February 2006

Blythe Boyer

poetry

Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar

Arun Kolatkar first published Jejuri in 1976, and he passed away in 2004, but book and author are both still subjects of widespread discussion. Kolatkar was born in Kolhapur, in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra, in 1932. He wrote often in his native tongue of Marathi, but he wrote Jejuri in English, a choice that may seem simple today. Over the past three decades, this choice has had vast political and artistic interpretations. The debates are too numerous and complex to describe here, but Kolatkar’s writing has been cited and dissected for decades, while he remained mischievously quiet on the subjects.

In the introduction to this new, beautiful edition, novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri compares the two diverging “lineages” of Indian literature written in English. Salman Rushdie seeded one line with Midnight’s Children, and Kolatkar founded the other with Jejuri. Though Rushdie’s book was published five years after Jejuri, people the world around know it well, while Kolatkar’s book is still rather obscure. One reason is that Jejuri was not published outside of India until 2003; to our detriment, not many people outside of India are familiar with his work.

Kolatkar wrote Jejuri during the early years of newly independent India, but the subject of the book is difficult to pinpoint. When I read it, the narrative runs smoothly, simply, and concretely. Kolatkar takes me on a journey and releases me at the end. Once I leave the book, all of the discussion about Kolatkar’s life and artistic choices -- that is, writing in English, intentionally printing his work in tiny batches -- pounces on me and starts to confound. The only solution, sometimes, is to go back to page one and start the journey all over again and reenter a world that is at once mystical and mundane.

Jejuri describes a day trip to the town of Jejuri, a pilgrimage town in Maharashtra. Both devotion and commercialism populate the town, and the man we follow doesn’t search for enlightenment; he’s sightseeing. His straightforward voice colors most of the poems, though Kolatkar does hop into the mind of the priest and the god at points. Though the traveler becomes more enchanted with the town as the day goes on, he retains his sense of humor, as in “Manohar”:

The door was open.
Manohar thought
It was one more temple.

He looked inside
Wondering
Which god he was going to find.

He quickly turned away
When a wide eyed calf
Looked back at him.

It isn’t another temple,
He said,
It’s just a cowshed.

The traveler arrived with a secular itinerary, but as he observes the bustle of the town and its contradictory trappings of mysticism and urbanity, he allows the surroundings to present their many faces. Temples, mongrels, beggars, even the hillside all start to swing between what they appear to be and what they could mean. Though Kolatkar generally dismisses the monumental -- his traveler takes more interest in a stray dog than the temple that she inhabits -- his observations of the everyday show for the reader the changeableness of the world’s objects, large or small. For example, he flips the countryside upside down in "Hills":

hills
demons
sand blasted shoulders
bladed with shale

demons
hills
cactus thrust
up through ribs of rock

hills
demons
kneequartz
limestone loins

demons
hills
cactus fang
in sky meat

Kolatkar’s skillful metaphors and playful imagery carry the reader on this irregular religious experience, but the author won’t let you stay there. At the end of the book, we wearily follow the traveler to the railway station, overwhelmed by the oceanic legends of Jejuri’s gods. We have started to understand the devotional poses of the pilgrims we saw in town, and even take some vows:

Slaughter a goat before the clock
Smash a coconut on the railway track
Smear the indicator with the blood of a cock
Bathe the station master in milk
And promise you will give
A solid gold toy train to the booking clerk
If only someone would tell you
When the next train is due

Kolatkar is not ready to relinquish his sharp powers of observation to the rounded edge of faith, and won’t let his reader do so either.

After you put down Jejuri, you have to marvel that it was written in a language other than Kolatkar’s mother tongue. Some critics say his writing was facetious (“scratch a rock/and a legend springs”), some say transcendental (“No more a place of worship this place/is nothing less than the house of god”), some say political (“let’s see the color of your money first”) and some say anti-theocratic (“A catgrin on its face/and a live, ready to eat pilgrim/held between its teeth.”) I say that he took complex concepts from his native Marathi tongue and wrote them simply in English, with a style that would make a poet in any language envious.

Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar
New York Review of Books
ISBN: 1590171632
52 Pages