Appreciation Literary Review

A simple poet

Keki Daruwalla  

One of my first memories of Keki Daruwalla is his gentle instruction to me: ‘Take it out’. The ‘it’ was the word ‘shit’ in the first draft of a poem I was showing him. It was titled ‘Eating Shit’. He was distinctly uncomfortable with my use of the word, and not just because we were about to sit down for dinner a few minutes later, a remark he made with his characteristic affectionate humour. That early memory defines for me much of Daruwalla’s attitude to literature and his long career in poetry, short fiction, For Pepper and Christ, a novel, a travelogue and other essays.

Recently awarded the Padma Shri for his ‘distinguished service’ in literature, a writing career spanning more than four decades, Keki Daruwalla was born in 1937 in Lahore, where his father was a professor at the government college. The family migrated to Junagadh after Partition, and Daruwalla was schooled all across the country, obtaining his degree in English Literature from the University of Punjab. At the young age of twenty one, he joined the Indian Police Service and after a distinguished career, retired as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Parallel to this has been his career as a poet, one that has seen him being awarded honours from the Sahitya Akademi in India and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia, among several others.

His first collection of poems was Under Orion, first published by Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta, in 1970. In it, one notices the claims of the job on his writing:

Blood and fog

are over half the town

and curfew stamps across the empty street. ...

The starch on your khaki back

turns soggy; the feel of things is queer.

You wish to forget it all,

the riot, the town, the people:

that mass of liquefied flesh

seething in fear. (Curfew in a Riot-torn City)

It is a question that seems to follow him often. In a programme at a university in northern Bengal, postgraduate students seemed to find this an odd binary, even a fascinating one — a ‘policeman writing poems’, as one of them said in an inelegant manner of speaking. The poet-are-the-legislators-of-the-world siren is bound to follow someone like Daruwalla, and in magazine interviews I’ve noticed the question raise its head. The query confuses and conflates the humanitarian with humane, and then with its offspring ‘human rights’, both semantically and conceptually. In the conference that I mentioned, Daruwalla, remarkably patient and full of equanimity, chose to answer the question like a poet is wont to do — with metaphors. There are different selves at work, he clarified, as if a clarification was even necessary from a poet of his stature. I remember wanting to intervene, to say why one never asked an academic that question, but I didn’t. Instead, I reminded Daruwalla and his audience of these lines from his first collection:

A gunshot scatters

the silence and the birds.

You rush there, pistol cocked,

search the lanes and scan the walls for blood.

Weak with relief you praise the Lord,

the bullet hasn’t claimed a corpse. (Curfew in a Riot-torn City)

There are two selves at work in these lines, the one who notices the gun shot ‘scattering’ the silence and the other which is relieved that ‘the bullet hasn’t claimed a corpse’. What his day job does is not to influence the ethic of Daruwalla’s poems but provide him with subjects — the poet’s craft lies in transmogrifying the seeming mundaneness of bureaucracy into something that has a ventricular life. He does this by what John Dryden, in writing about the metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne, called the yoking of heterogenous ideas by violence. In “The Commissioner for the Destruction of Fire-Temples Comes Calling”, a poem from his most recent collection, Fire Altar, for instance, he succeeds in creating what can be called a sense of late epiphany in the reader, the realisation that history is always contemporary and that its mechanics has always been devious:

His tone reveals years of command,

his sword is familiar with kafir blood.

The summons are obeyed; severance of plate

from walls, of eardrops from lobes.

The temple must give as well; the senior priest

walks to the fire donning his flowing robes.

This destruction of the fire-temple, is it not meant to remind the reader of the destruction of another shrine on 6th December, 1992?

This to-and-fro understanding of the nature of history has provided Daruwalla with his two other major themes: his visiting and re-working of mythology to make them contemporaneous. In “On Mohenjodaro at Oxford”, a poem from his 1987 collection, Landscapes, for instance, there is this intuitive assumption about the simultaneity of buried cultures, buried history, buried time, that need unearthing. In that a poet is also a historian.

It was when pouring coffee

that I asked, ‘when will you talk

of Mohenjodaro?’

His lips cracked, his dentures smiled

and the light glowed in his pupils.

‘What is there to say

except that I was there

when the first ceramic shards came out

and the terra-cotta figurines.

Then the thrill of the first seal,

the humped bull standing majestic,

with his dewlap like a sail unfurled.

The next few stanzas document what history textbooks have taught the Indian schoolboy for decades, and the reader is filled with the anticipation of something epiphanous about to come his way. This doesn’t happen all too soon, for it is a tactic that Daruwalla employs often, to hold back, to tease, sometimes often to the point of desperation, as if in a short mimicry of life itself, but when it does, it comes with the power of a revelation, with the softness of comradeship:

They were a happy people, even their bondmen

had brick cottages with two rooms.

Then like a geological shift

a people came in from the north,

and I came upon a hearth

with cold cinders, four thousand years old.

