classic poetry

One hundred years of no solitude: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ lives on in India

Published in June 1915 and arguably the best-known work of modern poetry in the world, T.S. Eliot’s poem is alive and well.

“Prufrock is the name of T. S. Eliot’s fashion label.”

So wrote a postgraduate student in a university examination in Bengal a few years before T. S. Eliot’s best-known poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, turned hundred. First published in June 1915, the poem would become canonised in various ways. Not only has it been cradled into the English Literature university syllabus, from where it generates the most amusing anecdotes, the noun in its title and its striking lines have been turned colloquial by the unlikeliest of people.

There was controversy-craving writer-editor Tarun Tejpal who, in 2012, proposed to set up an exclusive club in Delhi – Prufrock would be its name and members (by invitation only) would move around in it like the men and women in Eliot’s poem, in this “vibrant cultural space, where a highly accomplished, eclectic community of select urban Indians can meet and engage in an atmosphere of great intimacy with eminent people who make and shape the world”. Perhaps it was the air of social conversation in the poem that might have prompted this baptism?

In the room the women come and go
Talking about Michelangelo

I doubt that this is an “atmosphere of great intimacy”, but there are as many texts as there are readers, and so on.

The lines are everywhere

I have encountered these lines and their parodies in the strangest of places. On the back of a battery run rickshaw named Toto, not far from the main railway station in Bengal’s Siliguri, where I live, the lines had been modified into a road-song:

In this Toto people come and go
Shouting Hello Hello

From the Darjeeling Mail, a train that runs between Calcutta and Siliguri, I spotted a giant-sized banner of an infertility treatment clinic in the suburbs of Calcutta that had a childless couple’s worries condensed into a thought bubble.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

The lines sounded familiar to me in the early morning, when the train was just about to enter Sealdah station. It was only when I’d managed to locate them later that the laughter came. How might Eliot have reacted at Prufrock’s worries about infertility?

It was after a few such encounters with the poem that I began to grow alert about its career in India. I had first noticed its accommodativeness for easy parody and easier tagging when we began applying portions of it to the professor who taught us this poem at university. The best – and most rewarding – thing about that experience was our professor’s self-mocking application of the lines to explain his circumstances.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Professor Samanta in his rolled up denim pants, deliberately anachronistic jackets and thinning hair, a man with an easy enthusiasm that comes naturally to adults who have not completely severed their connection with adolescence, seemed to have found his life’s echo chamber in this poem. He would quote from it at random to students from his old world bicycle on the university campus.

Two years ago, at a conference in the university, one of those events where bureaucracy murders literature with great ceremony, I heard Professor Samanta recite the poem as part of a valedictory address. He was older now, older than Prufrock in the poem and older, of course, than when he had taught us the poem more than fifteen years ago. It might have been his natural gift for mischief that made him choose three of his female students as a “chorus” to accompany him in the reading of the poem: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."

It is one thing to hear about women talking about Michelangelo, quite another to see and hear three well-dressed women talk about women talking of Michelangelo. I cannot completely recall the words of Professor Samanta’s version of Eliot’s poem except that they had been brilliantly structured to describe the atmosphere of the conference hall.

What delighted the audience was the wicked but honest mischief of aligning the middle aged Prufrock’s inability to articulate his thoughts with the forced jargon filled language of most of the speakers of the conference. There were the delights of the aleatory – just as the three women recited the Michelangelo refrain, two women entered through the creaking door of the hall. They must have been surprised to have been greeted by such full bodied laughter.

After the “Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse” description of the academic and his discourse, my favourite bit of the parody was Professor Samanta’s use of the other refrain to characterise a paper presenter’s response to a questioner.

That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.

There were claps to greet that bit of parody.

Classroom favourite

Eliot’s poem, with the easy malleability of its lines, seems to be a favourite at seminars in India. Niladri R. Chatterjee, who teaches English at Kalyani University, used a couple of lines as an epigraph to his lecture on the Facebook Profile Photo at a seminar on Cultural Studies three years ago: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. The last lines of the same stanza were used, to telling effect, by an editor to an author whose manuscript she was editing:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The location of the classroom, its geographical setting, has often provided quixotic annotations to the reading of the poem. “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes .../Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains” took on a completely new meaning in a Darjeeling Eng Lit classroom where thick and intrusive fog always managed to sneak in through cracks in the window. Students took leave, got delayed for lectures because of unexpected landslides and attendant transport problems, but never the mist – the fog would have won the most regular student award easily.

