Son of a bitch! You don’t hear that in a classroom from a teacher. And yet, there it was.
No one in that classroom had heard of the poet. And the whole gang of us had studied English all our lives. Poetry meant Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron…. Until Arun Kolatkar‘s ‘Ajamil and the Tigers’ leapt at us from the Class XI textbook.
We’ll outnumber the son of a bitch
And this time there will be no hitch.
The SOB who features in the poem was a dog. Yes, an actual dog. And in that little twist resides the genius of Kolatkar.
In the early nineties when I first read ‘Ajamil’, Arun Kolatkar’s books were not available. In anthologies, all his poems seemed to be from the same work, ‘Jejuri’. Other than ‘Jejuri’, he seemed to have written very little. ‘Jejuri’ of course, was a work of breathtaking ability. The influential 1976 anthology, R. Parthasarathy’s ‘Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets’ calls it “a poem of unexpected beauty and power”. Another influential anthology published in 1992 and edited by A. K. Mehrotra ‘The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets’ called it “among the finest single poems written in India in the past forty years”. Incidentally, both Mehrotra and Parthasarathy were fine poets themselves.
Why did ‘Jejuri’ move them so much? Consider these selections from ‘Jejuri’:
‘Sweet as grapes
are the stones of Jejuri’,
he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods.
slaughter a goat before the clock
smash a coconut on the railway track
smear the indicator with the blood of a cock
bathe the stationmaster in milk
and promise you will give
a solid gold toy train to the booking clerk
if only someone would tell you
when the next train is due
Now here was a poet. Irreverent, accessible, combining the traditional, the modern and everyday angst in a radically riotous manner. That sums up the essence of his work.
But in spite of his huge reputation, very little of Kolatkar was available for a long time. The poems above and a few other selections, mostly from ‘Jejuri’ were all I read of Kolatkar for many years. Kolatkar seemed to be like Kundan Shah who had directed ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’ and did very little for a long time after that.
In 2004, Kolatkar came back into prominence. A sudden rush of articles appeared in the popular press about him. The news was depressing. He was dying, they said and scrambling to have his works published. For a poet who had published very little, a legendary eccentric who kept mostly to himself, his final year on earth was a year of extensive activity. 2004 saw the publication of three works – ‘Sarpa Satra’ and ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’ in English and ‘Bhijki Vahi’ in Marathi. ‘Bhijki Vahi’ went to win the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005.
‘Sarpa Satra’ and ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’ if anything, reinforced Kolatkar’s genius. ‘Sarpa Satra’ is at one level a mythological tale of revenge and retribution, but it also resonates with today’s realities because of its contemporary references. ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’ with its mythological, historical and contemporary references and its usage of everyday mundane scenes to make startlingly novel observations is a work of searing originality.
‘Sarpa Satra’ is perhaps the final act of a genre that Kolatkar quite literally owns. For want of a better term, this genre could be referred to as ‘parallel writing’. ‘Sarpa Satra’ is part of ‘Bhijki Vahi’. Or is it? The truth is that Kolatkar began writing it in Marathi, but wrote it in English as well. This was an old Kolatkar method.
In the seventies, Kolatkar wrote a few poems in Bombay Hindi (Mumbaiyya). Two of these poems were included by his friend and poet, Dilip Chitre in an anthology of Marathi poetry. These poems were simultaneously written in English as well. These poems were written independently and yet could pass off as ‘translations’.
Kolatkar’s poetry is in a league of its own. Few writers have trodden the path traversed by Kolatkar. Fewer still can do so, even if they wished to. Kolatkar was an original Indian masterpiece, after all.
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