Daruwalla indulges our wistfulness for the past when ‘even’ the bondmen were happy. The ‘geological shift’ is not only because of the arrival of the northerners but also something more invisible, and therefore undocumented — the ‘shift’ from the equality of basic social entitlements to a more rigid hierarchy. Though the poet does not say it himself, he ensures that we ask ourselves — are we a ‘happy people’? ‘ I dig for words/and I can’t find them.’ That is how the poem ends, poet turning into a failed archaeologist. Why? The other more interesting thing that Daruwalla succeeds in doing in poem after poem is to bring in valves at both ends in his characterisation of history. It is to be found in its most basic sense in the axiom that history repeats itself, and it is to be found in Daruwalla’s depiction of an ancient civilisation as ‘happy’. Will a poet writing two centuries later think of us as a people happier than them?

To make these queries, Daruwalla returns to mythology time and again. And this negotiation, clearing a space, building temporary bridges, becomes a version of migration between time zones, both of history and geography.

You don’t have people now

who can sense a drought

from the way frost crinkles

on the ground in February ...

It was sixty years back, and I a child,

terrified, as he stood at our door,

tribal-dark and thick-lipped. ...

Later there were thousands;

footsore hordes scouring the land for forage,

numerous enough to start a tiger-beat

in every nullah. (“Migrations”)

Mythology in Daruwalla’s world is both comfort and correction, comparison and creation — it is necessary because it makes us pause and reflect on the ‘migrations’ that have been made over time runaways, and it provides us with axes on which to measure the contemporary space-time workings of history. Does this investment in our mythology then mark the poet as a nationalist? Daruwalla’s aim in his writing has always been what political scientists and psephologists, when invited inside television studios, call ‘inclusivity’. The empathetic interest in the other is overwhelming in his work — the ‘You’ in his poems is a ‘stranger-friend’, someone who is foreign by virtue of history or geography, but also familiar (and family, the root word) because

You are

where the vegetable dyes are

where colours are a dialect

and the dark is a language.

You are

where no subterfuge is.

The title of the poem is a bit of a hopscotch with the self: Contradictory You. Note the mixed metaphors in the words, the slipping over of the visual and the auditory into each other, colour becoming a dialect and language becoming dark. That is how uncertain and messy the ‘you’ is, a ‘you’ without linearity, a ‘you’ ‘where no subterfuge is’. Can there be a ‘you’ without subterfuge at all?

They think you are snooty, when you assert

that since your bodies are smeared

with Odomos

you can’t make love. (In the Tarai)

In fact, it is the ‘you’ and not the ‘I’ that occupies the space between bodies and the universes they contain. Daruwalla’s manifesto, in his writing, and in his professional life, most recently as a distinguished member of the National Minorities Commission, has consistently been in bridging this gap between the ‘you’ and the ‘I’, and the recognition for his writing, both institutionalised and popular, perhaps comes from that space.

Daruwalla’s long association with the arms of the Indian state has sometimes brought his poetry the ‘nationalist’ tag. One only needs to read a poem like his Map-maker to understand his version of the love of his nation and its people:

I put a clamp on yearning, shun latitudes, renounce form.

And turn my eye to the far kingdom

of bloodless Kalinga battling with a storm.

Dampen your fires, turn your lighthouse, spire, steeple.

Forget maps and voyaging, study instead

the parched earth horoscope of a brown people. (Italics mine)

In an early story, written in 1979, for the collection Sword and Abyss, “How the Quit India Movement Came to Alipur”, Daruwalla is at his best when he uses ‘dog biscuits’ as a prop to throw up the differences between the swadeshis and the British — “This is nothing new. You have treated us like dogs. Let me tell you that you and your Government will both go to the dogs!”, one of the Indians announces furiously when dog biscuits are served to them with tea by the servants of the British civil servant, David Fowler. And then ‘the Quit India Movement had come to Alipur’. Anyone who has had a conversation with Daruwalla would be aware of a phrase that he is fond of using — ‘my people’. Reading his strong body of work, it is this sense that comforts the reader all the time, that the poet has taken note of even his insignificant life, and therefore he is not alone. That is why one must take care to note the shadows when Daruwalla uses the word ‘country’, as here:

So when a whole city moves to another,

when a country walks out of itself,

you can bet your butt we wouldn’t be around. (The Night Sky Lands on Doha)

It is this constant awareness that ‘we wouldn’t be around’ that gives birth to what are my favourite poems by Daruwalla. These are poems on the subject of, for want of a better name, death. It is as if poets are also meant to be historians of life and its snubbing out, writers of obituaries, or as the title of a brilliant poem goes, ‘the keeper of the dead’ (Mehar Ali, the Keeper of the Dead). Philosophers and poets have often reserved their best poems for their mothers, especially when they are now only a resident of the memory: ‘ Your spine goes creaking now/across the bow of your body./Your skin preserves the past/in its creases/like mummy-wrap,’ writes Daruwalla in the poem Mother, ending it with a line that all of us who believe that we will die would be comforted by – ‘Heaven was built under the feet of mothers’. Time — and Daruwalla — finds a way to teach us that we are not the first one to die, and neither will we be the last. But what holds his creased attention is what happens to us after we ‘die’:

Man is so pliant, adaptable. Bury him

and he is steadfast as the earth.

Burn him and he will ride the flames.

Throw him to the birds and he will

surrender flesh like an ascetic. (Rumination)

Like the best philosophers, Daruwalla says it in the simplest language. And hence his overwhelming popularity. As he says, in a conscious self-portraiture, ‘ He writes so simply, damn him/that learned men/are hard put to understand him’ (A Simple Poet).

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 1:43:22 AM |

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