In September 1968, the need for an Introduction to his collection of essays and reviews persuaded David McCutchion to examine the state of the criticism of Indian writing in English. His assessment was characteristically restrained but exacting: ‘the critical tradition in India is weak,’, ‘Lack of critical, especially self-critical discrimination is certainly a feature of this situation’, ‘on the one hand it (takes) the form of dismissive contempt … on the other of committed praise’. Around June 1980, a lesser obligation provoked Arvind Krishna Mehrotra into examining the stage of the criticism of Indian English writing; his stance was, also characteristically, aggressive and unsparing: ‘The Indian writer in English is not the ham’s best friend. He avoids the witness-box, he does not walk down the road to inspect a neighbour’s farm, he neither expresses disappointment at the poor crop nor joy at the abundance. The inquisitive reader is then left with V.A. Shahane and C.D. Narasimhaiah for his guides and their opinions, like those of any hangeron, are dispensable’ (Chandrabhaga 3).
Between McCutchion and Mehrotra lie twelve years of steady institutionalization of Indian English writing, about forty books of criticism, and approximately one hundred and twenty published critics and reviewers have appeared and yet, evidently, the critical landscape remains dismal.
Among the fifteen or sixteen writers who have regrettably suffered from the quality of criticism or from neglect during this period is Keki N. Daruwalla. He now has four volumes of verse in print: Under Orion (1970), Apparition in April (1971), Crossing of Rivers (1976), and Winter Poems (1980). He has also published a collection of short-stories, Sword and Abyss (1979), and has edited an anthology of Indian English verse, Two Decodes of Indian Poetry: 1960-1980 (1980). Of these, the anthology has been the target of the most vocal and accelerated ‘critical’ attention: some six thousand words of slanging and salvaging, with little said and a great deal embarrassingly revealed. In contrast, the fifteen short stories, potentially happy hunting ground for our ‘fiction experts’ for their quality and range, have evoked no excitement and less than two thousand words of reviews and notices. And the bulk of Daruwalla’s output, the four volumes of verse that have unfolded before us some hundred and fifty poems written with unusual and undiminished vitality over about twelve years, has earned not more than ten thousand words in all. Perhaps it is too early to ‘place’ the fiction; but the poetry has been with us long enough to make the critical lapses unpardonable.
Two writers, whose opinions ought to be influential, accorded Daruwalla’s poetry the early acclaim that should have set the academic machinery in motion more than ten years ago; circa 1970, Robert Graves said ‘Keki Daruwalla … is the one Indian poet writing in English in whom I recognize the compulsion to tell the whole truth, however cruel’, and not long afterwards, Nissim Ezekiel: wrote ‘Under Orion is impressive evidence not only of mature poetic talent but of literary stamina, intellectual strength and social awareness …. By putting Daruwalla among his contemporaries one sees how he scores heavily over them. By depth of feeling, economy of language and originality of insight, Daruwalla commands respect. One cannot make patronizingly approving noises in the usual manner of the all-knowing critic’. Notwithstanding the circulation Ezekiel’s perceptive and persuasive review appeared in the Times Weekly and, subsequently, in Saleem Peeradina’s anthology. Criticism as inept as Prasenjit Mukherji’s ‘Relating the Subjective Experience: An Approach to the Recent Poetry of Keki N. Daruwalla’ (Chandrabhaga 4) trickles out in early 1981. The publication of Winter Poems provides the opportunity to set this situation right. This volume has the range, depth, and variety to test the more ‘exacting’ of our critics; it is a focal point of all Daruwalla’s skills and concerns as none of his previous volumes were: and, most significantly, it unfolds and completes the pattern of his poetry of the past decade. Though prediction would be hazardous in the case of Daruwalla, there are already signs that the familiar ‘phase’ of his artistic development is over: he is, I believe, working on his first novel.
Even by itself, Winter Poems constitutes a formidable critical task owing to the complexity of its structure. It contains forty-nine poems arranged in sequences, sub-sequences and sections. There are five sections: ‘Winter Poems’, a sequence of eight poems, of which the last is itself a sequence of three; ‘Hunger-74’, a sequence of nine poems with an epigraph that has been repeated as an epigraph to the volume; ‘Variations’, a sequence of four poems, of which the second is a sequence of seven and the third a sequence of two; ‘Graffiti’, a miscellaneous agglomerate of five poems, of which the second is a sequence of three; and ‘Bombay Prayers’, a sequence of twelve poems. Placed within the Indian English verse of the 1970s, particularly the work of Kolatkar, Parthasarathy, Jussawalla and Mehrotra, Daruwalla’s use of sequential structure underscores the need to develop a general critical perspective for sequencing as a formal device. The more tractable aspects of this emerge with some clarity when we examine the five sections of Winter Poems in detail.
