The poet who remained a boy

The partner who gave him back his voice: Dom Moraes with Sarayu Srivastava. Photo: S. Subramanium   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

He had an extraordinary gift with words but when you met him, Dominic Frances Moraes merely mumbled.

He was known to be famously shy. Then again because he documented his conquests, in phrases such as ‘Hips to launch many ships/nippled bowls of cream and honey’; women fell upon him like fresh laundry.

When he first went to London as a young boy of 18, people recalled his skin the colour of honey, the dark eyes with the hair tumbling over them, the white suits that he affected. As one of the persons who knew him then remembers when he entered a pub in Soho, “You could not take your eyes off him.”

This is the image that Ranjit Hoskote has chosen to put on the cover of the poems edited by him in his anthology of poems by Dom Moraes; an eastern edition of Dorian Gray turned golden by the Orient sun. It could not be more different from Jeet Thayil’s portrait of a drink-sozzled character named Newton Xavier who has a walk-on part as an artist who is also a poet in Narcopolis, an opium-garbled account of the seamy side of Mumbai interspersed with revelations about literary matters. The narrator who is named Dom reports on a Dom-like evening at the PEN where the audience has been invited to listen to Xavier. There’s even a poem that nails the Moraes method gloriously: “God & Dog & dice and day/Live forever, like Man” and goes on to mumble “So- open your arms to me, give/Me the scent of your skin & clean hair.”

Even as Dom the narrator records the scene from the stains on the poet-artist’s kurta —“drink? blood? semen?...the wonderful fact that he was too drunk to stand” — he launches into an epiphany that is as memorable as the real Dom at his best.

“He was going to read a new poem he said, speaking so softly that the audience had to lean forward to hear him. Then he started to read and his voice was mild, the words perfectly articulated, the accent round and rich and neutral. Not British or American or Indian but godlike. Most striking of all was the tone of absolute authority. I heard the coldness under it and it gave me a shiver, even in that heat it gave me a shiver.” (From Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil).

He’s been dead for more than nine years now, but Dom can still elicit a shiver. The avid collector of gothic tales who had a fascination for the undead, vampires, movie monsters clanking out of their experimental cloisters, mythical messiahs waking from their thousand years of sleep is being reincarnated as something rich and strange. As poet, editor, anthologist, exile in two cultures, a sometimes companion to beautiful women who then regretted their choice, Dom is being re-invented as a heritage monument of a vanished age. In many ways it’s his closeness to both women and beauty that has become his greatest asset.

He was born on July 19, 1938, the gifted child of gifted parents, Beryl and Frank Moraes, one a doctor, the other one of the best respected intellectuals of his time who travelled the world with his young son, at a time when most Indians found it difficult to make such journeys.

His best poems are those that speak of his often tender, but mostly tormented, relationship with his mother Beryl Moraes. Her Catholic faith and her mental instability (tragically she was committed to a mental asylum outside Bangalore when he was still a young boy) contributed a great deal to the images of terror and despair that a permanent loss of faith led him to document with his characteristic anguish gilded with a carapace of rich imagery.

His earliest mentor was Nissim Ezekiel, now described as the best known practitioner of a genre known as “Anglo-Indian’ poetry. He offered Dom, still in schoolboy short pants and shirt at 14, a cigarette and advised him to write fiction. When Dom went on to win the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1958, for his first book of poems, A New Beginning and was hailed as something of a prodigy, being both the youngest and the first Asian to win the prize, he quickly found other mentors in W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.

In an early biography, he chose to write of his first teacher in a languidly barbed and dismissive manner. Then again, that’s what you did when you picked up the manners and mocking mannerisms of being an upper class Indian who had transcended his background in the England of that time. When he came back to Bombay, the city that appears most often in his work, both as a place that he could inhabit and exhibit with a showman’s ease, he was a practising outsider, at home and yet not really here.

Strangely enough it is through the women in his life that Dom stumbles into life these days. Or it could be that like John Fowles’ The Collector, he chose them with a lepidopterist’s avidity to pin them to his quest for immortality. Henrietta Moraes (1931-1999), for instance who married him in his Soho years when he was 19 and she 25, was certainly the most colourful. She could be called “La Grande Horizontal” from the number of nude portraits for which she lent her body to artists now as famous as Francis Bacon, who painted her all nose and meaty slivered cheeks, and Lucien Freud more adept at flesh and pubic hair.

She is now the subject of a play written by Sue Maclaine called, somewhat inappropriately one imagines, “Still Life: An Evening with Henrietta Moraes”. For a young woman who started life as Audrey Wendy Abbott in Shimla to an air force family based in India, she made a career by being famous for her lively wit and generous display of her body. Her best Dom-based memory is that when he left her, he said, mumbling, no doubt: “Darling, I’m going out for some cigarettes” and never returned. That first cigarette from Nissim was apparently more effective than his advice on poetic matters.

The second wife, Judith’s presence led to some calming vignettes of an English suburban life and the birth of a son, Francis, whose emergence was recorded in a tender wolf’s growl of a poem that made it to the front pages of the Indian press of that time. It did not last. Dom returned to India in 1968. We have no record of how he left them.

Unlike Leela Naidu (1940-2009) the famously beautiful third trophy, who has been the subject of an intimate but not entirely all-revealing biography co-authored by her and Jerry Pinto in which she reveals that it was out of pity that she married Dom in 1969. She fell for his “shy mumbling face”, his badly matched socks and apparent inability to take care of himself. It might be said that they were kindred souls. Even if she was eventually to play Zelda to his Fitzgerald, each one complementing the other in their desire to compete and complement the other with their passionate devotion to drink and to themselves. Both have been described as “luminous” in their ability to attract attention. With a nuclear physicist Indian father and a Swiss Indologist mother, Leela Naidu had, like Dom, met most of the celebrated performers, filmmakers and artists of her time. Together they constituted an aristocracy of the new Indian, neither homespun desi, nor effete European but desperately evolving a third alternative.

This is perhaps why it is wholly understandable that Ranjit Hoskote should try and fit the boot of ‘early transcultural” artist on to Dom’s feet and make him walk again through his poems.

This may be the place to put on record Dom’s travels and reportage of some of the troubled hotspots of the 20th century; Tel Aviv where he searched for evil in the bland face of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann at his trial, to the Congo to Vietnam and closer home in the failure of the Indian State at Ayodhya and Gujarat in the aftermath at Godhra. These, however, show him at his most trite. After watching the B-12 bombers with their napalm bombs leave for Vietnam, he describes a wound he has received on his shoulder with a line that is so banal as to make one squirm: “My wound was pleased it had a wife to kiss it.” When visiting the Antarctica, he notices the “penguin colonies/badly designed as butlers”. It’s no wonder that he complains of a “menopause of the mind.” He was menopausal long before his time.

Never mind. In his last book written with Sarayu Srivatsava, the last devoted partner who took him in hand and gave him back his voice, The Long Walk about Thomas Coryat, a Victorian eccentric who walks all the way from England to India, has the freshness of the early promise.

Or to quote from one of Dom’s poems, ‘Brandeth’, “He spun like a sun in his fall./He became next day’s news./He fell till he ceased to feel/dignified, any more.” (From Ranjit Hoskote Selected Poems, Penguin Modern Classics).

Even falling, he’s worth the catch.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 10:22:18 PM |

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