book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

Collected Poems In English

Arun Kolatkar and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (ed.)

Kolatkar, Arun; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (ed.);

Collected Poems In English

Bloodaxe Books, Feb 2011, 383 pages

ISBN 185224853X 9781852248

topics: |  poetry | indian-english | single-author

Enchanted by the ordinary, Kolatkar made the ordinary enchanting. - Arvind Mehrotra, introduction p.23

The main attraction of this volume for me was the inclusion of the posthumously published collection of poems, Boatride and other poems, edited also by Arvind Mehrotra. This is the largest of the four volumes in the book, and has poems in English that appeared in various small magazines, a number of translations from Marathi, including a selection of his own Marathi poems. The translations reflect an ambiguousness typical of Kolatkar:

    Translating a poem is like making love 
    having an affair

    Making love to a poem 
    with the body of another language
    it follows that translating your own poems
	is like making love to one of your own daughters
	it ought to be a cognizable offence
	carry a stigma

    there ought to be a law against translating your own poems
    (unless the law against incest already covers it)

The volume has a section called Words for Music, which were meant to be
songs (Kolatkar took guitar lessons and even recorded some of these).  He
was a long-time fan of Blues music, and once had a large collection of
blues records.  Arvind mehrotra suggests that there is an affinity of
spirit between many Blues lyrics and Tukaram; each speaks in the idiom of
the street. (AM: also there is an irreverence towards established power
structures).  For instance
    It's a long old road, but I'm gonna find the end. 
    It's a long old road, but I'm gonna find the end. 
    And when I get there I'm going to shake hands with a friend. 

could just as well have been Tukaram, though it is Bessie Smith. [p. 30]

The section had been titled Drunk and Other songs by Kolatkar, and
includes several vagabond poems:

	it's only eleven    were you asleep     o well
	at least i didn't ring the wrong doorbell

	thank god i found your place   i been here before
	but it's dark outside    one can't see the name on the door

	i was wondering if you'd let me stay the night
	i haven't eaten all day    i could do with a bite

AKM discussed these poems with Kolatkar - most of them, he says, were written
when he was "straight drunk".

Excerpts: Poems in English

Teeth p. 227

Lord I am revealed
How my teeth gleam
My sides ache. My forehead
Yawns. I have unlocked
Like a monstrous
Pomegranate. Do not
Touch me God do not
Come near me, for all
Is grist to my grinding.

My loin has bared its teeth.
My thighs open like iron
Maidens.  Guts whip out.
My nose crawls over me
Like a prehistoric
Lizard come back to life.
My throat nibbles at my
Tonsils. And I grin
Having chewed off my lips.

Poems in Marathi (translations)

Pictures from a Marathi Alphabet Chart p.259

Pineapple. Mother. Pants. Lemon.
Mortar. Sugarcane. Ram.
How secure they all look
each ensconced in its own separate square.

Mango. Anvil. Cup. Ganapati. Cart. House.
Medicine Bottle. Man Touching his Toes.
All very comfortable,
they all know exactly where they belong

Spoon. Umbrella. Ship. Frock.
Watermelon. Rubberstamp. Box. Cloud. Arrow.
Each one of them seems to have found
Its own special niche, a sinecure

Sword. Inkwell. Tombstone. Longbow. Watertap.
Kite. Jackfruit. Brahmin. Duck. Maize.
Their job is just to go on being themselves
and their appointment is for life.

Yajna. Chariot. Garlic. Ostrich.
Hexagon. Rabbit. Deer. Lotus. Archer.
No, you don't have to worry.
There's going to be no trouble in this peaceable kingdom.

The mother will not pound the baby with a pestle.
The Brahmin will not fry the duck in garlic.
That ship
will not crash against the watermelon.

If the ostrich won’t eat the child’s frock,
The archer won’t shoot an arrow in Ganapati’s stomach.
And as long as the ram resists the impulse
of butting him from behind

what possible reason
could the Man-Touching-his-Toes have
to smash the cup
on the tombstone?

	see Rajiv Patke's fascinating review comparing Kolatkar's translation
	above with the version by Vinay Dharwadker (appearing in
	The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry ed. Vinay Dharwadker
	and A.K. Ramanujan, 1994)

from Drunk and Other songs (III. Words for Music)

door to door blues p.278

it's only eleven    were you asleep     o well
at least i didn't ring the wrong doorbell

thank god i found your place   i been here before
but it's dark outside    one can't see the name on the door

i was wondering if you'd let me stay the night
i haven't eaten all day    i could do with a bite

a slice of bread will do or maybe a sausage
then i'll lie down in the balcony or here in the passage

i won't be trouble i'm used to sleeping on the floor
please don't bother i don't want a blanket don't want a pillow

i'm completely broke i've nowhere else to go
i can't sleep on the road    the cops have told me so

you won't have to ask me to join you for breakfast tomorrow
i'll answer the door when the milkman comes and i will go

Taxi song p.279

i been checking out on my friends
and it looks like i've none
they know i'm down on luck
they know i'm on a drunk
they know i'll come ask for money
and so they hide or run

up and down and round about
from one end of town to the other
you taken me to ten addresses
from colaba to dadar
you think i aint gonna pay you
after all that trouble
well that's where you are wrong
'cause i'm gonna pay you double

so don't stop now
taxi driver
don't stop now and please don't shout
i'm not gonna pay you now
and aint gonna throw me out


Tukaram: My body takes on


My body takes on
a cadaverous aspect
And I find my way
To the burning-ghat. 

Desire, anger, love
Weep unceasingly. 
Codes of conduct wail, 

The dung cakes of 
Vairagya press
Against my limbs. 
The apocalypse flares. 

Smashed, the earthen pot
Spills embers at
My feet.  Mourners toll
The sky like a bell. 

I disown my lineage,
My name, my mien. 
I restore my body
To whom it belongs. 

Now all is well and
Effortlessly ash. 
The guru graced the lamp
With a flame, says Tuka. 

