Dom: A Critical Appreciation


            

I believe in serendipity.  How else can I explain why, in spite of my best efforts to dodge this assignment, I am still saddled with what would, under normal circumstances, have been a more enjoyable, though no less challenging task—to write a “eulogy” on one of India’s greatest contemporary poets, Dom Moraes.

I must, however, clarify that what follows might perhaps be more aptly described as a “critical appreciation.”  Dom does not need a eulogy, but I think he does need more appreciation.  That’s because he is one of the least read, least anthologised, least studied, and least written about major Indian poets.  There may be reasons for it, but such neglect is regrettable.  Moreover, as a writer whose unrelenting honesty compels us to look at ourselves and our surroundings with unblinking and unblinkered eyes, I am sure he does not expect pious platitudes or predictable plaudits. So, while I’m not sorry to take a candid look at some of his work, I do regret that I cannot be present to honour him in person.  I should be on my way to Tokyo when this is read—but then he may not find such mischance entirely accidental.

I say this because I think Dom believes in serendipity too.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t have written a book named after the island that gave us the word.  Serendip (1990) was Dom’s comeback volume, published twenty-five years after his much acclaimed third book of poems, John Nobody (1965).  There were two slighter collections in between, Beldam & Others (1967), which was really a pamphlet, and another published privately in Bombay called Absences (1983). The gap between Absences and Serendip is seventeen years.  That number has stuck in my memory because Dom once told me that he couldn’t write poetry for “seventeen years.”  “How did it feel?” I asked.  “Like living with an amputated limb,” he said in his rich, gravely, but matter of fact voice.

After Absences, David Davidar of the then newly established Penguin India coaxed Dom into publishing his Collected Poems, 1957-1987.  This extraordinary volume is arguably the most impressive single volume of poems of any Indian in the English language.  When Serendip was released three years later, the small number of those who followed Dom’s work—and the even smaller number who could actually understand him—was thrilled.  What turn would his muse take after such a long absence, we wondered. 

Serendip contains three sequences of poems, set in specific places, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Sweden, and a fourth section containing eighteen other poems.  The poems in the first three sections are quite different from those Dom wrote earlier.  They are quieter, limpid, essential, even terse.  The traces of exuberance and sentimentalism some of his earlier poetry are totally absent.  Instead, his expression, pared down to the modicum, is denser far, and certainly more evocative. Dom seems to plunge into deep recesses of tribal, even collective memory, to make gestures which might almost be called cosmic.

“Serendip,” the opening sequence, from which the volume derives its name, is of course set in Sri Lanka.  When his father was the Editor of the Times of Ceylon, Dom spent two years there.  A memorable tribute to his childhood experiences on the island is found in one of the best poems in his debutant, award-winning volume, A Beginning (1957).  “At Seven O’Clock” shows a supine lad resurrected by a Ceylonese masseur:

Within my mind he is reborn as Christ:

For each blind dawn he kneads my prostrate things,

Thumps on my buttocks with his fist

And breathes, Arise.

In “Serendip,” Dom returned to Sri Lanka, now war-ravaged and wracked by gory civil strife.  Reaching back into prehistoric times and evoking ancient myths, he wonders if the pearl of the Indian Ocean can regain its eponymous tranquillity.  Only as poets are wont to do, he looks into the dim future and asks:

              Perhaps an evening waits

              Beyond the ruptured bridge

              Of some wrecked village, where

              Pilgrims with lamps resume,

              From memory, the trek.

Despite the poet’s habitual reserve and unrelenting realism, the compassion still shows.

              Serendip won the Sahitya Akademi Award in English, the highest Indian honour for a writer.  Awards were of course nothing new to Dom. At the age of nineteen, he had been the youngest and the first non-British winner of the Hawthornden Prize for his very first book of verse.  Excited, I went to listen to Dom reading from Serendip at the India International Centre.  He seemed rather alone on stage, never looked up from his book at the audience, and read for his allotted twenty minutes in a dispassionate, clipped style, clearing his throat once in a while.  “More like ‘Dry Salvages,’” a wag quipped, “definitely disappointing to those who expected pyrotechnics.”

              Looking back, one of the defining moments in Dom’s life came in 1954, when he met Stephen Spender.  Dom was fifteen and later recalled the moment vividly: 

It was the first time I had ever met a real poet.  Through the large opaque, sea-coloured eyes of Spender I seemed to see how it might be possible to write poetry.  I showed him my poems.  He liked them, and said he would publish some in Encounter, which he did.  Also he asked what I wanted to do.  Did I want to stay in India?                                                  (Gone Away:  An Indian Journal 9)

 

Dom realized that he did not want to.

