I first met Gieve Patel in the immediate wake of his wife’s death. A small poetry reading had been arranged in her memory at an art gallery in Mumbai. I was amongst the young poets invited to read their poems. When he heard me read a poem he said he wanted to hear more and that was the beginning of a deep friendship and a literary rapport, a sharing of ideas, poems and discussions about art and culture that would last for 27 years.
Painter, poet, playwright, and committed medical practitioner Gieve Patel was to become inseparable from my growth as a poet and a human being. We were to share poems regularly amidst discussions that ranged from Shakespeare, Racine, Sibelius, Titian and Goya to Bade Gulam Ali, Kabir and Kesarbai Kerkar; and on many occasions – in my twenties particularly – I was to receive free medical treatment from him at his clinic near Bombay Central.
An inquiry into the nature of death
Here was a man who was not threatened by his own versatility; who was happy to fulfil the many roles life seemed to be offering him without limiting himself to any narrower form of self-definition; and it was precisely this open-mindedness with regard to medium and function that I found most inspiring about his personality. There was a natural osmosis between the various roles he played.
The doctor, for instance, could turn into the poet with stunning ease, neither role needing to deny the other. See for instance, how both personae find themselves at once contrastive and completely at home in the poem quoted below: whereas a detached clinical view of the body is established throughout (one that any doctor is “trained” to maintain), it remains a perspective on the body that the poet cannot but find “startling”:
It is startling to see how swiftly— "Post Mortem"
A man may be sliced
From chin to prick,
How easily the bones
He has felt whole
Under his chest
For a sixty, seventy years
May be snapped,
With what calm
Liver, lung and heart
Be examined, the bowels
Noted for defect, the brain
And all these insides
That have for a lifetime
Raged and strained to understand
Be dumped back into the body,
Now stitched to perfection,
Before announcing death
Due to an obscure reason
Gieve’s recent demise curiously calls to mind his own lifelong obsession with death as a theme in poetry.
Death had just visited him the first time we met, almost three decades ago, and death is what compels me now to commemorate him in prose. For all the vociferousness and vivacity with which Gieve seems to have confronted the various challenges life set him as an artist, he seems to have always held death close to his heart, almost as if the end were continually at the heart of the process itself; and yet – though I know from my personal knowledge of him and from strong suggestions in some of the poems that he also had a strongly mystical side – his poetry only very rarely assumes an overtly mystical view of death.
Neither does it reach out for Tennysonian articulation of a death wish. What it does encapsulate is a serious and honest inquiry into the physical and possibly metaphysical nature of death, and a fascination with physical decay – a process that in his professional role as a medical practitioner, he would have been compelled all too often, to view from a detached, scientific perspective. The following lines from “Post Mortem Report” are addressed to a four-year-old child who died recently.
I now feel like reading his own lines back to him, as if he were their addressee:
I wonder about your last days.
Did you deliver a sign,
And not from mere disease,
Of what was happening? Or did you
Smile, sleep, and merely suffer?
Did your people feel that
You were still there – you –
Known as a daughter for four years –— “Post Mortem Report”
Or did they perhaps sense
The swarming, sense the withdrawal that
Profanely was miming
The myths we bestow upon death:
The passing away of a divided
Conflicted being, the appearance
Of a unity and total possession.
‘Bodyfears, here I stand’
The obsession with the physical body – primarily as a zone of unbearable suffering – prevails insistently through most of Gieve’s work, but this obsession co-exists with an unquenchable curiosity concerning what the body may contain that remains hidden from the eye of science. It is unnerving, of course, for us who still breathe, to hear him question – so soon after his own funeral – whether “ashes writhe” after cremation; and I can see his spirit smile mischievously as I quote his lines in context:
Bodyfears, here I stand:— "Bodyfears, here I stand"
A latitude of arms outstretched
Tip to tip, longitudinally
Scalp to toe. Could
Violence performed on me
Register anywhere at all
Is to say it happened?
After cremation do ashes writhe,
Remember the living body’s
Fight? Orbit ashes
Around the moon, fling them at
That certainly sends a chill up my spine; but let us turn away from such “bodyfears” and look instead at these lines from “Moult” (dedicated to Ranjit Hoskote) – a poem which describes Karna’s surrender of the armour he was born with and the consequent bringing on of his own nemesis. Have we not the choice, now that the poet has finally passed on, to empathise with the sense of joyous release his lines encapsulate; find peace, amidst the heaviness of loss, in the final “lightness” and liberation of death?
flayed Karna shivered from a cold
he had never thought to endure, shivered
animal-like, a mere beast
prepared for the cooking pot
and walked to the battlefield certain
to be pierced by the first lance
aimed at him. But the burden!