Tukaram: Narayan is insolvent

			p. 312

is insolvent
He has borrowed
Right and left. 

Pay up, pay up, 
Clamour the creditors. 
He dare not stir
In his own house. 

He hides
Under the bed. 
Maya declare
He isn't in. 

I don't make
A lot of noise
As the dept is old,
Old as the world. 

See the note
He signed,
With the four Vedas
As witnesses. 

Tuka the shopkeeper
The said creditor...
The said debtor...

Tukaram : It was a case (God rob God)

				p. 316
It was a case 
Of God rob God. 
No cleaner job 
Was ever done. 

God left God 
Without a bean. 
God left no trace 
No trail  no track. 

The thief was lying 
Low in His flat.  
When He moved   
He moved  fast. 

Tuka says: 
Nobody  was  
Nowhere.   None 
was plundered
And lost nothing. 

Tukaram: You pawned


You pawned 
Your feet 
And got 
My faith. 

Love is 
The interest: 
I  say 
Shell out. 

Your name 
Is my document 
-- And your funeral . 

	Says Tuka: 

You who make 
The eagle manifest-- 
My guru will be 

Tukaram : I it was

			p. 318
I it was
Begat me
My knees 
Received me. 

My one desire 
Of all desire
I'm deserted. 

A new power 
Moves  me 
Since that hour 
Killed me. 

Tukaram : Tuka is stark raving mad p.321

Tuka is stark raving mad
He talks too much

His vocabulary:
Ram Krishna Govind Hari

Of any God save Pandurang
Tuka is ignorant

He expects revelation
At any time, from any one

Words on him are wasted
He dances before God, naked

Weary of men and manners
With pleasure he rolls in gutters

Ignoring instruction, all
He ever says is 'Vithal, Vithal'

O pundits, O learned ones
Spit him out at once

The boatride p.329

the long hooked poles
know the nooks and crannies
find flaws in stonework
or grappling with granite
ignite a flutter
of unexpected pigeons
and the boat is jockeyed away from
the landing

after a pair of knees
has shot up and streaked
down the mast after
the confusion of hands about
the rigging

an off-white miracle

the sail

because a sailor waved back to a boy another boy waves to another sailor in the clarity of air the gesture withers for want of correspondence and the hand that returns to him the hand his knee accepts as his own is the hand of an aged person a hand that must remain patient and give the boy it's a part of time to catch up frozen in a suit the foreman self-conscious beside his more self-conscious spouse finds illegible the palm that opens demandingly before him the mould of his hands broken about his right knee he reaches for a plastic wallet he pays the fares along the rim of the boat lightly the man rests his arm without brushing against his woman's shoulder gold and sunlight fight for the possession of her throat when she shifts in the wooden seat and the newly weds exchange smiles for small profit
show me a foreman he says to himself who knows his centreless grinding oilfired saltbath furnace better than i do and swears at the seagull who invents on the spur of the air what is clearly the whitest inflection known and what is clearly for the seagull over and above the wwaves a matter of course
the speedboat swerves off leaving behind a divergence of sea and the whole harbour all that floats must bear the briny brunt the sailboat hurl its hulk over burly rollers surmounted soon in leaps and bounds a gull hitched on hump the long trail toils on bringing to every craft a measure of imbalance a jolt for a dinghy a fillip to a schooner a swagger to a ketch and after the sea wall scabby and vicious with shells has scalped the surge after the backwash has reverted to the bulk of water all things that float resume a normal vacillation [...]
his wife has dismissed the waves like a queen a band of oiled acrobats in her shuttered eyes move in dark circles they move against her will winds like the fingers of an archaeologist move across her stony face and across the worn edict of a smile cut thereon her husband in chains is brought before her he clanks and grovels throw him to the wolves she says staring fixedly at a hair in his right nostril. a two-year-old renounces his mother's ear and begins to cascade down her person rejecting her tattooed arm denying her thighs undaunted by her knees and further down her shanks devolving he demands balloons and balloons from father to son are handed down closer to keel than all elders are and down there honoured among boots chappals and bare feet he goes into a huddle with the balloons coming to grips with one being persuasive with another and setting an example by punishing a third
two sisters that came last when the boat nearly started seated side by side athwart on a plank have not spoken hands in lap they have been looking past the boatman's profile splicing the wrinkles of his saline face and loose ends of the sea [...]
the boat courses around to sidle up against the landing the wall sweeps by magisterially superseding the music man an expanse of unswerving stone encrusted coarsely with shells admonishes our sight

awards have many uses p.343

awards have many uses
they silence the critics
convince the illiterates
confirm the faith of the few
who always believed in you

awards are also like silver nails in the poet’s coffin

they are a nice way of burying poets
who seem to have been around for far too long
instead of dying early
as all good poets should

on the other hand
a poet is under no obligation
to stop writing
just because he is buried

making love to a poem p.345

		(from the Appendix)

Translating a poem is like making love
having an affair

Making love to a poem
with the body of another language

you may meet a poem you like

getting to know the poem carnally
gaining carnal knowledge

a consenting poem
having made sure that the poem is above the age of consent

varieties of the experience
  if the poem is ready / game / willing
  it may need as much skill, patience, delicacy
  to consummate the act

Having got the poem into bed
you may discover you're not up to it
or that it's just not your day / or night

it follows that translating your own poems
  is like making love to one of your own daughters
  it ought to be a cognizable offence
  carry a stigma

there ought to be a law against translating your own poems
(unless the law against incest already covers it)

blurb from back of book

Arun Kolatkar (1931-2004) was one of India’s greatest modern poets. He wrote
prolifically, in both Marathi and English, publishing in magazines and
anthologies from 1955, but did not bring out a book of poems until he was
44. His first book of poetry, Jejuri (1976), won him the Commonwealth Poetry
Prize. His third Marathi publication, Bhijki Vahi, won a Sahitya Akademi
Award in 2004. Both an epic poem, or sequence, celebrating life in the Indian
city (and site of pilgrimage) of that name in the state of Maharashtra,
Jejuri was later published in the US in the NYRB Classics series, with an
introduction by Amit Chaudhuri, an edited version of which was published by
The Guardian in 2006: see this link for Chaudhuri's account of 'the poet who
deserves to be as well-known as Salman Rushdie'.

