Thursday, 7 February 2013

Poetry Reads: Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

Arun Kolatkar (1932 - 2004) was a reclusive (didn't own a telephone: ever), bilingual poet with rare gifts.  A clear demarcation of style and substance is evident in his Marathi and English works.

Apart from wit, satire and humour, Kolatkar's English poetry has its unique punchlines, dream-scraping and exaggerated comic imagery. A Sir J.J School of Art pass out who went on to be a professional graphic designer - the copyrighting sprinkle certainly shows in the English poems. Keen observation is another noticeable endowment.    

The degree of reluctance in publishing his work was such that for years, Jejuri was the only English poetry collection available. It was only in 2004, when Kolatkar was diagnosed with stomach cancer that his friends brought out two of his collections - Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpasatra.

In 2008, came the beautifully compiled The Boatride and other Poems, edited by his close friend and fellow poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. The latter's introduction duly documents Kolatkar's last days, under the title - Death of a Poet. Kolatkar passed away on September 25, 2004 in Pune.

Thus was Kolatkar - of leonine hair, razor-blade eyes, and drooping moustache. We now delve into Jejuri, first published in 1974.

Jejuri is an hour's drive from Pune. Much has changed since the poet visited this small-town nearly four decades ago. This was no pilgrimage that Kolatkar undertook, that much is clear. A leisurely trip with no particular purpose - seems more like it.  The first of the 31 poems swings in the surrealism of a bus ride, the next glides into the world of an expectant priest. An excerpt:

The bus goes round in a circle. 
Stops inside the bus station and stands 
purring softly in front of the priest. 

A catgrin on its face
and a live, ready to eat pilgrim   
held between its teeth.                                           

We also get a striking description of a temple's ruined state and an unlikely epitaph in another. The extract follows:

No more a place of worship this place
is nothing less than the house of god.    

Kolatkar misses little - be it the haphazard zigzag journey of a conduit pipe, a medieval door or temple legends:

these five hills 
are the five demons 
that khandoba killed 

says the priest's son 
a young boy 
who comes along as your guide 
as the schools have vacations 

do you really believe that story
you ask him 

he doesn't reply 
but merely looks uncomfortable
shrugs and looks away               

The whole collection flows chronologically. For instance, the priest's son chances his eyes upon a:

there's a butterfly 

The Butterfly is the poem that follows. (Click the following link to read The Butterfly in its entirety.)

Some of the most profound lines in the book can be found in the poem, A Scratch. Another excerpt:

what is god 
and what is stone 
the dividing line 
if it exists 
is very thin 
at jejuri    
and every other stone 
is god or his cousin

Kolatkar finishes it with a signature:

scratch a rock 
and a legend springs

Apart from this dry comment on idol worship, Kolatkar cites his indifference to rituals in a quiet smoky rebellion in another. Here's Makarand - the whole poem :

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. 

Give me the matchbox
before you go
will you? 

I will be out on the courtyard
where no one will mind 
if I smoke. 

A timeless frozen aura of words, spacing and arrangement, Jejuri is a poetry travelogue worth lingering in. I would go on and call it a classic, not a popular, accepted work yet, but the sheen is unmistakable. As for you bookworms, the Wolf suggests you experience it for yourself, devoid of any fixed notion.

(Article by Snehith Kumbla) 

Arun Kolatkar

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