Keki N Daruwalla is one of India’s most well-known and honest poets, having freely used words and verse to express his worldview and emotions. Daruwalla has had an extraordinary life: he moved from Lahore in Rampur in 1945, thereafter Punjab, and shifted from school to school and language to language. Finding himself in a house full of books, he became interested in literature, and enrolled for a Masters in English Literature from Punjab University. Later, he spent a year at Oxford University as a Queen Elizabeth House Fellow. In parallel, he joined the Indian Police Service in 1958, went on to become special assistant to India’s Prime Minister Charan Singh in 1979, and eventually retired in the Cabinet Secretariat as Chairman JIC in 1995.
Daruwalla’s body of work comprises over ten volumes of poetry, a novella, two novels, and five short story collections. Daruwalla has also received his fair share of well-deserved awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984 for his poetry collection The Keeper of the Dead, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987 for Landscapes, the Padma Shri in 2014, and the Poet Laureate award from Tata Literature Live in 2017.
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?
Yes, I started writing more freely, less tightly. If and when I rhyme, I try to see that the rhymes don’t clang. But I have very little time for poetry now and finish a poem in an hour or less. I am concentrating on prose and fiction. Poetry is secondary. Only political stupidities or atrocities now excite me into writing verse. I have slid down from poetry to verse, except my latest book coming out with Speaking Tiger Books – Naishapur to Babylon.
Have you consciously tried to stick to a form in poetry, or have you allowed it to be raw?
Depends. If I am into writing quatrains, I obviously stick to them. It’s a mix of both, but there’s nothing like free verse.
we who are at war with ourselves,
our dreams moving along the barbed
contour of our angsts-the hit-or-miss
meteorites that turn space
into a shooting gallery,
flamingoes that may never fly back
to the salt puddles of kutch,
the chinese spiriting away the Brahmaputra
in a gargantuan theft,
and india turning into a bombay local,
asphyxiating in the smell of two billion armpits
and two billion groins –
isn’t all this enough
to give us a collective cerebral bleed?
not forgetting our planet
which has a hot plate under its arse –
and my dream which saw
an abu dhabi dhow squatting on an iceberg
sailing down to cochin –
haven’t we enough on our plate
without having to think of war
and blood-stained jehad?
Do you remember how it felt when you published your first collection Under Orion in 1970? Can you recall the state of mind you were in while writing those poems, or is it a dispassionate memory?
I was in Farrukhabad as Superintendent of Police. There was hardly anyone there whom you could show the book to. I lived in small towns till 1971 (Lucknow) and 1974 (Delhi), and hardly ever interacted with poets till then. I wrote the poems in that volume because P Lal, a great man who ran Writers Workshop in Calcutta, asked me for a poetry book! I wrote the book in a little more than a year. I still like those poems.
Considering you have produced one body of work after another continuously, where does that energy to write poetry come from?
The energy is a product of the imagination. My brain is crowded with many ideas that I need to put forth. And lately, both for my political writing (I have a regular column for the Tribune) and for my fiction, I am backed by a moral imperative.
If you want
a cage, my dear
you do not have
to travel far.
If you want to feel
hemmed in, you’ll be hemmed in.
Look for scars
you’ll be full of scars.
Even light can turn
into a cage.
The cage of light
has seven bars.
A lot of your work is a commentary on the times. In 2014, you returned the Sahitya Akademi Award in protest against the death of scholar MM Kalburgi. What made you take such a stance? How does democracy, free speech, and literature get so tangled up?
Come on, you know the answer. And now Gauri Lankesh has been killed – and I had never heard of her before. These fools don’t realise that with each murder – and they have many on their dirty hands – they are in fact raising a wave of protests, nausea and reaction against their foolish, racial and communal “ideology”. There’s no point in talk, talk, talk. You have to act. So I returned the award after a Hindi writer set the ball rolling.
Now that you’re in your 80s, is spirituality playing a big role?
All spirituality is hocus pocus, in the same category as our Indian godmen. I stick to morality – good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
Dawn will come as it always has,
escorted with pearls,
spiked with frost.
Sandwiched between your rivers
‘one lament and the other blood’,
the land will flame like a tongue
of fiery green
threading the Sierras.
The bullring will pulse with blood;
the red dust will still whirl
and eddy across the road;
evenings will be as they were before –
light-rose or mauve-shadow
or smeared with iodine,
and chalked with the flight of cranes.
Nightscapes will still be the same:
bars of flamenco carried by the wind
goatherds round a fire
and sheepdogs barking
at the rustle of dry oak leaves.
Only you will not be there.
What are you reading these days?
Alas, too much. Nayantara Sahgal’s When the Moon Shines by Day, Praful Bidwai’s The Phoenix Moment (a fine book on the history of Indian communism), Prayag Akbar’s Leila, a dystopia (I used to write dystopias 40 years ago and left them half-written); Rochelle Potkar’s Four Degrees of Separation, Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur in rambling narrative verse. I recently finished Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs, on Trotsky.