Keki N Daruwalla
TRANSLATING THE INDIAN PAST AND OTHER LITERARY HISTORIES
By Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
Permanent Black, 2019, pp. 253, Rs.795.00
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is rightly respected as a poet. About his criticism, there can be more than one opinion. A reader could be ever so slightly wary of a critic who is known for his extreme likes and dislikes, one is referring only to his corpus of critical writing on Indian poetry in English. His extreme likes can be summed up in three words—Kolatkar, Kolatkar and Kolatkar. Amit Chaudhuri and Adil Jussawalla also make a timorous entry into this penumbra. His dislikes are a bit more numerous, embracing Nissim Ezekiel at times, Shiv K Kumar (who stumbled from academia into poetry) and Kamala Das, the strait-laced lady who successfully faked promiscuousness and made a profession of it. One cannot deny that our heritage is rich and varied. There are others who have attracted Professor Mehrotra’s ire, like PR Parthasarathy who was the target of a famous nineteen page diatribe in Chandrabhaga, a magazine brought out by Jayanta Mahapatra.
However, in this collection of essays and the transcripts of lectures he has delivered, he is serene. There isn’t a negative word about anyone and the scholar in him has taken over. He has a scholarly opening chapter ‘Translating the Indian Past’, starting with Toru Dutt and Edmund Gosse chancing upon her manuscript. A great pity that she died so early at the age of twenty-one. Both she and her sister Aru lived in France from 1869-1873. Aru died at the age of 20. A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields was Toru’s only book that appeared in her lifetime. What could a twenty-year-old write about? Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, what else? And the Hindu novelists of yore were terrific fabulists, who could put Marquez and Julio Cortazar in the shade. So a dwarf boy asks Bali for a boon, just a grant of land that he could cover in three steps. Once the boon was granted dwarf Vishnu grows in size, in one step he covers the earth, another step the sky and the third comes on Bali’s proffered head. Fable sat uneasily with history. No wonder Hindus could never write history, of course till Dinanath Batra arrived on this desultory scene and drove Donniger out, the way Aatish Taseer has been shown the door now.
Leaving Vishnu Purana and Toru Dutt behind, we get a nice short piece on AK Ramanujan where he talks of a book, which unlocked ‘many closed doors’, ‘in his case the doors of his Tamil past’. It is these insights that liven up the book. He quotes Ramanujan approvingly: ‘The only possible translation is a free one.’
Ramanujan goes on to say, ‘Translations are transpositions, reenactments, interpretations. Some elements of the original cannot be transposed at all. One can often convey a sense of the original rhythm, but not the language-bound meter…’
Then of course comes Arun Kolatkar—you can’t avoid him. The poet writes in the vein of Janabai (13th century)—‘I eat god/ I drink god’. (Arundhathi Subramaniam has edited a fine book called Eating God.) The poem quoted here has been refurbished by Mehrotra from notes written on scraps of paper. I liked two lines: ‘void is not/ devoid of god.’ Then follows a translation of Tukaram in American style, reminiscent of Mehrotra’s later translation of Kabir. Dilip Chitre is better known for his fine translations of Tukaram. We are told that ‘In 1962 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky visited Bombay, where Kolatkar became a friend. They hung out together and Kolatkar translated a section from kaddish into Marathi.’
A chapter on Srinivas Rayaprol has hardly anything on his poetry, but the author has delved into Rayaprol’s correspondence with William Carlos William. ‘I am a student of engineering and Indian, and 21, I am terribly confused because I want to write poetry and when I return to India within the next year I’ll have to make a choice.’ Williams’s reply was short. ‘The solution is without solution except writing. If you write well you have the solution in your hands, if you write poorly that’s an end to it.’
Mehrotra bunches Ezekiel (1924-2004), Srinivas Rayaprol (1925-1998), AK Ramanujan (1929-1993) and Arun Kolatkar (1931-1998) for having ushered modernism into Indian poetry and ‘brought with them clouds from the United States’–whatever that may mean. This is quite misleading. Kolatkar’s first volume of poetry Jejury was published in 1976 along with a host of books from OUP and Clearing House. Nissim’s A Time to Change came out in 1952! His next book, Sixty Poems appeared in 1953. Ramanujan’s Striders and his second book, Relations were published in 1966 and 1971 respectively.
There are about six chapters on Kolatkar. This could have been a book on him, and Mehrotra would have been the right person to do the job, considering how much work he has put in. The Boatride and Other Poems also bears Mehrotra’s stamp. This could have proved useful to scholars. Laetitia Zecchini has come out with a book on Kolatkar. This volume contains details and trivia about Arun Kolatkar’s life. ‘Spent three nights with Baburao Sadwelka—“tactile Painter”—followed by three nights in a temple near Lamington Road—then two nights with a taxi driver in Colaba who had lost his wife…’ This gives us an understanding about the man we are dealing with. We have an 87-page chapter on his love for his first wife Darshan, entitled ‘I love you, Idiot’. With the Maharashtrian lobby behind him, add a French scholar and an Indian poet, the near poetic apotheosis of Kolatkar is near at hand.
There are other chapters, one on his Professor Rabindranath Deb. His students made him and Dr. Dastur rivals at the university. According to one anecdote, Deb once sat in Dastur’s class to probably evaluate him. After a few minutes Dastur noticed Deb, and left, saying, ‘I notice an intruder in the class.’ I must end with a gem of a write up on Eunice De Souza, with a remarkable poem by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra:
Elegy of E
You still dial her number.
You dial Fix
you dial Dutch Painting,
you dial Almond Leaf .
It always connects.
She always answers
the phone herself.
How does she do it,
line after line?
Keki N Daruwalla, poet and short story writer, is a former Indian Police Service officer. He was given the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984 for his poetry collection, The Keeper of the Dead, by the Sahitya Akademi. Among his works are Naishapur and Babylon (Speaking Tiger, 2018) and his third novel is Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama (Simon and Schuster India, 2018).