Always hesitant about publishing his work, Kolatkar waited until 2004, when
he knew he was dying from cancer, before bringing out two further books, Kala
Ghoda Poems (a portrait of all life happening in Kala Ghoda, his favourite
street) and Sarpa Satra. A posthumous selection, The Boatride and Other Poems
(2008), edited by his friend, the poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra,
contained his previous uncollected English poems as well as translations of
his Marathi poems; among the book’s surprises were his translations of bhakti
poetry, song lyrics, and a long love poem, the only one he wrote, cleverly
disguised as light verse. Arun Kolatkar's Collected Poems in English,
published by Bloodaxe Books in 2010, also edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra,
brought together work from the four volumes published in India by Ashok
Shahane at Pras Prakashan.

Jejuri offers a rich description of India while at the same time performing a
complex act of devotion, discovering the divine trace in a degenerate
world. Salman Rushdie called it ‘sprightly, clear-sighted, deeply felt…a
modern classic’. For Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, it was ‘among the finest single
poems written in India in the last forty years…it surprises by revealing the
familiar, the hidden that is always before us’. Jeet Thayil attributed its
popularity in India to ‘the Kolatkarean voice: unhurried, lit with whimsy,
unpretentious even when making learned literary or mythological
allusions. And whatever the poet’s eye alights on – particularly the odd, the
misshapen, and the famished – receives the gift of close attention.’

A.K. Mehrotra: Arun Kolatkar: genius of modern Indian poetry (intro)

	 excerpts from full article at bloodaxeblogs

All his life Kolatkar had an inexplicable dread of publishers’ contracts,
refusing to sign them. This made his work difficult to come by, even in
India. Jejuri was first published by a small co-operative, Clearing House, of
which he was a part, and thereafter it was kept in print by his old friend,
Ashok Shahane, who set up Pras Prakashan with the sole purpose of publishing
Kolatkar’s first Marathi collection Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita. In the event,
Shahane ended up as publisher of both Kolatkar’s English and Marathi books,
which together come to ten titles to date, with more forthcoming, including a
newly-discovered Marathi version of Jejuri, a book of interviews, and a novel
in English.

The small press, despite the obvious limitations, suited Kolatkar. He was,
for one, in complete control of the way the book looked, from its format (he
did not want his long lines to be broken), cover design, endpapers, and blurb
to what went on the spine, which in the case of Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa
Satra was precisely nothing, no title, no author’s name, no publisher’s

The four books that comprise the Collected Poems in English appear in the
order in which they were published. Though The Boatride and Other Poems
contains some of his earliest poems, it seemed proper to open a collected
volume with Jejuri, which was Kolatkar’s first book and the work he is most
associated with. There comes a time in the life – or afterlife – of every
cult figure when, escaping from the small group of readers that had kept the
flame burning, mainly through word of mouth, he begins to belong to a larger
world. With the publication of Collected Poems in English, Kolatkar’s moment
has perhaps come.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Death of a poet

		(from intro to Boatride and other poems, 2008)
Arun Kolatkar, who is widely regarded as one of the great Indian poets of the
last century, was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra in 1931. His father was an
educationist, and after a stint as the principal of a local school he taught
at a teacher’s training college in the same city. ‘He liked nothing better in
life than to meet a truly unteachable object,’ Kolatkar once said about
him. In an unpublished autobiographical essay which he read at the Festival
of India in Stockholm in 1987, Kolatkar describes the house in Kolhapur where
he spent his first eighteen years:

       I grew up in a house with nine rooms that were arranged, well almost,
       like a house of cards. Five in a row on the ground, topped by three on
       the first, and one on the second floor.

       The place wasn’t quite as cheerful as playing cards, though. Or as
       colourful. All the rooms had mudfloors which had to be plastered with
       cowdung every week to keep them in good repair. All the walls were
       painted, or rather distempered, in some indeterminate colour which I
       can only describe as a lighter shade of sulphurous yellow.

It was in one of these rooms – his father’s study on the first floor – that
Kolatkar found ‘a hidden treasure’. It consisted of

	three or four packets of glossy black and white picture postcards
	showing the monuments and architectural marvels of Greece, as well as
	sculptures from the various museums of Italy and France.

       As I sat in my father’s chair, examining the contents of his drawers,
       it was inevitable that I should’ve been introduced to the finest
       achievements of Baroque and Renaissance art, the works of people like
       Bernini and Michaelangelo, and I spent long hours spellbound by their

       But at the same time I must make a confession. The European girls
       disappointed me. They have beautiful faces, great figures, and they
       showed it all. But there was nothing to see. I looked blankly at their
       smooth, creaseless, and apparently scratch-resistant crotches, sighed,
       and moved on to the next picture.

       The boys, too. They let it al hang out, but were hardly what you might
       call well-hung. David, for example. Was it David? Great muscles, great
       body, but his penis was like a tiny little mouse. Move on. Next

After matriculating in 1947, Kolatkar attended art school in Kolhapur, and,
in 1949, joined the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay. He abandoned it two
years later, midway through the course, but went back in 1957, when he
completed the assignments and, finally, took the diploma in painting. The same
year he joined Ajanta Advertising as visualiser, and quickly established
himself in the profession which, in 1989, inducted him into the hall of fame
for lifetime achievement.

