Saturday, 23 May 2009

Indian Poetry in English: Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

I bought this volume in the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones. The edition I got was published by the New York Review of Books and, I'm sorry to say, was in a cut-price sale. Talk about bargains, though! Originally written in English, Jejuri is a masterpiece of contemporary Indian poetry and my edition also contains an illuminating, engaging and erudite biographical and critical account of Kolatkar's work, written by Amit Chaudhuri, a distinguished author from a younger generation, who has already won the Commonwealth Writer's prize.

The work is post-modern in its irony and detachment, but don't let that put you off: Kolatkar is vivid, immediate and funny. Whilst not didactic, there is plenty of sly comment on religion and priests in particular (one is described as having 'a lazy lizard stare').

Chaudhuri's introduction says more about the poet and his book, better than I could ever hope to, but I do have some small observations for you, if you will do me the favour of reading them.

The first point to make is that the collection is really a sequence of poems which present some snapshots of one person's pilgrimage (or visit, since the narrator does not appear to be overwhelmed by conviction) to a religious shrine. Generally, the kind of poetry Kolatkar writes can be observational, almost off-hand at times:

That's no doorstep.
It's a pillar on its side.

Yes.
That's what it is.
(The Doorstep).

Often there is a narrative element:

The door was open.
Manohar thought
it was one more temple.
(Manohar)

At other times, the poems can be like little allegories (think Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet, but with a sense of humour):

sweet as grapes
are the stones of jejuri
said chaitanya

he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods
(Chaitanya - there are a number of poems with this title in the book, perhaps the collection is organised around musical principles like Eliot's work)

Kolatkar uses a number of rhetorical devices, which give his short lines intensity and focus - qualities which he usually manages to display at the same time as being humorous. These seem to involve mixing up abstract and concrete elements:

a herd of legends
on a hill slope
(Chatanya - a different version from the one quoted above)

Kolatkar's comments on religion are sly and cheeky but he seems to show how religious thinking has permeated and shaped every aspect of Indian life. Thus, at the end, when he describes the somewhat haphazard railway station from where the narrator intends to make his return journey, he states that:

the booking clerk believes in the doctrine
of the next train
(The Railway Station)

Linking in with the appearance and reality theme of The Doorstep, he seems to be saying that the imagination transforms this rocky tumbledown place into the stuff of dreams and legend. Scratch a rock, he says, and a legend springs.

Ultimately, the poem is affirmative and the last image, if I'm not mistaken, is taken from the Indian flag:

the setting sun
touches upon the horizon
at a point where the rails
like the parallels
of a prophecy
appear to meet

the setting sun
large as a wheel
(The Railway Station)

This may contain an element of irony but it is allied to affection and a deep sense of loyalty. I enjoyed this book very much indeed and note that Bloodaxe have just published an anthology of contemporary Indian poets who write in English. Thanks to Jejuri, I shall certainly be getting it.