On first reading, the opening section, ‘Winter Poems’, appears to be a looselyknit or even diffuse sequence of personal poems. Thematically, the individual parts as well as the whole seem to lack a single focus (a common-enough expectation of a sequence). For example, the first poem disperses itself over images of winter, wind, tree and sleep; the second over sand, wind and hair; the third over dream, terror and compassion. Formally also, the poems vary from brief disjointed evocation (‘When sand churns’ and ‘Angst was your child’) to longer quasi-narrative using prose syntax (‘Last night I heard’ and ‘The hive slept’). Thus, Daruwalla dares violent shifts of tone and construction in comparison with, say, Parthasarathy’s sequence ‘Trial’ in Rough Passage:
i can see its gesticulations
the expressions ripped away
like torn wings,
like passions flaking off,
like dandruff, like falling hair,
(‘ Winter Poems 2’, p. 14)
We have come of age:
those who grew up with us
have already started dying.
(‘Winter Poems: 7’, p. 19).
On closer examination, however, the’ sequence exhibits an unusual cohesiveness. The primary agent of cohesion is Daruwalla’s vocabulary of elemental extremes: skeletal, lightning, terror, coffined, forest, angst, radioactive, hemoglobin, motorized monsters, ozone, maenad, crescent, abeyance, compassion.
It provides a delicate network that holds together a multiplicity of concurrent themes: ageing, mellowing, despair, compassion, love, childbirth, death, passion, futility, angst. Image and metaphor drawn from nature, the body, and the human world provide secondary threads of unity: ‘tree’ in the first, fourth and fifth poems and ‘forest’. in the eighth, or ‘flaking’ in the second poem and ‘peel’ , in the seventh; or ‘heart’ in the fifth and sixth poems, or ‘groan’ in the third and eighth poems. The associative power of words thus enables Daruwalla to develop an alternative to both linear sequential structure (Parthasarathy’s Rough Passage, Kolatkar’s Jejuri) and circular sequential structure (Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Deus Loci’), an achievement which is considerable particularly because neither the delicacy nor the vitality of earlier personal poems like ‘Love Among the Pines’, ‘Fire Hymn’, ‘The Night of the Jackals’, and ‘Death of a Bird’ has been sacrificed. Consequently, ‘Winter Poems’ reveals an unfamiliar, bleak personal landscape painted with the familiar skill.
The bleakness of the opening sequence prepares us, in some measure, for ‘’Hunger-74’ and ‘Variations’. These two central sections of the volume transport us from the ‘personal’ and the elusive to the ‘social’ and the observable. Here patterns of place, people and event—familiar material for the exercise of Daruwalla’s dramatic, narrative and satiric craft—are detailed with, enviable power and precision. The effectiveness of these twenty poems lies, to my mind, in the removal of specificity (which is not the same as detail) of context and reference. ‘Context’ is provided in the abstract, by an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: ‘It is equal to living in a tragic land/To live in a tragic time’. The poet thus invites us to read the poems as having been set in that intangible zone where action, thought, conviction, feeling and purpose are manifest not only in one time and place but everywhere and always. By doing so, Daruwalla naturally places himself with the European and Latin American poets who have developed this framework in our own times: Vladimir Holan, Eugenio Montale, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis, Pablo Neruda. Accordingly, landscape becomes both symbol and reality, a voice is both one man and many, an event is both another time and another place. Daruwalla achieves’ this interplay in ‘’Hunger-74’ and ‘Variations’ by maintaining a thematic unity but adopting a variety of modes: description, satire, narration and invocation.
the land, hard as rigor mortis,
flowering with bone-bush.
(‘Hunger-74: 2’, p.26)
No end to hoarding!
Breaking open the lockers, they find
a briefcase full of rice.
(‘Hunger-74: 4’; p. 28)
Two days, and the boats set out for him,
facing the unblinking scrutiny of the sea
and the sun which stared
from the dead belly of the waves.