Kolatkar also led another life, and took great care to keep the two lives
separate. His poet friends were scarcely aware of the advertising legend in
their midst, for he never spoke to them about his prize-winning ad campaigns
or the agencies he did them for. His first poems started appearing in English
and Marathi magazines in the early 1950s and he continued to write in both
languages for the next fifty years, creating two independent and equally
significant bodies of work. Occasionally he made jottings, in which he
wondered about the strange bilingual creature he was:

	I have a pen in my possession
	which writes in 2 languages
	and draws in one

	My pencil is sharpened at both ends
	I use one end to write in Marathi
	the other in English

	what I write with one end
	comes out as English
	what I write with the other
	comes out as Marathi

His first book in English, Jejuri, a sequence of thirty-one poems based on a
visit to a temple town of the same name near Pune, appeared in 1976 to
instant acclaim, winning the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and establishing his
international reputation. The main attraction of Jejuri is the Khandoba
temple, a folk god popular with the nomadic and pastoral communities of
Maharashtra and north Karnataka. Only incidentally, though, is Jejuri about a
temple town or matters of faith. At its heart, and at the heart of all of
Kolatkar’s work, lies a moral vision, whose basis is the things of this
world, precisely, rapturously observed. So, a common doorstep is revealed to
be a pillar on its side, ‘Yes. / That’s what it is’; the eight-arm-goddess,
once you begin to count, has eighteen arms; and the rundown Maruti temple,
where nobody comes to worship but is home to a mongrel bitch and her puppies,
is, for that reason, ‘nothing less than the house of god.’ The matter of fact
tone, bemused, seemingly offhand, is easy to get wrong, and Kolatkar’s
Marathi critics got it badly wrong, finding it to be cold, flippant, at best
sceptical. They were forgetting, of course, that the clarity of Kolatkar’s
observations would not be possible without abundant sympathy for the person
or animal (or even inanimate object) being observed; forgetting, too, that
without abundant sympathy for what was being observed, the poems would not be
the acts of attention they are.

Far from mocking what he sees, Kolatkar is divinely struck by everything
before him, as much by the faith of the pilgrims who come to worship at
Jejuri’s shrines as by the shrines themselves, one of which happens to be not
shrine at all:

       The door was open.
       Manohar thought
       It was one more temple.

       He looked inside.
       which god he was going to find.

       He quickly turned away
       when a wide eyed calf
       looked back at him.

       It isn’t another temple,
       he said,
       it’s just a cowshed.


The award of the prize inevitably led to interviews, which, except for the
interview Eunice de Souza did later, are the only ones Kolatkar ever gave. In
one interview, to a Marathi little magazine that brought out a special issue
on him, Kolatkar was asked about his favourite poets and writers. ‘You want
me to give you their names?’ he replied, and then proceeded to enumerate

	Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan
	Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Dnyaneshwar,
	Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Ram
	Joshi, Honaji, Mandelstam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer,
	Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras,
	Joseph Heller, Günter Grass, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Nabokov,
	Namdev Dhasal, Patthe Bapurav, Rabelais, Apuleius, Rex Stout, Agatha
	Christie, Robert Shakley, Harlan Ellison, Bhalchandra Nemade,
	Dürrenmatt, Arp, Cummings, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, Bob Dylan,
	Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar,
	Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce,
	Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly,
	Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams,
	Lightning Hopkins, Andrzej Wajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut,
	Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.

‘The astonishing admixture (off the top of his head),’ the American scholar
of Marathi Philip Engblom has said of the list, ‘not only of nationalities
but of artistic genres (symboliste poetry to art film to Mississippi and
Chicago Blues to Marathi sants) speaks volumes about the environment in which
Kolatkar produced his own poetry’.

And not just Kolatkar. In the introduction to his Anthology of Marathi
Poetry: 1945-1965 (1967), in which some of Kolatkar’s best-known early poems
like ‘Woman’ and ‘Irani Restaurant Bombay’ first appeared, Dilip Chitre writes
about ‘the paperback revolution’ which

	unleashed a tremendous variety of…influences [that] ranged from
	classical Greek and Chinese to contemporary French, German, Spanish,
	Russian and Italian. The intellectual proletariat that was the
	product of the rise in literacy was exposed to these diverse
	influences. A pan-literary context was created.

	Cross-pollination bears strange fruits. [Bal Sitaram] Mardhekar wrote
	books on literary criticism and aesthetic theory which make
	references to contacts with various European works of art and
	literature… During his formative years as a writer, he was deeply
	influenced by Joyce and Eliot, and these continued to be critical
	influences in his critical writing throughout his career, until his
	untimely death in 1956.

After the success of Jejuri, except for the odd poem in a magazine, Kolatkar
did not publish anything. To friends who visited him, he would sometimes read
from whatever he was working on at the time, but there were to be no further
volumes. Then in July 2004 he brought out Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa
Satra. At a function held at the National Centre for the Performing Arts’
Little Theatre in Bombay, five poets read from the two books. Kolatkar,
wearing a black t-shirt and brown corduroy trousers, sat in the audience. He
was by then terminally ill with stomach cancer and did not have long to live.

To his readers it must have seemed at the time, as it did to me, that the
publication of these long awaited new books by Kolatkar, twenty-eight years
after he published Jejuri, completed his English oeuvre. There were some
scattered uncollected poems of course, most notably the long poem ‘the
boatride’, but they had appeared in magazines and anthologies before and in
any case were not enough to make another full-length collection. Which is why
when Ashok Shahane, Kolatkar’s publisher, first brought up the idea of The
Boatride and Other Poems and asked me to draw up a list of things to include
in it I was sceptical. In the event, the list, based on what was available on
my shelves, did not look as meagre as I had feared. It had thirty-two poems
divided into three sections: ‘Poems in English’, which had poems written
originally in English; ‘Poems in Marathi’, which had poems written originally
in Marathi but which he translated into English; and ‘Translations’, which
had translations of Marathi bhakti poets, mostly of Tukaram. The first poem in
the first section was ‘The Renunciation of the Dog’, written in 1953. A poem
titled ‘A Prostitute on a Pilgrimage to Pandharpur Visits the Photographer’s
Tent During the Annual Ashadhi Fair’, from his Marathi book Chirimiri, was
from the 1980s.

