If you haven’t read Arun Kolatkar, please do
There is something fundamentally dysfunctional in me that makes me relate to cities and absorb their character as much from the literature about them as from their physical presence.
Long before I moved to Bombay in the autumn of 2005, the city had seeped into my consciousness from the fictions of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri and Rohinton Mistry. Shortly after I moved here, I wrote about the Bombay that I knew from books, and the one that I’d found when I arrived.
In that piece, I did not mention Arun Kolatkar, bilingual poet, and one of modern India’s greatest. There wasn’t space enough, and I wasn’t sure about how to work it in… well, you know how it is. But Kolatkar’s writing has formed for me a particular impression of Bombay.
And every time I have visited Kala Ghoda, the art district in downtown Bombay, I can’t but think of his , a strikingly beautiful, slender collection that as much anatomises the city as gets under the skin of a cast of stragglers, itinerants, mavericks and quirks that people the Kala Ghoda area.
Still today, these are the characters that comprise the vast underbelly of a city that is so emblematic of India’s rapid economic growth and urbanization.
So not long after moderating a panel discussion on Indian writing at the Kala Ghoda Literature Festival on Sunday evening, I took down from my shelf Kolatkar’s book, and read again, with heightened pleasure:
on the load of rubbish,
treading it down
to compact it
and make room for more,
with skilled feet
she tramples it
like a vineyard wench
in a tub of grapes”
Kolatkar, born in 1932 in Kolhapur, spent his working life as a successful art director in advertising in Bombay. He published not as prolifically as his prodigious talent might have suggested. His poems initially appeared from small presses.
But they still managed to draw attention to themselves (unlike their reclusive author) when — his 1976 masterpiece, which, on the face of it, is about a visit to a pilgrimage site in Maharashtra — won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
The book was made available to an international audience when it was published as a prestigious New York Review of Books Classic in 2005, a year after Kolatkar’s death. Salman Rushdie called it “one of the great treasures of modern Indian literature”. Amit Chaudhuri’s introduction to the volume is as illuminating a companion you can wish to have if you want to explore Kolatkar.
His eye unblinking, his ear alert, Kolatkar — wry, introspective and gifted with an unerring sense for the precise image and the perfect pitch — could open up for his admirers the world in a single line.
Read here Ranjit Hoskote’s tribute to Kolatkar.