Jejuri in the Indian state of Maharashtra is a temple-town sacred to the local divinity Khandoba, an especially generous god often invoked by women desperate to conceive. "Jejuri" is also the title of an unusual sequence of poems by Arun Kolatkar which has just been re-issued (New York Review Books, 88 pages, $12.95). This little volume, which first appeared in Bombay in 1974 in the quaintly named magazine "Opinion Literary Quarterly," and then as a book two years later, marks the true beginning of contemporary Anglo-Indian poetry; a slim, almost skeletal book, it has had a huge impact. Why this should be so isn't immediately obvious.
To American readers, Kolatkar's dry, spare verse will seem deceptively familiar but it is the very antithesis of the florid, highly rhetorical poetry long favored by Indian poets writing in English. Kolatkar's tone too strikes a new note, by turns caustic and tender; there's an unexpected affection in his contempt.
Eric Ormsby, Keeping the Gods in the Dark (The New York Sun)
Arun Kolatkar—reclusive, enigmatic—is the poet all other Indian-English poets like to read…. Jejuri is a longish narrative sequence enacting a trip to the pilgrimage shrine of Khandoba, near Poona, the city where he died. However, it is not gods and faith that interest Kolatkar but its opposite: the nothingness at their center. And he attends to this all-abiding nothingness by recording with whimsical accuracy every visual detail, the very recording of which means there is really nothing else to record at the shrine. The noncommittal insouciant tone erases gods, negates the very idea of mythopoeic imagination, places temple priest and temple rat on an equal footing.
Khademul Islam, Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004): of coups, Quest and the letter
I first heard about Jejuri a month ago when a friend from Bombay posted one of its poems to her blog. I liked it enough to order the book, and liked that enough to want to share it here with the rest of you. As with a lot of writing I like, it speaks to me directly in a way that isn’t easy to analyze.
First published in 1974, Jejuri was long sold only in a handful of bookstores in India in impossible-to-find limited editions designed by the author himself. Only since 2005, a year after the poet’s death, has it been available internationally in the nice New York Review Book reprint I read. (I’m still searching for his three further English-language volumes, two published at the end of his life and one put together posthumously by friends.)
Jejuri is a series of thirty-three poems written in English describing the poet’s trip to a nearby pilgrimage site of that name. Below are eleven poems selected from the first half of the volume, with a few explanatory notes paraphrased by me from the NYRB edition added below them. At the bottom are a few excerpts from biographical and critical articles I’ve found online, along with a not-to-be-missed interview with the author. Except for a couple of generic shots (the cigarettes, the marigold, and the sweet), all the images here were stolen from photos on Flickr taken at or near Jejuri.
The tarpaulin flaps are buttoned down
on the windows of the state transport bus
all the way up to Jejuri.
A cold wind keeps whipping
and slapping a corner of the tarpaulin
against your elbow.
You look down the roaring road.
You search for signs of daybreak in
what light spills out of the bus.
You own divided face in a pair of glasses
on an old man's nose
in all the countryside you get to see.
You seem to move continually forward
towards a destination
just beyond the caste mark between his eyebrows.
Outside, the sun has risen quietly.
It aims through an eyelet in the tarpaulin
and shoots at the old man's glasses.
A sawed off sunbeam comes to rest
gently against the driver's right temple.
The bus seems to change direction.
At the end of a bumpy ride
with your own face on either side
when you get off the bus
you don't step inside the old man's head.
[caste mark: a colored marking painted on the middle of the forehead of a devout Hindu, especially on ceremonial occasions like a pilgrimage]
An offering of heel and haunch
on the cold altar of the culvert wall
the priest waits.
Is the bus a little late?
The priest wonders.
Will there be a puran poli in his plate?
With a quick intake of testicles
at the touch of the rough cut, dew drenched stone
he turns his head in the sun
to look at the long road winding out of sight
with the evenlessness
of the fortune line on a dead man’s palm.
The sun takes up the priest’s head
and pats his cheek
familiarly like the village barber.
The bit of betel nut
turning over and over on his tongue
is a mantra.
The bus is no more just a thought in his head.
It’s now a dot in the distance
and under his lazy lizard stare
it begins to grow
slowly like a wart upon his nose.
With a thud and a bump
the bus takes a pothole as it rattles past the priest
and paints his eyeballs blue.
The bus goes round in a circle.
Stops inside the bus station and stands
purring softly in front of the priest.
A catgrin on its face
and a live, ready to eat pilgrim
held between its teeth.
