Poems about the undersides of cities, which defy our casual acceptance that “all is well”, and the undersides of relationships.
It’s about 20 years since I read, and reviewed in these pages, Raj’s first collection of short stories, One Day I Locked My Flat in Soul City. Since then he has published works in every genre: plays, poems, biography, novels and some of the most important gay interviews and anthologies that exist. It is a commonplace that ‘gay writing’, as it is frequently understood, belongs to North America and west Europe. But it has a far older provenance here, in Asia. Writers like Raj, Hoshang Merchant (whose first volume of collected poems I reviewed here a few months ago), Ashley Tellis, Ashok Row Kavi (not that they belong in the same space)… place a phenomenon, abhorrent to many, within the forays of the multitudinous human spirit. If it exists, write about it: No writer or reviewer should want to quarrel with that.
This is not an apology. Perish the thought! Writers as skilled as Raj need no apology. But for me, who love to play with words, their assonances rejoicing in my brain — for me whose hairs literally stand on end when I read a lovely line — for me, Raj’s focus (since he came out of the closet some 15 years ago) on gay issues seems a waste of talent. However, causes require sacrifices, and I respect him the more for what he has not done.
Of these two volumes, the second is the more accessible. A collection of 45 haikus from Raj’s brief stay in North America some years ago, it jibes and weeps in equal measure. I’m not a fan of the haiku, but Raj handles it better than anyone I’ve read in English. I once read the haiku called “Five Pandava Bums” to my mother, and she cried, “Enough!” So do remember these are not for the faint-stomached. But here’s an example at random:
North America/Is just an island between/Two mighty oceans.
The other collection, For Hire, I must begin to talk about by extolling the cover. I thought it was a portrait of Raj, but it turns out to be a painting, “Wandering Shepherd”, by an Iranian painter. For Hire consists mostly of already published poems, which must have been reviewed earlier. There are some, though, which again demand our attention.
Raj’s vision goes below the level which our eyes normally — “normally?” — see, to the detritus of so-called civilisation, to the garbage dumps and what is dumped there, in defiance of municipal orders. Nothing holds him back, least of all what is “accepted”, as see the poem ‘Masturbation’: ,,, glue/stink/moist dirt moist/arse hole our sole/bum chick bum chick…
Raj has turned his considerable sensibilities to gay writing. It’s not that he can’t write of our “straight” proclivities: Noises away from life is a hill./Up this hill there is no Jack or Jill or anybody or anything,/save an old tree, with seasoned roots and sturdy trunk… (“Nonconformist Tree”)
If I have given the impression that these are ‘gay’ poems, I beg your pardon, and Raj’s. These are poems, mainly, about the undersides of cities, which defy our casual acceptance that “all is well”, and the undersides of relationships. They rip and tear at the reader, asking questions which cannot be answered from our own lazy viewpoints: You want to claim/exclusive rights/to the word friend./Husbands have wives/lovers have beloveds,/vocabulary to which/you cannot be admitted./Friends only have friends/over for dinner. (“Friends”)
It’s a difficult task to review a collection of poems, and more so one by a friend. Raj’s poems ask why, wherefore, and what. Acceptance is all too easy for us, middle-class and middle-classed ‘brahmins’: It’s much more difficult to write these poems. “Gay” is a strange term for people who have been outcast since before Victoria came to the British throne. These poems are not gay, and I hope that 20 years from now it will be possible to write poems which are both gay and ‘gay’. Raj will be there, stroking his beard, approving — and, I hope, writing.
For Hire: New and Selected Poems; Poetrywala, an imprint of Paperwall Media & Publishing, Rs 200. The Canada Album; Aark Arts, £3.99/$5.99. Both books by Raj Rao.