"Bombay Poets Had Knack For Cruelty": From Jeet Thayil's New Book

'Bombay Poets Had Knack For Cruelty': From Jeet Thayil's New Book

Cover of Jeet Thayil's The Book Of Chocolate Saints

I believe the Bombay poets had a knack for cruelty. And if they didn't they developed it pretty fucking fast. They were masters of the number two trades, petit bourgeois petty criminals, habitual drunkards and fornicators, lone wolves and seers, desperados to a man, and they were all men except for the formidable Ms de Souza who had a kind of honorary status in the boy's club. It was a club, no question about it, women not welcome, nobody welcome except the six or seven founder members who appointed themselves dictators for life and locked the door behind them.

Do you know the London-returned boy with the long hair, the architect who gave it all up to write poems? Yes, well done, Adil Jussawalla. Do you know his second publication, which was not a collection but a single book-length poem, a clenched fist or raised middle finger in the face of Indian poetry? Do you remember the title? Of course you don't. Missing Person. In my opinion it is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the poets of Bombay. And never was there a more bitterly self-aware title, because that's what they were, missing persons, every one of them. They took pride in not publishing and not writing. One book and then nothing for a decade, just disappear off the face of the earth. Hole up somewhere nobody knows you and drink yourself to the third bardo or the seventh circle. If you wanted to meet them you'd have to lurk on a street corner in Tardeo or New Marine Lines or Santa Cruz or Colaba. You'd have to lie in wait like an assassin at Saint Michael's Church or Babulnath Mandir and they wouldn't come, they'd never turn up, because they were missing fucking persons AWOL for all time, and what I want to know, what I'm dying to know is, what the fuck were they hiding from?

I was a young poet in the eighties, age twenty-none and counting, which makes me not so old now, to address your great surprise. Well, watch and weep, my young friend, you age fast in the fucking po biz. For a young poet writing in Marathi and English it was a rare thing to find a poet you wanted to emulate. Plus, like all young poets I resisted the easy influence. I cherished the difficulty. And despite my wilful nature and my immense shyness, despite my youth and my arrogance, for there is nobody more arrogant than a young poet, despite my tremendous fucking handicap, I found two names worthy of the role of master, two names I hoped would consider me a worthy student. As luck would have it the masters I chose were drunken modernists, which says something about me. Perhaps I should have been less eager to approach them, perhaps it's a better thing to let one's heroes remain on the page, perhaps, as Ms de Souza says, it is "Best to meet in poems".

The first master I approached at a play he had written or directed or acted in, or all of the above. I took a bus to the theatre in Matunga where it was playing and because I could not afford a ticket I loitered near the entrance and looked at the posters and then I went over to the cafe; area. I helped myself to a glass of water and sat at a table. I was carrying a volume of Mallarme's selected poems in English and because I was young and hopeful it seemed the correct companion for me in my state of solitary and unintoxicated pennilessness. I read and sipped water and read some more and after a while a small crowd of people exited the theatre and stood around smoking and discussing the play. I saw Mr. Oak sitting by himself at the farthest table and I gathered my Mallarme; and my courage and introduced myself. I was overjoyed when he asked me to take a seat. How naive, how grateful is the young poet for the smallest gesture of kindness! We talked about the play, a Marathi adaptation of Ionesco, a comic adaptation that made much use of slapstick and a fellow in a rhinoceros suit, and then we talked about Brecht and Artaud and the sacred quest to eradicate the proscenium and make obsolete the division between audience and performer. There was a silence, a short silence, as occurs between people who are meeting for the first time and then Mr. Oak got down to business. Would I lend him a few rupees, he said, and that was the amount he asked for, a few rupees. I was a goddamn student, a goddamn poet nursing my glass of water at the Matunga theatre cafe; because that was all I could afford. I remember I had just enough money for the bus home. I had no lendable rupees. When I told him I was dry as a bone my master Mr. Oak could not hide his disappointment. He sat completely still and stared at the ground. Minutes later he left on an errand, never to return.

That was my experience with the first master. With the second I decided to be more circumspect. I had heard that Mr. Kolatkar liked to hold court on Thursday evenings at a cafe; opposite the Jehangir Art Gallery. I think it was called Woodside Inn or Wayside Inn, a restaurant and tea shop with a grandfather clock on the wall and checked red and white tablecloths. It was there that Mr. Kolatkar took his customary table under the clock and entertained his many visitors. By then he was no longer drinking whisky. He preferred copious draughts of water and cups of strong tea. He lived in a small apartment crammed with books, so small that when he had a visitor they had to go to the balcony to sit and talk. Not that I was ever invited there. These are stories I heard from those who had been allowed to meet the great man, the great poet in his poetic abode.

From my nondescript suburb it took more than an hour in a train to reach Churchgate. From the station I crossed the road to the Eros cinema and gazed for a moment at the building's art deco silhouette and signage, a sight I had loved as a boy, and for a moment I wondered what Arun Kolatkar would make of it, such was my devotion to the idea of the poet Arun Kolatkar who worked as an art director in the hallowed world of advertising, the glamorous world of copywriting and marketing, who must have walked by the Eros cinema many times in his wanderings around the city, whose understanding of the sign's art deco lineage was so much deeper than mine. What did he see when he looked at the Eros sign's whimsical onomatopoeic curves and the bespoke orgasmic O with the dot at its centre? What were the poetic or prosaic or aphoristic thoughts that occurred to him? These were the questions that came to me as I stood on the broken sidewalk

Excerpted from The Book Of Chocolate Saints By Jeet Thayil with permission from Aleph Book Company. Order your copy here.

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