The following is Amit Chaudhuri's introduction to the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Jejuri
When Jejuri was published in 1976, I was fourteen years old. I heard about it only the following year, when the Times of India announced it had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and carried a piece on Arun Kolatkar. Later, if I remember correctly, the Times featured, on a Sunday, an article on the poet, the book, and the actual town of Jejuri, a site of pilgrimage in the state of Maharashtra; it was probably when Kolatkar's droopy moustache and longish hair became familiar to me from a photograph. It seems extraordinary that this newspaper, which, for a decade now, has pretended there's no such thing as literature, should have devoted so much newsprint to a poet; but the ethos in Bombay was still friendly, in an almost unthinking, unformulated way, toward Indian poetry in English, in a spirit of friendliness towards what it saw to be various recreational pastimes.
I first met Kolatkar in early 2000, when I was in Bombay to launch a novel. I'd extended my stay in order to seek him out; I hoped to ask him to give Jejuri to the international publishing house who published me at the time (for whom I'd just begun to edit a series that would give modern Indian classics, both translated and in English, a fresh lease of life), and so make Jejuri available to the worldwide audience I felt it deserved. At the time, the book was not only not published internationally; it was only available—though it had acquired a reputation as a key work of contemporary Indian literature in the years since it had first appeared—in limited print runs at a couple of bookshops in Bombay and, I was told, Pune from Pras Prakashan. This small press was run by Kolatkar's friend Ashok Shahane, a man who was, as Kolatkar said in an interview to the poet Eunice De Souza, 'very active in the Marathi little magazine movement.' Jejuri's author was, by all accounts, content, even determined, that this was how things should continue to be.
I was told by Adil Jussawalla, one of the most respected and defining figures of Bombay's poetry scene in English, that Kolatkar could be found at the Wayside Inn on Thursday, after half past three. The Wayside Inn was in a neighbourhood called Kala Ghoda, which means 'black horse': so named because of the statue in black stone of King Edward VII on his horse that once stood at its centre, in the space that's long been converted into a car park.
Shaped by the colonial past, reshaped by republican and nationalist zeal, Kala Ghoda had become a cosmopolitan 'here and now', located at the confluence of downtown and the arts and commercial districts. Wayside Inn itself overlooked the Jehangir Art Gallery and Max Mueller Bhavan, the centre for German culture; Elphinstone College, the David Sassoon Library, the Regal Cinema, and the Prince of Wales Museum were a short distance away; Rhythm House, for a long time Bombay's largest music store, was next door. The banks and offices of Flora Fountain, one of the city's more venerable business districts, weren't far away either. In the midst of office-goers, students, and people heading towards matinee shows and art exhibitions, were the small families of the homeless who had settled down on the pavements around the Jehangir Art Gallery and Rhythm House, the prostitutes who appeared at night and sometimes loitered about in the afternoon, and the pushers in front of the Prince of Wales Museum, who, by the late Seventies, had come to stay. The friends Kolatkar met up with at the Wayside Inn were from the intermittently overlapping spheres of art and commerce, poets and friends from the advertising world in which, for many years, he'd made his living; but it was the low-life, the obscure daily-wage-earners, and the itinerant families of Kala Ghoda he looked upon from the open window, and whom he'd been writing about for twenty years. The sequence, Kala Ghoda Poems, was published shortly before his death by Ashok Shahane.
I was familiar with the area; I'd spent a year at Elphinstone College in 1978. It was then that I'd bought Jejuri from Thacker's Bookshop in the same area; both it and the Wayside Inn no longer exist; the latter's been replaced by an upmarket Chinese restaurant. But in 2000, I found Kolatkar there on the Thursday afternoon; three or four meetings, another trip to Bombay, and long-distance telephone calls to a neighbour's phone (he didn't possess one himself) followed in my attempt to make him sign the contract. I found him a mixture of unassumingness, reticence, mischief, and recalcitrance. His well-known prickliness about contracts came not so much, I think, from a feeling of neglect, or a bogus, but not uncommon, claim to nationalist pride among arriviste Indian writers, as a sense of allegiance to a sub-culture that had, by now, largely disappeared; the sub-culture that had given him his wariness as well as his writer's cunning and resources. At one point, I was interviewed at the Inn by a group of friends, including Shahane—a sort of grilling by the 'firm'—while Kolatkar occasionally played, in a deadpan way, my advocate. His questions and prevarications regarding the contract betrayed a fiendish ingeniousness: 'It says the book won't be published in Australia. But I said nothing about Australia.' Only my reassurance, 'I've looked at the contract and I'd sign it without any doubts in your place,' made him tranquil. Finally, he did sign; something more extraordinary to me, and of which I'm more proud, than if I'd been an agent who'd secured a multi-million-dollar deal. Why the series fell through, and why I left that publisher, is a matter I won't go into here. But, in the long term, the bitter disappointment turned out to be a blessing. It's the reason why the edition you now hold in your hands exists; and I should add that Kolatkar, who died in September 2004, was pleased, without reservations for once, at the prospect of its existence.
Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur in Maharashtra (the Western Indian state of which Bombay, now Mumbai, is the capital) in 1932. Kolhapur is famous for its kolhapuris—chappals, or slippers, that are designed for outside wear and can be found for sale on the streets, but also as an exorbitantly finished and priced object in shops for the rich. In its casualness, its air of classless elegance, and its itinerary through bewilderingly diverse locations, the kolhapuri is not unlike the bohemian, artistic set in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, who indeed made of it a mark of its identity. Members of this set had an abhorrence of fixity; they could be found on the street, walking past hawkers, prostitutes, and traffic lights, as well as in art galleries, seminar rooms, and drawing rooms and cafes with their rituals of food and drink. This was a peculiarly Bombay mixture of proximity and transcendence; Nissim Ezekiel—who was the oldest, and also the chief spokesman, of the poets writing in English who began to emerge in the Fifties—sought to compress it in these lines from "In India:
Always, in the sun's eye,
Here, among the beggars,
Hawkers, pavement sleepers,
Hutment dwellers, slums
… I ride my elephant of thought,
A Cezanne slung around my neck.
The journey negotiated in Ezekiel's lines—physical and cultural—between the teeming road in Bombay and Cezanne, between recalcitrant, perspiring everydayness and the work of art—or, more specifically, the art-world—was a real journey to many of the Bombay poets. Ezekiel himself; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, his MA student at Bombay University; Gieve Patel; Adil Jussawalla—all these poet-critics poached and encroached upon the territory of painters (Patel became a
considerable painter himself), especially the JJ School of Art, which, at the time, was producing, in FN Souza, MF Husain, and others, a premier post-Independence generation (remarkably heterogeneous in class, religious, and regional backgrounds) of Indian painters. The poets seemed to have realised, instinctively, the importance of the moment and of this proximity; for instance, Ezekiel's and Jussawalla's essays on the Baroda painter Bhupen Khakhar (who'd later be taken up by Rushdie), written in the early Seventies, are extraordinarily shrewd readings of the then unremarked upon elements of kitsch and homoeroticism in Khakhar's work. That this liaison between a dormant, semi-visible literary culture and a semi-visible tradition of modern art has a parallel in the now publicised liaison between similar worlds in Fifties and Sixties New York is indisputable; so is the fact of the richness of the interaction. It's unlikely, though, that the Indian poets, despite their admiration for 20th-century American poetry, their enviable and intriguing up-to-dateness, would have known then of Frank O' Hara or John Ashbery. Two comparable but not directly relatable metropolitan flirtations between artistic sub-cultures seem to have taken place in two continents within a few years of, and at some points overlapping with, each other. The literary history that might describe, in serious terms, the significance of what happened in that context in Bombay is still to be written, perhaps because the writer in English was, in India, till Rushdie came along accompanied by Booker-inspired fanfare, a sort of elite pariah, a 'missing person', in Jussawalla's words, a figure marginal to the larger, and solemn, task of nation-building.
It was into this hybrid society that Kolatkar inserted himself; in 1949, he enrolled at the JJ School of Art, after which it seems a mysterious phase of drifting and formal as well as spiritual education followed, which few people appear to be clear about. At any rate, he took his diploma as late as 1957; but by this time he was already a graphic artist for the vibrant and upwardly mobile advertising world in Bombay. He was, in advertising jargon, a 'visualiser'; and was to become one of Bombay's most successful art directors. All this seems very far away from Jejuri, both the place and the book. The place itself would have been fairly well known to a certain kind of pilgrim-devotee and follower of the local Maharashtrian deity Khandoba (who began his career as a folk-god, a protector of cattle and sheep, and graduated slowly to Brahminical acceptance as an incarnation of Shiva); but it would probably have been obscure to Kolatkar and his friends. An interdisciplinary, but not disciplined, reader—'I read across disciplines, and don't necessarily read a book from beginning to end,' he said to the poet Eunice de Souza—he claimed, in the same conversation, that he discovered Jejuri in 'a book on temples and legends of Maharashtra… there was a chapter on Jejuri in it. It seemed an interesting place.' He went there first in 1963, with his brother Makarand, and his friend, the Marathi novelist Manohar Oak, both of whom, indeed, make appearances in the poem, in laidback, deadpan incarnations that are variations of the narrator.