The Boatride and Other Poems, I remember thinking to myself, though small
in terms of the number of pages, would be the only book to represent all the
decades of Kolatkar’s writing life barring the last and the only one to have,
between the same covers, his English and Marathi poems. Kolatkar approved of
the selection when we discussed it over the phone and made one suggestion,
which was to put ‘the boatride’ not with the ‘Poems in English’, as I had
done, but at the end of the book, in a section of its own. The reason for
this, though he did not say it in so many words, was that in its overall
structure, which is that of a trip or journey described from the moment of
setting out to the moment of return, and in its observer’s tone, ‘the
boatride’, though written ten years earlier, prefigures Jejuri, which was his
next sequence.

A week or two after this conversation when next I spoke with Kolatkar he
surprised me by saying that I should edit The Boatride. Since the book’s
contents had already been decided and there were no further poems to add, or
at least none that I was aware of, my role at the time, as editor, seemed
limited to ensuring that we had a good copy-text. But even this, I realised,
would not be easy.

My last phone conversation with Kolatkar was early in the third week of
September. By then he had stopped going to Café Military, an Irani restaurant
in Meadows Street, where over cups of tea he routinely met with a close
circle of friends on Thursday afternoons, as he had earlier met them, for
more than three decades, at Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda before the place shut
down in 2002. When his condition deteriorated, his family shifted him to
Pune, to the house of his younger brother, who was a doctor. He had already
been in Pune ten days when I made the phone call and found that he was too
weak to speak. When I persisted, a little excitedly I’m afraid, in asking him
about ‘The Turnaround’, he said it was ‘an inner journey’ and mumbled
something about a ‘personal crisis’. He said he’d explain everything if I
came to Pune. I took the next train.

I reached Pune late in the evening of the 21st and made my way to his
brother’s house in Bibwewadi. The house was in a side street, a duplex in a
row of identical houses, each having a modest front yard with a motor scooter
or car, often both, parked in it. Kolatkar was in an upstairs room and seemed
to be asleep. The brother who was a doctor was still at his clinic, but his
two other brothers, Sudhir and Makarand, were there, as was his wife
Soonoo. ‘His mouth is constantly parched,’ Sudhir said, ‘and that’s affected
his speech. He also cannot take in any food. But he feels a little better in
the mornings. Maybe you should come back tomorrow and put your questions to
him.’ Looking at Kolatkar, there wasn’t much hope of getting answers.

Editing 'The Boatride'

‘The Renunciation of the Dog’ is one of fourteen English poems, collectively
called ‘journey poems’, written during 1953-54. Though they all came out of
the same experience, the walking trip through western Maharashtra, there is
nothing in the poems that identifies them with a particular landscape. It is
as though, in 1953, Kolatkar had staked off his subject but not located the
poetic resources to express it in. Never a man in a hurry, he was prepared to
wait. The wait ended in 1967 when he wrote, in Marathi, ‘Mumbaina bhikes
lavla’. Its English translation, ‘The Turnaround’, he did in 1987, to read at
the Stockholm festival.

Kolatkar showed the ‘journey poems’ to his friends, one of whom, Dnyaneshwar
Nadkarni, who later became a well-known art critic and writer on Marathi
theatre, passed them on to Nissim Ezekiel. As editor of Quest, a new magazine
funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Ezekiel was open to
submissions. He also had an eye for talent and this time, in Kolatkar, he
spotted a big one. He decided to carry ‘The Renunciation of the Dog’ in the
magazine’s inaugural issue, which appeared in August 1955. It was Kolatkar’s
first published poem in English. Around then, he and Ezekiel also met for the
first time. For someone who was to spend his next fifty years in advertising,
Kolatkar’s meeting with Ezekiel, fittingly enough, took place in the offices of
Shilpi, where Ezekiel had a job as copywriter.

A line below ‘The Hag’ and ‘Irani Restaurant Bombay’ in Chitre’s Anthology of
Marathi Poetry says ‘English version by the poet’, suggesting that the two
poems are translations. I knew from previous conversations with Kolatkar that
he wrote them both in English and Marathi and considered them to be as much
English poems as Marathi ones. Now, in Pune, as Soonoo dabbed his lips with
wet cotton wool to keep them moist, he spoke about them again. The Marathi
and English versions, he said, were ‘very closely related’; ‘they can bear
close comparison’. He also said he wrote them ‘side by side’. Of ‘The Hag’
and ‘Therdi’ (its Marathi title) he said he would write one line in Marathi
and a corresponding line in English, or the other way round. ‘They run each
other pretty close.’ He also commented on the rhyme scheme: ‘There is no

Chitre, whom I’d rung up on reaching Pune, came with his wife Viju to see
Kolatkar. He had with him an office file and a spiral bound book consisting of
photocopies made on card paper. He asked me to look at them. He had recently
finished a short film on Kolatkar for the Sahitya Akademi, and the office file
and the spiral bound book, both of which Darshan had given him, were part of
the archival material he’d collected. The poems in the file consisted mostly
of juvenilia, and some, with their references to ‘a begging bowl’ and ‘the
changing landscape’, looked like they belonged with the ‘journey poems’,
which, as I found out later, they indeed did:

	Destined to become a begging bowl
	We let rise our clay
	And holding it in our hand
	Wordlessly and worldlessly
	To be filled and fulfilled
	We wandered
	In the wilderness of our heart

	We retreated from ourselves
	To become the changing landscape
	And the mutable topography
	That accompanied us
	And whispered in our ears

I quickly went through the poems and read them out to Kolatkar. If I liked
something I asked him if I could put it in The Boatride, and if he said yes
I’d put a tick against it. The ones I ticked were ‘Of an origin moot as
cancer’s’, ‘Dual’, ‘In a godforsaken hotel’, and ‘my son is dead’. The poems
were typewritten and some had obvious typos. A line in ‘Dual’ read ‘the two
might declare harch thorns and live’.

