Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture, despite its quixotic title, is a book about a city that once held promise and possibility, and still does in every measure. This is reflected in, as is indeed Nerlekar’s subject, its poetry and the ways it was created, shaped and presented to its readers.

Nerlekar’s period of study is what she terms the “sathottari” years, a Marathi word that denotes the little magazines and small presses that flourished in the years 1955-1980 (a time bracket that remains of essence for various reasons in this book). The city in this period became an arena of literary creation, translation and production that saw collaboration between the period’s leading literary figures. All of them remain familiar today, and gave Indian poetry a new direction, aided and abetted by influences from a wide array of sources.

Bombay and the world

Nerlekar provides an overview of these events, global and regional, which shaped how the poets and editors (most times the roles were conjoined) recreated the local and found new ways of interpreting the immediate. The list, of course, includes the graduated retreat of colonialism, the Cold War face-off and its relation to literary sponsorships, the war in Vietnam, the rebelliousness of the Beat poets. And then, in India, specifically two events in Bombay’s immediate environs: the movement for the creation of a “Samyuktra Maharashtra” – a monolingual Marathi state from the 1950s onward, and, in October 1956, the tumultuous event in Nagpur that saw hundreds of Dalits led by BR Ambedkar, converting to Buddhism.

The year 1955 serves as a marker for Nerlekar, for it was around this time that several influential, albeit ephemeral – interesting contradictions are what make the book – little magazines emerged in this period. These include, to name a few, Quest and later, Poetry India (with Nissim Ezekiel at its helm), Ashok Shahane’s Aso, Raja Dhale’s Atta, Bhalchandra Nemade’s Vacha, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Ezra and Fakir, Kersi Katrak and Gauri Deshpande’s Opinion Literary Quarterly.

Almost concomitant with this were the small presses that emerged, the same figures playing leading roles here too: the four-man team of Clearing House Collective that included Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar. The last-named, whose experience in advertising (where Kiran Nagarkar was his colleague on several projects), made him double as the cover designer. Kolatkar’s Jejuri, first published in 1976, would go on to win the Commonwealth Award the following year. Pras Prakashan, the other small press set up by Ashok Shahane published Kolatkar’s other works, in English and Marathi, and retains the copyright to his vast corpus of unpublished works.

Little magazine, small press

The little magazines were formed as a reaction to more conservative journals (the Satyakatha in Marathi, for example), but their creation was a response – mocking, savage, and very critical – against domination, military, regional, patriarchal, and linguistic. The end-period of Nerlekar’s study, 1980, appears like a rough yet necessary cut-off.

Bombay’s wilting textile industry would see a major strike called only two years later, in 1982. The industry had been in dire straits all through the 1970s, with telling impact and marginalisation of its workers. These aspects were highlighted in, for example, Narayan Surve’s poems, but the impact of this decline of an industry so synonymous with Bombay decades earlier is missing in this book.

The little magazines, in their response to the political (and how this affects other spheres) were concerned with the here and now. Thus, they remained deliberately ephemeral, right from the moment of their creation. Nerlekar aptly quotes Jussawalla about this “antipathy to longevity”.

The impermanence was there in the infrequency and randomness of publication, in the deliberate mix and match of its contents that included writings, new and translated. The contents were also bi-and multilingual at times. The effort, to put it loosely, was to create an idiom, even a language that included English, Marathi, and bambaiya Hindi, so that what was created spoke of and to the times. The magazines catered to only a few subscribers, being consciously a collaborative “adda/katta” type of endeavour between writers, poets, editors, publishers, activists and translators. And the figure of Arun Kolatkar epitomised the “bilingual literary culture” of this period.

Man of multiplicities

It would be hard to attempt any summation of Kolatkar in a paragraph. His life and work, as Nerlekar’s later chapters appear to suggest, saw forays in experimentation, in astonishing and vitally creative bursts in varied fields – poetry, prose, painting, music and even literary production of magazines. It constituted multiple “acts of browsing”, a phrase Kolatkar used for himself in exchanges with the poet Eunice De Souza (quoted in Nerlekar’s book) to describe his voracious, chaotic reading.

Nerlekar’s study of some of Kolatkar’s works presents an overarching view of his many concerns. His attachment to what “little magazines” stood for, independence and “control” over production and every aspect. His literary roots, which drew on Bhakti poets and his own appreciation of Beat poetry and blues music. And then his constant experiments with “translation”, except that Kolatkar didn’t really see his bilingual exercises, or at times, simultaneous writing efforts as translation. Indeed, as Nerlekar shows by a close reading of Jejuri in English (1976) and its Marathi version, posthumously published in 2011, there were multiplicities and nuances in Kolatkar’s bilingualism.