[puran poli: a sweet made of flat bread filled with split-pea paste and unrefined sugar called jaggery]
Heart of Ruin
The roof comes down on Maruti's head.
Nobody seems to mind.
Least of all Maruti himself
May be he likes a temple better this way.
A mongrel bitch has found a place
for herself and her puppies
in the heart of the ruin.
May be she likes a temple better this way.
The bitch looks at you guardedly
Past a doorway cluttered with broken tiles.
The pariah puppies tumble over her.
May be they like a temple better this way.
The black eared puppy has gone a little too far.
A tile clicks under its foot.
It's enough to strike terror in the heart
of a dung beetle
and send him running for cover
to the safety of the broken collection box
that never did get a chance to get out
from under the crushing weight of the roof beam.
No more a place of worship this place
is nothing less than the house of god.
[Maruti is the monkey-god Hanuman, whose shrine in Jejuri was at that time in ruins]
That's no doorstep.
It's a pillar on its side.
That's what it is.
come off it
said chaitanya to a stone
in stone language
wipe the red paint off your face
I don’t think the colour suits you
I mean what’s wrong
with being just a plain stone
I’ll still bring you flowers
you like the flowers of zendu
I like them too
[Chaitanya was a fifteenth century guru who taught the importance of personal devotion over ritual, caste purity, and temple worship]
[zendu is marigold, a flower commonly offered to Hindu gods or images of them painted on/carved in stone]
A Low Temple
A low temple keeps its gods in the dark.
You lend a matchbox to the priest.
One by one the gods come to light.
Amused bronze. Smiling stone. Unsurprised.
For a moment the length of a matchstick
gesture after gesture revives and dies.
Stance after lost stance is found
and lost again.
Who was that, you ask.
The eight-arm goddess, the priest replies.
A sceptic match coughs.
You can count.
But she has eighteen, you protest.
All the same she is still an eight-arm goddess to the priest.
You come out in the sun and light a charminar.
Children play on the back of the twenty-foot tortoise.
[charminars are a brand of cigarettes, one of the cheapest in India, strong and unfiltered]
[the twenty-foot tortoise is a great brass idol outside the temple]
The door was open.
it was one more temple.
He looked inside.
which god he was going to find.
He quickly turned away
when a wide eyed calf
looked back at him.
It isn't another temple,
it's just a cowshed.
[Manohar was Kolatkar’s friend, who came along with him to Jejuri]
An Old Woman
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You've seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won't let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
'What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?'
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for eyes.
And as you look on,
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
[50 paise is half a rupee, about one penny today]
sand blasted shoulders
bladed with shale
up through ribs of rock
in sky meat
with rock cut steps
thighs of sand stone
[the hills around Jejuri are supposed to be demons slain by Khandoba, the god worshipped there—see next poem]
The Priest’s Son
these five hills
are the five demons
that khandoba killed
says the priest’s son
a young boy
who comes along as your guide
as the schools have vacations
do you really believe that story
you ask him
he doesn’t reply
but merely looks uncomfortable
shrugs and looks away
and happens to notice
a quick wink of a movement
in a scanty patch of scruffy dry grass
burnt brown in the sun
there’s a butterfly
There is no story behind it.
It is split like a second.
It hinges around itself.
It has no future.
It is pinned down to no past.
It's a pun on the present.
Its a little yellow butterfly.
It has taken these wretched hills
under its wings.
Just a pinch of yellow,
it opens before it closes
and it closes before it o
where is it?
With his leonine silver mane and brooding look, his apparently formidable grimness easily broken by a sudden grin, Mr. Kolatkar was one of those distinctive figures who bring a special flavour to the life of a metropolis. For several decades, he was invariably to be found, on Monday and Thursday afternoons, sipping his tea at a table that was virtually reserved for him at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda, the heart of Bombay's colonial Fort quarter. Thus installed, he would look out of the French windows at the street-people gathered around the foot of the area's famed mahogany tree, or traversing its cobbled surfaces. He memorialised this experience in Kala Ghoda Poems, its cast including the idli-vendor, the blind man, the seller of rat-poison, and the lepers' tin-pan band.
Born in Kolhapur in 1932, Mr. Kolatkar worked in advertising for much of his life. Although he was trained at Mumbai's Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, his imagination rebelled against institutions; he was nourished, rather, by his private engagements with literature, painting, design and society. He often viewed experience as if through a camera, rendering what he saw and felt as a sequence of stills or as deftly edited footage. His ability to inveigle a series of events into a pattern was impeccable; he enjoyed an enviable understanding of the image and its ability to unsettle the viewer or reader. The evidence of his poetry suggests that advertising may have enhanced his taste for the bizarre perspective and the oblique entry-point into situations. He had a magical gift for translating the familiar into the wonderful, by focussing on details or tweaking our programmed approaches to objects, people and relationships. In his poems, wry irony underpins the miracle of things seen and touched, people met and sized up.
