I realize now that 2004 was an awful year for English poetry in Bombay. It didn’t seem particularly terrible at the time, because it takes distance to allow us a sense of measure; to gauge what we have won or lost. And so, with a decade and a half lying between then and now, I see how it was a death knell that first sounded on January 9 that year, with the passing of Nissim Ezekiel.
One of the most prolific and well-known poets of his era, Ezekiel slipped away struggling to hold on to memories that had been fading for a while, his story and verse claimed by Alzheimer’s. It could be that the enormity of his loss didn’t register because he died much as he had lived, unobtrusively occupying a corner. Bombay lost a chronicler who had spent a lifetime documenting her slide from grace and, in keeping with character, we simply didn’t care enough to mourn.
This was once a city full of poets, which may seem odd at a time when poetry occupies no space in bookstores and poets themselves have been replaced by stand-up comics who flower for weeks before fading. There were poets though, and they took their jobs seriously, some meeting regularly to argue about the merits and demerits of their work; others who set about publishing poems themselves because no one else would; still others who inspired younger poets to take up a cause that already seemed unworthy of a fight. If there was a thread uniting them all, it was Bombay itself, a dubious muse they grappled with, struggling to make sense of her promise and her contradictions, shifting between the extremes of optimism and despair that she provoked and continues to.
Ezekiel dealt with it by acknowledging his helplessness. ‘I cannot save Bombay,’ he wrote in The Edinburgh Interlude. ‘You cannot save it / They don’t even / want to save it.’ All he could do was document, in poems like A Morning Walk, his ‘Barbaric city sick with slums, / Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains, / Its hawkers, beggar, iron-lunged, / Processions led by frantic drums, / A million purgatorial lanes, / And child-like masses, many-tongued, / Whose wages are in words and crumbs.’
On June 2, five months after Ezekiel, Dominic Francis Moraes’s heart gave way while he slept, as if to give his cancer-ravaged body a rest. He worked until the end, turning to poetry much as he always had, attempting to find a way of belonging. To call Moraes a Bombay poet could be a stretch, given his peripatetic life. And yet, his early, tenuous connections with the city of his birth were strengthened as he grew older, his later poems like tentative hands reaching out into the dark as he learned to find it familiar. ‘Some of us never know home,’ he wrote in Sinbad, but his final poems belied that sentiment.
And then, on September 25, cancer took away Arun Kolatkar, poet laureate of Kala Ghoda. One could argue that Bombay had always loomed large in his consciousness, from when he began writing in Marathi before switching to English. ‘Bombay made me a beggar,’ is how a translation of The Turnaround opens, ‘Kalyan gave me a lump of jaggery to suck / In a small village that had a waterfall / but no name /my blanket found a buyer /and I feasted on plain ordinary water.’
Bombay was not a placid backdrop for Kolatkar; she was a living entity breathing alongside the outcasts that populated his work. Her argot mixed with his ideas, her grime infiltrated the nooks and crannies of his blank verse. At times, he simply sat back and observed, as in Irani Restaurant Bombay: ‘The cockeyed shah of iran watches the cake / decompose carefully in a cracked showcase; / distracted only by a ﬂy on the make / as it ﬁnds in a loafer’s wrist an operational base.’
There were always other voices obsessed with or influenced by the city; some in love with it, others in thrall to its casual horrors. There was Namdeo Dhasal, who passed away a decade after Kolatkar, raging against a caste system that had beaten his people down for centuries. He belonged to a group that wasn’t supposed to have a voice. Moving to the city at age 6, he must have hoped that a metropolis could allow a man to escape the yoke of history. Bombay disappointed him.
When Golpitha was published in 1972, it was shocking not only because it uncovered parts of the city that rarely saw a light, but because it dared to question rituals and even the rules of language that had long been accepted without question. ‘I am a venereal sore in the private part of language,’ is how Cruelty opened, ‘The living spirit looking out / of hundreds of thousands of sad, pitiful eyes / Has shaken me.’
On Man, You Should Explode, his litany of intoxicants listed substances that could help residents cope with their burden of reality: ‘Jive to a savage drum beat / Smoke hash, smoke ganja / Chew opium, bite lalpari / Guzzle country booze — if too broke, / Down a pint of the cheapest dalda / Stay tipsy day and night, stay tight round the clock…’
And then there was Eunice de Souza, who moved to Bombay as a young woman and never left, occupying a corner of Santacruz from where she would head forth to teach, recite poetry, or inspire thousands of young writers to use words as a ‘weapon to crucify.’ The city’s Roman Catholic community was often a presence in her poems, but others appeared too. ‘My students think it funny,’ she wrote, ‘that Daruwallas and de Souzas / should write poetry. / Poetry is faery lands forlorn. / Women writers Miss. Austen. / Only foreign men air their crotches.’ She passed away in 2017, leaving behind work that celebrates and, in equal measure, reviles the city she had a love-hate relationship with.
One can see them all now as if in a sepia-tinted photograph, gathered around a table in a dusty restaurant like the Wayside Inn. Moraes and Ezekiel, Gieve Patel and Keki N. Daruwalla, Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, de Souza and Kamala Das, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Adil Jussawalla, ageing prophets in conversation with acolytes like Manohar Shetty and Jeet Thayil, Melanie Silgardo and Raul da Gama Rose. That was when magazines had pages devoted to poetry, journals like Quest and Poetry India thrived, informal groups gathered for public and private readings, and self-published cooperatives like Clearing House launched new voices. In a country where bookstores now sell smartphones, and newspapers have replaced books pages with marketing supplements, it seems as if poetry began to lose its vitality as that storied decade ran out.
I think of those poets often, those I was lucky enough to meet and converse with, others I continue to engage with on paper. To do this is almost unforgivable, in a city that has never been sentimental about history. What we have lost is more than just those voices though, and there will come a time when we may have to pay for our inability to remember.
— First published in GQ