Linguistic Perspectives and Existential Anxiety in Arun Kolatkar’s Poems
His poetry represents the quintessence of modernism and left profound influence modern Marathi poets. Despite his inspiring and profound creativity it is ironical that his greatness has not been adequately acknowledged or recognized even after 7 years of his death. I would like to begin by quoting from one of Kolatkar’s Marathi poems. main bhAbhiiko bola kya bhAisAbke dyuTipe main a jAu? bhaRak gayi SAli rahmAn bolA goli chalAungA mai bolA ek raNDike wAste? chalao goli.. He translated the poem into English himself as “Three cups of Tea” allow me beautiful I said to my sister in law to step in my brother’s booties you had it coming said rehman gun in his hand shoot me punk kill your brother i said for a bloody cunt (Three cups of Tea) Although a major influence on Marathi poetry, he is primarily known for his first book of English poetry, Jejuri (1976), a sequence of 31 poems about a visit to the temple of Khandoba at Jejuri, a small town in western Maharashtra. A visual artist and designer by profession Kolatkar went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1977, while his Marathi verse collection Bhijki Vahi won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004-2005. He claimed that he was inspired by the Beat generation poetry as well as by Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas and Baudelaire.
His early Marathi poems are radical, dark and humorous and they are far more audacious and takes greater liberties with language unlike his later works where his poetic language becomes more accessible and less radical compared to his earlier works. His later works Chirimiri, Bhijki Vahi and Droan are less introverted and less nightmarish. They show a greater social awareness and his satire becomes more direct. Kolatkar’s poetry baffles us, his language shocks us. He deliberately adopts a tone of violence and aggression to shock and shake his readers out of their complacence.
His early poetry shows his love for parody, postures and experimentations with language. Aridity and ugliness decay and neglect, perversion and fossilization are all that he sees everywhere. His language also reflects this picture of decadence. His poems include imageries like ‘lime stone loins’, ‘cactus fangs’ for he shared a fascination for the ugly and the grotesque. A bilingual poet who wrote profusely in both Marathi and English; Kolatkar’s techniques, like many British poets, brings out a blending of casual and terse elements with grim and serious tone: ‘I killed my mother/ for her skin. I must say/ it didn’t take much/ to make this pouch/ I keep turmeric in. ’ In Marathi, his oeuvre is shaped by a combination of epic, devotional, and weird science fiction and passionate impulses. In English, Kolatkar’s impetus and ambition are somewhat different: it is to create a vernacular with which to express, with a febrile amusement, a sort of urbane wonder at the unfinished, the provisional, the random, the shabby, the not-always-respectable but arresting ruptures in our moments of recreation, work, and, as in Jejuri, even pilgrimage. The tone deepens, and darkens, in Kolatkar’s later poetry.
His later works Sarpa Satra and Kala Ghoda make one feel as if Jejuri, was only a first step— though a firm and confident one — towards the questioning. With Kala Ghoda Poems, Indian poetry in English seems to have grown up. The remarkable maturity of poetic vision embodied in the Kala Ghoda Poems makes it something of a milestone in Indian poetry in English. Kolatkar, engaged himself with the unnoticeable, the marginal and the banal in his poems. He loved to depict the old beggar woman, the scruffy bitch with her puppies, the dirty station dog for he felt sympathy for their marginal and outcast forms.
In Jejuri such figures make their archetypal presence felt on the reader’s sensibility, there is no dearth of the unremarkable, thwarted and humble dramatis personae, both in animate and inanimate forms, like the battered old fisher woman, the hash seller, the rat poison man, the goon lover, the one-eyed baby, the bicycle tyre, the crow, the pi-dog and the rubbish. Kolatkar’s treatment of these deformed creatures, recluse figures or the left-outs in their impoverished and beleaguered world is wry, colloquial, unsentimental and of course full of compassion that borders on empathy rather than sympathy.
For instance in a poem entitled “Breakfast at Kala Ghoda” the poet identifies with the frail old fisherwoman about to start a quick breakfast. He confesses how he could almost “taste her saliva in my mouth. ” According to Amit Chaudhuri who introduced Kolatkar’s famous sequence of poems, Jejuri mainly comprises of a series of short lyric utterances and observations through which a narrative unfolds — about a man, clearly not religious, but clearly, despite himself, interested in his surroundings, who arrives on a bus at the eponymous pilgrimage-town in Maharashtra where the deity Khandoba is worshipped.
He wanders about its ruined temples, strolls among priests and touts, and then leaves on a train. In some ways, the sequence resembles Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”; except that, where Larkin’s distant, sceptical, bicycle-clipped visitor assumes a serious pose in spite of his doubts one he is inside the church, Kolatkar’s peripatetic narrator maintains an uneasy, neutral, wry stance, throughout the poem. There are moments of doubts and anguish, and his poems offer an insight into his complex mind. In one of his poem he goes on to ask What is god And what is stone The dividing line If it exists Is very thin.
Divided into 36 sections, the poem Jejuri begins with the tone of a casual traveller, and in the course of the poem the poet wades through internal conflicts and dilemmas to come to the realization of a new selfhood and identity. Much like T. S. Eliot Kolatkar’s poems too bring out a conflict between conscious mind and its alter ego. There are lines like ‘Take my shirt off/and go in there to do pooja/ No thanks. /Not me/ But you go right ahead/ if that’s what you want to do’ which almost resemble Prufock’s conflict between his perception and the repressed voice of his alter ego in Eliot’s famous poem, “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock. ” The poet conjures up images of stagnation and lifelessness. Prabhakar Acharya in his review of Jejuri claimed that it was an unusual book, ‘witty, playful, humane, unpretentious, a collection of lyrics that could be read as if it were a single long poem. ’ He felt that Kolatkar’s poem would introduce a new dimension in the genre of Indian English Poetry. The 31 poems are interlinked and one can say that they almost abide by a sequential order, in fact there are times when one feels as if one poem leads on to the other.
The “Hills”, for example, is an imagistic poem, depicting the hills of Jejuri as if they were uncanny demons, with ‘sand blasted shoulders/ bladed with shale’ and ‘cactus fang/ in sky meat’. In the next poem “The Priest’s Son”, the young boy who comes as a guide tells the tourists that the hills they see ‘are the five demons/ that Khandoba killed’. When the boy is questioned if he really believes in the legend he ‘looks uncomfortable/shrugs and looks away and points out to a butterfly moving on the ‘scanty patch of scruffy dry grass,’ nearby.
The next poem to follow is a lyric “The Butterfly” which goes on to describe a butterfly moving in the grass as ‘just a pinch of yellow’ which ‘opens before it closes’ and then suddenly vanishes at the blink of the eye. Kolatkar’s poems are replete with symbolic overtones. There are times when he is a simple objective observer, at other times he becomes a fragmented consciousness who despite being integral to the experience which he describes, somehow remains isolated. Although Kolatkar was never known as a social commentator, yet his narrative poems tend to offer a whimsical tilted commentary on social concerns.
While Jejuri is about the agonized relationship of a modern sensitive individual with the indigenous culture, the Kala Ghoda poems are about the dark underside of Mumbai’s underbelly. It is not only his poetry even his prose works too are marked with dry and sarcastic sense of humor which shocks and shakes us. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written in 1987, he wrote about how he lived in a house “with nine rooms arranged like a house of cards”, but went on to remark that the “place wasn’t quite as cheerful as playing cards. The rooms had mud floors which had to be plastered with cowdung every week. He recounted about how he had found a source of hidden treasure in one of these rooms. It was in his father’s study and the treasure consisted of a series of picture postcards showing marvels and monuments of Renaissance art. He was spellbound by their magnificence, but at the same time observed that “The European girls disappointed” him. “They have beautiful faces, great figures and they showed it all. But there was nothing to see. Before ending the paper I would like to quote from one more poem of Kolatkar to highlight how he easily his language shifted from the serious to the banal. Knotting the cord, the midwife said It’s a boy, it’s a boy, it’s a boy Piercing an earlobe, the goldsmith said, Two bucks, just two bucks Syringe in hand the nurse said, It’s not gonna hurt, not a bit. Measuring my dick, Baban said, Mine’s bigger, bigger than yours, Punching my back, Baban said My dad can lick your dad. Kicking my shin, Baban said, Sissy, a sissy, what a sissy you are.
Linguistics involves the scientific study of human language which can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context. Kolatkar’s use of shocking images offers a glimpse of the decadence and fragmentation of the world which he sought to depict in his poetry. Through the form, structure, meaning of his language he brings out this sense of dilapidation in his verses. It is as if he wishes to say that there cannot be any refined or well defined language structure in this world which has suffered a complete breakdown of communication.
I would like to conclude the paper with few lines from one of his Jejuri poems “God is the word/and I know it backwards/I know it as fangs,/inside my flanks/. But I also know it/ as a lamb/between my teeth,/as a taste of blood upon my tongue. Dr. Anindita Chatterjee Assistant Professor in English Sanskrit College, Kolkata Dr. Anindita Chatterjee works as Assistant Professor in English in Sanskrit College, Kolkata. She has done her Phd on “Poetry of Madness” from Jadavpur University. Her publications include ‘John Clare’s poetry of Asylum Years’, ‘History as Fiction or Fiction as History?
A History Fiction Interface in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner’, ‘A Study of the Feminine Identity in the Poetry of Toru Dutt’, ‘Of Displaced Identities and the Assertion of Selfhood: A Comparative Analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi (Boatmen of the River Padma)’, A Book Review of Rohan Gunaratna’s Inside AL-Qaeda, The Global Network of Terror. Her forthcoming publications include ‘Arun Kolatkar’s “An Old Woman”: A Study in Angst’, ‘A Study of Victorian Mental Asylums’ and a book on Indo-English Poetry entitled Ethics and Identity in Contemporary Indo-English Poetry.
She is currently working on a UGC Project on Popular Indian Fiction. Besides critical works several of her poems and short stories have also been published. She has participated and presented papers in several national and international seminars in India and abroad. She is actively involved with the Centre of Studies in Romantic Literature and had been a co-editor the Newsletter of the Centre as well. She makes regular contributions to leading English Dailies. Her areas of interest include Classical British Literature of Romantic and Victorian Period, Indian Writing in English, Films and Indian Popular Culture.