Shailen Mishra, Blog Editor & Series Contributor
Shailen’s series “Space in Culture” explores the motif of space in the works of Indian poets and poetry.
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Jon Stewart talks of how the content in The Daily Show is developed: “We don’t do anything but make the connections.” In the show, the facts (those incriminating media bites) are put together to present the larger truth, the broader context, without which the gut-stabbing humor of the show would not exist. Connections are at the heart of human expression. Rhetoric can be potent because of it. Arguments can capture the outlying detail in a meaningful manner. And similarly, poetry fires up imagination through connections. What are metaphors, metonymy, personification, connotations, if not implied connections?
Arun Kolatkar’s poetry collection Jejuri reminds us of our connectedness. Claims about Jejuri range from “one of the great books of modern India” to its being the poetry equivalent of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But the sad reality is that many literary-minded Indians haven’t even heard of the poet or his work (including myself until some time back). So, what’s the value of Jejuri for the Indian writing in English and for Indian literature in general is a debate I won’t go into detail here. But the fact that I was unaware for such a long time of such a fine piece of modern Indian literature is a deeply humbling fact for me. So as I was saying Arun Kolatkar’s poetry collection Jejuri reminds us of our connectedness. At the level of narration, symbolism, and affect, Jejuri is about reminding us how densely we’re tethered to multiple beings and things in our lives. We’re always attached to places for obvious material and sentimental reasons; such connections are discernible. But then there are many illusive ones, which require traveling back in time, retrieving the details that’s faded/fading from our minds, searching cluelessly for that moment of original register, or paradoxically, not noticing the connection because it’s so deeply ingrained with our reality. And we wonder that if this illusiveness could be pinned down and articulated, then the fragile impression of our connection could be bolstered to some extent. Jejuri is a project in that regard. Kolatkar probes connections not only as a skeptic but also as someone enchanted. And in that simultaneity lies the excitement of the place Jejuri, and Jejuri.
Jejuri is a small pilgrimage town, not too far from Mumbai/Bombay, in the state of Maharashtra in Western India. As the Notes section of the book proclaims, this town is dedicated to the legacy of Khandoba, a popular local god who cuts across the caste barrier. Even more, this mythic figure had a Muslim wife and a Muslim name, Mallu Khan. The legends of Khandoba are numerous and so are his devotees. Hence, Jejuri’s history largely derives from the tales of Khandoba, the legends his devotees have spun, and the hold the god has upon his devotees which has fueled the lore in the first place. Kolatkar writes in the poem “Scratch”: “there is no crop / other than god / and god is harvested here / around the year / and round the clock / out of the bad earth / and the hard rock…scratch a rock / and a legend springs.” And these legends, their copiousness, their free peddling by the Jejurians do not stop amusing Kolatkar as he asks the priest’s young son, “do you really believe that story…” The answer is irrelevant because a believer is not going to turn a skeptic; not in Jejuri. The bonding between the believer and his/her god is cemented here. Miracle-wielding Khandoba is too good a catch for the needy and afflicted devotee; so why let a poet’s skepticism play spoilsport? Here, the big issues of life, death, mystery, universe, and love are on the side of the devotee, while the poet only has reason.
The lifestyle in Jejuri has a predictable rhythm. Complacently caught up in the monotony, its inhabitants take the routine for granted, like the legends around them, the hills, rocks, temples, ruins, and devotees/tourists. Is it a surprise then that the book Jejuri begins with the image of the sunrise and ends with the sunset? The chronology is respected since the poems seem to follow the timeline of the poet arriving in Jejuri in the first poem and leaving from the railway station in the last one. And in between, each poem seems to be linked to the next as the poet is strolling through the town and discovering it bit by bit. More or less this pattern is maintained, explicitly or implicitly. For example, one could speculate as the order of the poems progresses that “The Bus” arrives in Jejuri, which is observed by “The Priest” and the poet disembarks and notices on his way to the temple features of the town like “Heart of Ruin”, “The Doorstep”, “Water Supply”, “The Door” until he arrives at “A Low Temple” etc. But the orderliness of sequence is synonymous with the ubiquitousness of shrines, temples, and scared places in Jejuri. Like time, the routineness of space is taken for granted here. And the mastery of Kolatkar lies in how slyly he undermines that predictability: “The door was open. / Manohar thought / it was one more temple…It isn’t another temple, / he said, / it’s just a cowshed.” Again, in the poem “Hills”, Kolatkar tries to point out this regularity: the ubiquitousness of shrines and legends equals the repetition of rocks and boulders on a hillside:
and sand blasted shoulders
bladed with shale
up through the ribs of rock
What is then Kolatkar’s mission at Jejuri? Just to expose the blind faith, the irrational legends? No, he’s not a cynic. In fact, he is an empathetic skeptic. He would not be the priest, his son, or any of the devotees, but he understands why they’re that way. His need for comfort is no different from theirs. Hence, he finds a god in “Yeshwant Rao” who’s marginalized (“a second class god”), more appropriate to his needs, and more understanding of his skepticism. Kolatkar writes: “He is merely a kind of a bone setter. / The only thing is, / as he himself has no heads, hands and feet, / he happens to understand you a little better.” Yeshwant Rao comes from the untouchable caste and his shrine is placed not inside Khandoba’s temple compound, but outside, as a “gatekeeper.” That’s the gift handed to him for his dedication to Khandoba and Jejuri. A second rank god for a second rate devotee like Kolatkar, and together they extend the core of Jejuri to its periphery, its margin. And in that extension Kolatkar makes Jejuri appear larger than it could have been. It’s not just a land of uncontested miracle and myth as Jejurians like to believe, but it can bear with dignity a more humane topography to the satisfaction of a skeptical outsider amidst its dysfunction, ruins, and contrasts. That Jejuri is both is Kolatkar’s point, and he connects the two ends to remind us how to make better sense of things.
Shailen Mishra is a book hopper, story whore, poetry pariah, novelist, three times failed guitar learner, and an aspiring didgeridoo player. He holds a Ph.D. from Illinois State University and an MFA from North Carolina State University. In his spare time, he edits SRPR’s blog and manages its website.