Mr. Kolatkar had no patience with the solemn academics who attempted to constrain him within such simple-minded schema as ‘faith versus reason’ or ‘tradition versus modernity’, merely because the eponymous Jejuri of his first book is a temple-town dedicated to Khandoba, a manifestation of Shiva. The mass of academic writing on Mr. Kolatkar has substantially missed the point of his poetry; for, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra writes, “The presiding deity of Jejuri is not Khandoba, but the human eye.”
Ranjit Hoskote, Poetry loses a major presence (The Hindu)
"He has no telephone, doesn't answer letters, shuns the press. Publishes in little magazines and small presses. Designs his own slim volumes." A meeting with the reclusive poet did take place six years ago, through the agency of a friend of his friends. It was to be the start of a series of interviews to profile ARUN KOLATKAR, the bilingual poet, equally at ease in Marathi and English.
Kolatkar looked me over, seemed disappointed that I didn't know the Tolkappiyam. He agreed to talk more at his long-term haunt, a restaurant in his favourite part of Mumbai, the location of his new anthology Kala Ghoda Poems (2004). On the appointed day, he was at the corner table, framed in leonine gaze and grey mane, turning gold in the slanting beams. The unmatching bland voice took time to shed wariness. Sadly, there were no further talks as planned. But the prelude tantalises in what it reveals, and represses. Excerpts:
HOW do you manage to express a sense of wonder in your visuals of people and places, and yet make them ironic?
Somebody may have a quick answer to that. I don't.
(Nervously, playing for time) For many contemporary poets, the arrangement of the lines on the page are as important as the poem itself. Once you "drew" the words up and down to create the harvest dance of fowl in a jowar field. Did you visualise the pattern before you wrote the poem?
That's a minor thing, excess energy. Not my normal style. At least so far. The poem is complete without it. This is bonus pleasure for the reader. Somebody may be irritated by it also. I probably had a disordered, psychic typewriter that jiggled the words up and down.
Even when the typewriter is not disordered, your poems can reflect a taste for play.
Possibly. If it's there, it should be obvious. Some people find it cold and cynical too. So I don't know if it's warm and playful or chilly and grim. I don't disagree or vehemently agree with personal reactions.
In "Jejuri" the pilgrimage to the old shrine starts with a bus ride, nausea...
(Cutting in) I thought it was claustrophobia! Were you reminded of some personal experience of nausea on a bus ride, or do you think the poem itself evokes nausea?
It's the structure of the poem, of the feeling of being penned in, and the images. The mind of the rider is open, it is the world that is rocking around him. A sense of movement without the distance diminishing. It made me think of tamas, spiritual torpitude.
I'm not sure I want to talk about individual poems. I feel they are transparent. If not, no use adding gloss. What is your feeling?
How can a poem be completely transparent? For me "Jejuri" is as intense, as iconoclastic as some of the bhakti poets I read and sing.
Strange. I keep coming across conflicting reactions so I find it more interesting to see people react than me reacting. Some are disturbed by the cynicism, lack of faith and roots, a sense of dispossession, or find a kind of gimmickry, sort of cleverness... and no true feelings. Touristy they say (falls silent). I think "Jejuri" describes the surroundings, establishes my position at the outset quietly. You said that the poem about the ruins was a personal experience. Where?
In a derelict wayside shrine near Thanjavur. The sanctum had no doors, lizards and squirrels were scurrying over the smiling, cobwebby goddess. If your Jejuri priest hands out visiting cards, our Pondicherry priest speaks French to tourists.
(Smiles) Many people, and reviews too, find it shocking that I don't respond to the magic of the place, or what the deity means to the devotee.
Isn't the sacred feeling in your images of nature? In a butterfly, or the puppies around their mother in the ruined shrine?
Sure. The miracle of life itself becomes a divine sort of thing. The tumbled bricks and broken slabs are not what make the spot holy, but wherever a bitch gives birth is probably a holy place. This is the kind of feeling that hopefully one has the potential of conveying.
Do you feel that a poem is complete only when someone responds to it?
I don't have any clear theories on the subject. I try not to limit myself with theoretical speculations about what poetry should be. I keep my ideas and attitudes in a limbo, in suspension, without firming them up, so that when I write, I feel free, not restricted by ideas of what it should be... If a reader has intuitions I haven't had — well and good.
