The Absent Traveller

Poetry is the elastic thread of life-giving fancy running through poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s experience of life (‘Our days/ Filled with insubstantial things,/ We dream to make up for lost time.’— Summer Notes), our daily music (‘A phrase singing in my head,/ A light rain of rhythms surround me.’—the same poem) and the rich furnishing of our homes and ‘rented houses far from home’ (The Inheritance)—for, ‘We belong to the houses we live in.’ (Hoopoe). Note the plural: the houses are our Indias, our minds, the many houses we live in to truly know who we are, but they are indisputably ours. We—Mehrotra and I—should know.

For one reason or another we have been planning to meet for months. In doing so, we have been writing every few weeks, in a catalogue of urban worries and wonderment straight out of one of his poems: our modern Indian ailments and sour city air, spring- cleaning his house in Allahabad and the dark chocolate from my hometown I’ll bring to the interview. That someone took four copies of his books to sign at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where at last, amidst a loud party, I meet India’s great poet, too briefly. We speak once over the phone, at some length, about his craft, life and historian Richard M Eaton’s A Social History of the Deccan (1300 to 1761), which he is reading. All along, I continued to read his poems, slowly, as they were intended: small, daily miracles.

I saw the grass move before I saw
Its mover, hiding in plain sight

(Worker Ant)

So moves our chronicler, through the tempests and the calm. Mehrotra’s 34 new poems sing of ironing ladies, ear cleaners, cobblers and Ghalib. His presence is quiet, stylish, urbane, even as he laughs, manages an Oink! and plays with words (The Nulla-Nulla in Nullah). The poet’s is another, more slippery trade in this litany of trades, as is clear from its neat incorporation into scenes like this, whose narrator is washing a vest, like the neighbourhood’s mothers: ‘It is morning and before me is open/ The book of sunsets. I’ll come/ To the end of the page, and there aren’t many/ Pages remaining. How do I tell the mothers/ It was a slim book to start with?’ (Washing Tub). And from the reading of John Ashbery through a power cut, while assaulted by mosquitos (The Sting in the Tail): ‘thwack!’ exults the narrator, amidst this pathos. Mehrotra’s first Collected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics, 328 pages, Rs 399), spans 45 years to reveal the best of his four previous collections of poetry and a classic swathe of his translations.

The wanderer and time-traveller Amit Chaudhuri describes in his Introduction to this volume is at home in the loneliest corners of history, which he collects in clusters of lost time, bearing the influences of the Beats and Ezra Pound and the Surrealists in the unique cosmopolitan idiom which is his. He made a name for himself in the tradition of Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and AK Ramanujan before him, with his verse (‘The poems all but stand up and hit you’, Times Literary Supplement); as editor of several major volumes of Indian literature—The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Collected Poems in English by Arun Kolatkar; and as generous translator—The Absent Traveller and Songs of Kabir. His essays, Partial Recall, are a valuable register of critical thought, and Mehrotra has been a witness to Indian writing’s evolution after Independence (he was born in 1947 in Lahore, and grew up in Allahabad). Most importantly, he understood what it was to write and read in English and grasp at being Indian. “The new poems are about Allahabad and Dehradun, too. I don’t think I could write in any other place,” says Mehrotra.

Continuing in the tradition of memorable classics like Old Survey Road in The Transfiguring Places, perhaps his finest collection, the everyday turns mythical. We turn to one of the most special of the new poems, In a Greek City, which bears the subtitle and time stamp: ‘Egypt, 315’. “I read a lot of history, I was reading something on Egypt in that period. There were some pictures taken from that period which were not stylised, made people look not very different from you and me. And [the poem’s] actually happening in Dehradun, it’s about my mother’s fracture.” There is a reference to the gospels of Matthew and John which marry the two different periods. “I used some materials from what I was reading. Christianity had spread to Egypt in about the 1st century, these were the first shoots.”

‘Number 16’, which appears in this poem, is the title of one of the pivotal poems which precede it. An elegiac account of the narrator’s home, it moves between the caretakers of the old house in a very Indian tale of divided property, with that inevitable ending: ‘I was the one who/ Put up the new boundary wall’. The jewel-like ten-liner which follows, Herodotus, My Mother and Civets, also joins images between personal and political histories seamlessly. It replaces the mythical India Herodotus once described (gold- digging ants, wool-bearing trees and men with ears reaching their feet) with Mehrotra’s modern mythology: his mother, whose hair is being oiled, and the civets rampaging on his storage tank, in a play on the exotic. Match this, he seems to say, feisty as ever (at 17, he founded damn you/ a magazine of the arts, playing off the New York City- based Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts).

The son of a dentist (like Mehrotra), who innocently ‘finds[s] out the dates of the six Mughals/ To secretly write the history of India’, with his Omega watch that never works, autograph-book and the mumbling of his colonially-named roads (‘Thornhill, Hastings, Lytton’) is an endearing precursor to this pioneer (Continuities, in Nine Enclosures).

“I started Nine Enclosures [his first book, published in 1976] in 1971–72. Continuities—I wrote that poem in Iowa,” says Mehrotra. “I was thinking of Allahabad a lot when I was there. One was also missing the place. I realised I could not write about anything American.”

