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Whitest Inflections

Kolatkar kavita in all its whimsy and wry humour

Kolatkar kavita in all its whimsy and wry humour
Pras prakashan has done it again. The Boatride and Other Poems comes as a surprise gift for those who have enjoyed Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra that Pras brought out in 2004,a full 28 years after the long poem Jejuri established Kolatkar’s reputation as one of the major Indian poets writing in English. In the meanwhile,his five collections in Marathi had established his position as one of its finest avant-garde poets. Kolatkar,along with his contemporaries such as A.K. Ramanujan,Kamala Das,Jayanta Mahapatra and Dilip Chitre writing in two or three languages,proved that bilingualism,if not multilingualism,is the defining feature of Indian literature.

Kolatkar is profoundly and at times funnily conscious of this double register. “I have a pen in my possession/ which writes in 2 languages/ and draws in one/ My pencil is sharpened at both ends/ I use one end to write in Marathi/ the other in English,” he says,and “you need a double-barreled gun to shoot a bilingual poet” (“Making Love to a Poem”). He wonders whether he is one poet writing in two languages or two poets writing in two different languages and whether he is a double agent stealing the secrets of one language and selling them to the other.

The most enjoyable in this collection are his long poem “The Boatride” and his own English versions of his Marathi poems. “The Boatride” is a master’s work where the sail is an “off white miracle”,where “gold and sunlight fight for the possession of her throat” (referring to the newly married woman in the boat),where a seagull “invents on the spur of the air what is clearly the whitest inflection known” and the wind comes “carrying the microbe of a melody”. The poem stands out with its perspective,acute observation and chiselled idiom. The other poems too come with inventive expressions like “animal light”,“unlearnt skin” and “dogmatically green trees”,humour,humaneness and perspicacity of description.

The Marathi poems are from the collections Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita (1977) and Chirimiri (2003). Some,like the “Hospital Poems” composed after the poet had undergone a stomach surgery,have an autobiographical ring,while many have a strong element of fantasy. The flour mill that goes murderously crazy (“Song of the Flour Mill ),the crabs ready to eat the onlookers’ eyes (“Crabs”),the old newspapers breeding snakes (“Old Newspapers”),buildings behaving like mad elephants (“Buildings”),the blanket pouncing on the man on bed,its black fingers knitting around his throat (“The Blanket”),the wooden stool about to attack the guest like a hyena,the radio charging at him like a wild boar and hissing waterpipes crawling out of their holes (“The Feast”) are nightmarish visions straight out of one’s childhood phantasmagoria or the diary of a paranoiac. The Chirimiri poems bring back memories of Jejuri. They are playful,woven around the pilgrimage to Pandharpur,like Ambu the prostitute asking Vithoba the Lord to have some exercise like a round of phugadi and another longing to be photographed with the Lord and his consort Rakhmai. Humour and irony mark many of these poems,like the one on Govind Bua’s unendurable bhajan session. The irreverent way in which the poet treats God is reminiscent of Tukaram. Even Yama can be bribed with God’s name to escape death.

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The bounty is made richer by the songs apparently inspired by the Blues and the competent translations of the verses of saint poets,mainly Tukaram. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s deeply personal and insightful introduction and notes makes this anthology a fitting tribute to one of the finest poet-translators of our time.

First published on: 22-03-2009 at 15:29 IST
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