My family was an entirely English-speaking one.  My father and grandfather had been at Oxford.  The background of my life had been English.  In the streets of India I felt uneasy, knowing neither the language, nor, because of not having come into contact with many Indians who were not from an English background, the people.  I suppose I had always known I would leave India, but when Spender asked me if I wanted to, the answer came clear at last.  (ibid)

The same book, written for Heinemann, soon after Dom had scraped through his B.A. at Oxford and now wanted to make his living as a writer, also records a fascinating visit that Dom, accompanied by Ved Mehta, paid to Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Asking their way through the by-lanes of Kashmiri gate, the duo finally stumble upon a naked Chaudhuri, stretched on a string cot, on the landing of a tiny top floor flat.  Wrapping himself with a sheet with great dignity, the frail figure announces, “I am Mr. Chaudhuri.”  In the course of a conversation that follows, Chaudhuri says, “I want to settle in England, you know.  I was only there for five weeks, in 1955, but I felt as if my whole life had been a preparation for those five weeks, and after that I feel myself at a loss till I can return.”  Before the visit end, he warns Dom, “Return at once to England.  If you stay here you will perish. They will not understand you here” (ibid 68). Luckily, Chaudhuri’s prophecy proved not entirely accurate.  In 1980, Dom did come back to India.  Although he had felt that returning was “like a prison sentence,” he has had an active and productive twenty years and more in our midst.  But in one respect Chaudhuri may have been right:  I’m not sure how well Dom has been understood here.

One might even say that the overriding theme of his work is his love-hate relationship with India, the country of his birth.  In “Letter to My Mother,” which I find a deeply moving poem, he says:

Your eyes are like mine

When I last looked in them

I saw my whole country,

A defeated dream

Hiding itself in prayers,

A population of corpses,

Of burnt bodies that cluttered

The slow, deep rivers, of

Bodies stowed into earth

Quickly before they sank

Or cooked by the sun for vultures

On a marble tower.

You know I will not return.

Forgive me my trespasses.

In another book, From East and West:  A Collection of Essays, (Delhi:  Vikas, 1971) he confesses:

Now, for the first time, I saw what the people of Bombay really looked like. Somehow I had never noticed them before:  as a child I thought always that the shrouded, bundled objects that lay along the pavements were some curious species of plant.  But they were people, an army of the defeated, without food or money or the prospect of either, which was why they lay limply on the pavements, their ribs like birdcages, their eyes sunk black and silent into their skulls.    (94)

It is not that Dom is the only alienated Indian English poet.  A whole generation of his peers felt similarly displaced.  But, none, I would venture to say is as out of place as Dom is.  While Nissim Ezekiel, his contemporary and senior, finds himself reluctantly reconciled to India, Dom stubbornly holds out.  Even the titles of his books, Gone Away or Never at Home underscore this estrangement.  His poetic personae—from Alexander to Babur—invariably reinforce the point of view of invaders and conquerors.  “Babur,” at times, is even startlingly self-reflexive:  "If you look for me, I am not here./ My writings will tell you where I am./ Tingribirdi, they point out my life like/ Lines drawn in the map of my palm."

Even Serendip confirms his grim and forbidding portrayal of India. In "1668," the poem commemorating the year the British took possession of Bombay, gifted to them as a part of Catherine de Braganza's dowry, Dom paints a graphic picture of a sickly and stinking island, unfit for human inhabitation.  What would later be the commercial capital of British India and, of course, Dom's home, is depicted as "beslimed acres" of a leech-infested and malarial swamp.

In Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, which he co-authored with Sarayu Srivatsa, Dom puts this outsider’s persona to good use, turning out an acerbically pessimistic book.  While I disagree with both its conclusions and the methodology—most the “native informants” already share the authors’ views—I can still enjoy the prose and the gift of observation that it offers.  I look forward to reading Dom’s latest book, The Long Strider, also written with Sarayu Srivatsa.  In a way, I’m not surprised that it retraces the journey of another “outsider” to India, Thomas Coryate who walked from England to India in 1613.

Of course, this is not the first time that Dom has tried to retrace other people’s journeys.  In 1963, he was commissioned to do a book modelled on the journeys of Dr. Johnson and Boswell in Scotland.  Instead, off he went on a wilder trip, with the irrepressible George Barker for companion.  The ensuing manuscript, “North Wind,” is a memorable account ranging between a half-drunken stupor and feral adventure.  Barker, a poet almost forgotten today, was supposed to be Dr. Johnson to Dom’s Boswell.  True, he does come up with some unforgettable quips. At Oxford and when in his cups, Dom was sometimes called “Dim Morose”—Barker modifies it to “Dumb Morass.”