And so I wasn’t surprised to find a student using it often to inaugurate conversations with his friends from other disciplines. Eliot’s words revved up the “cool” quotient to what would have been a matter of fact mention of a daily phenomenon in the Darjeeling hills. The poem travels well, even if differently. From the mountains to the sea: Niranjan Mohanty, a poet and professor of English, once narrated to an audience the effect of the last lines of Eliot’s poem on young students in Orissa’s Gopalpur.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The sea wasn’t very far from the campus, Mohanty told us, and who could fault the young boys to go looking for girls to match Eliot’s description? We smiled politely until the last bit of his reportage came to us – during a Viva Voce examination, when a male student was asked to explain the “human voices” in the last line of the poem, he innocently replied, “Those are the voices of our teachers in the classroom, waking us up from our dreams about the sea-girls”.

The Life Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Mishearing and mispronunciation often adds to the hilarity – I remember a student from Gujarat’s Rajkot telling me how she misheard “I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter” as “I am no prophet – and here’s no grey matter” in the classroom and prepared “short answers” on why a prophet should have no grey matter. There is the other story about a student responding with “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” when asked to explain Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” in an oral exam.

Outside the classroom, I often ask students about their favourite lines from the poem. It is something I have never done for any other literary text. I cannot explain it rationally but the choice of lines seems to tell me something about them, their inner lives that classroom teaching is structured to repress. I turn into a teacher-shrink as I hear them give me reasons for choosing a few lines over the rest.

A young male student who had lived in a village in Cooch Behar district for most of his life told me that he had never stayed in a hotel. He hadn’t needed to in his twenty-one-year old life – home and hostel had contained his days, a hotel and a holiday were new and surprising ideas for him. Given our shared urban conditioning, his friends and I smiled, but it had never occurred to me that “The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” might become a Newfound Land for a twenty first century reader. The young man said that Eliot’s poem had tempted him to stay in a “one-night cheap hotel” to find out what the poet really meant.

One student requested me to tell the class about T. S. Eliot’s hairstyle in some detail. He was certain that Eliot shared the male anxiety about baldness. “Why else would he posit Prufrock’s thinning hair with the mermaids ‘combing the white hair of the waves’?” Vishal, a student always generous with his humour in the classroom, pointed to the girls and said, “He even advocates waxing, see – why else would he write about the ‘light brown hair’ on women’s arms?”.

An IAS officer who writes a popular blog called Sad Old Bong under the pseudonym “Prufrock”, puts it to his admiration for Eliot and "the Love Song's mood of resignation, futile romanticism merging into a wistful cynicism that is so appropriate for the stereotypical overweight bureaucrat fast crossing middle age". Eliot said that Prufrock “was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 ... and partly an expression of feeling of my own”.

I am reminded of the critic Van Wyck Brooks’s comments on Prufrock: “Prufrock is timid, fastidious, afraid of action”. The IAS officer has, in appropriating Prufrock to the middle aged bureaucrat’s to-do-or-not-to-do life, got it perfectly synchronised.

The Love Song – which we know is no love song – is a laboratory notebook filled with urban maladies. Everything around him seems to be a disease to J. Alfred Prufrock – the evening, the men and women, the weather, the coffee, the novels, the dreams and the fantasies, and he himself. Perhaps because disappointment is always looking for a colloquial rhetoric, Eliot’s poem has sneaked in so easily into the cracks of our routine life.

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” is, as most of us are aware, the anthem of urban life. Morning and evening, and the spaces in between, in a world that has begun to smell like a coffee chamber, that line tags Facebook photos of meetings over coffee and insomniacs’ posts at midnight.

That this ‘readymade’ line has not been lifted or parodied by advertising agencies in India, the land of jugad, is a bit of a mini miracle. Then there is “Is it perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress?”, a line that many women have encountered at evening parties. My own maudlin version has been to turn the poem’s second line into an anthem of day-end disappointment: “When the evening is spread out against a sigh ...”.

Eliot is said to have taken the name “Prufrock-Littau” from furniture wholesalers in St. Louis. A student who had discovered Prufrock-inspired jewellery on the web quoted from the poem to tell me about the inconsequentiality of studying Eliot and English Literature:

Would it have been worth while,
... After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
And this, and so much more? –

She stopped herself midway and said, “That is it ma’am. The floor length skirt – after I become a fashion designer, I’ll call them ‘Prufrock skirts’”.

Reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock had been worth something at least.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock comic by cartoonist Julian Peters.

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