Review Reviews

‘Naishapur and Babylon: Poems’ review: From Babylon to Benares

Over the years, Keki N. Daruwalla has been both proficient and prolific. Ever since he emerged on the scene with his scorching first book of poems Under Orion back in 1970, he has published nine other volumes, including a Selected Poems in 2008 and his Collected Poems (1970-2005), brought out in 2006.

It’s an adverse testimony on the publishing industry that even a poet of Daruwalla’s stature has been buffeted around by seven or eight different publishers. Besides poetry, he has published books of short stories and a novel, For Pepper and Christ, and has also edited an anthology on English poetry in India. He is currently working on another novel.

Solace and rhyme

His output has been quite remarkable. Usually, after the publication of a Collected, a poet often rests on his laurels or comes to an uneasy standstill, wondering if there are any poems still hovering about, just out of reach. Daruwalla has had no such hesitations. Since his Collected, he has published two more individual collections, Fire Altar in 2013, and now his newest offering, Naishapur and Babylon: Poems (2005-2017). This is avowedly his last volume of poems as he works on the new novel, though poems have the curious habit of popping up unexpectedly at the oddest times, hovering mischievously like those emojis on the computer screen. He also writes a breezy but prickly column on poetry for this magazine section in which he invariably talks down to other poets, assuming a superior position and taking up — and on — far too many poets at a time.

‘Naishapur and Babylon: Poems’ review: From Babylon to Benares

The poems in this new volume are imbued with the same vigour and sense of history and rugged landscape as his previous books. Unlike most other Indian poets, Daruwalla freely embraces foreign terrain — in this volume the Greek mythology of Persephone and Orpheus, Thebes and Creon, followed by ‘Luxor Diary’ in which his narrative skills are plainly evident, a skill underlined in a poem on the Portuguese seafarer Pedro Álvares Cabral, who in 1500 set sail for India but landed instead in Brazil. Though curiously inconclusive, the poem is a fine example of Daruwalla as a chronicler.

Past 80 now, Daruwalla can, as in the opening poem, still ‘light up’ through ‘this streak of fire / through the thin wire / of memory and mind’ and capture (in the poem that follows) that ‘one luminous moment / on that rim / where consciousness and amnesia / meet and vanish / blur and meet’. In another poem, he concludes: ‘Let’s face it / solace comes with poetry/ a rhyme that clangs against a tin can / insistent, but moves into memory, / a haiku that flies off a page / and turns into a bird.’ And in a later piece called ‘Letter’, he writes, a trifle awkwardly: ‘poetry? as one gets on in age / I write around the same dream / on the same page / paper gets larger, dream shorter.’

Moon river

Despite the advancing years — and, as he puts it, the ‘muted trumpet’ of the ego — Daruwalla still hasn’t quite lost his old satirical bite. On Ram Kumar’s painting of Varanasi, he writes ‘…isn’t Benares a parasite on the river, / that torrent of myth which inundates the country?

Unusually for Daruwalla, creatures great and small also inhabit the poems, ranging from cranes, barbets, falcons and a crocodile’s ‘sunning corrugated hide’. Even the flow of a river is evocatively personalised — ‘in the hills she talks / to the rocks inside her’ though at night she is ‘a black mirror’ and ‘the quarter moon and the half moon / sail on her’. There are also some moving and plaintive touches in poems like ‘She Came’ and ‘Dream 11’ with its concluding lines: ‘The other day wife drove off / in our low slung car / our blue Standard Herald / which we had for twenty years / I said I’d wait for lunch/ and I waited and waited and then it struck me / she wasn’t coming back.’

It’s the simplicity of the lines that lend them a certain poignancy.

Besides the occasional tendency towards prolixity, there are a few unsuccessful poems in the collection, notably a rather rhetorical one on Gandhi who deserves a lot better. But if Naishapur and Babylon is really a swan song for Daruwalla, then it’s a triumphant one.

In contemporary poetry, accessibility and immediate comprehension has become a crime. It is assumed that the more ‘difficult’ and ‘complex’ a poem, the more ‘profound’ it is. This rarefied stratosphere has turned off many young readers from poetry. Daruwalla does not fall into this wilful trap. Some of his poems may need a rereading but they are not mired in obscurity. He is not a poet writing exclusively for other poets.

The writer recently published Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017).

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