Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri

Shailen Mishra, Sr. Editorial Assistant

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:

hills
demons
and sand blasted shoulders
bladed with shale

demons
hills
cactus thrust
up through the ribs of rock

hills
demons
kneequartz
limestone loins…

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

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.


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Crumbling Binaries and Porous Overlaps: Two Poems in Issue 38.1

Shailen Mishra, Sr. Editorial Assistant

As I read the two poems “Picking Pole” and “The Machete” by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra that appeared on SRPR’s Issue 38.1, I was intrigued by the crisp diction, details, and thrifty narrative. I paused and tried to dig deep for meaning and purpose behind each word. But soon I became distracted. I was thinking of the historic conversation on the English language that has preceded this poem in the Indian literary movement. One does not have to be aware of this conversation to understand the meaning of the two poems; yet, it helps one to get a sense of Mehrotra’s aesthetics.

The historic conversation is about the “chutnification” or “biryanization” of the English language. When Salman Rushdie entered the world stage with Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, he had set in motion the chutnification process in the most eye-catching manner (though previous Indian authors have made similar attempts to some degree). For authors like Rushdie and the Indian characters in their novels, English has ceased to be a “colonizer’s tongue” that needed to be approached with caution and trepidation. Why, by that time English had become the everyday or even first language for many. And English was getting chutnified, getting influenced by local languages in varying degree. So the polyphony of Englishes that are manifested in Rushdie’s narrative is a bold affirmation that Indians do have a legitimate claim to the English language. And while Rushdie termed this chutnification, the Indian poet Agha Shahid Ali called it biryanization. The emphasis was on a complex whole without being simplistic about which ingredient played a more dominant role than others. Ali who hailed from the Muslim community of North India wished his readers to “hear the music of Urdu” in his English poetry (4 Twelve Modern Indian Poets). Even though English was the conveying medium here that did not put it on competing ground with Urdu.

Mehrotra admits of “chutnification” or “biryanization” in his own works and any writing in “Indian English” for that matter. But he is of the firm opinion that the intersections between languages are messy, and that any neat model of linguistic convergence/collaboration must be debunked as simplistic. When a fellow poet and critic (Rajagopal Parthasarathy) offered a layered model of linguistic interaction (i.e. Indian languages–the mother tongue–at the bottom, Hindi as the national language in the middle, and English at the top), and authors using one language (read English) as a vehicle to capture the linguistic essence of their mother tongues, Mehrotra scoffed at the idea. He writes: “A problem with this model is that it treats Indian poet as someone who chiefly transports linguistic and cultural material from the bottom to the surface…it tends to narrowly equate Indian poetry with Indianness” (5 Twelve Modern Indian Poets) What Mehrotra criticizes is the essentialism that views English as the “other”, hence incapable of capturing “Indian” experience because of its “un-Indianness.” Against such dichotomic separations Mehrotra rails, and his inclusive approach and hybrid sensibilities are not simply limited to linguistic spheres. In his book The Transfiguring Places: Poems, Mehrotra writes: “…As the bus gathered speed, / I saw it quivering in the heat-haze, / A place whose name I hadn’t known or asked, / Which I sometimes think was Shiraz, or a firth / In the North Sea from where the skalds set out” (7). Thus a moment in the obscure region of Uttar Pradesh (India) transforms and transcends spatially and temporally to ask an unsettling question: who is narrating here? An Indian, Persian or Scandinavian poet? Is the answer that straightforward?

Mehrotra’s belief seems to be that what we take to be rigid boundaries are in fact porous. And for an artist it is not enough to acknowledge and reveal this porousness, but to enlarge it further to an unsettling, questionable degree, where the things that were formerly oppositional, dichotomic, and separated are found “alongside”, their boundaries not just touching but overlapping each other. Mehrotra provides the brassiest example of this porousness in his translation of songs of Kabir, a fifteenth century Indian mystic whose popularity lies in advocating a casteless, inclusive, and benign side to Hinduism. Into Kabir’s simple and ironical expressions, Mehrotra inserts modern day slangs and anachronisms: “When death already / Has you by the balls” (78), “Smelling of aftershave / And deodorants” (72). What irreverence it may seem? But for Mehrotra it’s about breaching the time barrier between the ancient and modern expressions; thus, “elaborating” upon a point that Kabir is trying to make about the slipperiness of Hindu/Muslim, abstract/concrete dichotomies.

When binaries are disallowed, hierarchies are dismantled, and an awareness of “alongside” is introduced, we see things in juxtaposition, where dualities and multiplicities are preserved, without reducing one thing into the other or without separating one from the other neatly. But, how to express these dualities or multiplicities? Or to say in Mehrotra’s sense, how to “elaborate” upon them? His two poems, “Picking Pole” and “The Machete”, present the inside/outside in a seamless poise. In “Picking Pole”, the time has stilled. The Rangoon creeper is about to sneak in to the house and birds have taken to the roof quite comfortably. While their watcher is outside the house, at the “border” of mango trees, with a pole in his hand to pick mangoes, to sever them from their host bodies. Like an intruder he stands (like the plant or birds), and the act of breaching is mutual here: from inside to outside, and outside to inside. Change the implement in hand from picking pole to machete and another intrusion occurs in the next poem: “Dragging it [the young tree] across the yard, / I almost didn’t see the nest…It looked warm, / Habitable, like the house I entered / To put away the machete…” The irony lies in the narrator’s realization, his juxtaposition of the “inside” of the house with that of the nest. Who is the outsider here? The bird who nested in a tree in the narrator’s property, or the narrator whose dual act of violence (upon the tree and the nest) calls into question his entitlement?

In an anthology titled The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, Mehrotra writes in the introduction to the poet Arun Kolatkar’s works: “Details are the cornerstones of our visual world” (54). Moreover, these details need to expose the familiar in a novel way. Mehrotra’s two poems are replete with exquisite details. And seeing them in isolation is missing the point; rather, in their juxtaposition they amplify the porosity of what we take for granted as stable, concrete, and unquestionable.

Shailen Mishra

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.


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