Moreover, it was always, as the back story goes (many of such stories in the footnotes add to the fascinating complexity of this book and its main character), Kolatkar’s intention to have a Marathi version, simultaneous with the English one. And while the Jejuri in Marathi came about much after, it clearly, as revealed via examples of certain verses and poems, shows instances of direct translation and also the mutual influences, in a “back-and-forth way”, of the two languages on each other. This makes it difficult, as Nerlekar suggests, to show where the borrowing occurred, and which language (or even thought) was the original. There was also an entirely new untitled poem in the Marathi version that shows that for Kolatkar, the end-product was always the beginning of something new. In very many ways, Kolatkar’s “translation” forays were exercises in equivalence.

Experiments in language

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, quoted by Nerlekar, in his description of another of Kolatkar’s poems (Maine Manager Ko Bola), perhaps hits the nail on the head:

“So there it is, your Indian poem. It was written in a Bombay patois by a poet who otherwise wrote in Marathi and English. It then became part of two literatures, Marathi and Indian English, but entered the latter in a translation made in the American idiom, one of whose sources…was an American translation of a 19th century Roman poet.”

Bhijaki Vahi (The Soaked Notebook) is Kolatkar’s epic Marathi collection of poems featuring women protagonists through history to the present, ranging from mythical figures such as Cassandra (from Homer’s Iliad) to Laila and Maimun, a young Muslim woman in Haryana killed because she chose to love an “outsider”. The title itself reveals Kolatkar’s affiliation and championing of the medieval Bhakti poets, especially Tukaram, a saint-poet, whose devotional poetry gently railed against caste, religious conservatism and its punishing orthodoxy.

One of Tukaram’s drowned notebooks – the punishment meted out to him – “miraculously” survived, as did the truths it contained. Kolatkar picks up this imagery for his own book’s title. But, aware of the marginalisation of women and their (hi)stories, he also mocks his own efforts, and with that every title.

His poems too deserve a soaking, his letters too must melt, as he writes in a verse that appears in the beginning and end of the book. It is almost as if Kolatkar savagely rages against a system that has conspired to oppress women and is also confessing his presence as a mere witness and narrator, aware of his own helplessness, even complicity. For instance, this is how Kolatkar writes of the Russian poet, Nadezhda Mandelstam (wife of imprisoned poet, Osip Mandelstam), translated by Nerlekar:

My eyes are simply
quoting these tears
without your permission
I am not going to wipe them off
These quotation marks
standing in my two eyes
let them stay hanging there

— From Arun Kolatkar's "Bhijaki Vahi" collection in Marathi

There are no “singular truths” then, about Kolatkar’s life in writing. More so, because there is much that remains unpublished, including, as Nerlekar reveals, manuscripts related to Kolatkar’s friend and colleague in advertising, KT Royan, and the maverick musician, itinerant poet, and performer, Balwant Bua. One of Kolatkar’s stories in English on Balwant Bua appeared in Granta as “Sticky Fingers”.

The modern poet

Kolatkar, a decade since his death, remains one of the more modern of poets. Not just in his “acts of browsing” that has special resonance in this internet age, but in his championing and devotion to the little magazine. The art and skill that created one, the promises and possibilities it contained, where meaning could be teased out in every aspect – content, layout, and of course, the book’s cover.

Kolatkar’s adamantly critical eye rested hard on the latter aspects as seen in his insistence on, for example, the exact shade of black for the cover of Sarpa Satra, and the delicate yellow line in the Kala Ghoda poems. It is hard not to read in this how Kolatkar, in many ways, anticipated the digital magazine of the present.

In recent years, there has been new writing by and about the “Bombay Poets”: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Partial Recall (2012), and the years 2014-2015 saw the welcome publication of two Adil Jussawalla collections: Maps for a Mortal Moon and his collection of prose and poetry in I Dreamt a Horse Fell From the Sky. Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern will only add to the fascinating and enduring enigma that is Arun Kolatkar. Footnotes may appear to give away the book’s academic bent but that is deceptive. Some of the more interesting back stories are here.

Bombay Modern, with its panorama of characters, their idealistic, short-lived passions, and among all this, the pivotal presence of Arun Kolatkar, prompts a hopeful analogy with a film, one that may not be altogether inapt. Kill Your Darlings, the 2013 film based on the Beat poets, with Daniel Radcliffe playing a young Allen Ginsberg, as a student at Columbia University.

Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture, Anjali Nerlekar, Speaking Tiger Books.