The man who wrote a poem on a non-meeting

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Ranjit Hoskote says anything can be good material for poetry if you can make it work
Central Time | Ranjit Hoskote | Penguin Books India | Pages 131 | Rs 399
By fading light, he looked hard at the old maw
and while his breath emptied to a final pause,
he grinned and painted the parachute trees
in the mildewed sepias of autumn.
In 2004, three seminal figures of Indian poetry—Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar—passed away. It was not unexpected. Ezekiel had been stricken by Alzheimer’s since 1998, Moraes and Kolatkar were both suffering from terminal cancer. Ranjit Hoskote wrote obituaries for all three and it is striking how intimate the portraits are. At the age of 17, accompanied by his father, Hoskote had gone to Ezekiel to show his poems. Kolatkar was someone who designed the cover of his third book of poems, though that is not mentioned in the obit. ‘With his leonine silver mane and brooding look, his apparently formidable grimness easily broken by a sudden grin, Mr Kolatkar was one of those distinctive figures who bring a special flavour to the life of a metropolis,’ he wrote. It was, however, Moraes that he was most influenced by.

Hoskote’s obituary to Moraes starts with the telephone numbers of poets his old phonebook has seen, many of which remained unchanged but not Moraes’s. ‘Against Dom’s name, I have six different numbers, a sequence that maps his movements from the mid-1980s to his death on 2 June. First, now lightest, is an old six-digit Colaba number, overwritten with its seven-digit successor: these mark the large-windowed, high-ceilinged home that Dom shared with his wife Leela Naidu, shaping his exquisite, melancholy verses in its spacious light. Next comes the number of a Worli hotel where he stayed briefly after his separation from Leela, followed by the number of a film-maker friend whose home on the Bandra seafront was Dom’s next refuge. Finally, an arrow away, are the numbers of the two apartments at the Bandra Reclamation that served him, successively, as home in his final years,’ Hoskote wrote then.

In his latest collection of poems, Central Time, there is one dedicated to Dom Moraes. It is called ‘Conspiracies’ and has an array of characters—a centaur, a hunchback, a dwarf, a clown and a cat—plotting and doing violent things to each other. It abruptly ends with these lines, ‘The delirium fades, the toys fall back/in their tin box. A boy comes in/to pick up the pieces.’ And allegory merges into a child’s imagination.

I ask Hoskote why this particular poem is for Moraes. He says it is founded on the idea of the world coming through to a child who is trying to make sense of things, and where things are inexplicable, he creates a fictive world. “So when circumstance impinges on that fictive world, one of the ways it could come across is miracle, but it is also conspiracy. That is some of what unfolds in that poem. I was revisiting the first volume of [Moraes’s] autobiography and I have always been moved by the fact that he survived his rather difficult childhood. This idea of a rich interiority, how you create your own world as a child and the whole of your life being almost a way [of] trying to hang on to that rich interiority,” he says.

Nothing, as you can see, is simple with Hoskote.

I should have burnt my shadow on a wall
to remind them I had been there

Most of Central Time’s poems were written between 2006 and 2014. The book has 100 poems divided into five sections of 20 each. This ordering, based on the shataka form of ancient Sanskrit poets like Bhartrihari, is precise and complex, much like his poetry itself. His relationship with Nissim Ezekiel is indicative of Hoskote’s approach to poetics.

In December 1986, when he was 17, Hoskote had finished his twelfth standard and taken a gap year to figure out what he wanted to do. He had already been working seriously on some poems. His father, who had been a junior of Ezekiel in Wilson College, took him to Theosophy Hall, the Indian office of PEN, the association of writers and editors, where the poet was secretary.

“Nissim was both tough and kind. Over the next few weeks, he read the manuscript and then pointed out that 80 per cent of it was not poetry. But there were certain things which could be worked upon. This was the generosity of the man; he got me to read on a radio programme he was doing, and he published one of these poems at PEN but always with the proviso that there were lots more work to be done. He always sent you a postcard. After that meeting, I got a postcard saying ‘Come and see me at...’.”

