“Keep Your Eyes Open, And Your Ears”

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(On Poetics of Imagination, A Breakthrough In The Literary Canon, and Pilgrimage of the Mind)

That we are to begin an essay on Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri and not mention Bhalchandra Nemade’s notorious comment on the poem is drawing no yardstick to what this essay is a result of, and hence, I lay it bare for you, for Jejuri is no ordinary poem but an experience that will make you immensely uncomfortable as you begin reading it.

Nemade, a nativist critic who withdrew from the Bombay literary circle around the 1960s to return to his native town, in his rather scathing essay ‘Against Indian Writing In English,’ wrote “Kolatkar comes and goes [from Jejuri] like a weekend tourist from Bombay. He should know that the ancient culture which stores up everything in its rocks, also stores up the English language he uses and Jejuri pilgrimage is after all not so degenerate as a Juhu beach cocktail party.”

This is an interesting observation for how does one consider Nemade’s accusations like “English language is a pathetic necessity” and “such writers should prefer to make westernised cities as their home ground” on Indian writers writing in English, anything but a mis-language confusing modernity for westernisation.

One can, however, argue against it through a close reading of Kolatkar’s masterpiece Jejuri in the light of its standing as a series of poems which take the narrator and the reader not only through a physical pilgrimage in the temple town of Jejuri but through a pilgrimage of our minds as well. In the simple beautiful acts like the opening and closing of the wings of a butterfly, or the up-and-down movement of the hens and cocks at the sight, one sees god, ruined by the various manifestations of religion with Khandoba as the main deity, the protector god who forces his followers to worship him in order to be pardoned of their sins.

When I first read Jejuri, I found discomfort in the forced religion, and felt a sense of community in walking through the poem with the narrator and catching up with his sensibility.

In his essay ‘On Poetic Imagination’ published in The Book Review April Issue 2017, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra writes –

“The poetic imagination works in mysterious ways but never more so than when it is being unpoetic. Other than what people believe, a poet is not a dreamer, with his head perpetually in the clouds, as the caricature has it. On the contrary, he is someone who walks the firm earth, especially those parts of it that are less than beautiful… To Kolatkar, the poetic imagination was another phrase for the everyday magic of sight and sound.”

Mehrotra sees the journey of the narrator in Kolatkar’s Jejuri through the mimesis of the real life journey of a people into this temple town. It is this hypothesis and framework that I assume in this essay, to take the reader through the mind of Kolatkar for ‘human eye’ is a “component of the poetic imagination” and it is this that becomes the principal deity in Jejuri for Kolatkar, and not Khandoba.

A book of gods and temples catches his interest not as a park would to a picnicker but as curiosity would to an artist on the quest for finding answers, and with “a divided face,” Arun Kolatkar begins the journey from the State Transport bus stand, where the bus carries its pilgrim-passengers with faith drawn at the centre of their foreheads or often hung around their necks, as though from the fear of a revenge perhaps of an albatross which they do not dare kill, a manifestation of a belief, a superstition, a guiding force unquestioned and unreasoned.

“You seem to move continually forward
towards a destination
just beyond the caste mark between his eyebrows

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.”

The old man in the bus is the narrator’s ‘other,’ borrowing Shubhangi Raykar’s words, “in the sense that the narrator cannot share the old man’s view…and it is tempting to think that his ‘other’ must have experienced some very different emotions on having reached Jejuri.” When the poem begins, one senses a certain ‘self’ of the narrator divided in his belief, quite removed from the subculture he will soon witness in Jejuri, one that comprises of the pilgrims and believers of Khandoba.

In the second poem, the frame changes, and one is shown an image, almost as an aside, a shot, a clear reflection of the nature of the priest at the temple, a scene nothing close to the otherwise familiar sacredness of the priests we often assume –

“The bit of betel nut/turn[s] over and over on his tongue” like a mantra – a prayer for the arrival of his customers, held between the teeth of the bus that carries them, ready to be eaten alive by the seemingly empty stomachs but strong shoulders of the temple gods. There is an irreverence felt in the details given by the poet here, towards this unnecessary bridge between God and his followers, this broker who leaves his visiting card in the hands of the pilgrims. For a nativist critic like Nemade, this became the second point of criticism against Kolatkar, this “obscenity” : “with a quick intake of testicles/ at the touch of the rough cut, dew drenched stone/ he turns his head in the sun” and the chanting of the mantra for a “puran poli” in his plate. It was in this de-familiarisation from the nostalgic and the sacred, that critics felt an uneasiness. In Amit Chaudhuri’s excellent essay, ‘On Strangeness in Indian Writing in English,’ Chaudhuri writes about this very “de-familiarisation of the ordinary with commodification of the native.” He says :   

“It’s the matter of strangeness in art – what Viktor Shklovsky called, almost a century ago, ‘defamiliarisation’… by defamiliarisation I mean the peculiar relationship art and language have to what we call ‘life’ or ‘reality.’ Realism is too inexact, loaded and general a term to suggest the gradations of this process, this relationship and its perpetual capacity to surprise and disorient the reader.”