Did it help? The distance?

“I don’t know, it’s so far back. Maybe it does. You’re both physically away from a place and then thinking about it. I was 24-25 years old. Maybe I wouldn’t have written the poem had I been living in Allahabad at that time. Maybe because I was in Iowa City I was thinking about it. Being away from a place, you think about it differently.”

He visited America in his twenties for a two-year fellowship in Iowa. “I was very excited to be in America, the sheer excitement of being there—it didn’t matter whether it was Iowa City or elsewhere.” We discover that he once read at Prout Chapel in Bowling Green State University, Ohio, where I too read, Indians in the heart of America.

“Slowly, in hindsight, you felt you can’t be living in the Midwest all your life,” says the poet. Was there temptation to stay on? “I didn’t want to start life all over again, becoming a student. Then what does one do? Here, I was already part of a poetry scene. I had been in Bombay in the great 60s. I was teaching at the University of Allahabad. It’s not something I considered for a moment. I’m glad I didn’t stay. You would have been a South Asian poet in the US or something like that. It would have led to a certain ghettoisation. I didn’t want that to happen. Also, in hindsight someone like AK Ramanujan is hardly known in the US as a poet; he’s basically known in India. The only person who [went later and stayed] is Aga Shahid Ali. He then reinvented himself as a Kashmiri-American poet. That’s a different kind of poet.”

He uses ‘you’ often when referring to himself, as he does in his poems, eliding personas, joining histories. Particularly apt when he narrates the collective history of modern Indian poetry, and of the iconic poetry collective Clearing House.

“When I came back in 1973, I had a new manuscript, Adil [Jussawalla] had a new one, Arun [Kolatkar] had Jejuri. Clearing House—that’s how we started it.” The collective Mehrotra founded with Jussawalla, Kolatkar and Gieve Patel marked the beginning of a small but valuable flowering.

“Adil’s essays were about that one city [Bombay]. Dilip Chitre, Dom Moraes. It is difficult to capture that now,” Mehrotra replies to my questions about what has come after. “For one, there was The Illustrated Weekly, but also little magazines in Bengali, Hindi, and certainly in English. A lot of the excitement came because of them. They published a lot of very good poetry, and poetry also appeared in magazines like Debonair. People forget that. Imtiaz Dharker was poetry editor. They gave you two pages plus they would do a sketch. Things like Clearing House, the whole charm of it is that it’s a short- lived phenomenon. It’s like a burst, a firecracker, or a series of firecrackers. It’s not meant to be there forever. You know, a few issues, five issues, then it’s over. Small presses have always been like this. They are formed for a particular moment, for a particular reason. Those four books were out, then three more over those 7 or 8 years.”

Even as he remember ventures like Newground, which also faded away, he lists magazines and presses like Almost Island and Anand Thakore’s Harbour Line, which publish poetry today. “So in some sense the whole thing continues.”

Mehrotra knows more and more things happen online, in poetry. “I’m still not very comfortable with it. I’d rather see a poem in print. But it’s only a matter of time.”

Mehrotra’s translations, which form a third of this collection and span Prakrit, Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali, moving from the 1st Century Prakrit poems of the Gathasaptasati to Kabir to Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral, describe the history of Indian poetry over two millennia, magically using their trajectory to connect with the journey he embarks on in his own poetry; nothing feels dated.

“Kabir’s language is of course contemporary, but what he’s writing about—there’s really nothing new in what he says, he’s basically talking about the brevity of life,” says Mehrotra. “The way out is to take Rama’s name. Other than that, the way he ends each poem, quite similar in some ways, if you leave that out for a moment, they could be poems which could have been written at any time. They could have been written now, and even before Kabir, and probably they were in some form or the other. The poems are contemporary, but they are contemporary in the sense that they have always been around. And the contemporariness comes from the language, which makes it even more immediate, but I could only translate in the English I know. I could only translate its translator-ese. The same is true of the Prakrit poems of 1st and 2nd century CE: open sexuality, utterly surprising. Still, very few people know about them.”

Mehrotra has written about the exercise of translation as not very different from working on your own poem. “From time to time you have to check, whether you are getting what you set out to. At the end of the day it’s a translation, at the same time it’s also a poem in English. You treat it as one of your own. Only in the translation you have the original in the background. You have nothing to refer it to, with your own.”

The simultaneity which levels the long phone call, the emails, the verse, the parade of seasons outside our windows since last November, the Gathasaptasati wisdoms (‘To keep from spiteful tongues/ Her love for you,/ She looks at everyone/ With equal affection.’) and that sexy 26-year-old rebel on the cover of this volume, pulls me up when I finally meet Mehrotra, who is tremendously white-bearded and smiling amidst the noise. I know it is him when, slipping his hand into mine, he says, “Where are my chocolates?” Poetry, and the poet, have taken their time.

In Number 16, he tells us:

You see these walls. They’re twenty-four inches
Thick, and you’re worried about the house falling.
It’s good for another generation at least.
As someone who’s repaired it
Times without number, I should know

For those who make their home here, here is ballast, here is the timeless caretaker of our revolutions.