company
of a three-legged chair,
a left shoe grinning
from ear to ear,

and a homeless snail
in the vicious circle
of my cunt.


And I’m not about
to join some silly commune
of ascetic
bicycle tyres

that live in colonies
on treeptops
and, on no-moon nights,
are said to rise in flocks

to just freewheel,
chase each other from
horizon to horizon,
mate freely,

in the small hours
of the morning
– there to remain
in suspended animation

until the next
no-moon night.
Bunk, if you ask me,
And besides,

I just don’t see myself
up there somehow,
on a batty banyan
or a grandiose raintree.


I certainly don’t intend
to let cicadas
piss on me,
bats shit on me,

or a Taccardia Lacca
varnish my hide.
No way.
I would immolate myself

and stink up a fine
winter morning
to warm some shivering bums
by the roadside

rather than listen
to a cricket tuning up
his one-inch
electric Stradivarius,

let alone a whole
orchestra of crickets
under the stars

and indulging itself
in pseudo–
Wagnerian excesses,
God forbid.

not as long as
there's enough mileage
left in me

to give
a slap-happy boy
a good run
for his money

or enough boys
left in the world
to give me
a good hard slap

on the bottom,
followed by another,
and then another
in quick succession.

I shudder
every time I get a whack,
but that's what keeps me
going, I guess,

what I actually
live for.
And what I want to
know is,

when you’re my age,
how many boys
will still be running
after you,


Lice 56-58

She hasn't been a woman for very long,
that girl who looks
like a stick of cinnammon.

She has been talking nonstop,
jabbering away like this
and laughing so much all day,

because they let him out of jail this morning
and her dirty no-good lover
is back with her again.



Her lover's lousy head
pillowed on her thighs,
has become a harp in her hands.

As her fairy fingers run through his hair,
producing arpeggios of lice
and harmonics of nits,

as bangles softly tinkle over him,
he drifts off and dreams
that he's holed up in a mossy cave

behind a story-telling waterfall
booby-trapped with rainbows,
and hears the distant bark of police dogs.

Kerosene 59-65

She has always been
the favourite daughter
of that grand old banyan tree

Knucklebones 66-69

Hand on hip you sit, straightbacked
in a torchwood yellow sari, blouse ditto,
playing knucklebones with some of your friends

To a Charas Pill 70-71

Little devil
did you grow up on a farm
on the shadowy slopes of distant Afghanistan?

Did you have a rough ride
in a pickup truck
as you bounced along in a cloud of dust

down muletracks and winding dirt roads?
Or did you cross the Khyber Pass on a camel's back
in the company of brigands?


Go, you little devil.
Bury him alive,
bury the whole lot of them.

Like a landslide in the Hindukush can
bury a whole army
of ten thousand horsemen.

And remember.
The blessings of my breasts
go with you.

A street game of tigers and sheep with flowers and stones (cover image of book)

A game of tigers and sheep : p72-73

Who has the tigers and who the sheep
never seems to make any difference.
The result is always the same:
She wins,
I lose.

But sometimes when her tigers
are on the rampage,
and I've lost half my herd of sheep,
help comes from unexpected quarters:

The rusty shield bearer,
neutral till then,
para-drops a winning flower —
and irrelevant —

on the checkerboard
drawn on the pavement in charcoal,
cutting off the retreat
of one tiger,
and giving a check to the other;

and quickly follows it up
with another flower —
just as yellow
and just as irrelevant — except
that it comes down even more slowly;

a flower without a search warrant
that brushes past her earlobe,
grazes her cheek,
and disappears down the front
of her low-cut blouse —

- where she usually keeps
her stash of hash —
to confuse her even further, with its mildly
but very distracting fragrance.

  [note: appeared in Little Magazine Vol 1 : issue 5 ]

The Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads 74

She is dark as bitter chocolate,
the witch of Rampart Row,
the barefoot queen of the crossroads.

She has dominion
over two traffic islands
and three pavements.

her title to the island is contested
only by a trespassing sunbeam
- just a wedge

The sun covers her face with kisses.
It flutters
like a hummingbird before her navel

Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda 80


The clock displayed outside
the Lund & Blockley shop across the road
is the big daddy of all clocks


They’re serving khima pao at Olympia,
dal gosht at Baghdadi,
puri bhaji at Kailash Parbat,

aab gosht at Sarvi's,
kebabs with sprigs of mint at Gulshan-e-Iran,
nali-nehari at Noor Mohamadi's

baida gotala at the Oriental,
paya soup at Benazir,
brun maska at Military Café,

upma at Swagat,
shira at Anand Vihar,
and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn.