The Sixties, for him, was a time of reappraisal and ferment. After the break-up of his first marriage, he married his second wife, Soonoo (who survives him). The discovery of, and journey towards, places like Jejuri in a time of inner transition, and all that such journeys represent, from the redemptive to the terrifying, is described in Marathi poems like 'The Turnaround':
Bombay made me a beggar.
Kalyan gave me a lump of jaggery to suck.
In a small village that had a waterfall
but no name
my blanket found a buyer
and I feasted on plain ordinary water.
I arrived in Nasik with
peepul leaves between my teeth.
There I sold my Tukaram
to buy some bread and mince.
He was writing extraordinary Marathi poems, about the extremities of urban and psychological experience, which seem to be the product of a social outcast who's been dabbling in mind-altering drugs while reading up on Surrealism, William Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, Indian mythology, and Marathi devotional poets like Tukaram. The last of these was a real enthusiasm, and Kolatkar was translating, into English, the medieval poet's rather prickly, belligerent hymns to God. These were as much translation as occasionally tough-guy reworkings of some of the songs; an unsettling form of ventriloquising. Machismo seemed to have interested him; not only its aura of power, but its disorienting humour. The proximity between the disreputable, the culpable, and the religious—a living strand in Indian devotional culture, and an everyday reality in places like Banaras and Jejuri—becomes, in the act of translation, an aesthetic:
It was a case
Of God rob God.
No cleaner job
Was ever done.
God left God
Without a bean.
God left no trace
No nail no track.
The thief was lying
Low in His flat.
When he moved
He moved fast.
And lost nothing.
And so some of his own 'Marathi' poems of the Fifties and Sixties are written in the Bombay argot of the migrant working classes and the underworld, part Hindi, part Marathi, which the Hindi film industry would make proper use of only decades later. These poems he then often translated into an Americanese which, at the time, would have made respectable Americans blush, 'maderchod' rendered, for instance, as 'motherfucker'. Bombay, in the Sixties, gave him these languages and also the passages of transition between these worlds, the movement from street to library to cinema hall.
There was also, at this time, a musical transformation, a musical moment. Kolatkar had learnt Western musical notation. He'd also taken lessons in playing the pakhawaj, the venerable Indian drum that predates the tabla; in the early Seventies, he began to compose his peculiar and compelling versions of rock music. He recorded a demo of four songs with a group of local musicians in a studio in 1973; he was forty one years old. Though nothing came of that experiment, it sounds now, more than ever, like groundbreaking, astonishing stuff. The first song, 'I am a poor man from a poor land', has an ananda-lahari—one of the instruments played by Baul singers, mendicant devotees of Krishna, in Bengal—in the background. The first line is something Kolatkar read on a piece of paper of the sort that the semi-educated beggar in India used to hand out to people, often stating his profession and including a message in English, perhaps to keep some of his dignity intact. In the foreground is Kolatkar's scolding but very musical vocalising; a spin-off on the beggar's plea that becomes a demand to the consumer, the singer asking his listener to pay up for his 'damn' good song'.The genre, here and in the other songs, is metropolitan and immediate and hybrid; inescapably but complicatedly 'Indian', without any of the sentimental assumptions of 'world music'. It's a style that hasn't occurred before or since. As in Jejuri, the devotional is inserted forcefully into the economic, where it always resided anyway in India, into the bread-and-butter transaction, the duty and slightly disreputable compulsion to earn a living.
Some time after the demo, Kolatkar, in December 1973, began to write Jejuri. The impetus was provided by the twenty-six-year-old Arvind Krishna Mehortra, who'd just returned to India from the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and had been asked by its director, Paul Engle, if he'd compile an anthology of Indian poetry for the program's anthology series. Mehrotra asked Kolatkar if he had a suitable poem for the compilation. It was now that Kolatkar got down to writing the poem. Amazingly, he'd written a version before, from which a single poem, 'A Low Temple', had been published in a little magazine of the mid-Sixties in Bombay, Dionysius. The editor lost the manuscript; there was no copy. Kolatkar finished this sequence, with all its immediacy, a few months later after he began it, in early 1974, and sent it to Mehrotra; though the compilation was never completed, the entire poem was published that year in the Opinion Literary Quarterly.
