While you slept and the quilt heaved
with your even breathing,
winter came like a bearded goatherd,
armed with a crook and barefooted.
Suddenly the tree near our window shook
its whiskers twitched,
its leaves yellow and ochrous
like henna-smeared hands
fell severed from the wrists.
—From “Suddenly the Tree”, by Keki N. Daruwalla
The author of these wonderfully evocative lines is one of India’s foremost poets in English, Keki N. Daruwalla. Almost immediately after the publication of his first collection Under Orion in 1970, Daruwalla established himself as one of Indian English poetry’s most original voices. The collections that followed in the years to come only served to enhance his reputation.
Over the years, Daruwalla wrote his poetry even as he continued at his day job in law enforcement. As an IPS officer, Daruwalla probably saw his fair share of law and order issues as he seems to indicate in poems like “Curfew in a Riot-torn City” and “Curfew 2”. Besides being a poet, Daruwalla was also a short-story writer and novelist. J. P. Dutta’s film Refugee is supposed to have been inspired by the story by Keki N. Daruwalla based around the Great Rann of Kutch titled Love Across The Salt Desert.
But, apart from being policeman and writer, Daruwalla was also for a time something else—a spy! As Former Additional Director of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), he probably has many cloak-and-dagger tales to tell and sadly, it is these tales which are unlikely to see the light of day.
For generations of Indian school students, Gieve Patel’s “On Killing A Tree” is a familiar poem. Part of his first collection, Poems, published in 1966, the poem elaborately lays out how a tree is to be “killed”. Among its more clinical lines are: “So hack and chop/ But this alone won’t do it./ Not so much pain will do it.” While certainly not the best poem of his oeuvre, it is definitely the most-anthologised poem of Gieve Patel and possibly, the only poem that hints at his profession—medicine. Gieve Patel qualified as a medical doctor from Mumbai’s Grant Medical College. Jeet Thayil in his 2008 anthology 60 Indian Poets talks of Patel’s clinic as having served the poor of the Central Mumbai area for decades.
Teaching literature has been the profession of choice for many, many Indian poets. In the old days, Shiv K. Kumar, A.K. Ramanujan, P. Lal and several others were college literature professors. One professor-poet who didn’t teach literature was Jayanta Mahapatra. A physics professor in colleges in his native Odisha, Mahapatra came to literature through an interesting route. He began to write only at the age of 38, but very soon established a formidable reputation. Also as editor of the fabled literary journal Chandrabhaga, Mahapatra was instrumental in the discovery of many Indian English poets.
The year 2004 was Indian English poetry’s annus horribilis as three of its most skilled practitioners passed on. The oldest of them, Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), arguably the first modern Indian poet in English, was a professor of English. But before he began teaching in 1961, he was many other things. He was a member of the Radical Democratic Party in the ’40s, copywriter and, later, the manager of an advertising firm. For a year, he was also the manager of a picture-frame manufacturing company, Chemould. In 1952, he worked his way back from England to India by working as a deck-scrubber and coal-carrier on a cargo ship.
Among Indian English poetry’s more idiosyncratic figures is Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004). For a long time, Kolatkar’s English reputation rested on one volume, Jejuri, published in 1976, besides a few poems published in long-defunct magazines. 2004, the last year of Kolatkar’s life, saw the publication of three works—Sarpa Satra and Kala Ghoda Poems in English, and BhijkiVahi in Marathi. In 2009 came the collection The Boatride and Other Poems, edited by A.K. Mehrotra, which cemented Kolatkar’s reputation as one of India’s finest.
For many years, Kolatkar was one of India’s most acclaimed graphic designers and was at the forefront of many successful advertising campaigns. One such award-winning campaign was for a brand called Liberty Shirts in the mid-’60s. The Liberty factory had then been gutted in a fire and so Kolatkar’s memorable line went, “Burnt but not extinguished”. Kolatkar, typically, never compiled a portfolio of his work stating that those who didn’t know of his work could not afford him.
Like their male counterparts, many Indian English women poets, too, have been professors of English. But one of them, the recently deceased, Eunice de Souza quite literally went where no man had gone before.
Dom Moraes, 2004’s third victim lived by the pen his entire life. Son of the renowned editor, Frank Moraes, Dom was a child prodigy who published his first anthology (an award-winner) A Beginning in 1958, when he was 19. He published two more collections in the next decade before giving up on poetry for more than two decades. During that time, he worked both as a journalist and as writer on hire, working on commissioned books for the Indian government among others. He was also employed as a literary adviser by the UN in which capacity, he travelled widely. Moraes returned to poetic notice in 1990 with the publication of his Collected Poems which contained several unpublished poems. Then, in the years before 2004, in Bruce King’s words, “suddenly at the end of his life, Moraes became a great poet”.
As a master of the short and pithy verse-form, Manohar Shetty is the author of nine collections, from A Guarded Space in 1981 to his latest Full Disclosures: New and Collected poems (1981 –2017). Shetty’s images sometimes dazzle you with their originality. Sample this from “The Recluse”: “The air crackles and hums like cables/ Newspapers drop like bombs on doorsteps…” Or this from “Ants”: “Infinitesimal frenzies,/ They have banded into gangs,/ Mobbing an upturned insect,/ Lifting in flanked procession/ The palanquin of flesh.”
Though Shetty has mostly worked as a journalist and editor, for a time, he did something unusual for a poet! In his own words: “My mother, an only daughter, had six brothers and some of them owned and ran restaurants and bars in the [Fort] area [of Mumbai]: Ankur, Apexa, Alankar, the hugely popular Apoorva, the jauntily named Garden Jolly and in recent years, Wall Street. I ran Ankur for two years in the hope of instant prosperity, but soon realised that there were obstacles far beyond my realm of control.”
Like their male counterparts, many Indian English women poets, too, have been professors of English. But one of them, the recently deceased, Eunice de Souza quite literally went where no man had gone before. She angered the church establishment with her poetry, and her collection Fix was denounced from the pulpit at St. Peter’s Church in Bandra. Perhaps lines like these (from “Catholic Mother”) were the reason: ‘Father X. D’Souza/ Father of the year./ Here he is top left/ the one smiling./ By the Grace of God he says/ We’ve had seven children/ (in seven years)./ We’re One Big Happy Family/ God Always Provides.”
Among the other professions that women poets have followed are: documentary film-maker and artist (Imtiaz Dharker), vocal artist for All-India Radio (Smita Agarwal) and student counsellor and family therapist (Charmayne D’Souza).
Mere poetry, it seems, doesn’t quite pay!