For, yes, it's breakfast time at Kala Ghoda
as elsewhere
in and around Bombay

- up and down
the whole hungry longitude, in fact;
the 73rd, if I’m not mistaken.


The tight lid
of the jumbo aluminium box

with the collective
of a hundred idlis

waiting to exhale
by a rush to the exit

-- a landslide of fullmoons
past each other,

to tumble in a jumble,
and pile up
in a shallow basket,

an orgy,
a palpitating hill
of naked idlis

slipping and sliding
clambering over
and suffocating each other.


Each and every hungry and homeless soul
within a mile of the little island
is soon gravitating towards it

to receive the sacrament of idli,
to anoint palates
with sambar,

to celebrate anew, every morning,
the seduction and death
of the demon of hunger

(threatening the entire world)
at the hands of Gauri
in the form of a humble idli.

They come from all over;
walking, running, dancing, limping,
stumbling, rolling
- each at his own speed.


Bowls, katoras, mugs
and assorted receptacles
come forward.

Idlis pair off,
extricate themselves
from the promiscuous heap

first change they get,
and the moment they find themselves
alone together,

lie gasping,
belly to belly,
or hump each other

like turtles
in the mating season
– wherever you look,

in bowls, mugs, katoras,
in plates,
on almond leaves.

Only to be swamped
by tidal waves
of sambar.


Island of idlis float
belly up
or splash about

in seas of sambhar
among the wreckage
of red chilli peppers

submerged aubergines
torpedoed tomatoes
peppercorn mines

like shattered masts

Or, like oil-slick
blink in the sun.


Boy, am I glad they've left
at least
this one tiny traffic island alone;

haven't landscaped it to death,
put a fence around it,
and slapped logos all over it [...]

Words for a Cellist 114

The music class is over.
His fiddler friends have gone
their separate ways

... the cello lying at his feet
in its contoured coffin
like a stillborn elephant,
with leaves

that keep falling
like yellow
- and slightly elongated - minims,

in a deciduous symphony.

The Shit Sermon 115

When the drunk
- who has slept through it all
and, consequently,

missed out on the action
as well as his proteins -

he finds himself marooned,
all alone,
shirtless and hungry,

on a tiny deserted island,
an empty bottle to his bosom.

He puts it away thoughtfully
in the space
between two concrete blocks,

with the vague idea
that it may comin in handy
to send

a message in a bottle
to the world
at large

- should he so decide
at some point of time
in the future.



Shit city, he thunders;
the lion of Bombay thunders,
Shit city!

I shit on you.
You were a group
of seven shitty islands

given in dowry
to the Shit King of Ing
to shit on

-- and now it's all
one big high-rise shit;
waiting for God

to pull the flush.


Watermelons 120-123

All the clocks along the way
to let the watermelon cart pass.

-- The Boomtown Lepers' Band 124

Trrap a boom chaka
shh chaka boom tap

Ladies and gentlemen (crash)
here comes (bang), here comes (boom)
here comes the Boomtown Lepers' Band,
drumsticks and maracas tied to their hands
bandaged in silk and the finest gauze,
and clutching tambourines in scaly paws.

Traap a boom chaka
shh chaka boom tap

Let the city see its lion face
in the flaky mirror of our flesh.
Slap a tambourine (thwack),
let cymbals clash.
Come on, let the coins shake rattle and roll
in our battered aluminium bowl -
as our noseless singer
lets out a half-hearted howl
to belt out a tuneless song
for a city without soul.

Here we come (bang)
and there we go (boom)
pushing the singer in a wheelbarrow.

Traap a boom chaka
shh chaka boom tap
Traap a boom chaka
shh chaka boom tap

Bon Appetit 125

I wish bon appetit
to the frail old fisherwoman

she is no more than just

an armload of bones
grown weightless over the years

and caught
in a net of wrinkles)

who, on her way to the market,
has stopped

to have a quick breakfast
in a hole-in-the-wall teashop,

and is sitting hunched
over a plate of chickpeas

— her favourite dish —
on a shaky table,

tearing a piece of bread
with her sharp claws

to soak it in the thin gravy
flecked with red chilli peppers;

and whose mouth is watering
at this very moment, I bet,

for I can almost taste
her saliva

in my mouth.