‘Harch’? I asked Kolatkar.


In the list I had sent him, the one he had approved of, the ‘Poems in
English’ section had eight poems. Now it had twelve. Clearly, The Boatride
was going to be a bigger book than I had anticipated; I also began to see why
Kolatkar wanted it to have an editor.

In 1966, Kolatkar joined an advertising studio, Design Unit, in which he was
one of the partners. It did several successful campaigns, including one for
Liberty shirts, which won the Communication Artists Guild award for the best
campaign of the year. The Liberty factory had recently been gutted in a fire
and the copy said ‘Burnt but not extinguished’; Kolatkar did the visuals, one
of which showed a shirt, with flames leaping from it. The studio was in
existence for three years and everything in the spiral bound book was from
this period of Kolatkar’s life. In fact, it was his Design Unit engagement
diary, whose pages Darshan had rearranged and interspersed with poems,
drawings and jottings. Flipping through it was like peeking into an artist’s
lumber-room, crammed with bric-à-brac. It revealed more about Kolatkar’s
public life as successful advertising professional and private life as poet
than a chapter in a biography would have.

The first page had a drawing of a gladiolus, the curved handle of an umbrella
sticking through the leaves. Other drawings showed an umbrella hanging from a
sickle moon; from an antelope’s horns; from a man’s wrist; stuck in a vase;
safely tucked behind a man’s ear like the stub of a pencil; placed with a cup
and saucer, like a spoon, to stir the tea with. The text accompanying the
drawings was always the same, ‘Keep it’. Between the drawings were jottings,
scribbles, messages (‘Darshan Kolatkar 40 Daulat Send me my green shirt’),
expenditure figures (‘Liquor 37.75’), memos to himself (‘plan & save cost;
meetings fortnightly; how to inspire/educate artists’), names and telephone
numbers of clients, appointments to keep or cancel, seemingly useless scraps
of paper preserved only because those who were close to him were farsighted
and valued every scrap he put pen to. One page had written in it ‘Ring
Farooki’; ‘Ring Pfizer’; ‘Ring Mrs Chat. cancel 3.30 Tues. appt.’;
‘?Bandbox?’; ‘7.30 Kanti Shah’; and somewhere in the middle was also the
drawing of a man with a V-shaped face and arrows for arms and legs, the right
arrow-leg pointing to ‘12.00 Jamshed’. Against a drawing of a cut-out-like
figure he had written, ‘Imagine he is the client you hate most and stick a pin
anywhere.’ And above it, ‘Just had a frustrated meeting with a frustrated
client. This fellow goes on and on. I do not like long telephonic
conversations. The client is a Marwari, you know.’ In an invoice to one Mrs
Mukati dated ‘9/9/67’, he had jokily scribbled ‘10,000’ under ‘Quantity’ and
‘Good mornings’ under ‘Please receive the following in good order and

The scribble on the invoice, the drawings and the poems, whether early or
late, are part of the same vision. Enchanted by the ordinary, Kolatkar made
the ordinary enchanting. Which is why, however familiar one may be with his
work, it’s always as though one is encountering it for the first time. ‘[T]he
dirtier the better’ he says of the ‘unwashed child’ in a poem in Kala Ghoda,
‘The Ogress’, and the same might be said about the subjects he was drawn to:
the humbler the better. When the ogress, as Kolatkar calls her, gives the
‘tough customer on her hands’, ‘a furious, foaming boy’, a good scrub, she
has a ‘wispy half-smile’ on her face and ‘a wicked gleam’ in her eye. One
imagines Kolatkar’s face bore a similar expression when he mischievously
transformed the humble invoice into a cheery greeting.

What can be more uninspiring, more ordinary, or, sometimes, more enchanting,
than the tall stories men tell each other when they meet in a restaurant over
a cup of tea? In ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Kolatkar reproduces verbatim, in ‘street
Hindi’ (and translates into American English), three such stories. He wrote
the poem in 1960, at the beginning of the revolutionary decade that we
associate more with Andy Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Box exhibition and the music of
John Cage than with Kolatkar’s poem; more with New York than Bombay. Yet the
impulse behind their works is the same, to erase the boundaries between art
and ordinary speech, or art and cardboard boxes, or art and fart, whose sound
Cage incorporated into his music. The impulse has its origin in Marcel
Duchamp’s famous ‘ready-mades’, the snow shovels, bicycle wheels, bottle
racks and urinals he picked off the peg. It was art by invoice.

Kolatkar's influences

when he moved house from Bakhtavar in Colaba, to a much smaller one-room
apartment in Prabhadevi, Dadar, he also sold off his substantial collection
of music and science fiction books.

Kolatkar may not have had space for books, but he continued to buy them as
before, on a scale that would match the acquisitions of a small city
library. (He purchased newspapers on the same scale too; five morning and
three evening papers every day.) He bought books, read them, and passed them
on to his friends. This is how I acquired my copy of Marquez’s Love in the
Time of Cholera, which he had bought in hardback soon as it became available
at Strand Book Stall.