The gulls with their black-stud eyes
followed the boats.
(‘Hunger-74: 9’, p. 37)
Everything indoors. Thoughts in
camouflaged with hair.
(‘ Variations: 1’, p. 41)
Thematically, ‘Hunger-74’ and Variations’ are counterpoised; while the focus of the former is the human confronting a relentless, unmastered natural environment (‘the scar-tissue land’, ‘a sky of bone’, ‘the brown wash of the sea’), that of the latter is the human trapped in its own labyrinth (rooms, walls, window-panes, mirrors, frontages).
In relation to such earlier work as ‘Curfew’, ‘Pestilence’, and ‘Poems from the Tarai’ in the 1970 volume, and ‘Vignette III’, ‘Death Vignette’ and ‘River Silt I’ in the 1976 collection, there is greater concentration of poetic skill, a deeper insight into and a more profound empathy for the human situation. The result is a starkness of reality and vision not yet in evidence among other Indian English poets.
In the fourth section, ‘Graffiti’, the bleakness is temporarily alleviated. Of the five miscellaneous poems, ‘Caries’, ‘The Professor Condoles’, and ‘Einstein Explains to God the End of the World’ are satirical in intent: the first is directed against the contemporary breed of political aspirant, the second against academic schizophrenia, and the third against the popular pseudo-scientific attitude. There are flashes of sardonic humour and perception which relate these poems to others within Daruwalla’s oeuvre:
First when the teeth got caries
they stuffed them with silver.
The relief! Earlier even politicians
as they talked to him
took their hankeys to the nose!
(‘Caries’, p. 53)
We need someone acclimatized to hell-fires
to survive the nuclear embers of the world,
(‘Einstein’, p. 64)
In contrast, the other two poems in this section are personal. ‘Lorca’, a favourite, seems to me to preserve the romantic-lyrical vein in the early phase at its purest; cast as a specific tribute to the Spanish poet, it actually ‘repays’ the general debt Daruwalla owes to the Hispanic tradition, first acknowledged in the epigraph from Borges to Under Orion. ‘For my Daughter (Anaheita)’, on the other hand, is an equally accomplished exposition of familial emotion; it celebrates childbirth and life with as much delicacy as the earlier ‘Fire Hymn’ mourns the death of a first-born. For compactness and sensitivity to nuance, Daruwalla’ here matches the best of Ramanujan and Parthasarathy; for realized complexity, he perhaps scores over both of them. The poem can be more fully appreciated when compared with David Holbrook’s less successful ‘Fingers in the Door’ and Hugh Macdiarmid’s more sustained ‘Lo! a Child is Born’.
‘Bombay Prayers, the final section of the volume, is a relatively short sequence of quasi-prayers. Because of the consistent tone and address Daruwalla employs here, the sequential structure appears to be more cohesive than even that of ‘Variations’. However, a counterbalancing tension, provided by shifts in attitude and attention somewhat in the manner of ‘Winter Poems’ and’ ‘Hunger-74’, constantly disrupts the linear movement of the speaking voice. The attitude oscillates between the ironic, the angry, the earnest and the irreverent: the attention is diverted from the social to the personal, from the ‘epiphanic’ to the ritualistic.
From the lepers, the acid-scarred, the amputees
I turn my face.
(‘Bombay Prayers: 1’, p. 67)
Keep us from temptation
Yet not far from it!
(‘Bombay Prayers: 8’, p. 71)
One cannot escape you
as one cannot escape the light
one cannot escape you
as one cannot escape the night.
(‘Bombay Prayers: 11’, p.72)
A comparison of this sequence with Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘The Egoist’s Prayers’ is almost inevitable. There are tonal and attitudinal affinities, especially noticeable in the first, fifth, eighth, ninth and twelfth of Daruwalla’s prayers; both texts are secular, with the solitary exception of a reference to the Parsi Towers of Silence in the seventh of the prayers here; and Daruwalla is extremely likely to have seen Ezekiel’s sequence just before he first drafted his own. The ‘echoes’ of Ezekiel are distracting and depreciatory, and ‘The Egoist’s Prayers’ is more compact and sculpted; but the comparison also highlights Daruwalla’s range of material and imagery, as well as the intrinsic robustness of his verse. However, the more interesting comparisons are with Daruwalla’s other writing in the same vein, especially the two poems to Siva in Under Orion, ‘Vignette III’ and ‘The Dip’ Crossing of Rivers, some of the uncollected ‘Varanasi Vignettes’, and some .of the short stories in Sword and Abyss. Despite his early dismissal of morality as ‘the prudish pronounced with a prurient grin’ and religion as ‘the devi}’s tailbone and original sin’, the ‘spiritual’ in its private as well as public forms emerges as a recurrent concern in Daruwalla’s poetry and fiction. Its explication is made more complex by the essentially moral nature of the vision in Hunger- 74’ and ‘Variations’.