And I wish bon appetit
to that scrawny little

motheaten kitten
(so famished it can barely stand;

stringy tail,
bald patch on grungey back,

white skin showing through sparse fur)
that, having emerged

from a small pile of rubbish nearby,
and slipped once

on a bit of onion skin,
has been making its way,

and, making its way
slowly but unerringly,

towards the shallow basket
full of shrimps

that the fisherwoman has left
on the pavement

before entering the teashop,
has finally managed to get there,

raised itself on its hindlegs,
put its dirty paws

on the edge of the basket,
and kissed

its first shrimp.

A Blind Man Strings a Cot 127

His ropedancing fingers fly
crisscrossing a rectangular void,



The restless bed
tosses and turns in his arms;
he wrestles with it.

The bed puts its front paws
on his shoulders,
and all but starts licking his face.

It stands before him, swaying,
like a drunken doorway,
daring him to walk through,

but he takes it in his arms instead
and starts giving it
dancing lessons.

[the ball of rope ]
   ... plays hopscotch on
on the pavement.
and a
      "velvety cat,
black enough
to have strayed into daylight

straight out of the blind man's
and which could, of course be reporting to him,

is sitting quietly under a Toyota
parked by the kerbside,
on the inside of the right front wheel,

looking with its golden eyes
from under the fender, unblinkingly
at the jittery coir ball

and its unravelling.

The Potato Peelers 132

Backlit by their dreams,
they sit on three upended wooden crates,

outside the entrance of a garage
converted into a restaurant kitchen;

elbows on knees,
bare-chested above their shorts,

hunched over potatoes
rotating slowly in their hands,

and the dark side of each one's mind
faintly visible in

the reflected light
of the others’ unspoken thoughts.


The Rat-poison Man's Lunch Hour 134

The rat-poison man has left
his one-legged poster leaning

against the wall of Wayside Inn
and settled down for lunch on the pavement,


David Sassoon 142

I, who in my day
was known as the merchant prince
of Bombay

and lived like a Persian potentate...

Man of the Year 155

Here I stand at this street corner,
leaning on the shoulder of a bright red pillar-box
at a drunken angle,

a foolish grin on my face,
an empty half-pint bottle of rum in my pocket,
a cracker up my arse...

listening to an old Elvis number
(Santa Claus is back in town)
coming out of a record shop.

And I feel like dancing in the street
-- but I can't.
I'm incapable of such knee-jerk reactions:

they've stuffed me
a little too tight for comfort, I guess,
Like a forked sausage.

Head full of cottonwool,
sawdust in my gloves and socks,
a bellyful of shredded old newspapers.


Actually, I'm a pretty solid kind of guy.
Underneath my faded jeans,
export surplus extra large sporty jacket,

and a hat straight out of Marlboro country,
you'll find
that my head is sewn on real tight.

Take away my dashing
rainbow-coloured muffler (it's from Chor Bazar)
and you'll see what I mean.

There are thirty stitches round my neck.
you can count them if you wish.


It's such a lovely morning in December
and it feels so good
just to be alive and standing here,

as if I had all the time in the world,
and watching the beautiful girls of Bombay
go by in a steady stream,

to their typewriters, switchboards, computers,
as to the impatient arms
of their waiting lovers.

But nobody knows better than I
that time
is one thing I'm running out of fast,

and my one regret is going to be this:
to leave this world
so full of girls I never kissed.

Malati, Niloufer, Anjali, Shanta,
Alpana, Kalpana, Shirin, Zarine, Sylvia, Maria,
Harlene, Yasmin, Nina, Kamala, Mona, Lopa;

I love you one and all,
and wish I could kiss a long goodbye
to each of you, individually.


Inside the pillar-box,
new year greeting cards are smooching
in the permissive dark.

I hear them billing and cooing,
sighing and moaning,
as if there's no tomorrow.

They nestle against each other
in the zero gravity of pure love and affection
where all laws break down,

in the no-man's-land
between the sender and the receiver,
betraying both.