But despite his respect for Ezekiel, Hoskote would go on to disagree on poetry with him. “He was always for the commonsensical spoken voice, everyday-life kind of sources of poetry. Which at that point, particularly, I was not very keen on. I think I was reading the surrealists, looking at Paul Celan’s work. But looking at it today, I would take a far more nuanced view. I am re-reading Nissim’s collected poems quite a bit and there are amazing things from the 60s and 70s, lovely poems which just speak to the fallible human subject. So one of my issues with him at that point was I wanted an infallible poetic subject.”

The poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, who has featured Hoskote’s works in anthologies she edited, first met him 25 years ago at a literary quiz that she’d organised at Malhar, a festival of St Xavier’s College. They then ran into each other at Poetry Circle, a group in Mumbai that met once a month.

‘I recall him reading ‘The Acrobat’, a poem that went into his first book, Zones of Assault. I was struck rightaway by the assurance of his voice—and that, by the way, has never left him; I have been through years of self-doubt and laryngitis in my journey as a poet, but RH seemed to have arrived with a voice that was fully-formed, confident and full- blown. That has remained,’ she says on email.

What draws her to Hoskote’s work ‘is the image’. ‘I share his excitement about that, and I think both of us would see it as the marrow of a poem, its raison d’etre. His metaphors have always been superbly crafted. If they were more hard-edged and adamantine in the early work, they seem to be growing more supple and permeable now. As I said in my review of his last book, there is actually a fridge in one of his poems! That’s a first in an RH poem, which otherwise abounds in mythic figures and contexts. You could find urns and goblets and quills in his poems, but a fridge!! Something’s thawing, clearly (and I like to think it’s more than just the fridge).’

Hoskote, she says, will not put a poem out into the public domain unless ‘it’s been wrestled with, crafted, honed, pounded and beaten into shape’. She also respects him because he doesn’t try too hard to be understood. ‘In a world where everyone’s falling over themselves to be accessible in jingoistic ways, RH continues to write a robustly riddling verse. I respect and value that,’ she says.

I ask Hoskote how he sees his own poetry having evolved from his first collection Zones of Assault to Central Time. “I began with a rather aggressive idea of poetry, which is that it should provoke and, possibly, antagonise the reader. And be some kind of artefact. That view has completely changed over the years,” he says. Now he is much more interested in the ‘speaking voice’. There is also the social dimension of poetry, which wasn’t there in the beginning but he finds crucial because “in some sense you are also in your own voice taking on the grain of other kinds of voices”.

Mythology is a theme running across his poems but not in the manner that you expect. For example, ‘The Hotel Receptionist’s Confession’ in Central Time. It is a poem which comes out of a combination of the Greek myth of Procrustes, the host who fits his guests into the bed by chopping or stretching their bodies, and a fascination with Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. “For me, myths persist and inform everything we do. At least, one of the smaller experiments in Central Time was to have the myths come at you from unexpected angles. I am also interested in seeing how these cultural contents which have been important to me can come together in the poetry that I write. How do I reconcile the fact that I have a long-time interest in Hitchcock cinema with Greek mythology with what is happening around us,” he says.

The beach daubed in dots, the sky woven in stipples,
The sun blotted out by cloud-wool, and the mountain,
They painted this mountain so many times

Hoskote’s poetry is visually rich. Take the poem ‘Still Life’ which has just four lines: ‘The sliced apple/has elephants’ eyes for pips/they stare up at the knife/that has brought them to life.’ The suffusion of images is because Hoskote has one leg in the literary world and the other in the art world. And both of them have always travelled together. He became an art critic for The Times of India while he was still in college. He was 18 years old when he went for a Vivan Sundaram exhibition titled ‘Long Night’. It was a set of charcoal and mixed media works in which the primary images had to do with concentration camps, enclosures, winter landscapes in a stylised form. Hoskote responded by writing a piece. The Times published it and the arts editor asked him to keep writing for it. Later, Hoskote joined the Times. He is now one of the foremost art curators in India. And he doesn’t really switch between these domains as merge them in his work.