This wasn't the first time Kolatkar had published a poem-sequence in English (few poets have cultivated the sequence as Kolatkar did); in 1968, 'the boatride' had appeared in Mehrotra's little magazine, damn you/ a magazine of the arts. With this poem—an arresting record of a steamer-ride taken from the Gateway of India—Kolatkar had announced what his metier would largely be as an English poet: the urban everyday, or a view of the material universe informed deeply by it. The banishment of capital letters, the treasuring of the concrete: these features of 'the boatride', as well as of the magazine it was published in, alert us, again, to the presence of the Americans—e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, the 'Beat' poets. A generation of Indian poets in English (AK Ramanujan, Mehrotra, Kolatkar) had turned to the idiosyncratic language, and the capacity for eye-level attentiveness, of American poetry to create yet another mongrel Indian diction—to reorder familiar experience, and to fashion a demotic that escaped the echoes of both Queen's English and the sonorous effusions of Sri Aurobindo's Savitri and the poorly-translated but ubiquitous Gitanjali of Tagore; to bypass, as it were, the expectations that terms like 'English literature' and 'Indian culture' raised.
Jejuri is, on its most obvious level (and a very rich level that is, in terms of realism, observation, irony), an account of a man who arrives at the pilgrimage town on a 'state transport bus', in the company of people whose intent is clearly more devotional than his is, and has less to do with a seemingly unfathomable curiosity. They seem to, thus, reproach him by their opacity, their inaccessibility, their very presence:
Your own divided face in a pair of glasses
on an old man's nose
is all the countryside you get to see.
The rest of the poem is about the narrator's idiosyncratic reading of the place; Jejuri, which seems to him a mixture of temples in disrepair, unreliable priests, and legends and religious practices of dubious provenance, nevertheless excites him oddly, though not to worship, but to a state akin to it but also quite unlike it.
He leaves later on a train from the railway station, still, evidently, in a state of confusion over what's secular and what miraculous:
a wooden saint
in need of plaster…
has turned inward
ten times over.
The typographical flourish in the penultimate poem, in, and through, which the narrator records the experience of witnessing cocks and hens dancing in a field on the way to the station, is the closest the poem comes to imitating a religious ecstasy and abandon, on the brink where both irony and the verbal are obliterated.
Jejuri was received with unusual enthusiasm by the standards of poetry publishing in Anglophone India; the book was reprinted twice at short intervals, and then twice again at longer ones. The critical response, by any standards, was unremarkable and intermittent. One of the reasons was that the poem, like its author, was resistant to being pigeonholed into quasi-religious categories; in response to an interviewer asking him, in 1978, if he believed in God, Kolatkar had said: 'I leave the question alone. I don't think I have to take a position about God one way or the other.' This discomfort with the either/or lies at the heart of the poem. Most of the Marathi critics opted, conveniently, for simplification and chauvinism. The novelist and critic Balachandra Nemade's response, in a 1985 essay, is characteristic: 'Kolatkar comes and goes like a weekend tourist from Bombay.' There was, of course, the occasionally sensitive retrospective reappraisal, of which Bruce King's chapter on Kolatkar in Modern Poetry in English is an example; but the poem was to receive, decisively, a fresh lease of life, and the oxygen of good criticism, from Mehrotra in his anthology, The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Poets. Sixteen years after the poem had first appeared, Mehrotra seemed to be in no doubt about the its place in the canon of Indian poetry in English: 'among the finest single poems written in India in the last forty years'. The religious question he settled robustly and acutely, if, perhaps, temporarily: 'The presiding deity of Jejuri is not Khandoba, but the human eye.'
