Unquiet flows the Dom

  • Two recent anthologies of poet Dom Moraes’ non-fiction confirm him as one of India’s finest prose stylists
  • The writings cover a wide range, including essays, political profiles, reportage, criticism and memoir

I first heard of Dominic Moraes when I was 17. In youthful folly, I had started a blog under the pen-name of Moares, a not-undisguised anagram of Moraes, after Moraes Zogoiby, the hero of Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The poetry of this other Moraes (Dom), I came across on the internet, while looking for ways I could artfully mangle the exotic-sounding name.

I didn’t have much time for Moraes’ work then. Those salad days, I much preferred the flowery bombast of Rushdie. Now, I realize that the two Moraes had something obvious in common: The colour of their skin marked them as outsiders in lands they thought they could belong to—Spanish Andalusia for Zogoiby and England for Moraes. There is indeed a lot in the name—the Iberian name “Moraes" derives from the Latin mora for “blackberry".

Dom Moraes, last of the Englishmen, was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1938, in an age when it was—to borrow a phrase from Jan Morris, writing about the end of empire—too late for arrogance but too soon for regrets. His parents were the Goan Frank, the first Indian editor of The Times Of India, and the East Indian Beryl, a pathologist who later struggled with mental illness. A poetry prodigy, he shipped out to study at Oxford when he was 17, winning the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for his first collection when he was only 19. Soon after moving to England, he fell in with the bohemians of London’s Soho district, drinking and living and loving with poets and painters. In the early 1960s, he ran out of poetry, and, by the end of the decade, he had returned to India.

I mention this early biographical detail because it marks much of his work in prose, in style and substance. It also goes some way to explain the access—to faraway places and important people—that through the course of his life in letters, his privileged background afforded. Then, like now, it was for a person of means, through money or connections, to conceive of a full-time life in writing.

In what are considered his dry years as a poet (a legendary whisky drinker, he didn’t have too many as a man), he produced some fine works of literary reportage. Some of these have now been collected in two volumes (profiles and conversations in Where Some Things Are Remembered and travel writing in Under Something Of A Cloud, each 599), edited by Sarayu Srivatsa and published by Speaking Tiger. Srivatsa, who was his partner both in life and writing in his later years, has written heartfelt introductions to both collections.

In Some Things, she writes of how “each person" Moraes profiled “is a part and a whole, both special and strange, who were all swept up, one way or another, across order and chaos, in the social tumult of the country". Moraes had the skill of appearing to take contradictions for granted. In that sense, he was truly Indian. Attention is drawn to his subjects’ flaws only because one is startled by the preciseness of Moraes’ arrangement of words. Of the Bengali film-maker Basu Bhattacharya, he writes that he became a Communist after running away from the home of his landed family, but, in his old age, was as “autocratic an employer as any of his ancestors". The Bihari politician Lalu Prasad looks Moraes “fiercely in the face" during their interview, but Moraes gradually realizes that Prasad’s “aggression might be some rustic prelude to acceptance".

In selecting the pieces for the travel-writing anthology, Srivatsa writes that she was “steered by something hidden in them: of the sense of loss and losing, of loneliness...." This quality is most apparent in the account of his travels among the tribal areas in Narayanpur district, in present-day Chhattisgarh. Moraes deals in images, and his sketches of solitariness in the jungles of central India throw up many memorable ones—a tribal youth sitting “erect and stiff" on the saddle of a bicycle, as “though fending off some hostile animal"; the Marhi river flowing in “moonlit swirls"; the “orange roses of flame" of a distant burning forest, “painted upon the semicircle of hills" like a “canvas by a French primitive". In 1981, among the Adivasis of the Abhujmarh plateau, he finds echoes of the tribe he encountered in Indonesia’s Dani valley in 1972. Of the Dani and their mountainous homeland, too, he has written remarkably—with control at most times, and verve when it is warranted.

Readers of V.S. Naipaul’s non-fiction will find comparisons inescapable, down to the way the men went about collecting information. The brown sahib has no local language, only the queen’s English. He flies in, checks into the best hotel in town, is met by the fixer-cum-interpreter in the hotel lobby, and off they go on an intrepid adventure to decode the natives. Sahib takes copious notes, not only of what is being said but also of how it is being said and where. From these scribbles—somehow—emerges a finished thing, clear-eyed, unfaltering, striking the heart of the matter as one wouldn’t imagine, given the authors’ observable biases.

Of course, this is not to overstate the likeness (among other differences, Sir Vidia was far more prolific, and also more averse to going off-piste as Moraes was wont to do). It is only to say that it should not be considered far-fetched to speak of Moraes’ prose-craft in the same breath as Nobel laureate Naipaul’s.

Moraes died in June 2004. The obituaries—especially in the foreign press—centred around his poetic promise and achievements. The Guardian called him “a brilliant young writer, whose star, lauded by Bohemian London, dimmed in later life". Perhaps he would have agreed with the description, since he considered himself a poet above all else. No matter that he had written three memoirs, travelogues, a biography (of Indira Gandhi, no less), and countless magazine and newspaper articles from the late 1950s to the early 2000s. The memoirs have long been out of print and most of the other prose writing remains difficult to access, written as it was before the internet came around to grant even mediocrity posterity.

Maybe Dominic Moraes considered the world to be “only held together by a variety of absences", but these two collections should tell us that those years, when the river of his poetry lay parched, were not lost years.