Some of the poems in Central Time appeared earlier in Pale Ancestors, a collaboration between Hoskote and the artist Atul Dodiya. Dodiya’s initial acquaintance with Hoskote was in 1989 at his first solo exhibition. “He did a review for my show,” says Dodiya, “Before that I had read some of his reviews in the newspaper. I knew he was someone very young who was writing about art with a wonderful sort of vision. I had also heard that he was not just an art writer but also a poet. That was something I was fascinated to begin with. A creative person looking at creativity in another medium— that has a very special advantage, I feel.”

A friendship developed between them. They were both interested in a broad range of cultural aspects, from Indian mythology to the European Renaissance to contemporary art. “Because I have lots of diverse things incorporated in one single work of art, it was very easy for me to share my concepts with him. He would grasp and understand it very fast and get what I was trying to do. After that, a majority of my catalogues are written by him,” he says.

Pale Ancestors was a series of 48 water colours by Dodiya. “I told Ranjit that there was going to be an exhibition and a full-fledged proper catalogue: ‘Will you write the catalogue essay for it?’ He said, ‘Certainly’.” Later at one point, Hoskote told him that he was thinking of responding to the works with individual poems. They would be independent, but at the same time, the triggers would be specific images from his work. He came up with 48 poems.

Dodiya says there are very few good writers as far as the visual arts is concerned and Hoskote is one of the most important in this group. “We need people who can articulate what is happening with the visual arts in today’s time, and I think Ranjit has an immense contribution.”

Hoskote calls it a hybrid practice. “It has been that way from the very beginning. There was not that sense that I had to choose from one or the other. It began as a child. I used to paint and my parents thought that was what I would be doing. I wanted to go into architecture, which I didn’t manage because my grades in maths were terrible. But by then I decided that I would take social sciences. I had this beginning in the visual arts and music and literature. It was always one thing following another. Also, I was blessed to have this ethos of practitioners like Nissim and Adil (Jussawalla) who were also active in multiple fields. To me, that was also an important part of growing up.”

Hoskote was also the religion editor of The Times of India in the 1990s and the name of its spiritual column ‘Speaking Tree’ was given by him as a homage to Richard Lannoy’s book The Speaking Tree.

He is also a translator. I Lalla, his translation of the poems of the 14th century female Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded, took him 20 years. He ventured into the project because he was bound up with questions of Kashmir and Kashmiri identity. “Because I have this disaporic past. We have been settled on the west coast for centuries, but our origins are Kashmiri.”

I ask him how he knows when a poem or a translation, which can span years, is finally complete. He says, “There comes a point when you feel you can’t really push it further. That it has arrived at some intuitive balance of forces within the text.”

Alone on the wet marble,
You tap the empty glass and listen,
for an echo.

But what is perhaps more interesting is the process of how poems begin. In Central Time, there is a poem for his friend and journalist Naresh Fernandes. It is called ‘Lunch at Britannia’. I had read a snippet in the daily tabloid Mumbai Mirror in which Fernandes said that it was based on a meeting that did not happen between them many years ago. They frequently ganged up at Britannia restaurant in south Mumbai. That day, though, Fernandes had left after waiting for some time and Hoskote missed him by minutes. It was the days before cellphones, and they had not been able to connect.

Hoskote says the poem was written much later and must have been in gestation. “The way I work is that it begins as a notation or a fragment that I revisit and sometimes the fragments come together. Or they serve as a prompt and a completely different poem emerges.”.

I ask him whether everything is then material for a poem. “Potentially, if you can make it work,” he says, and goes on to say why that non-meeting became a poem. “Certain things happened. One is it was before mobiles, so this sense of having missed out on a meeting, for me it is always a nightmare. Because I was always afraid of waking up late and missing school. Then, there was this table which I really thought might have been his. And this is the devious mind at work, it was really like a still life. Still life is a sign of how time passes, it is a signifier of mortality. And all this came to me in the space of a few minutes. There was also something amazingly vivid about the Britannia raspberry (drink)—still sparkling in its bottle, something about time missing the moment in some ways, being reminded by inanimate objects. It was a whole range of things very difficult to put in words.”

And when it was put, this is how some of it came: ‘a tableau painted by the crater of emergency/that makes a long-playing Pompeii of our works and days./Is this a joke on me, the man who turned up late?/Or purest blasphemy, your immortal soul in peril,/ accused by an empty chair?’