I've said that, in the larger, unfolding story of the independent nation, writing poetry in English
was a minor, marginal, and occasionally controversial activity. This remained so in spite of Nissim Ezekiel's attempts to invest the enterprise with seriousness, to stir Anglophone readers as well as writers in the vernaculars, both of whom were busy with more important projects, to see it as something more than, at best, a genteel and harmless preoccupation; at worst, as a waste of time, even a betrayal. Ezekel defied this combination of indifference and moral and nationalistic chauvinism with a critical puritanism, and had a small measure of success. But marginal endeavours have their own excitements, disappointments, and dangers. Among the excitements was the creation, in 1976, of Clearing House, brought into being by Jussawalla, Mehrotra, Kolatkar and Gieve Patel to publish, in the first instance, their own poetry. Like the writing of the poetry itself, the publishing venture was undertaken as things are in sub-cultures: with love, as a semi-private affair, partly for the eyes of other poets and fellow travellers. Books were supplied to a handful of bookshops, and also on the basis of 'subscriptions'; that is, orders from friends and supporters. The four titles published that year were Patel's How Do you Withstand, Body; Jussawalla's Missing Person; Mehrotra's Nine Enclosures; and Jejuri. Kolatkar had designed the covers, and chosen the typeface, turning the books—again, this is something we associate with sub-cultures rather than mass markets—into objets d'art.
But, along with their passion and enterprise, sub-cultures are also characterised by disabling forms of self-doubt that often express themselves as doubts about the larger world. In the case of the poets I've just mentioned, this took the form of a wariness about committing words to paper, or the written word to print, or the printed word to wider circulation. This is not writer's block, but a strategic and partial withdrawal from the world; at its best, writing for a handful of readers, some of them friends, entailed a greater sense of responsibility, of judiciousness, about the task of writing. In Kolatkar's case, it meant that he wrote steadily after Jejuri (as he had before its publication), in both English and Marathi, but published only very sporadically in journals. Two collections of his Marathi poetry appeared in 2003; but the English works, the Kala Ghoda Poems and the political/mythological fable in verse Sarpa Satra, would see the light of day only after he knew he was dying. The book launches of his final works were, bizarrely, events surrounding a dying man who, on the evidence of his poetry, was still possessed by the youthfulness of the Sixties: both celebration, then, and premature memorial.
When I first met Kolatkar in 2000, Bombay had already become Mumbai, and the Hindu chauvinist parties, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, were at their most active and aggressive in the city—perhaps in prescient nervousness at an election defeat later that year. Bombay was trying to rebuild its old cosmopolitanism and sense of personal and physical freedom, its delight in the wayward and the aleatory, after more than a decade of religious and economic divisiveness, and from having become the commercial capital of a globalised India. My trip coincided with Valentine's Day, and it re-emphasised the different, exacerbated, poles of 'Mumbai'. On the one hand, the Valentine's Day industry had reached a new zenith, and well-to-do teenagers were wandering about in an ingenuous swoon of love; on the other, Shiv Sena cadres were vandalising shops selling the day's paraphernalia, and, in a ritual meant to attract the media, burning Valentine's Day cards. The distance between this moral policing and the xenophobia that animated Shiv Sena slogans like 'Mumbai for Mumbaikars', where 'Mumbaikar' really meant Maharashtrian Hindus, was frighteningly small.
The Shiv Sena, which started as a Marathi chauvinist organisation under the leadership of Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist and admirer of Hitler, reinvented itself as a Hindu chauvinist one and came to power in Maharashtra in1995 in an alliance with the BJP, and soon changed the name of its capital city to Mumbai. Both parties had taken advantage of a moral vacuum in secular politics at the time, as well as a new state of polarisation that had been building up between Hindus and Muslims. This polarisation was confirmed with the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by BJP extremists in December 1992. Bombay bore the imprint of these events; in the riots and violence in early 1993, and then the series of explosions in March that year. It also bore the most visible imprint anywhere in India of the economic 'liberalisation' that took place in 1991; the troubled city was booming, and growing beyond recognition. What was once outskirt or hinterland was now integrated into the city's teeming, self-generating expansion.
When I reread Jejuri now I realise how important the modern metropolis—the city as it was before globalisation—with its secret openings and avenues, its pockets of daydreaming, idling, and loitering, its loucheness, is fundamental to Kolatkar as a way of seeing, as a means of renovating experience.For no other Indian poet in English, and for few other writers, is Walter Benjamin's flaneur an analogue for receptivity and creativity as he is for Kolatkar, in a way, and in contexts and situations, that perhaps Benjamin wouldn't have been able to imagine. What the German writer (whom Kolatkar wouldn't have read) discovered in Paris, and imagined his flaneur came upon in the 19th-century Parisian boulevards and arcades, Kolatkar did in Kala Ghoda—not only a range of details and particulars, but a restructuring of the way we experience them. Hannah Arendt, in her revealing commentary on Benjamin, notes how the line that divides interior from exterior, domestic from public space, even the 'natural' from the urban and manufactured, is dimmed and blurred constantly for the flaneur; he loiters about on the street, inspecting its everyday marvels (or what to him is marvellous), as if it were an extension of his drawing room. Even the sky in Paris, says Arendt, took on, for the flaneur, the artificial appearance of a great ceiling.
