Allen Ginsberg Posts

Jeet Thayil “The Book of Chocolate Saints”

If this is a story about art then it is  a story about God and the gifts he gives us. Also the gifts he takes away. God has it in for poets, that’s obvious, but the Bombaywallahs hold a special place in his dispensation. Or so I believe, with good reason. Much has been taken from the poets of Bombay. Bhagwan kuch deyta hai toh wapas bhi leyta hai. 

Let me ask you a question. Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not?

The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth, he taketh away. In this story art is god. And if god is art, then what is the devil? Bad art of course. But we’ll talk about that in a minute or we won’t. Kuch bhi ho, yaar. 

Award-winning writer and poet Jeet Thayil’s second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints  is about the fictional character Newton Francis Xavier  ( perhaps loosely modelled on Dom Moraes to whom the book is dedicated). It is also a commentary by an insider on the Bombay poets — Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla and Arun Kolatkar. The novel is a witness’s testimony as much as that of a practising poet’s acknowledgement to the rich literary tradition he belongs to. Recently one of the surviving members of this group, Ashok Shahane, in an interview while referring to the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, spoke of him

…regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself.

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.”

Likewise with The Book of Chocolate Saints which has taken the art form of a novel to new heights and yet is undeniably grounded in reality. There are very real people such as the poet Philip Nikolayev, and Jeet Thayil’s father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, or seemingly fiction which are thinly veiled references to actual incidents and people. It is a novel that marks a milestone in modern Indian literature particularly the Indian novel in English. This form of writing had begun to make its presence felt in 1980s with the publication of novels by I, Allen Seally, Shashi Tharoor, Rukun Advani and Mukul Kesavan; but it was with the publication of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy that truly cemented the arrival of the Indian novel in English worldwide. No longer did it seem out of place to have a smattering of Hindi words in English prose— it was considered as acceptable as reading the French phrases in a Wodehouse story, the story itself about an ordinary person selling shoes for a living and looking for the ideal marriage partner was familiar to readers as someone like them and not fiction set in some faraway land. More than two decades later The Book of Chocolate Saints bursts upon the scene with its detailed literary landscape taking the Indian novel in English to another level — of high culture. It focuses on a literary group that is known for its unique style of literature, influenced by international culture, and writers like Baudelaire, James Joyce, the Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg who came and spent time with them, Auden and the Hungryalists instead of navel gazing as much of local literature was tending to become — each form has its relevance but by breaking the traditional shackles of “Indian literature” and bringing different strands together to create something new was revolutionary. The Bombay poets were producing literature well before the Internet happened  so accessing different cultural elements and learning from them was a far more challenging process than it is now. They travelled, they conversed, they learned from each other, they had weekly addas, disagreed and yet remained steadfast companions whose influence upon literature is going to tell for generations to come. Jeet Thayil exemplifies this in his novel by paying homage to the Bombay poets by experimenting happily with the art form to create unique piece of literature that can only give the reader joy by engaging fully with it. At times the prose seems like poetry, there are portions that are like investigative journalism, at times it flows beautifully like straightforward classical prose and at other times seems broken — yet all the while masterfully controlled by the genius of a storyteller.  Coincidentally the same editor and eminent publisher, David Davidar, published both the novels — A Suitable Boy and The Book of Chocolate Saints.

This cross-pollination of art and reality is what literary craftsman Jeet Thayil attempts in The Book of Chocolate Saints while chronicling a significant time in contemporary Indian literature and history. It is a magnificent pastiche!

Jeet Thayil The Book of Chocolate Saints Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. Rs 799 

31 Oct 2017 

 

Ashok Shahane and Arun Kolatkar

Speaking Tiger Books has recently published the South Asia edition of Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and bilingual literary culture . In the long term it will prove to be a seminal book for its analysis of not only Kolatkar’s contribution to modern Indian literature but also for its context of Indian publishing. Marathi publishing has been a vibrant space for a long time. In fact Bombay Modern discusses at length about the importance of little magazines and their critical influence upon writers by providing a new space for literary writing. Significantly Anjali Narlekar points out:

The writers and editors of little magazines in Marathi and English not only moved in a shared cultural and literary space but were aware of the work done ni the other Indian literatures by the little magazines. One way to examine these interlinks is to look at the network of pathways at the core of regional, national, and international influences. 