Amazingly it had lifted,
And might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled
To die unrehearsed of lightness.
Death seems to loom immovably and all-powerfully at the hub of Gieve’s creative vision; and yet, let us also remember him, by all means, as the boisterous and soulful celebrant of life that he was. His was a celebration that remained sceptical of the hedonistic, yet succeeded in embracing life in its manifold forms. He was a renaissance man of sorts, whose refusal to confine himself to any single sense of social identity was in itself a source of inspiration. He was a family man, a reliable general practitioner, a man of the theatre, and most importantly for me, a poet whose knowledge and appreciation of various literary traditions was vast and comprehensive. His tastes and poetic preferences, strangely enough, often contrasted startlingly with one another. (He loved the Victorians and Romantics at their best, for instance, but was also an admirer of the later Auden and Frost); and his processes as a reader of literature were strikingly different from and broader than those that his own poems seem to involve.
The fact that he almost never used more obviously “romantic” devices in his work, never stopped him from being a devoted admirer of the Keatsian Odes or Shelleys’ Adonais. His curiosity about Hindustani music was deep and his taste in Western Classical music exquisite. (We often argued about the later symphonies of Sibelius but both of us agreed that we could only take Liszt in small measured doses: “They were part of a phase that had to happen in music,” he once said to me, “The later romantics – but I caution myself against seeing music as a visual experience…”).
For all its insistence on the surgical and clinical, Gieve Patel’s vision of the physical world never really excludes the possibility of a divine presence. In a tiny poem I read back to him on his 80th birthday (I recall inserting a huge pause in my rendition before the word “God”!) he takes a comic view of the awkwardness with which he enters the spiritual process:
In the beginning
it is difficult
even to say,
One is so out of practice,
Like lisping in public— "The Difficulty" by Anand Thakore.
A man for the stage and the page
Gieve’s involvement in theatre and in drama as a literary form was profound to say the least. Over the last so many years, we must have discussed almost every play I ever read, and in each case I received from him a view of the text that I had not anticipated. He showed me drama from a perspective based on performance, whereas my own perceptions tended to be more specifically logocentric and literary. Shakespeare, Moliere, Racine, Pinter, Miller, Stoppard and Tennessee Williams…
I will miss getting back to him on all the points we discussed and hearing all the things he had to say about all those great playwrights. His insights were never professorial but clearly arose from an active engagement with theatre as a living art form. Mr Behram was a play I read in college as a student of English Literature. But I also had the good fortune to see it performed (translated into Marathi by Shanta Gokhale) at the NCPA years later. The profound penetration of social reality on the one hand and the simultaneous, deliberate evasion of social realism on the other, both became all the more intense for me when I saw the play actually performed. Gieve Patel – unlike most poets – was definitely a man who could write for both the stage and the page.
Much has been written internationally and locally, by critics far more qualified than I am, about Gieve’s work as a painter. I do not wish to reiterate their comments in this short piece. I recall, in my late twenties, visiting Gieve at his Malabar Hill studio and saying something, almost accidentally, about his choice of colour in a large painting of a well that he had been working on. He put me to silence at once: “You can say what you like about my poems, Anand, but when it comes to painting you simply don’t know enough!” I respect your feelings, Gieve, by maintaining silence.
What I do want to say is that I have absolutely no doubt about the sheer devotion, labour, and sincerity that the act of painting involved for him; and that the vast scope of his understanding of art history, his capacity to place everything from the Renaissance to Picasso in a historical context, made everything he had to say about art a sheer intellectual feast. I have known many painters and sculptors who – for all their virtuosity in their respective mediums – lack the sort of academic and historical awareness that Gieve clearly possessed, together with the capacity to communicate that awareness to the interested layman.
I conclude with a sense of gratitude for having known Gieve Patel, and for having felt his unbroken presence in my life since I first met him years ago. Many poets have encouraged me in my literary efforts, but none of them have been as consistently honest in their appraisal and criticism of my work as Gieve has. When he liked something I showed him he was generous; when he didn’t he was honest enough to tell me why. Above all, he was a friend who stood by me in times of crisis. About a month ago, when he told me he had chosen to discontinue chemotherapy, he also said his biggest concern was that he “might never be able to paint again”. I wondered if I would be thinking of such things when my time came, if my commitment to the arts would still mean that much to me. I doubt it will...
All I know, for certain, is that I have one less friend in this world. May he rest in peace.