“I photocopied everything.” That could serve as the credo of the peripatetic literary historian and critic Bruce King, whose Memoirs of Literary and Musical Peregrinations is finally out, after a decade in the works. Though frequently unemployed, King has taught in universities in England, Scotland, Canada, Nigeria, France, Israel, New Zealand and his native US. Now settled in Paris, he was an interested bystander of African, Caribbean and India literatures in English, in the period when they were just emerging.
The geographical spread of King’s reminiscences is atlas-wide, ranging from Philadelphia to Beersheba, from a second home in New Orleans to another in Hvar, Croatia. Indian readers would be particularly interested in a chapter halfway through the book, where he recalls interviewing the teacher, translator and poet R Parthasarathy in Austin, Texas. It was a disaster because the cassette tapes emerged blank. A reading of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Emperor has no Clothes followed, a hit job on Parthasarathy which appeared in Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga (the journal is still published from his home in Tikonia Bagicha, Cuttack). “I was rapidly entering the small world of modern Indian poetry in English,” writes King. On the journey, he photocopied everything he could find, from journals to stray poems, trying to build up a definitive record of Indian poetry in English.
In 1983, King was in Delhi, dining at the home of Keki N Daruwalla, who was then in the higher echelons of the security establishment, yet wrote verse extremely sceptical of both the government and the governed. After touristy peregrinations through the ruins of Rajasthan and the ghats of Varanasi, he and his wife Adele reached Allahabad, where they were met by a motorcycle-borne Mehrotra, “a misplaced hippie in India” and editor of the cyclostyled cult magazine damn you. The title was a bowdlerised version of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You, which appeared in the early Sixties in New York, dedicated to ‘Pacifism, Unilateral Disarmament, …Civil Disobedience, Obstructers and Submarine Boarders, and All Those Groped by J Edgar Hoover in the Silent Halls of Congress.’
From Mehrotra’s Allahabad, it’s a deep dive into the world of chapbooks, Bengal’s Hungryalists and P Lal, who deftly walked the fine line between vanity and literature (he discovered Vikram Seth) all his life. Mumbai follows, with Arun Kolatkar’s weekly meetings at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda, and glimpses of Dom Moraes and Pritish Nandy, along with a rather tragic portrait of Nissim Ezekiel. Moraes had been lured back to India to write a biography of Indira Gandhi (Little, Brown, 1980), which Kirkus Reviews dismissed thus: “There’s a certain gossipy liveliness here, but very little pertinent substance.” King regrets that one of the most important voices of the time was reduced to a classy hack, who eventually fell on hard times: “He felt part of the elite and continued in the role, quietly mumbling some gossip about his years in England while a drunken Leela (Naidu) hysterically screamed that the bailiff is coming.” He concluded that “his muse of poetry had fled, perhaps because he had married several times without bothering to get divorced.”
The liveliest sections are set in Thiruvananthapuram and, naturally, Mumbai, where the tradition of weekly poetry readings continues, though organising them is ever-harder. The prime movers appear in brief flashes. Adil Jussawalla in his Cuffe Parade apartment (“It would be impossible to write a history of modern Indian literature without his aid.”). Arun Kolatkar brandishing a surprisingly fat wad of notes to pay off a cab, a medium of transport that the Kings, on a shoestring budget, could not dream of. (It’s not unexpected, for Kolatkar was a sought-after adman before turning to writing full-time.) Manohar Shetty (now in Goa) unwillingly runs a family restaurant for want of a job in media. And the painter, poet and doctor Gieve Patel treats King for an ear infection.
Jayanta Mahapatra wanders in and out of the narrative, as he was wont to do in real life, firmly anchored in Cuttack but a frequent visitor to the metros. Asked if his was a love marriage, he assured King: “No one in India is alone with a woman long enough for a love marriage.” Mahapatra’s early modernist work had appeared “in several series of underground, often surreal chapbooks” published by Pritish Nandy who, after having been editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and a film producer, changed his mind and “disdained his verse as merde.”
Having left poetry behind, Pritish Nandy obsessively watches Doordarshan and makes phone calls as the 1984 Delhi riots break out. But he finds the time for a blisteringly honest disclaimer. “I no longer took Pritish Nandy seriously as a poet and accepted his word that the days of his fame were a time of seeking celebrity,” writes King, “as when he published a book of poems with Kamala Das strongly implying that they were lovers.”
However, in the course of an interview in Kerala, Das “claimed that her supposed affairs were only products of her imagination. It was seldom clear what was fantasy and what was fact. She liked to shock others, and seemed both to need to be mentioned in newspapers and to dismiss talk about her as false.”
These are rushes from only the India leg of a global journey, midway through the book, and 200 pages of travels remain. As King almost drowns in a riptide off Kovalam, his only concern is for his wife Adele and daughter Nicole. How would they survive on the road, since all the traveller’s cheques were in his name?