When I think of Kolatkar by his window in the Wayside Inn, looking out, for decades, on families of pavement dwellers and itinerant workers bathing themselves, eating, and raising their children before the Jehangir Art Gallery, I'm reminded of that indeterminate space, where the street turns into an interior, and which complicates the urban boundary separating room from pavement that's so crucial to the flaneur's experience of reality. For Kolatkar, in his personal life, what was dwelling and what place of transit was at times almost interchangeable. During some of his most successful years, Kolatkar and his wife were 'paying guests'—that is, lodgers—in one of Bombay's most expensive areas; they then moved to a single-room, book-lined apartment in Prabhadevi, a fairly middle-class location that's not anywhere near the centre of the city. Notwithstanding a very happy domestic life, and the fact that he wrote productively in his tiny flat, he did spend a great deal of time, sometimes breakfast onward, at the Inn, at the confluence of public and street life and private reverie.
I am reminded of these things as I reread Jejuri; that, although it's about a journey to a remote (for many) pilgrimage town in Maharashtra, it's less about the transformations of the journey than about a man who never left the city, or downtown, or a cosmopolitan, modernist idea of the metropolis; that his journey, and his sense of travelling and of wonder, brought him back to where he was—and where he was is metropolitan, shabby, and dislocating. And so, in the third poem itself, the four-line 'The Doorstep', the newcomer to the pilgrimage town speaks in the voice of the flaneur, for whom the line dividing public from private space is never final; the title names an object, a threshold, while the first two lines retract that meaning: 'That's no doorstep./ That's a pillar on its side.' The flaneur stops, starts, pauses again, ponders, constantly struck by the unremarkable object that the city's passers-by don't notice. Things, thresholds, buildings that have either fallen out of use or look like they have, that disturb and ironicise the logic and flow of capital (and, in independent India, Bombay has been as much the centre of expanding capitalism as Paris was in France in the 19th century)—this is what he's besotted with. So, in Jejuri, part network of shrines, part downtown, he's transfixed by the journey of a 'conduit pipe' around a wall; with a broken door that's leaning against an 'old doorway to sober up/ like the local drunk'; with the invitation to what seems to be 'another temple'—'The door was open'—but turns out to be 'just a cowshed'.
Benjamin discovered, on his first visit to Paris in 1913, that the houses that formed the Parisian boulevards 'do not seem to be made to be lived in, but are like stone sets for people to walk between'; in other words, architecture and buildings—the locations of life and livelihood—become a sort of theatre, but a theatre that's only available to the loiterer. Similarly, the temple that becomes a cowshed; the slightly off-kilter construction and vision of the concluding lines of 'Heart of Ruin', 'No more a place of worship this place/ is nothing less than the house of god'; the theatrical gap between assertion and reality that was enacted in 'A Doorstep' and recurs in 'A Low Temple': 'Who was that, you ask./ The eight-arm goddess, the priest replies./… But she has eighteen, you protest.' This is the moment of theatre that neither the pilgrim at the holy shrine nor the ordinary city dweller can see. Both invest their surroundings with certain unalterable meanings; and it's these unalterable meanings that make the flaneur's drama and his irony, as well his odd sense of wonder, possible. The difference between the pilgrim—or, for that matter, the office-goer—and the flaneur is the latter's passionate disengagement; he doesn't rush toward a site hallowed by authority or tradition, he gravitates towards, hovers, steps back, idles, stands outside, dawdles. So, in 'A Low Temple', after his experience with the 'eight-arm goddess', the narrator 'come[s] out into the sun and light[s] a charminar': the 'charminar' being a cheap filtreless cigarette once popular with the artistic fraternity. In another poem, 'Makarand', the narrator, invited to offer prayers inside a temple, replies, 'No thanks.' He has both a flaneur's democratic generosity and his curious at-homeness in thresholds and spaces that have no clear function, rather than in interiors that have designated uses: 'you go right ahead/ if that's what you want to do,' he reassures his companion, while confessing, 'I will be out in the courtyard/ where no one will mind/ if I smoke'.