I started this tribute by saying that I believed in serendipity.  When Chandrika asked me yesterday if I could write it, I was amazed that I had spent a good deal of my summer as if in preparation for such an exercise.  At the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin in July of this year, I had the occasion to read not only Dom’s notebooks, but also the manuscripts of his unpublished works.  I have just mentioned “North Wind.”  The other one, preserved in a folder of the literary agency Curtis Brown and Co., is actually a novel—I believe, the only one Dom’s ever written.  Called “Horsemen Fell,” it’s a sort of thriller-cum-melodrama about Dr. Fell, who sells heroin, and then liquidates some of his victims.  The plot is bracing and is resolved in the last pages by a blind man who recognizes the smell of the villain’s after-shave.  What interested me was that this blind man, is also a poet and is called Beldam, a name that also graces the title of one of Dom’s minor collections of poems.

There are many things that this tribute has been unable to address, including Dom’s extensive journalistic and other writings, including the screenplay on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, books on Mrs. Gandhi, recent collections of verse, especially In Cinnamon Shade, and so on. There’s nothing here about the women in his life—Henrietta, Leela, and now Sarayu—nor about all the interesting people he’s met and written about—Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, even Allen Ginsberg.  All I can say is that his oeuvre is extensive, varied, and that some of it will endure.  I’d like to end my tribute with the words of another younger writer-poet that Dom has inspired, words that I’m afraid are blunter and perhaps more apropos than mine:  “He covered wars, won prizes, loved a series of women and wrote some bloody good poems.”

Postscript

I wrote this piece for a British Council gathering to celebrate the launch of Dom’s last book, The Long Strider (2004), which he once again co-authored with Sarayu Srivatsa.  This book is a remarkable account of an even more remarkable journey by an English my, Thomas Coryate, who walked from his village in England to the court of the Grand Mogul, Jahangir, in 1613.  He was an eccentric man, a writer and an adventurer, who wanted fame.  Dom wrote of his 5000 mile journey across the sands of Arabia, through many kingdoms and strange lands, at last to India.  However, at the end of his journeys, great disappointment awaited him.  India repelled him; Jahangir didn’t do much for him.  He died in Surat in obscurity.  In some ways, this kind of story was typical of what would attract Dom, especially the promise of India and the great disappointment at the end of the quest.

As it happened, I couldn’t be at the function when the book was launched because I was on my way to Tokyo.  My tribute was read out by someone else.  Dom died a few months afterwards, so I never got to see him.  I do feel a sense of personal gratitude to him, though, because in 1993, when I had appeared for an interview with the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council, Dom, in a way, salvaged my bid for the Fellowship.  My project was on Sarojini Naidu, a poet the modernists didn’t much care for.  The people who reviewed my project expressed their skepticism.  During the interview, I spoke out against them, saying that their narrow-mindedness had created a schism in Indian English poetry.  The interview didn’t go very well.

The Council, however, asked one of the experts, Dom, to “talk” to the “angry” young man.  Dom called me to his house.  He lived in Colaba in a flat near Electric House with his beautiful wife, Leela Naidu.  The flat had belonged to Naidu’s scientist father.  They had a Goan butler.  Dom spoke no language other than English.  It was strange to see him talk thus even to the lift man or the cab driver.  A brown sahib, he was, to the core, but everyone seemed to like him.  Both Leela and Dom drank each evening.  Dom smoked heavily too.  The conversation was sparkling.  Dom told me stories of Sarojini Naidu, of his single meeting with her when he was still a child.  Apparently, she gave him an apple to eat.  He remembered her as a substantial, portly woman, with deep, shining eyes, and a beautiful way of speaking.  But he said, “It was always difficult to remember what she said later, if it had any substance at all.” 

Ultimately, Dom conceded that she was worth working on; at least her life was interesting, even if her poetry wasn’t, he said.  I got the fellowship.  For the next couple of years, I visited Dom every time I was in Bombay.  My last attempt to see him was when he was writing the second volume of his autobiography.  I didn’t know that when I called him.  His butler said, “Saab is not at home.”  It was 4:00 p.m.  I called at 6:00 p.m.  Again, I got the same answer, “Saab is not at home.”  I called again at 9:00 p.m., only to get the same answer.  I asked, “Isn’t he coming home to dinner?”  “Yes, but he’s not yet here.”  I felt a bit spited, so called again at 11:00 p.m.  Amazingly, the same answer awaited me, “Saab is not at home.”  Exasperated, I gave up.  Later, some friends told me that he was busy writing so wouldn’t take any calls or visitors.  Next year, when the book actually came out, all the pieces in the puzzle came together:  it was called, Never at Home.

 

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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape