It took a novel to bring it home to me.
“It was a city of poets and cafés, and all-night sessions of drinking and versifying, a place to rival Joyce’s Dublin or Cavafy’s Alexandria or Pessoa’s Lisbon. 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, Imtiaz and the agate-eyed women who glided through her work…what a time that was, the nights of writing poetry and drinking and partying and f***ing the beautiful young women we all shared…”
Until David Davidar wrote The Solitude of Emperors, none of the hundreds of Mumbai novels that had ever been written had acknowledged the presence of poetry. The closest we got to a dishonourable mention was when Ashok Banker’s young protagonist goes to the Taj Art Gallery and vomits the rich food and alcohol to which he is unaccustomed. Two names form part of the background score to the retching: Adil Jussawalla and Ranjit Hoskote.
When one dips slowly and reverently into Jeet Thayil’s Sixty Indian Poets, a Penguin anthology that released last month, one realizes that many of these poets, like the editor, can be described as “Bombay poets”. They may not have been born here but they worked here and many of them published here. For many, the city was a muse, so much so that R. Raj Rao gathered 71 poems for his special number of The Literary Endeavour, a journal out of Mysore.
Illustrations: Jayachandran / Mint
Mysore? Well, why not? This city has never had much time for its poets. The bookshops don’t either. Where would you find Arundhathi Subramaniam’s first book of poems,On Cleaning Bookshelves? Nowhere. Would you like to read C.P. Surendran’s Posthumous Poems? You won’t be able to find it.
And yet, Mumbai can claim, in some way or the other, 28 of the 60 poets in this book. That’s nearly 50% of the poets represented in this rich fruitcake of a book: A book that will slow you down, in which textures change and mouth feel alters from poem to poem; a book to delight in and consume in huge mouthfuls and to nibble at late in the night when the demons won’t let you sleep.
So is poetry a bit like Christianity, a religion that flourishes in persecution? Shall we write best where we are ignored most?
But then, there was always the Poetry Circle. I was not in on the beginning when, in the mid-1980s, a group of poets including R. Raj Rao and Menka Shivdasani met to discuss the possibility of setting up a group in which poets could meet and listen to each other’s poems and discuss them in a collegial atmosphere.
This seemed like a doomed enterprise. Weekly meetings? At 5pm on Saturdays? Wouldn’t poets have other things to do? They did, but they came. Not Dom Moraes, who said frankly that he couldn’t see the purpose of such a group. Not his acolytes, the hard-drinking boys of Colaba Causeway, but others.
At first, the group met at Artists Centre; later they moved to Nissim Ezekiel’s PEN office at the Theosophy Hall in New Marine Lines. And that’s where I caught up with them and met so many of the voices that populate my head. There was H. Masud Taj, who recited his poetry from memory in the Urdu shaayri tradition. There was Hoskote, the maker of objects of incredible linguistic beauty. There was Prabhanjan Mishra, an unassuming tax collector by day and a startlingly lush voice by night. There was Marilyn Noronha and Gayatri Majumder, tough female voices leavened by compassion in one case and the unexpected in the other.
Nissim was the patriarch but he was quiet and didn’t enforce his views. There was a committee and a journal called Poesis and a move to register the society so that we could receive funds.
There were odd incidents too: An early morning reading on the steps, illuminated by candlelight, to which several poets were supposed to come but which ended up with me reading to poet H Masud Taj and he to me; a picnic that is spoken of only in hushed whispers now; and workshops of various kinds.
But as Subramaniam rightly puts it in Semicerchio, an international literary journal: “I believe that one of the strengths of the Circle has been the fact that its abiding collective passion for poetry hasn’t been colonised by a spirit of purely academic enterprise. Of course, there have been heated exchanges, saturated with ‘technico-jargonautics’ (that invaluable Shavian term!), and replete with bibliographical flourishes. But the more valuable contribution, I believe in retrospect, has been the ‘artisanal’ workshop criticism—the suggestions at the nuts-and-bolts level of praxis, to pare down a line, chisel an image, fine-tune a phrase, scrape the varnish off another.”
So is there a “Bombay poet”? No, there isn’t. There’s only a geographic rubric and in those 28, we count a British woman who has made her home in Mumbai, and we have lost some to foreign shores and jobs. But if someone in another city wants to believe there is, what a good thing that would be if such a belief might throw up another book, another anthology, more poetry, more voices to remind us of what language can be.
Jerry Pinto is the author ofHelen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.
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