A connection of common influences arcs across the English-Marathi divide between many of these poets. If Mehrotra brought Pound and Ginsberg to bear upon the newly independent Indian society in his English poem, Kolatkar also translated Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” into Marathi for Shahane’s Aso in 1963… .Three prominent examples from the period will illustrate the interconnection across the two worlds. The first is the close literary collaboration between the Beat writers and the Bombay poets. It is a known fact that Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky read their poetry on Alkazi’s terrace in 1962 on their visit to Bombay, but the Beat poets were also interacting with both the English writers and the vernacular writers in Bengal and in Maharashtra, like Ashok Shahane and Kolatkar in Bombay. Shahane published Ginsberg’s poetry in English and in Marathi translation in Aso as well as the work by Orlovsky in its original English. Shahane also wrote a poem in the little magazine Timba where he mocks the rabid fervor generated by religious personalities like the Shankaracharya. Shahane trivializes such religious zeal with a seemingly frivolous comparison and connection with the Beats and with Hollywood:

the world is a dream

the Shankaracharya has said

as Allen reported

Arjun was the last man

and maybe also Burt Lancaster

“Allen” here refers to Allen Ginsberg, and in this poem, Shahane self-confidently accepts the long way home when he states that he learned Shankaracharya’s teaching through hearsay from Ginsberg. It shows the defiant refusal to accede to claims of monolingual affiliations. It is also  a little-known fact that Ginsberg’s poem “September on Jessore Road” first appeared in Bombay, published by Ashok Shahane. When the Bangladesh War began in 1971 and Ginsberg wrote the poem, Shahane printed and distributed copies of it and gave the proceeds to Bangladesh aid committee set up in Bombay. Followed closely, such circuits of the global invariably lead to the space of the local. 

The poets Arun Kolatkar (Left) and Raghu Dandavate (second from Left) and Shahane (third from Left) were part of a group that would meet every Thursday afternoon for its kattas.

The second example is Arun Kolatkaris Jejuri, which includes poems that traverse repeatedly across linguistic lines. The poem “The Priest” from Jejuri appeared in Marathi on pages 88-89 of the 1977 special issue of Rucha on Kolatkar even as a book of poems in English, published by the small Clearing House Press, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize that year. The history of this book of poems manifests the entangled nature of the multilinguistic sabottari worlds. Initially one of the poems from the Jejuri collection appeared in the English little magazine Dionysus ( edited by Abraham Benjamin and Shirish Pradhan) , which promptly lost the manuscript of the collection of poems.  It was then rewritten in English and appeared in full in A.D. Gorwala’s Opinion Literary Quarterly in 1974, then was apparently shown to Arun Khopkar ( who published a poem from it in Rucha in 1977, when the English book of poems was published), adn eventually appeared in a Marathi book of poems posthumously in 2011. Dilip Chitre’s work demonstrates a similar catholicity in its publishing spaces: his translations from the French poets appeared in the Marathi Satyakatha ( December 1963), his translations of the Marathi poet Mardhekar in the English little magazine Poetry India ( 1966), and translations of the Marathi Tukaram in Mehrotra’s English little magazine fakir ( 1968). 

Aso

A crucial third way in which the little magazines provided a mixed space for writers emerges when one considers the presence of Dalit writers and editors in the sabottari years. The iconoclastic philosophy of the little magazines borrowed its energy from the foundational rage of the Dalit writers in its refusal of tradition in most of its manifestations, be it in vocabulary, imagery, poetic structure, or representative realisms. The little magazine movement was clearly influenced by the Ambedkar revolt in the 1950s and the subsequent Marathi publications of writers like Shankarrao Kharat and Baburao Bagul in the early 1960s when the first Marathi little magazines started appearing at the same time ( Shahda in 1955 and Aso in 1963). the little magazines also provided a space for many rising Dalit writers to showcase their work. There is a synergy between the two movements  that is important to note. The sabottari poetry is notable for its emphasis on the material as well as the textual. The angry materialism seen in the poems of Chitre or Kolatkar is comparable in terms of literary technique with much of Dalit literature’s emphasis on the body. 

Ashok Shahane, HASHIM BADANI FOR THE CARAVAN

There is much, much more to discover in this fabulous book. Interesingly enough Caravan magazine’s July 2017 issue has published a magnificent profile of Ashok Shahane. It is worth reading for its insight into little magazines the weekly meetings of the Bombay poets and how as Shahane a close friend of Kolatkar was entrusted with the manuscript of Bua. ( “The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing” Ashok Shahane’s deep imprint on Indian modernist literature )

Kolatkar also gave Shahane a warning: “He said to me, you will probably have to wait 30 years — a generation — so that the intolerance outside decreases, before you can publish it. Now 12 years have passed, and the intolerance has increased, not decreased.”

” I don’t think society will be able to accept it now,” he said. “Conservatism has increased. And from conservatism has come intolerance, and from that various things. Now, how many years I’ll have to wait I don’t know.” 

There is a story Shahane likes to tell about the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself. 

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.” 

18 July 2017