In Mumbai, the poetry never ends

The links between the city’s anglophone poets have been so close over three generations that you could say they are a ‘gharana’


Arundhathi Subramaniam at a Poetry Circle meet in Mumbai. Photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhuri
Arundhathi Subramaniam at a Poetry Circle meet in Mumbai. Photographs by Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Sometime in the 1950s, poet Nissim Ezekiel, who was in his 20s and whose first book of poems had just come out, met a schoolboy dressed in shorts and offered him a cigarette. That emboldening smoke is what Dom Moraes, then 14 or 15, remembered of his first audience with Ezekiel decades later.

“I felt grateful. He was the first adult to do this, though I smoked at school,” Moraes wrote in an obituary in Outlook magazine when Ezekiel died in January 2004. The two, who would become part of a handful of India’s most influential anglophone poets, had met to discuss some short stories and poems Moraes had sent to the now defunct Illustrated Weekly Of India, of which Ezekiel was then assistant editor. They met several times over the next few years to discuss poetry, unwittingly starting a tradition.

When Jennifer Robertson, a 37-year-old erstwhile banker, was asked to read her young poetry at the Starbucks café in Mumbai’s Horniman Circle in May as part of an event organized by the poetry group Cappuccino Readings, she shared the stage with Ranjit Hoskote, one of her literary idols. She was not, as far as we know, offered a cigarette. Hoskote did, however, give her the opportunity to read her work alongside some of India’s biggest names in anglophone poetry at the 2015 Kala Ghoda festival, which he helps curate; thus carrying on the practice of mentorship that has been a striking feature of the city’s fraternity of poets writing in English.

So close have the links been between poets across generations that Hoskote, himself mentored by Ezekiel in his teens, once described the community as a “gharana” (or school).

“Poets are able to think of themselves as part of a tradition,” poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said in an interview with The Caravan magazine in 2010. “Few novelists were enthusing younger writers but the poets were. Many younger poets turned to the older poets when they started writing poems.” Mehrotra was referring to the 1970s, when he spent a lot of time in Bombay (now Mumbai), mingling and exchanging views with other poets. By then, a feeling of community had already developed among the city’s anglophone bards.

Dom Moraes (1928-2004) at a Soho pub, London, in 1958. Photo: The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images
After meeting Ezekiel, Moraes had met another young Bombay-born poet, Adil Jussawalla, at a pub in England in 1959, when both were studying there. Jussawalla had also been influenced by Ezekiel. “I read Nissim’s work in The Illustrated Weekly in 1955 and came alive to modern poetry,” Jussawalla, now in his 70s, tells me at his Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, residence, where he maintains a voluminous collection of poetry books, drafts and other memorabilia, which includes folders with Ezekiel and Moraes’ names on them, containing multiple newspaper articles about the two.

This “modern” poetry was completely unlike that being written before the 1950s. “Our generation honestly had no time for previous poets,” Jussawalla explains.

Bound, perhaps, by their attempts at redefining poetry in India, Ezekiel, Moraes and Jussawalla, along with others such as Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar, formed personal connections through the 1960s and 1970s. Their importance in the city’s literary landscape is captured in The Solitude Of Emperors, a novel by David Davidar, the co-founder of Aleph Book Co. “It was a city of poets and cafés… Dom hammering away with one finger at his typewriter in Sargent House, spectacles slipping down his nose as the poems ran wild in his head, Adil holding court in his eyrie on Cuffe Parade, Nissim spinning his demotic verse in coffee houses and poets’ gatherings, Kolatkar with his strange fierce epic about gods of stone,” one of Davidar’s characters says.

Davidar had worked in the 1980s in a features magazine called Keynote, edited for a while by Moraes. Magazines and journals such as Quest, Indian P.E.N., Imprint and Poetry India were an important adhesive for the Bombay poets, most of whom were also journalists, from the 1960s to the 1980s. “Nissim and Adil were always editing something or the other, and their offices would serve as meeting places for poets,” says Hoskote, who has written essays about several poets from that generation.

In the 1970s, Santan Rodrigues, one of Bombay’s many poets of Goan origin, founded a quarterly called Kavi. The journal’s contributors, according to Hoskote, also formed an informal poetry group whose members would meet on the lawns of the university to share their poems. During the same period, there was also a group of poets that would meet regularly at the Marine Drive home of Kamala Das, the poet from Kerala who lived in Bombay during the 1970s.

The first attempts at formalizing these connections came in the form of collectives aimed at publishing poetry. In 1975, Jussawalla, Mehrotra, Kolatkar and Patel founded Clearing House, a poets’ cooperative that published poetry books. Two years later, Rodrigues would launch a publishing collective called Newground with Melanie Silgardo and Raul da Gama Rose. There were other ventures in the 1980s, such as Jussawalla’s Praxis, but none survived for very long or achieved much financial success. What they did do was present a united front for Indian poetry in English.

Unlike proponents of other art forms, who competed for audiences and accolades, the city’s poets were focused on jointly creating an audience for what they did. They were as involved in their own work as in editing anthologies of other poetry and writing introductions to other poets’ books. Sometimes, they were as creative with their support as they were in their verse. Kolatkar did the cover art for Clearing House’s first four books, and Ezekiel bought 100 copies of Newground’s Three Poets, to help its founders cover their printing costs.

Bombay was established as the home of English poetry in India, and even those who weren’t from the city found doors leading to it. A.K. Ramanujan, the famous poet and translator, was based in Chicago, but his closest friends in the poetry world were in Bombay. Agha Shahid Ali would travel from the US to conduct workshops with young poets. It is also notable that the city’s anglophone poets did not restrict their activities to English poetry. Several of them translated Marathi poetry and helped publish books by the city’s well-known Marathi poets.

By the mid-1980s, the first generation of modern Bombay poets had created such an aura around themselves that the next generation was enamoured. In 1986, Hoskote, then 17, was nervous as he entered the PEN office at the Theosophy Hall and saw, past the overflowing books and papers, a man in a solitary light. He had read Ezekiel’s poetry in awe and had watched him speak on television. Now he was to be mentored by him. The next year, Hoskote became part of a group called the Poetry Circle, Bombay’s first structured organization for poets.

The Poetry Circle emerged, oddly, from a meeting between an adman, a businessman, and a young journalist and poet. Nitin Mukadam, then chief executive officer of construction firm Gannon Dunkerley & Co.’s advertising agency, had called Menka Shivdasani, a former student of his and a budding poet, to ask if there was a way to publicize his businessman friend Akil Contractor’s self-published poetry books. Shivdasani was in her late 20s but already knew many of the famous Bombay poets. Ezekiel, the seemingly ubiquitous mentor, had met her when she was 16 and helped her polish her craft.

Mukadam, Contractor and Shivdasani met in mid-1986 and discussed the formation of a formal group of poets and poetry enthusiasts. “Advertising is death,” Ezekiel had once told Shivdasani when advising her on a choice of career. But it was Mukadam’s advertising expertise that helped the Poetry Circle create a logo, letterhead and banner, separating it from the informal communities of the 1970s. The first meeting was held after work hours at the Gannon Dunkerley office. “All the Marwari babus sitting there were quite shocked when these lines of poets, with their flamboyant dressing style, began walking in,” Mukadam remembers. “So many came that we could not fit them in the conference room and had to ask people to stand in the main hall.”

The format of the Circle’s regular meetings was to have poets read out their work and gain informal feedback from their peers, but Shivdasani was also keen to organize readings by the doyens. Soon, the entire previous generation of poets came cascading in to Poetry Circle. Moraes came out of a 17-year hiatus to read at the Circle’s first event, at Cama Hall, and close to 100 people showed up to listen. Ezekiel began attending Circle meetings and offered them his PEN India office as a meeting place when they could no longer use the Artists Centre in Kala Ghoda.

Shivdasani and the other young, fervent poets charged with running the Circle figured out ways to bring big names from across the country to Bombay. They convinced Kamala Das’ son, who worked for The Times Of India, to fly his mother down from Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala, for the Circle’s first anniversary. When Jayanta Mahapatra, a future Padma Shri awardee, visited Bombay from Orissa (now Odisha), he ended up washing dishes at an impromptu party organized by a Circle member. “Jayanta said this wasn’t my job just because I was a woman, and insisted he would do it instead,” Shivdasani says.

The Circle opened up the poetry space to people from other professions. Prabhanjan Mishra, a customs officer, and Marilyn Noronha, a banker, both active members in the early days, went on to become published poets.

In the 1990s, a new group of poets—Hoskote, Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam—took the responsibility of running Poetry Circle and expanded its activities to discussions and workshops. The spirit of collaboration and interest in each other’s work continued. “While we were poets in the making, we weren’t poets on the make,” Subramaniam, who now lives in New Delhi, wrote in an essay for an Italian poetry award lecture. “There was little careerism and one-upmanship. Our conversations weren’t just about how to be published and where to be reviewed. Instead, we devoured other poets and subjected our own work to minute workshop critique.”

By the early 2000s, the Poetry Circle was on the wane, but several other writers’ and poets’ groups began to take its place. Jussawalla founded a group called Loquations that would meet at the sunken garden of the National Centre for the Performing Arts to analyse poems. Loquations also organized some readings, and a look at the programme of a 2000 event is a revelation of the continuity that has existed in the city’s anglophone poets’ community. Names from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Moraes and Kolatkar, feature next to those from the 1990s. When, in 2004, Ezekiel, Moraes and Kolatkar died, the number of words written in eulogies by fellow Bombay poets could form an archive of their own.

“All you need to share your poetry is a piece of paper,” is Jussawalla’s pragmatic explanation of why Bombay poets have always been drawn to each other. Robertson says they seek security in numbers. But feedback from other poets was not always flattering. Moraes, in the 2004 obituary, recollected that Ezekiel had initially told him to stop writing poetry and focus on short stories.

“There was no handholding when poets of my generation gave their work to Nissim, Dom or Adil,” Hoskote says. “You were expected to be able to take criticism.” In the early days of Poetry Circle, there were loud boos when a poet read work that was too raw. Even when it comes to styles and subjects of poetry, mentors and pupils have had divergent views. When you read the English poetry that has come out of the city in the past 50 years, you wouldn’t guess its writers have been so closely linked.

What, perhaps, causes poets to seek their own kind, even at risk of rejection, is a respect for the craft itself. Poets over the years have been able to appreciate verses that differ completely in style and metre from their own.

Also, poets find each other to escape the loneliness that writing poetry can often spawn. “It made us much less self-indulgent, less prone to solitary delusions of grandeur and despair,” Subramaniam says of Poetry Circle.

In the 2000s, a large part of the city’s poetry community shifted online, exchanging work and views on forums such as Caferati. Already, new names appear to be entering the genealogy of anglophone poets. Robertson was joined at the 2015 Kala Ghoda Hope Street Poets reading by Rochelle Potkar, another young city poet who has been part of events organized by Cappuccino Readings. They stood on the same stage as poets such as Jussawalla and Keki N. Daruwalla, men who had influenced their influences, and mentored their mentors.

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