One cannot thus help but notice and be shaken at first by the bitter scepticism in Kolatkar’s dismissiveness and the disgust with the desecration he saw in Jejuri, created in the poems. This brings me to the first point of criticism against the poet, which was a certain lack of Indianness in the works of Indian Writers writing in English like him. Pointing towards poems like ‘The Heart of Ruin’ where the god himself has been portrayed as unconcerned about being buried beneath the ruins and the decay of the religious practices followed in Jejuri –

“The roof comes down on Maruti’s head.
Nobody seems to mind.
Least of all Maruti himself.”

This Indianness is often enforced and unfortunately imposed for a certain brand of “Hinduness” – a non secular fundamentalist belief in the god of Maruti, Shiva, Khandoba etc., a brand violent often times in its manifestations. ‘The Door’ and ‘A Low Temple’ are poems that are full of lines that could have put the narrator under a scrutiny and an accusation for a mistaken absence of this Indianness :

“Hell with the hinge and damn the jamb
The door would have walked out
Long long ago

If it weren’t for
That pair of shorts
Left to dry upon its shoulders.”

However, in this disrepair, the worshippers of the village crush their own sense of propriety, the correctness of a religious estate, the dirty away from the clean, which the poet is shocked by, and just like that ‘The Temple Rat’ becomes an incongruous comical character for the narrator, slowly fitting perfectly with the surroundings of “a mongrel bitch” and “a dung beetle.” Or perhaps the humour isn’t as much in the incongruity of the rat, as it is in the relief of discovering it.

“The temple rat blinks
As it loops down the chain hung from the stone ceiling
And its eyes shine among heavy metal links
Licked by highlights.

And having noticed
The trace of a smile on the priest’s face,
Buried under a grey, week deep beard,
The temple rat

Disappears in a corner of the sanctum
Just behind the big temple drum.
Not a minute too soon.
Because just then the bell springs into action.”

In an attempt to question this state or rather  the “status quo,” as though voicing through Chaitanya – an early fifteenth century Bhakti poet-reformer who came to Jejuri with the aim of reforming it, and in a way bringing modernisation into the lives of the people of the town, Kolatkar writes three poems with the title ‘Chaitanya’ through the course of the book : the first Chaitanya poem which gives a sense of his arrival and his complete rejection of the idols and the painted stones preserved for years as mediators between god and man. “Come off it” he makes a complaint about them in what Kolatkar calls “stone language,” one understood only by the stones, as they sit painted in red.

In the second Chaitanya poem, the narrator responds to the actual impact of this Bhakti poet, for each stone he swallowed, a god was born, which is to say, that his doctrines were pushed outside the gates of Jejuri, and the temple stones as gods sat there increasing in number. By the third Chaitanya poem,“he disappear[s] from view/ and the herd of legends/ return to its grazing.” The poet uses the term “herd” for legends as a herd would be of sheep, and creates a beautiful image where the sheep look up at Chaitanya, a light of change and hope in the sky, but return to grazing again, and the temple remains buried in the rubble.

However, as we move ahead, one sees a transition in the tone of the poems, and this emerges exactly when the narrator meets ‘An Old Woman’ or rather the old woman “grabs [the narrator’s] hand” and asks him for a fifty paise coin, in return for a guided trip to the horseshoe shrine. First exasperated, the narrator is seen becoming immediately sympathetic on the utterance of the words of the woman, as she says : “What else can an old woman do/ on hills as wretched as these?” and these words like rain water change the taste in the mouth of the narrator, as he stands in silence and looks at the sky. This image is also one that I believe could be to recall the herd of legends, the herd of sheep looking up at the sky in the third Chaitanya poem as though to see the ray of light, of transformation.

In this poem, Kolatkar has remarkably portrayed what he saw as a certain class struggle, which is more stark in the two mirror poems, “A Song for a Vaghya” and “A Song for a Murali,” and most of all in the preceding almost-preface poem for the Vaghya and Murali : ‘Ajamil and the Tiger,’ a conflict between a shepherd named Ajamil and the tigers, and most importantly, against the sheep dog, a metaphor Kolatkar used for himself. This lack of choice for the woman in ‘An Old Woman’, for the young Vaghya (the male devotee carrying turmeric in a pouch to worship Khandoba), for Murali (shown as being born as god’s woman, often a ‘prostitute’) and the lack of choice of a profession for the priest’s son in an earlier poem, in my opinion, is a moment to pause at during the reading of the poem :

“the hills crack,
and the temples crack
and the sky falls

you are reduced to so much small change in her hand.”