The multiplicity of strands running through Winter Poems does not end here. The critic’s task is further complicated by the availability of earlier versions of three of the main sequences and one of the sub-sequences as published in periodicals over the last seven years. These earlier versions radically alter the initial critical response to the volume in several ways. Of these, two factors are of primary importance: the extensive revision of the text that becomes observable on comparing the periodical and the book versions, and the pattern of inception and composition of the poems that emerges from the dates of their first appearance in print.
The comparisons between earlier and later versions of the sequences shows how much more fastidious a craftsman Daruwalla is than his critics· realize. The revisions are both extensive and substantial: all four sequences have been fundamentally altered. The process reveals the poet’s censor at work, and we see that Daruwalla is meticulous in a different way from Parthasarathy (periodical and book versions of ‘Exile’ ‘Trial’ and ‘Homecoming’ are available) and Shiv K. Kumar (earlier and later versions of ‘Broken Columns’ and ‘Letter from New York’ are available). Daruwalla prunes and adds more extensively than either of these poets, and he is more willing to exploit a new direction or opening discovered in the process of reconsidering his work. We also see Daruwalla’s problems and difficulties with his craft; punctuation, for example, evidently causes him considerable worry. In thirty two poems there are 93 changes in punctuation, the majority of them improvements to the extent that the rhythm and the emphases are clarified; the rest have neither solved the original problems or have disturbed the earlier equilibriums unhappily. It is thus imperative that the critic not only examine his ‘final’ text for the minutest detail, but also pays equal attention to all available ‘earlier’ texts.
The presence of the earlier versions of these sequences also alters our perspective on the chronology of the poems. Usually, critics refer to poems in different collections of a poet as ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ by the dates of publication of the volumes; the exceptions are poems which carry the dates assigned to them by the poet, and the works of major poets which are dated by composition for the refinement of critical assessment. In the ordinary cases, judgements of ‘artistic development’ are thus based on the approximate chronology provided by the publication history of the volumes. In Daruwalla’s case, the range and quality of the output make an assessment of the development of his craft over the past twelve or thirteen years essential; and the approximate chronology of the volumes will not suffice. For, at least twenty-two poems in Winter Poems were available in draft form before Crossing of Rivers was prepared for press, probably two poems could have been included in Apparition in April, and one of these may have been written around the time of publication of Under Orion. Earlier, much of the material placed in Apparition in April was already available for inclusion in Under Orion, and some of the poems originally drafted for Crossing of Rivers were held back and still remain uncollected. Evidently. we are faced with a pattern which had been delineated to a greater extent than was exposed in the successive volumes; hence my suggestion early in this review that we view Winter Poems as a fourth stage in Daruwalla’s unfolding oeuvre, in many ways completing the pattern only partially revealed earlier. The four volumes therefore have to be considered in relation to each other, not in isolation; and the complex of simultaneity and circularity (as against the normal ‘linear progression’ from one volume to the next) has to be meticulously unravelled to enable us to see Daruwalla’s poetry in clear light.
Given these problems, McCutchion’s recommendation of 1968 that the critic’s main tasks are ‘to examine the circumstances which produced it (the poetry), establish the limits of its authenticity, and assess the extent to which it is derivative from non- Indian sources’ will not suffice. Winter Poems directs our attention from the circumstances to the text itself, from the question of authenticity to the fact of achievement, and from the suspicion of derivation to appreciation through comparison. Nor will Mehrotra’s more recent advocation of ‘a sense of despair and a sense of excitement’ prove sufficient. The critical exercise is more arduous, in proportion to the creative energy it contends with, and more than emotion must feed it.
Vinay Dharwadker is a writer.