One last fling before each goes
primly to its rightful receiver,
with clean ivory-card conscience.


I was a pretty unremarkable year,
all in all; and will,
no doubt, be left out of history books,

with no revolutions, wars, genocides,
no disasters, natural or otherwise,
to remember me by.

Nothing much happened, except,
that the Himalayas rose by another inch,
fewer flamingoes came to Kutch,

and the leaning tower of Pisa leaned
a little further out
by another 1.29 millimeters,

the Danube poured
two hundred and three cubic kilometers
of fresh water into the Black Sea,

the hole in the ozone layer widened,
the earth became poorer
by two thousand seven hundred plant species.

I did not resolve any conflicts,
or presume to solve any
of the perennial questions of philosophy.

There were no technological breakthroughs,
no big leaps;
just a lot of hopping around on one foot.

No new ideas.
A lot of old ones served with a sizzle,
with plenty of spice to mask the rotten smell.

The good news, on the other hand,
is that schoolboys
and girls will not have to memorize me.

Who got the Nobel for literature?
Who the Booker?
Who won the cup at Wimbledon?

And who did Time magazine pick
as the Man of the Year?
I have already forgotten.

6.  Envoi

As paper trumpets blare and toot,
as sirens wail and foghorns hoot,
and as churchbells toll all around me

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

Breathing fire, coughing smoke,
spitting ash,
as firecrackers burst inside my pants

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

As all my buttons pop,
my chest opens and lungs collapse,
as a feather of flame starts eating my hat

-- I wish a happy new year to you all.

As the Rajabai Tower cranes its neck
to see me reduced to a smudge on the road,
and bursts into a joyous song

-- I wish a happy new year t

Traffic Lights 162

Fifty phantom motorcyclists
all in black
crash-helmeted outriders
faceless behind tinted visors
come thundering from one end of the road
and go roaring down the other
shattering the petrified silence of the night
like a delirium of rock-drills
preceded by a wailing cherry-top
and followed by a faceless president
in a deathly white Mercedes
coming from the airport and going downtown
raising a storm of protest in its wake
from angry scraps of paper and dry leaves
but unobserved by traffic lights
that seem to have eyes only for each other
and who like ill-starred lovers
fated never to meet
but condemned to live forever and ever
in each other's sight
continue to send signals to each other
throughout the night
and burn with the cold passion of rubies
separated by an empty street.

  [note: appeared in Little Magazine Vol 1 : issue 5 ]


from review by Bruce King:

Kolatkar is a master of the incongruous and the absurd in reality. Sir Bartle
Frere actually existed as a British colonial administrator and was famous in
his time; there are mountain peaks, fruits, and other memorials in former
British colonies. It is typical of Kolatkar to focus on the importation of
hunting hounds to show both the British influence on Indian culture and some
of it inappropriateness.

The classical, Sanskritic, Hindu tradition was little better. On his paternal
side the pi-dog claims descent from the dog in Mahabharata who remains with
Yudhishthira long after such warriors as Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakul, Arjuna,
and Bhima 'had fallen by the wayside'. The epic roll call contrasts with the
physical description of the journey into the Himalayas  ('frostbitten and
blinded with snow,/ dizzy with hunger and gasping for air') which itself
jostles with the conclusion in which the epic 'flying chariot' appears in the
same context as the colloquial 'airlift', 'get on board', and 'made it to' :

            in the shape of a flying chariot

            to airlift him to heaven.
            Yudhishthira, the noble price, refused
            to get on board unless dogs were allowed.

            And my ancestor became the only god
            to have made it to heaven
            in recorded history.

In still another version of 'man's devotion to dog', Harlan Ellison's 1969
science fiction short story, 'A Boy and his Dog', which is described as 'a
cultbook among pi-dogs everywhere', the boy

            sacrifices his love,

            and serves up his girlfriend
            as dogfood to save the life of his
            starving canine master.

