Dom,in Love and at War

Eighty handpicked poems reveal Dom Moraes’s complex creative side and the less-discussed political side

Written by Meena Kandasamy | Published:June 23, 2012 3:55 am

Book: Selected Poems-Dom Moraes

Editor: Ranjit Hoskote

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 368

Price: Rs 499

Charles Bukowski portended bad luck for any young poet who had a rich father,an early marriage,early success or the ability to do anything very well. Dom Moraes (1938-2004) was guilty on all counts. He was born to Frank Moraes,the legendary newspaper editor and a close friend of Nehru and other nationalist leaders. At 18,Dom married Henrietta,bohemian cultural icon of Soho and muse to artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. His poems were praised by W.H. Auden when he was 15,published by Karl Shapiro and Stephen Spender when he was still a teenager,and his first collection,A Beginning,won him the Hawthornden Prize when he was only 20. To top it all,his prose was exceptionally powerful,too. Contrary to Bukowski’s aphorism,anyone assessing Dom’s case as a talented young poet would declare that he was bloody lucky.

As Ranjit Hoskote holds your hand and takes you on a guided tour through Dom’s life in this book,the jaw-dropping names-dropping never ceases and you constantly remind yourself how incredibly fortunate he must have been to have lived that life. Famous people and events put in endless guest appearances in the 85-page introduction that touches upon everything from Dom’s family ancestry and friendship circles to travel assignments and his three troubled marriages. Perhaps,in less discretionary hands,this introduction could have deteriorated into anecdote and eulogy. But Hoskote saves the day with his balanced narrative as he situates Dom’s contributions in the context of postcolonial Anglophone poetry in India and heroically seeks to retrieve his subject from the stereotype of Romanticist poet and neocolonial brown sahib.

Along with Nissim Ezekiel,Adil Jussawalla and A.K. Ramanujan,Dom Moraes belonged to the first generation of postcolonial Anglophone poets. He published 11 collections of poems over a period of 50 years,including the highly acclaimed John Nobody and Serendip.

Born into privilege,Dom’s felicities of language were recognised and nurtured as a matter of course. There is no discounting the fact that he might not have enjoyed the same phenomenal success had he belonged to a less affluent class. Dom was born into the quagmire of high society where the poet is considered a brilliant exhibit and a splendid entertainer. He did not have to fight or flatter his way into such company. To his credit,Hoskote does not shy away from pointing out how Dom’s elite background informed and enabled his work and its reception,and sharply notes how India’s public culture of the time lionised him upon his return from Oxford. Years later,this same land would judge him for how he lived,never forgiving his decadence,and blaming Dom’s failures on his weakness for women and whisky.

Dom’s verse,too,might give the appearance of celebrating little but love and debauchery,but ever so often he paused to bear witness to the tragedies of his time. When he was only 22,he covered the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961,an encounter that would leave a lifelong impression. In the following years,he reported on the Algerian revolution from the frontlines,the final phase of the war in Vietnam and the devastation caused by the cyclones,natural and political,that swept Bangladesh. Death,which he witnessed at first-hand and in all its bleeding glory,would become an endless,urgent theme in his later-day poetry.

Hoskote describes how Dom underwent a major change in his attitude towards the UK when he realised,in the summer of 1968,that he was,in fact,an immigrant in spite of his “privilege,his Oxford accent,public appearances on television and in the newspapers,and his almost entirely white circle of friends”. Perhaps this sowed the seeds for his disenchantment with British life and paved the way for his eventual return to India.

Travelling to Indonesia in 1972 to interview Suharto,Dom Moraes heard the story of 10,000 political prisoners being held captive in the remote Buru island. His reportage resulted in international outrage and an Amnesty International campaign that soon secured the release of 7,000 prisoners. Following this period of intense reporting,Dom Moraes and wife Leela Naidu moved to New York to join the United Nations Fund for Population Activities,a job that required him to travel all over the world once again. This constant dislocation proved a hindrance to the poetry,and he could never write poems for a 17-year period.

The 80 handpicked poems in this anthology are representative and do justice to Hoskote’s “corrective” agenda of casting Dom Moraes as an “early and unrecognised example of the transcultural artist.” Hoskote’s meticulous research and passion to frame a post-postcolonial account help us grasp the complex creative side of Dom as well as his political side,which has sadly never been discussed before. As a young man,he had condemned India’s annexation of Goa,pointing out India’s contempt for the self-determination of nationalities,and in the last years of his life,ailing from cancer,he had travelled to Gujarat immediately upon hearing about the genocide. Witnessing the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in New Delhi in 2001,he had held that it was a signpost to the future of India. Clearly,he was a poet who did not escape the politics of his day. In “A Day in Ayodhya”,a poem from his last collection,he writes:

In a dense pack,the pilgrims howl like wolves

as they glimpse Allah’s hovel,now destroyed.

Their clothes are saffron,their eyes ominous,

and soon with prayer they will call back God.

Nearby,the party drones arrange on shelves

the sacred tiles,newmade to build His house.

Bold and bordering on the provocative,I have not come across any other poem that captures with such candour the demolition of the Babri Masjid and condemns with such lucidity the Ramajanmabhoomi movement. In a nation where complicit silence bags national awards,where poets find it easy to serve as propaganda machinery for political parties,Dom was different.

Academia’s silence about such political aspects of his poetry throws up larger questions for everyone who is writing and reading poetry today: Are we content to merely clap when our poets dish out safe,universal themes: love,loss,sex,suffering,death,disease? Why do we refuse to engage and recognise the political even when it appears in its most blatant avatar? Or,is the tag of political poetry such anathema to Indian poets writing in English that it has to be practised only on the sly? Are we afraid? Or,have we already seceded to the Republic of Verse and no longer have to scream ourselves hoarse about what goes on in India?

Hoskote remarks that Dom’s sympathies lay with the impoverished,the oppressed and the disempowered. The truth is,Dom knew how to be simultaneously in love and at war. Reading this latest selection of his poems,perhaps we may be able to partake of this poetic secret.

Poet,translator,writer and activist,Meena Kandasamy is working on her first novel

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