Before I knew Saleem Peeradina as a poet and editor, I knew him as a teacher at the Sophia Open Classroom in Bombay, at a time when it was all right to call the city by that name. I would soon read his poetry; as an editor he published my reviews and essays; but it was his passion as a teacher that I discovered first, at those classrooms, in 1979.

Saleem had returned to India after his graduate degree in the United States, and set up this innovative programme at the Sophia College for Women. It was a remarkable idea. The curricula at Indian campuses those days, as perhaps now, were fossilised; devoid of imagination, the system penalised originality or deviation from the prescribed texts. Many professors expected students to learn-by-heart, or LBH, as we called it.

The more sensitive and thoughtful professors knew that they had little choice but to emphasise rote learning and memorise obscure facts and dates, as they prepared the students to regurgitate the accumulated data at examinations held annually. The process was mechanical, as graduates tumbled out of the universities, like products from an assembly line.

In one of his essays in this collection, Saleem describes the dehumanising process as “the conveyor belt takes over and successfully eliminates any possibility of negotiated relationships between student and teacher.” Open Classrooms meant to change that.

I have fond memories of my college years, but what I remember most is not what was said in class, but the conversations I had with other students and some professors, after hours, over chai and samosas, talking about things not found in our textbooks: dissecting the cinema of Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, or Satyajit Ray that we may have seen at Akashwani auditorium, the House of Soviet Culture (yes, there was one such!), or Alliance Francaise; the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, Miroslav Holub, Adrian Henri, Sylvia Plath, or Nissim Ezekiel read in books borrowed from libraries; or the plays of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Becket, or Badal Sircar, seen at Chhabildas Hall or Prithvi Theatre.

Saleem conceived of the Open Classroom precisely to make up for what was being lost, and what was closing the Indian mind. India never really had liberal arts education; Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan being the exception. Saleem wanted to light a candle in that darkness, by offering eclectic subjects without any pressure of examinations or rewards like certificates, but with academic rigour, after which you would emerge with a deeper understanding of the wider world.

The Sophia campus was situated off a lane connecting Pedder Road and Warden Road. It is an old, pink palace, once the property of the East India Company, which Badruddin Tyabji, an early president of the Indian National Congress, had acquired, before the Maharajah of Bhavnagar came to own it. The college was for women, but the open classrooms would be open for all.

My mother Harsha had discovered the programme, hearing about it from her friends. She was in her mid-40s then, with post-graduate degrees in philosophy and sociology from the University of Bombay, but she must have felt something was missing, as she signed up for the course on The 20th Century Mind, which Saleem taught. My good friend, the writer Arshia Sattar, was her classmate.

I took a course on Creative Writing, and then I went on to do two more – Advanced Creative Writing and the improbably-named Incredibly Advanced Creative Writing class, which Saleem and his lively colleague, the British writer Julian Birkett, taught.

Those evenings opened many windows: why the seemingly-deceptive haiku was one of the hardest things to write; what made a sonnet work and whether it was an appropriate form for us to express ourselves; could a ghazal travel from Urdu/Hindi to English; where should lines be broken up in a poem, and why it is important to see how a poem looks on a page, as it shapes how it is read; why leanness and clarity were important; why cutting and shedding the extraneous was part of the rigour that good writing required to make it better; and why there was nothing holy or sacrosanct about the first draft.

Keep cutting, shaving, removing – and what remains will be pure, so let those words speak – they will sing. In writing prose, Saleem also stressed the importance of dialogue, and most important, why we must show, not tell. And to tell well, listen first. Saleem developed these ideas later into an essay here under the title, “So what makes a poem good?”

Those courses reminded me of the life that existed beyond the quotidian, the humdrum, and the trivia. Nostalgia is supposed to make us remember the past and its pleasures, and not the pain, but the pain was alleviated by the pleasures. I was young and had fallen in love; it hadn’t work out, but the experience and that time left me with poems, which I was glad to receive. And those poems became better because of the time I spent at the classrooms – so it wasn’t so bad, after all.