The junk of the urban everyday—a stained doorknob, a disused threshold, a tile—fills the flaneur with momentary excitement and adoration; these random items seem to possess a mystery that derives from being part of a larger narrative, an unspoken theology or mythology. The objects the flaneur lights upon in streets, by-lanes, alleys, have, for him, an aura, an air of sacredness, that's almost religious. Kolatkar's metaphor for urban junk transformed by a small abrasion into something significant, or poetic, is, in Jejuri, the simple stone or rock—like junk, entirely useless—which is changed by a mark into a holy object. So, in 'The Horseshoe Shrine', the 'nick in the rock/ is really a kick in the side of the hill', where the hoof of Khandoba's horse struck it 'like a thunderbolt' as he rode with his wife 'across the valley', like a spark 'fleeing from flint'. The astonishing translation of urban junk into the realm of the modern imagination is what informs these famous lines from 'A Scratch': 'scratch a rock/ and a legend springs'; it is this process of translation and refashioning, and not devotion, that makes Yeshwant Rao—'a second class god' whose place 'is just outside the main temple', a 'mass of basalt,/ bright as any post box,/ the shape of protoplasm/ or a king size lava pie'—an object of the poet's wry wonder. The religious is implicit in the transitory objects that Benjamin's flaneur discovers, hoards, and cherishes in the city; Kolatkar reworks and inverts this casually, but profoundly, in Jejuri—in his poem, a religious landscape is pregnant with the implications, the wonders, of the urban.
In 'Heart of Ruin' (which describes how a temple to the god Maruti is now inhabited by a 'mongrel bitch' and her puppies), there are lines—'The bitch looks at you guardedly/ past a doorway cluttered with broken tiles'; 'The black eared puppy has gone a little too far./ A tile clicks under its foot.'—which lead us directly to a moment and to the exposition of a certain sensibility in Benjamin's 'The Return of the Flaneur'. This essay, written in 1929, became available too late in the day to the Anglophone world for Kolatkar to have read it in the early Seventies, but the concordances in imagery and in sentiment are startling. Benjamin asks us why the flaneur is 'the creation of Paris', and not Rome, despite the latter's various landmarks and monuments. He quickly concludes Rome is 'too full of temples, enclosed squares, and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by'.
The great reminiscences, the historical frissons—these are all so much junk to the flaneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists' quarters, birthplaces, and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile—that which any old dog carries away.
The inversion in Benjamin, where history and its imperial monuments (for which 'Rome' is a metaphor) becomes 'so much junk', and junk, like the tile that 'any old dog' might carry away, is aggrandised and magnified—this inversion is especially true of the Kolatkar of Jejuri (where the puppies and the loose tile in the temple supersede the importance of the temple, the monument, itself) and the Kala Ghoda Poems. The latter, indeed, abounds in images of junk; of the spokes and wheels that the children of pavement-dwellers recycle for their own recreation. Benjamin's notion of flanerie is crucial to our understanding of Kolatkar's poetics, and also of his position in the narrative of Indian writing in English.
In 1981, five years after Jejuri had been published, Midnight's Children inaugurated a monumental view of Indian history in literature—in fact, a monumental view of literature itself in India. It brought into being, in effect, a lineage of writing about the 'great reminiscences, the historical frissons', everything that was 'so much junk to the flaneur', as Kolatkar's art had so passionately and contrarily proved. I'm not setting up a crude opposition between the two writers here; Kolatkar admired Rushdie's novel, as Rushdie does Kolatkar's work. But I am suggesting that there is another lineage and avenue in Indian writing in English than the one Midnight's Children opened up, along with an obsession with the monumental; and its source lies in Jejuri. Younger writers haven't looked at the possibilities of this lineage, with its idiosyncratic delight in the freedom to withhold, assign, and create meaning, its consignment of History to the scrap-yard, and its bringing of the scrap-yard into history, closely enough. If it does exist in some form, critics haven't done enough to uncover and identify it. Had they done so, our view of Indian writing in English would be a different, a more heterogeneous and unexpected, one than it has been in the last twenty five years. For now, the place of Kolatkar's legacy—no less far-reaching, potentially, than that of Midnight's Children—hovers on the edges; which is where, as we see in Jejuri, he liked to be.
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