Commonwealth Poetry Award for 1976 given to Arun Kolatkar comes as no surprise
to those familiar with the Indo-English poetic scene today. In fact, Jejuri–for
which he received the award – was published in the
This award has significance in several ways. While it is a tribute to the individual talent evident in the poem, it is also an unmistakable pointer to the fact that Indian poetry in English has attained a distinct identity of its own. It is no longer a hybrid of Victorian sentiment and obsolete metrics. Jejuri demonstrates beyond doubt that Indian experience can be expressed in all its authenticity without any trace of insularity or self-consciousness. In effect, the poem transcends the limitations implicit in the specific locale and its associative elements through its authentic response to the basic malady of the contemporary milieu: the decline of myth and the inevitable sterility of mind and spirit which is its immediate consequence.
Jejuri is a collection
of poems built around the objects seen and the experiences evoked in the
poet–or the persona – on his visit to a pilgrim centre of that name in
The outstanding quality which is immediately perceptible in the poem is the pervasive secular stance. This is at variance with the atmosphere of sanctity inhering in a pilgrim centre. The resulting irony gives a peculiar tang to the poem and determines its central aesthetic stance. The border line, therefore, between scepticism and faith, sanctity and irreverence is, for the poet, thin:
what is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
and every other stone
is god or his cousin.
This demythicising of objects and experiences is a significant quality of Kolatkar’s poetry. And it stems not so much from his scepticism regarding traditional notions of sanctity and piety as from his unblinking perception of the decadence, in the contemporary context, reflected in those who represent this tradition.
The priest, for instance, is agonisingly aware only of the unpredictability of the state transport but which brings the pilgrim or the tourist:
An offering of heel and haunch
on the cold altar of the culvert wall
the priest waits.
Is the bus a little late?
The priest wonders.
Will there be a puran poli in his plate?
This pathetic decline of the once “spiritual” priestly class is a comment as much on the decadence of the tradition as on the imbalanced contemporary economic system which has succeeded in destroying the sanctity of the vocation but has not offered any alternative in its place. Hence the Mantra ceases to be as extension of myth–a way and vision of life–but becomes a sterile professional gimmick with which the priest can hoodwink the credulous pilgrim. For the priest himself
The bit of betel nut
turning over and over on his tongue
is a Mantra. (“The Priest”)
If the priest is thus an ironic representative of the sterile formalism of faith, his son is poised uneasily between two world-views which he can neither wholly accept nor negate. He blandly parrots the traditional story:
these five hills
are the five demons
that khandoba killed
do you really believe that story
he doesn’t reply
but merely looks uncomfortable
shrugs and looks away
(“The Priest’s Son”)
In fact, the inherent paradox is that while the alleged spiritual glory of the place is for the poet largely an illusion, the misery and destitution of those who live around the pilgrim centre and continue to depend on it for their sustenance, is a harsh reality he cannot mythicise or corall for aesthetic use.
This reality is imaged for the poet in the old woman who pesters him for a fifty paise coin. She still struggles to retain some dignity and, in a pathetic gesture of negating charity, volunteers to act as a guide:
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says will take you
to the horseshoe shrine
(“An Old Woman”)
The poet’s exasperation and annoyance at this persistence receive a rude jolt when the old woman with a directness stemming from the pent up but ineffective fury of generations of people stricken with poverty asks:
“What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?”
This is obviously an accusation the legitimacy of which precludes defence either in myth or religion. Hence the feeling of the dissolution of the entire mythic base not only of Jejuri but of civilization itself:
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on,
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.
(“An Old Woman”)
This dissolution of the ‘cosmos itself’ cuts the poet to size and he realizes that this is a situation neither aesthetics individual charity can retrieve:
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
It is obvious that the journey to Jejuri is a secular one. On this basis it is easy and tempting to infer that there is a total loss of faith. This is however far from true in regard to the basic stance perceptible in the poem. The very fact that the human situation in Jejuri evokes a rare understanding and empathy in the poet shows that the odyssey has some therapeutic value for the poet’s psyche. As such what is remarkable in the poem is the retention of the basic humanistic stance.
From this perspective, if the poet makes no bones about his scepticism regarding the archetypal beliefs on which the mythic structure of Jejuri rests, he is equally honest in conceding the essential weakness of his own awareness of the misery of common humanity. This is because, he is aware that if his own irreverent posture can only have a marginal impact on the solidity of tradition and belief, his apparent sympathy for the destitute people is equally futile in the face of actual misery.
All this suggests that the overall aesthetic attitude is a curious blend of scepticism regarding both the mythic and humanistic attitudes. Curious because the poet still retains a contemplative eye for detail and a remarkable capacity for evoking an object or experience which can only come from intense involvement.
This explains the futile nostalgia for a condition of existence exempt from both the burden of the past and the dread of the future, imaged, for instance, in the butterfly:
It has no future.
It is pinned down to no past.
It is a pun on the present
All this suggests that the tension in Kolatkar’s poem–tension in the broad terms of the components inhering in it and creating an unresolved paradox–is between the associative climate of “spirituality” and the demythicising stance of the poet. The attempt to express this scepticism is not always easy or successful: occasionally, the deeper layers of the psyche betray a residue of sensibility, of an uneasy faith, or at least a conceding to the notions of sanctity. For instance, the poet is understandably reluctant to go in for Pooja:
Take my shirt off
and go in there to do Pooja?
And yet even when tempted to assert his apparent irreverence, by the sacrilegious act of smoking, this is only
...in the courtyard
where no one will mind
if I smoke
This tension also determines the stylistic novelty perceptible in the poem. Ultimately one has to judge a poem not only in terms of its ability to relate the individual predicament to that of society, but also in terms of the basic residue of significant contribution it makes to language and structure.
In this regard, it seems to me that Jejuri is structurally poised between the two imagistic polarities of the temple and the railway station, the one representing mythic and the other temporal time. And, in regard to language, there is a directness and simplicity reminiscent not only of the competent reporter today but also of the vachana tradition of the Indian languages. The implicit use of “anti-structure” which is the prominent quality of such literature accounts, I think, for its casual yet effective use of ritualistic language for the evocation of secular objects and experience. The resulting paradox may be described as a linguistic extension of the conflict in the Indian context between tradition and modernity. Any number of examples can be adduced in this regard:
the young novice at the tea stall
has taken a vow of silence
when you ask him a question
he exercises you
by sprinkling dish-water in your face
and continues with his ablutions in the sink
and certain ceremonies connected
with the washing of cups and saucers.
(“the tea stall”)
Similarly, in a poem characteristically entitled “vows”, the secular pilgrim anxiously awaiting the train which takes him home – the train which never conforms to the myth of the time-table of the railways–vows to
bathe the station-master in milk
and promise you will give
a solid gold toy train to the booking-clerk
if only someone would tell you
when next train is due.
The incongruence between the nomenclature and the phenomenon–reflected in the italicised words–is a paradox inherent in the very structure of Jejuri. It is no less paradoxical that if Kolatkar reject myth as archetype, he still finds it useful as an aesthetic mode performing the “cathartic function” (in the words of Richard Chase) “of dramatizing the clashes and harmonies of life in a social and natural environment.”