At that time, Bombay was the hub of English poetry in India. True, Bhubaneshwar had Jayanta Mahapatra, Delhi had Keki Daruwalla, Allahabad had Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and Kerala boasted of Kamala Das – but Bombay had Ezekiel, Saleem, Dom Moraes, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawala, Melanie Salgardo, Santan Rodrigues, Gieve Patel, and Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre (who wrote in Marathi and English), and many more who felt comfortable to write in a city that was at ease with English.

It was a heady time. Moraes had returned home from his wanderings abroad; Ezekiel ran PEN from Theosophy Hall; Kolatkar would be at Wayside Inn near Kala Ghoda; Chitre was a regular feature of the cultural scene; Jussawala was at Debonair magazine, and with psychotherapist Udayan Patel, had begun a publishing venture, Praxis; other publishing ventures focusing on poetry emerged - Clearing House and Newground among them.

I returned to Bombay after my postgraduate degree in America, and Saleem was editing the books section of Express Magazine, the weekend supplement of the Indian Express. He was warmly encouraging, and gave me – I was 24 – the space to write about Philip Larkin, Milan Kundera, Simone de Beauvoir, Ved Mehta, Gunter Grass, and Suresh Joshi, among others. I was young and opinionated, and he recognised that and did not ask me to circumscribe my views in any way.

As Wordsworth said about the French Revolution, bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven. Bombay didn’t have a bloody revolution, but Wordsworth’s words capture the mood of the city, of a gentler revolution. (The city had voted against Indira Gandhi not only in the pivotal elections after the Emergency in 1977, but also in 1980, when the nation, chastened, had gone back to her fold).

While the Shiv Sena had begun to spread its insidious parochialism across the city, Bombay still attracted people from everywhere to follow their dreams. No single language, religion, or culture dominated the city. A unique feature of Indian writing in English was that while the language was not dominant in any part of the country, it was spoken in many places, usually urban, which made the writing in English more pan-Indian than most writing in, for example, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, or Bengali (other Indian languages I know), which were more rooted to those specific regions. Indeed there were exceptions among writers who wrote in those languages, but it would be unusual to find a Punjabi character in a Gujarati novel, or a Marathi character in an Assamese short story. In English writing, everyone was welcome.

For English poetry in India, Bombay became a natural home, as it was itself a polyglot bhel-puri of a city. At public readings in that city, unlike elsewhere, poets here were often spared being asked long-winded questions about why they didn’t write in Tamil or Gujarati or Hindi instead. In these essays, Saleem acknowledges the resentment underpinning such questions, often asked in other cities. He writes: “Part of this resentment is understandable, because writers in English enjoy an unfair advantage over writers from the states by being situated in the metropolitan areas, possessing easy access to the national media in English which tends to dominate… So even a third-rate writer gets more exposure (and more publicity in the increasingly gossip-oriented glossies) than writers of real substance and stature tucked away in the interior of the literary landscape.” Saleem understands the regional pride, but finds a sense of defensiveness in that argument.

The Bombay poets who wrote in regional languages who I knew – in Marathi, Mangesh Padgaonkar or Vinda Karandikar, or in Gujarati, Suresh Dalal, Jagdish Joshi, or Vipin Parikh – were not insecure; they could pack auditoriums with hundreds of eager fans. The poets who wrote in English had modest but devoted following. They were lucky to have a couple of dozen people turn up at places like the Artists’ Centre near Kala Ghoda, or the Theosophy Hall at Churchgate.

Aware of the limits, de Souza would write in one of her poems how her students thought it funny that “Daruwallas and de Souzas should write poetry.” But for then-young poets eager to learn the craft of writing, those were places of pilgrimage. Many of those poets are now firmly part of India’s poetry scene: Ranjit Hoskote, Jeet Thayil, Menka Shivdasani, Jerry Pinto, Arundhathi Subramaniam, and others.

The poems in Saleem’s first book, First Offence, evoked images of an urban life – of Bandra before it became so trendy (where you can smell the salt of the sea), of a woman combing the hair of her daughter (and you might sense the coconut oil), and the formidable poem, There is no god, about the omnipresence of mother. More “offences” would follow: Group Portrait, which explores his childhood, family, and loss of faith, followed by Meditations on Desire, Slow Dance, Final Cut, and Heart’s Beast.