It was only a matter of time before books reappeared in his apartment,
covering a wall from end to end. Scanning the titles, I found no poetry or
fiction; instead, history. When, in her interview with him, Eunice de Souza
remarked on the books on Bosnia on his shelves, Kolatkar dwelt at length on
his reading habits:

	I want to reclaim everything I consider my tradition. I am
	particularly interested in history of all kinds, the beginning of
	man, archaeology, histories of everything from religion to objects,
	bread-making, paper, clothes, people, the evolution of man’s
	knowledge of things, ideas about the world or his own body. The
	history of man’s trying to make sense of the universe and his place
	in it may take me to Sumerian writing. It’s a browser’s approach, not
	a scholarly one; it’s one big supermarket situation. I read across
	disciplines and don’t necessarily read a book from beginning to
	end. I jump back and forth from one subject to another. I find reading
	documents as interesting as reading poetry. I am interested in the
	nature of history, which I find ambiguous. What is history? While
	reading it one doesn’t know. It’s a floating situation, a nagging
	quest. It’s difficult to arrive at any certainties. What you get are
	versions of history, with nothing final about them. Some parts are
	better lit than others, or the light may change, or one may see the
	object differently. I also like looking at legal, medical, and
	non-sacred texts – schoolboys’ texts from Egypt, a list of household
	objects in Oxyrhincus, a list of books in the collection of a Peshwa
	wife, correspondence about obtaining a pair of spectacles, deeds of
	sale, marriage and divorce contracts. One dimension of my interest in
	all this is literary, for example, in the Bible as literature. The
	Song of Solomon goes back to Egypt and Assyria. I like following
	these trails.

Like all autodidacts, Kolatkar’s dream was to know (‘to reclaim’) everything,
to hold all knowledge, like a shining sphere, in the palm of the hand. Nor
did he give up reading fiction altogether. One winter I was in Bombay he was
reading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

He read widely, and if a question interested him, he would track down
everything there was on it. When he was contemplating a poem on Héloïse for
Bhijki Vahi (2003), each of whose twenty-five poems is centred around a
sorrowing woman – from Isis, Cassandra and the Virgin Mary to Nadezhda
Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, and his own sister, Rajani, who lost her only
son, a cadet pilot in the Indian Air Force, in an air crash – he collected
a shelf-full of books on the subject. Eventually he abandoned the idea of
writing on Héloïse, saying to me that he had not been able to find a way
into the story, by which he meant a new perspective on it that would make
it different from a retelling. He faced a similar problem with Hypatia of
Alexandria, which he solved by making St Cyril, who is thought to have had
a hand in her murder, the poem’s speaker.


Sarpa Satra

Based in the frame story of the Mahabharata, Sarpa Satra is also a
contemporary tale of revenge and retribution, mass murder and genocide, and
one person’s attempt to break the cycle. In the story, the divine hero Arjuna
decides, ‘Just for kicks, maybe’, to burn down the Khandava forest. In a
passage of great lyrical beauty, Kolatkar describes the conflagration in which
everything gets destroyed, ‘elephants, gazelles, antelopes’ and

	people as well.
	Simple folk,

	children of the forest
	who had lived there happily for generations,
	since time began.

	They’ve gone without a trace.
	With their language
	that sounded like the burbling of a brook,

	their songs that sounded like the twitterings of birds,
	and the secrets of their shamans
	who could cure any sickness

	by casting spells with their special flutes
	made from the hollow
	wingbones of red-crested cranes.

Among those who die in the ‘holocaust’ is a snake-woman, to avenge whose loss
her husband, Takshaka, kills Arjuna’s grandson, Parikshit. Parikshit’s son,
Janamejaya, then holds the snake sacrifice, the Sarpa Satra, to rid the world
of snakes: ‘My vengeance will be swift and terrible. / I will not rest /
until I’ve exterminated them all.’ Though the mass killing of snakes
symbolically represents the many genocides of the last century, Kolatkar, by
taking a story from an ancient epic, brings the whole of human history under
the scrutiny of his moral vision. In the Mahabharata, Aasitka, whose mother
is herself a snake-woman and Takshaka’s sister, is able to stop the sacrifice
midway, but Kolatkar’s poem offers no such consolation:

	When these things come to an end,
	people find
	other subjects to talk about

	than just
	the latest episode of the Mahabharata
	and the daily statistics of death;

	rediscover simpler pleasures –
	fly kites,
	collect wild flowers, make love.

	Life seems
	to return to normal.
	But do not be deceived.

	Though, sooner or later,
	these celebrations of hatred too
	come to an end

	like everything else,
	the fire – the fire lit for the purpose –
	can never be put out.

In July 2004, as we were on our way by taxi from Prabhadevi to Café Military,
Kolatkar, looking out of the taxi window and then at me, remarked on his
English and Marathi oeuvres. With the exception of Sarpa Satra, he said, his
stance in ‘the boatride’, Jejuri and Kala Ghoda Poems had been that of an
observer; he was on the outside looking in. He wondered whether he’d have
gone on writing the same way if he’d lived for another ten years. The Marathi
books, on the other hand, were all quite different, he said, and there was no
obvious thread connecting Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita, Chirimiri and Bhijki

But there’s something else, too, that links ‘the boatride’, Jejuri and Kala
Ghoda Poems. Each of them is arranged in the cyclic shape of the Ouroboros,
their last lines suggestingly leading to their opening ones. Jejuri begins
with ‘daybreak’ and ends with the ‘setting sun / large as a
wheel’. Similarly, Kala Ghoda Poems begins with a ‘traffic island’ ‘deserted
early in the morning’ and ends with the ‘silence of the night’, the ‘traffic
lights’ ‘like ill-starred lovers / fated never to meet’. In ‘the boatride’,
the boat jockeys ‘away / from the landing’ and returns to the same spot when
the ride is over. It will fill up with tourists and set off again, just as the
state transport bus in Jejuri, at the end of the ‘bumpy ride’, will deliver a
fresh batch of ‘live, ready to eat’ pilgrims to the temple priest.

His Bombay friends had meanwhile been arriving through the morning to see
Kolatkar. It was a Thursday, and the crowd around his bed – Adil Jussawalla,
Ashok Shahane, Raghoo Dandavate, Kiran Nagarkar, Ratnakar Sohoni – was a
little like the Thursday afternoon crowd around his table at Wayside
Inn. Also in the room were Dilip and Viju Chitre. Sohoni was Kolatkar’s
Prabhadevi neighbour and had known him since his Design Unit days.