Lack of firming up has reduced the effect of some poems...
So? Indecisiveness is my nature, lots of things I can't make up my mind about, whether politics, economics or poetry.
Is it a challenge for an Indian poet to write devotional verse in English?
For an Indian poet to write a devotional poem in an Indian language today will be equally a challenge. You can't write as if you belonged to Basavanna's close circle. Clichés will make your work phoney, imitative nostalgic, falsify the sentiment.
Language shapes emotion and structure. So how are your Marathi poems different from the English?
Not something I particularly want to know. My Marathi poems were written in different times and periods in my life, and that could have made the difference rather than language. They are probably more dense texture wise, and opaque. At least that's a common complaint. Anyway it's futile to form a judgement of what I'm doing in Marathi in English.
Does Marathi have a tradition of tight, graphic imagery, the kind of strokes you make?
Probably not. Good or bad, my Marathi poems are of their own kind. Some use exaggerated imagery, far too much, which puzzles people.
Why are the English poems easier?
People want to know. I don't know. Why shouldn't they be?
Why did you take 10 years to complete your painting course at the J.J. School of Art?
I was doing other things.
(Giving up) Why did you start writing then?
Found it more interesting. Fortunately I'm not writing War and Peace. Or blockbusting fiction. That would be terrible, tied down for years, nose to the grind. And trying to get out your novel...My God! I write just poems and things, small time stuff. I'm not all that productive either. Why? Natural laziness I suppose. There's a lot to be said for regular writing. I don't (do that).
May be poetry is not something that you can do regularly.
It's variable. Individual decision, attitude, circumstances, all come into the picture. A surprising number of novelists write poetry. Half of them probably write poems when they're not doing other serious stuff, knocking off a few sonnets now and then.
You studied in Marathi, and learnt English from books, comics and films. No early travels abroad. I'm curious about why you write in English at all, especially as you are not interested in a foreign market, (inaudibly) or in any market.
All I know is I have always written poems in both. Why I write one group of poems in one language rather than the other — the answer may be interesting but I don't have it. As long as I'm writing, I'm fine. Don't care in which language. At the moment I'm writing one group of poems in English, another in Marathi.
Are the themes different?
I see what you're getting at. The Marathi poems are located more internationally, in multiple cultural backgrounds. A challenge. I have to continually find out the pronunciations of words I'm shaky about. I asked you about Kannaki, I'm writing a set of poems on her. I'm searching for the pronunciation of a Greek name.
Do you know Greek? No? It's Hypatia, a woman lynched in 5th Century Alexandria. I want the name of the naked girl on the highway in the Vietnam War photographs. I'm dragging non-Marathi themes, feelings and traditions into Marathi. Having problems. Language should be capable of expressing not just what's in your lane or village, but happenings anywhere in the world.
How do you react to being taught in the classroom?
(Laughing) What do you think? Must be bad? Once a few students wrote to me saying they disagreed with their teacher's interpretation of my poem. I almost replied. (Guffawing) Some school children actually went on a picnic to Jejuri and had puran poli there. They shouldn't be reading prescribed texts anyway, I never did. Funny, my poems were prescribed in British schools too, and the BBC was here filming background material. I read a few poems, but refused to talk.
About the "Boatride" (pausing) I think they've shut shop here. Should we leave?
No easy answers: GOWRI RAMNARAYAN interviews the `inaccessible' bilingual poet, Arun Kolatkar (The Hindu)
My favourite Arun Kolatkar story concerns his response to an interviewer who asked him the standard question: “Who are your favourite poets and writers?”
The question infuriated Kolatkar, but then most questions did: he was the master of the freezing silence, the riposte in the form of another question, the non sequitur, the bland digression. This time, he let rip.
“There are a lot of poets and writers I have liked. You want me to give you a list? Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Jynaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Ramjoshi, Honaji, Mandelstam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras, Joseph Heller ... Gunter Grass, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Namdeo Dhasal, Patthe Bapurav, Rabelais, Apuleius, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Robert Shakley, Harlan Ellison, Balchandra Nemade, Durrenmatt, Aarp, Cummings, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Andre Vajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.”
Nilanjana S Roy, Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004): Speaking Volumes (Business Standard)
introduction to the NYRB edition by Amit Chaudhuri (as reprinted in The Guardian (UK))
Jejuri at Amazon (or shoplift a copy from your local independent bookstore)
Alan Horn's the purest of treats