The range of literary allusions continues with an explanation of the pi-dog's
name, 'Ugh', which, rather than an expression of disgust, is supposed to come
from Sanskrit, 'the U pronounced as in Upanishad'; Ugh is 'short for
Ughekalikadu,/ Siddharayya's/ famous dog'. Such literary allusions are
supposedly part of the dog's thoughts as he meditates in the morning sun
surrounded by the concrete highrise buildings of Bombay knowing that soon the
city will awake and he will 'surrender the city/ to its so-called masters.'

from review by Menka Shivdasani

Shortly before he died, Kolatkar left behind two major works, published by
Ashok Shahane's Pras Prakashan ‚ Kala Ghoda Poems (in English) and Sarpa
Satra (in Marathi). Kala Ghoda Poems, though set in Mumbai's art district,
spans the universe. Its longest sequence, 'Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda,'
encompasses a restaurant in Seoul, where a dog is slowly being strangled; a
Russian spaceship, where the cosmonauts have just finished their breakfast of
pork, cheese, honeycake, prunes and coffee; and Leda, the 90-year-old who
"dreams it's raining bread", and wonders why "she's the only Jew left‚ and
what happened to everybody".

Sarpa Satra, on the other hand, is an epic-style poem about genocide, in
which the sacrificial fire, still not extinguished, is "blackening the air
and filling it with the stench of burning." These books were launched
together at a function organized in Mumbai this July. Adil Jussawalla was in
the audience, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who had come especially from
Allahabad, was on stage; both had worked hard to ensure these books were put
together and that people took the time off to be there.

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,
nnand 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 Wayside Inn no longer [exists. it's] been replaced by an upmarket
Chinese restaurant.

Poems of remarkable resonance : Prabhakar Acharya

     from  The Hindu

Kala Ghoda Poems, with a magnificent chain of 31 lyrics collectively called
"Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda" at its centre, is a stunning work.

The city alive

It is as if Jejuri has come home, to the heart of Mumbai, to the Kala Ghoda
area. Kolatkar no longer needs Jejuri's Vaghyas and Murlis or its hills and
temples to ignite his imagination. The sights and sounds of the city — and
the sweepers, peddlers, beggars, lepers, street urchins and others who take
it over after its office-going crowd melts away in the evenings — come to
life here in a way that has never happened in poetry before. Parameshwari,
the old lavatory attendant, "the Kutchi witch with the leathery face/ and
shrivelled dugs"; a young girl, who "has been talking non-stop, jabbering
away" because they have just let her lover out of jail, her happiness, as she
busily picks lice from his head, beautifully evoked:

	Her lover's lousy head,
	pillowed on her thighs,
	has become a harp in her hands.
	As her fairy fingers run through his hair,
	producing arpeggios of lice
	and harmonics of nits;

the one-eyed ogress, one side of whose face, "burnt perhaps/ or melted down
with acid... is all scar tissue", but who has always been "an auxiliary
mother/ semi-official nanny// and baby-bather-in chief/ to a whole chain of
children/ born to this street": They are characters bursting with life, their
struggle for existence nothing short of heroic. Look at the way the ogress's
happiness and involvement in her chosen task is described:
	Give her a bucket filled with water
	a bit of soap
	and an unwashed child
	— the dirtier the better —
	and the wispy half-smile
	that always plays
	on the good side of her face
	its unfinished look
Look at the vivid, evocative description of the bathing itself, and of the
boy after the bathing,
	when the ogress lifts him up in the air
	and sets him down
	on solid ground
	— dripping wet
	but all in one piece";
and the way he stands, "bow-legged and tottering"; and his defiant attitude
to the "whole honking world/ that has massed its buildings// menacingly
around him", as he "points his little/ water cannon/ at the world in
general/... shoots a perfect arc of piss,// lusty/ and luminous/ in the
morning sun." Has any poet ever captured life in the raw so vividly and
with such luminous intensity?

Lack of space prevents me from writing on "Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda"; or
on Sarpa Satra, a powerful narrative poem, in which the legend-spinning skill
that delighted us in the light-hearted "Ajamil and the Tigers" is used
brilliantly to produce a dark, ominous parable for our own times, about
hatred nurtured on memory leading to genocide. But it is time we raise the
question of Kolatkar's stature as a poet. The question is complex because he
is bilingual. His first book of poems in Marathi, Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita,
appeared simultaneously with Jejuri. This has been followed by Chirimiri, the
only book of poems in Marathi to go into a second edition within six months
of its publication, Bhijki Vahi, a huge tome of 400 royal pages, and Droan.

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Apr 02