"Drunk and Other songs"

(from poems Kolatkar had set aside for showing AKM)
The first folder I pulled out from it was marked ‘Drunk & other
songs. Late sixties, early seventies’. This was the period when Kolatkar’s
interest in blues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll took a new turn. He learnt musical
notation and took lessons in the guitar and, from Arjun Shejwal, the
pakhawaj, and started to write songs, recording, in 1973, a demo consisting
of ‘Poor Man’, ‘Nobody’, ‘Joe and Bongo Bongo’ and ‘Radio Message from a
Quake Hit Town’. Three of these are “found” songs, further examples of
Kolatkar’s transformations of the commonplace. ‘Joe and Bongo Bongo’ and
‘Radio Message from a Quake Hit Town’ were based on newspaper reports and
‘Poor Man’ took its inspiration from the piece of paper that beggars thrust
before passengers waiting in bus queues and at railway stations. It gives the
beggar’s life story and ends with an appeal for money. ‘Poor Man’ has an
ananda-lahari in the background, an instrument that is popular with both
beggars and mendicants, particularly the Baul singers of Bengal. While its
plangent music is truthful to the origin of the song, the beggar’s appeal, it
also provides a nice contrast to the outrageous lyrics in which the ‘poor man
from a poor land’ is an aspiring rock star, who is singing not for his next
meal but because he wants ‘a villa in the south of france’ and ‘a gold disk
on [his] wall’.

In October 1973, one of Kolatkar’s friends, Avinash Gupte, who was travelling
to London and New York, tried to interest agents and music companies there in
the demo but nothing came of the effort. Kolatkar’s shot at the ‘gold disk’
had ended in disappointment and he abandoned all future musical plans. He
filed away the ‘Drunk & other songs’, never to return to them again. Instead,
in November-December of that year, he sat down and wrote Jejuri, completing
it in a few weeks.

One by one, I read out the ‘Drunk & other songs’, many of which I was seeing
for the first time. I wanted to know which ones to include in The Boatride
and, in case there was more than one version, which version to use. I read
them in the order I found them.
	tape me drunk
	my sister
	my chipmunk

	spittle spittle spittle
	gather my spittle
	but never in a hospital

	don’t tie me down
	promise me pet
	don’t tie me down
	to a hospital bed
	my salvation i believe
	is in a basket of broken eggs
	yolk on my sleeve
	and vomit on my legs

	o world
	what is my worth
	o streets
	where is my shirt

	begone my psychiatrist
	but before you do
	lend me your trousers
	because in mine i’ve pissed

‘That sounds honourable enough,’ Kolatkar joked after I’d finished reading
it. I read out the next one:

	hi constable      tell me what’s your collar size
	same as mine      i bet this shirt will fit you right

	the shirt is yours      feel it      don’t you like the fall
	all you got to do to get it is make one phone call…

‘Drunk,’ he said, by way of categorising the song. During his drinking days,
Kolatkar had had his run-ins with the police, being picked up for disorderly
behaviour on at least one occasion. Years later, he recalled the jail
experience in Kala Ghoda Poems:

	Nearer home, in Bombay itself,
	he miserable bunch
	of drunks, delinquents, smalltime crooks

	and the usual suspects
	have already been served their morning kanji
	in Byculla jail.

	They’ve been herded together now
	and subjected
	to an hour of force-fed education.

	                         (‘Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda’)

But the poems I was reading to him from the folder were nearer in time to the
experience they described:

	nothing’s wrong with me        man
               i’m ok
	it’s just that i haven’t had a drink all day

	let me finish my first glass of beer
	and this shakiness will disappear

	you’ll have to light my cigarette i can’t strike a match
	but see the difference once the first drink’s down the hatch

‘Straight drunk,’ came his response, quickly. To other songs, after hearing
the first line, he said I could decide later whether to include them or not
and to those towards the end he said ‘Skip’. Barring two, I have included all
the songs in the folder. They appear in a separate section, ‘Words for

Other reviews

from review of Boatride and other poems by Sampurna Chattarji

Picking up Arun Kolatkar’s The Boatride & other poems feels a lot like
revisiting an old friend in anticipation of much joy and newness. Just how
much is what’s revelatory about the collection, published five years after
Kolatkar’s death in 2004, edited and with a superb introduction by Arvind
Krishna Mehrotra. Titled ‘Death of a Poet’, the introduction not only
chronicles the last few conversations Mehrotra had with Kolatkar, but also
gives us a wonderfully lucid overview of the poet, the man, the
mischief-maker, the flaneur/loafer, the fan of American music, of Big Mama
Thornton and Elvis, the autodidact and the prodigious reader. Erudite and
engaging, the introduction sets the perfect tone for the book, which is
divided into five sections—‘Poems in English 1953-1967’, ‘Poems in Marathi’,
‘Words for Music’, ‘Translations’ and the final section, which contains the
long poem ‘the boatride’.

Right away, the second poem in the book, ‘Of an origin moot as cancer’s’,
demonstrates something many poets (especially young poets) forget—namely, the
way in which the simplest of words can create the most complex of
effects. Wordplay is something Kolatkar revelled in, and the next poem
‘Dual’—with the deliciously apt echo of ‘duel’ ghosting below its surface—is
no exception. As “A man and a woman in a radical cage/ Grope and get bruised
in an animal light”, the word ‘light’ itself becomes a weapon in the hands of
the pitiless observer, the amused spectator. The “unlearnt skin” of the
couple, “dazzled/ in the narcotic light, is blunt and smooth/ like the fat
palm of an infant cactus.” The short poem ends:

	The two might declare harsh thorns and live
	as insensate as a cactus, piteously bristled
	and opposing the light.

... Kolatkar’s ability to be brutal and beautiful in the same breath is
brilliantly apparent in poems like ‘One seldom sees a woman’ which ends:

               for a moment the saliva of the horse
               glittered on your finger like a wedding ring
               then the wind dropped

see also: review of boatride, by Akhila Ramnarayan [in|The Hindu]

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] gmail) 2012 Nov 25