The sun cracks through the sky too, and as it lowers itself towards the horizon, one sees a mellow Kolatkar, albeit still questioning the hierarchies, the second-classness of a demigod Yeshwant Rao, “and his place… outside the main temple/ outside even of the outer wall/ as if he belonged/ among the tradesmen and the lepers.” Even in gods, we have placed our trust on different scales, one more than the other.

“You leave the little temple town
with its sixty three priests inside their sixty three houses,
huddled at the foot of the hill.”

As the narrator leaves the temple town of Jejuri to catch the train back to Bombay, he passes by the temple gods, the priests and their houses, looks for the “resident bitch” perhaps her puppies in the ruins of the temple.  He stops immediately to watch the breathless dance of the hens and the cocks in a field of jowar, a kind of “harvest dance.” He plays with the numbers again, counting precisely : seven jumping straight, five coming down with grain in their beaks. At this point, from the accurate “blue shadow of the white horse” in an earlier poem and the “eighteen armed goddess” instead of eight in yet another poem, one hardly recognises if the details like numbers of the priests and the hens and cocks is now an exaggeration, an influence of what he perhaps carries with him from Jejuri, or a guess. Or yet still the accurate eye of the poet, as he stands between Jejuri and the railway station with “a priest on [his] left shoulder/ and a station master on [his] right.”

“The surrealistic similarities startlingly disclose how at both the places [Jejuri and Railway Station]  (and no two places could be more dissimilar) there is the same blind faith in ossified tradition and the establishment, the same exclusiveness and the same dilapidation and the general deadness,” writes M.K. Naik in A History of English Literature.  In ‘The Railway Station,’ the final poem in the series, it appears that Kolatkar has conceded in blurring the lines between the urban and rural beliefs, between the faith in tradition and the faith in the institution, as can be seen in the lines “if only someone would tell you/ when the next train is due.”

Jejuri ends with a stunning poem, perhaps the highest note and the final stop for the poet’s mind, two beliefs settling at the crossroads, two illusions – the setting of the sun and the meeting of the railway lines.

“The setting sun
Touches upon the horizon
At a point where the rails
Like the parallels
Of a prophecy
Appear to met

The setting sun
Large as a wheel.”

It is then surprising to me that a poem like this was sadly attacked by native ‘writers’ who surely could not have had a problem with the craft of Arun Kolatkar : the beautiful three line stanzas, the Aristotelian ‘beginning, middle and end’, the cinematic change of frames as one moves from one poem to another, the genius in the typographical movement of the hens and cocks, and the brilliance in the diction.

It is maybe then in the use of the English language, although Indianised (if we were to borrow the principles of creolisation), that to the likes of Nemade, makes Arun Kolatkar an outsider, or to use a more apt word, a “foreigner,” or an “Indian writer writing for a foreign audience.”  Is he an outsider – in a Saidian sense of the term? A western man telling the story of an Oriental culture, one that he is not a part of? To this, my answer is no – and let me quote a favourite critic here, Nilanjana S Roy, who recalls Kolatkar’s answer during an interview he agreed for with an interviewer, almost poetic to a standard question : Who are you favourite writers and poets? In a list that began with “Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound…” and ended, to use the most primitive term, with “Godse Bhatji, Kurosawa, Laurel and Hardy,” one sees a fitting response of Kolatkar, as representing the borrowed learnings from home and elsewhere. Nilanjana Roy writes beautifully, “This speaks for all of us, for our hybrid heritage, our right to claim everything that comes from our ‘roots,’ everything that comes from ‘elsewhere’ and to put the two together in one defiant, all-inclusive category.”

In the city of Bombay during the sathottari period, when the two scenes were emerging :  the Indian poets writing in English, and the ones writing in Marathi, at a time of “transnational whirlwind of influences and borrowings with English, American, European, and Latin American movements taking center stage,” to quote scholar and professor at Rutgers University, Anjali Nerlekar from her seminal work on Kolatkar in the Bombay Modern, in a period and in a city where there existed “a conjoined sense of the modern, evident in the form of Bombay poetry written in Marathi and English,” as a reaction against the division of the states in linguistic terms, to question bilingual writers like Kolatkar on their preference of the language should hardly be one that must be considered as a significant criticism of a masterpiece like Jejuri.

It is one that needs rethinking, for it ignores his outstanding craft, his individuality and modernity in thought, and his collective oeuvre where each of his poem skips the lines drawn by the early pre-independence poets like the Dutts, Naidu, and Tagore. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra dismisses this backwardness in this form of criticism, in his wonderful essay ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ published in Partial Recall, lamenting on the absence of a sense of “excitement or despair” on the publication of new modern Indian poetry, poetry that attempts or tries to break away from the traditional, and departs in style as well as thought.

To have created a poem like Jejuri is to have broken through decades old literary canon of the British English, and to have gifted the readers in India a home.

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