Reprise Books

Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

Last year, to mark India-U.K. ties, the British Council collaborated with Poems on the Underground to showcase Indian poetry on the London tube network. Among the poets featured were Eunice de Souza, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Agha Shahid Ali and Arun Kolatkar, who wrote both in Marathi and English. The reclusive Kolatkar, who died in 2004 — the year we lost two other literary luminaries in Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes — would perhaps have been amused by all the fuss.

The sky falls

He became well-known after Jejuri, his first book of poems published in 1976 won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977. The 31 poems are written around the eponymous temple town of western Maharashtra whose reigning deity is Khandoba, a manifestation of Shiva.

The narrative begins with a ride on the bus, to the shrine of Jejuri: “Your own divided face in a pair of glasses/ on an old man’s nose/ is all the countryside you get to see./ You seem to move continually forward/ towards a destination/ just beyond the caste-mark between his eyebrows.” This is no pilgrim's progress, but an outsider looking in.

The rounds of the temples and every nook and cranny where gods sit “in the dark” end with the visitor’s encounter with a beggar woman whose eyes are like bullet holes. “And as you look on/ the cracks that begin around her eyes/ spread beyond her skin./ And the hills crack./ And the temples crack./ And the sky falls.../ And you are reduced/ To so much small change/ In her hand.” Does the visitor find divinity? “what is god/and what is stone/ the dividing line/ if it exists/ is very thin/ at jejuri/ and every other stone/ is god or his cousin.”

There isn’t a drop of water in the “great reservoir the Peshwas built, “there is nothing in it./ Except a hundred years of silt.” The rocks and the stones may be “harvested” as gods around the year, but a yellow butterfly catches his eye. “There is no story behind it./ It is split like a second./ It has no future.../ It’s a little yellow butterfly./ It has taken these wretched hills/ under its wings.”

Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur in 1932, and worked as a graphic artist in Bombay after having studied at the J.J. School of Art. In Bombay, where he lived, he would often be found at the Wayside Inn (which no longer exists) in the Fort area, looking out to the people on the street. He would write about the “lowlifes” in his celebrated Kala Ghoda Poems, released shortly before his death.

In his introduction to Jejuri for the New York Review Books Classics, Amit Chaudhuri writes: “I found him a mixture of unassumingness, reticence, mischief and recalcitrance” — traits found in his poems. As Rajeev S. Patke says in ‘Poetry since Independence’ (An essay from An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English), “Perhaps it (Jejuri) is best read as a glass poem: what you think you see through the glass is the place, what you really see is your own reflection trying to look through.”

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:07:31 AM |

Next Story