Over the years, as the essays in this volume show (and interviews with him note), critics have noted his remarkable empathy and understanding of women. He writes about women as a father, a lover, a friend with a gentle tone and profound understanding. You can see his sensitivity in his sketches as well: the women he draws perform quotidian tasks – drawing water from the well, standing along side brass pots placed near the communal taps, carrying an improbable amount of baskets on their heads, drying and cleaning the fish the men have caught from the sea, showing the women for what they are – dignified and hard-working, and feminine.

His commitment to feminism is consistent. Once in America, he feels liberated from the encumbrances India places on a man, as he learns how to cook – and he does this not by suggesting that cooking is a woman’s job, but by revealing how he feels he has become whole by learning how to cook. In Speaking of Women, he discusses in detail gender issues in traditional and modern spaces. The long essays are brilliant. One that has been included in university textbooks and taught in courses in Cultural Anthropology speaks from the perspective of an ethnographer in observing and comparing American and Indian norms of behaviour and value-systems.

These essays bring out Saleem’s personality through his words, experiences, and observations. His humanism shines through in the affectionate portrait he draws of his family while not sparing male relatives, including his father, of their unfairness. His quiet championing of feminism is visible in his poetry. Here he writes: “What is required of men is hard self-scrutiny and a corresponding effort to situate, to listen, and to empathise. Of course, one will never wholly transcend the physical borders of one’s being, nor grasp the ultimate experience of a woman’s inner beauty, nor do complete justice to the wishes and desires that exist within her. But one will have gained a foothold. Poetry has enabled me to secure that foothold, and poetry must penetrate the skins of those it seeks to understand and those it wishes to release by that understanding.”

An Arc in Time

His tone remains civil with those he disagrees, as we see in his response to a critic of his work (the poet Vilas Sarang, in this instance). It reminds me of Ezekiel’s wise and ironic dismissal of VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. Saleem’s tone is an object lesson and reminder during these charged times where criticism has come to mean pithy insults on twitter.

He is forthright in opposing fundamentalism. He notes how “noble intentions and holy postures didn’t add up to a morally upright existence; that mechanical acts of charity provided an alibi to commit rationalized acts of robbery in business; that public display of piety was often a coverup for a private reign of terror.” His beliefs started stripping away, turning into ashes. “I saw the world of adults embroiled in conspiracy and treachery. Everything on the surface was an act, the reality below was grim, shameful. As I looked up into the blue, I saw a vast emptiness: my growing scepticism had gradually erased from the sky the face of god,” he says.

Saleem’s eye is observant of the places he visits. Describing London, or Thatcherland, he writes: “I sleep with the window ajar – as the dull, dreary weight of grey sky. This is not monsoon grey which relieves the relentless sun and heat of the subcontinent but permanent, continental, suicidal grey.” In my eighteen years in London, I have woken up to such skies often, and can easily relate to what he describes. He is cheered by the Seine and Paris, where “the ample walking footpaths and footbridges and sitting spaces that have been maintained” for pedestrians, revealing “a continuously vital relation between what the city has to provide and what its inhabitants have to cultivate in return towards the city.”

Saleem has been many things – as he puts it, a “westernised Indian, a stubbornly resistant American, a poet-teacher, a migrant-expatriate looking over his shoulder, a participant-observer”. And it is as poet-teacher that I met him first, and it is his delight in understanding and explaining that relationship that captures the essence of his personality: “The poet’s pleasure lies in direct communication of the poem’s statement – the power of its feeling and the beauty of its structure. The listener’s pleasure lies in the flashes of recognition that perceives the heart of the poem.”

For Saleem, teaching is “an activity of the soul”, which needs to be fired with “missionary zeal”, where the teacher is in love with the text in hand and the faces in front of him to do justice and to perform his role.”

He has done this, amply, and so well. These essays show us why.

Excerpted with permission from the Introduction, by Salil Tripathi, to An Arc in Time, Saleem Peeradina, Copper Coin.