My first meeting with Dom Moraes was rather odd. I had finished the manuscript of my first book, Where the Streets Lead. It was originally meant to be a doctoral thesis on cities and their spaces, in particular the streets. However, a chance meeting with Mulk Raj Anand who advised me to write a book instead changed its destiny, and in many ways, mine.
When the manuscript was done Mulk Raj Anand suggested that I show it to Dom. I called him up on the telephone and he gave me a date and time. My father once told me that everyone’s life is marked by an inevitable moment, a certain event, which channels and separates all that comes after from everything that came before. This was the moment. Only I didn’t know. Neither did Dom.
“You are late,” Dom said when I arrived at his door a few days later. “Did you not say 4.00 pm?” I asked. “It’s not yet 4.” “You are late,” Dom repeated. “I think I have the date and time right,” I insisted, “I can come another day if you are busy.”
“Don’t argue with me,” he said tersely. “You are twenty years late. Where the hell have you been?”
This was the beginning of a friendship, an unexpected partnership that was to last all of fourteen years. I still remember that day as though it was yesterday. His words still speak to me.
I was sitting across from him in the living-room as he flipped through the pages of the manuscript. “How many words?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t counted.” This was true. I couldn’t hear clearly what he was saying. He spoke softly, and mumbled into his chin. “You must have a structure before you start a book,” he said. “The number of pages, sections, chapters, and each chapter should be more or less of the same length.” He smiled. I thought he looked charming when he smiled.
But he was scowling a moment later as he started to read the first chapter. He read the last chapter, and another somewhere in the middle. Without looking up from the page, “Who is going to read it?” he asked. “Architects, students,” I said. He remarked sardonically, “Do they read boring books?” He moved the manuscript towards me. “Honestly, I can’t read this,” he said, “why don’t you tell me about the book.” I explained at great length, excitedly, and a bit nervous. He smiled and said, “Why don’t you write the way you speak?”
Dom had the astounding ability to visualise and improvise. He created his own mythical world. Perhaps he did this even as a young boy. With poetic prose and vivid imagery, not just to be seen but felt, he fabricated a sense of atmosphere. In whole and in parts, his images might have seemed unreal, or appeared inconsistent, but their reality was enhanced by the manner in which they were made to fit into a factual situation.
Very often he lent people, places and events the characteristics of being an illusion, or appearing fictitious, or fleeting – a craft he used to create a preconceived mood and effect that in some ways expressed the tensions and angsts of his own life and times, and the prejudices that grew out of them.
In The Mirror of the Sea, the sense of atmosphere that Joseph Conrad creates is tremendous. He uses symbolism and imagery to describe something as real and commonplace as the sea:
Faithful to no race after the manner of the kindly earth, receiving no impress from valour and toil and self-sacrifice, recognising no finality of dominion, the sea has never adopted the cause of its masters like those lands where the victorious nations of mankind have taken root, rocking their cradles and setting up their gravestones.
Dom’s words, in quite a similar manner, in his introduction to the book, Voices for Life, edited by him, suggest images that should be seen and ought to be felt.
Today we have come to a new point in time, to a day of dilemma. This globe of metals and fire has whirled on its own axis, for millions of years, in a wilderness of space. It has survived the explosions of suns and swum away from the flying debris of the stars. Under its own private sun, over chasms of time we cannot start to fathom, the bacteria in its swampy seas turned into sh, the sh crept ashore and turned to carnivorous apes, and the carnivorous apes turned into men.
And further on he writes, nearly forty years ago, but still relevant today:
The crisis of conscience we have suffered from since 1945 has now been doubled in intensity, for it seems that we may yet destroy the world as we know it even without the assistance of politicians and nuclear physicists, and that the earth may become once more what it was for our remote ancestors: an area of fear.
And in the prologue to Out of God’s Oven, Dom writes about the communal riots in Ahmedabad:
Flapping from a blackened wall, I see a poster for a circus. An image rises to my mind of Gujarat as a circus clown. Grotesque and tormented, staggering around a floodlit arena, it ails its arms for balance. A huge, astonished audience watches its agony. Its face is daubed with saffron, its body dyed red with blood.
Then in the following passage from My Son’s Father, in which Dom’s insane mother reached up to the tall plaster Christ in the niche and smashed it against the wall, Dom spins images of irony and torment:
On the floor of the bedroom Christ lay broken. I had always thought he was plaster, and could break, but not that his intestines were straw, and bits of old newspaper. They spilled out through his breached belly, and his brain, a hard roll of paper, dropped from his fractured skull. I stared in wonder, as though at a real crucifixion. In some mysterious ways, this was the end of one part of my life.
The object of his craft was to weave imagery such as these into his otherwise lucid, tightly written travelogues and reportages to set a definite mood, scene and situation. However, his writing has been subjected to unfair criticism as being obscure and abstract, and often meandering, with far too much imagery. But, like Ford, Conrad and many other writers before him, he chose for it to be that way.
As a person, as a writer, Dom has been frequently misunderstood.
The Navarasas in classical dance, as in art and aesthetics signify the mental state that evokes the essence of emotions – the primary feelings of love, mirth, sorrow, anger, energy, terror, disgust and astonishment. Dom’s mental state, badly fractured as a child, contained in a child-like way mainly two of these: the need to love and be loved, and the irrepressible need to hate because of the lack of love. It isn’t surprising therefore, that he chose to reject the country of his birth. Not so much the land as its people, their customs, and their conformed deviousness arising out of avarice and distrust, all of which perforated his fragile mind.
It took me some time to understand that the hatred he felt and displayed was more a concept than a reality. He was surprised that he liked the people we met during our travels for books and was childishly chuffed when they liked him back. He was home, and had resigned himself to accept that he was, in Clark Blaise’s phrase, a “resident alien”. Blaise’s following words, from his autobiography, I Had a Father, typify clearly what Dom, displaced and dislocated, could have felt:
We are born to strangers we must learn to love, in a town or country we would not have chosen, into a tribe that defines and restricts our growth. We spend a lifetime overcoming the givens, only to turn back from the distant vantage point of fifty years when the parents are gone, to look back and say: this is what I am, something no larger, no freer, than they made me.
It is often said and believed that if one were to understand a writer, who he was or is, and who he had become, then it is possible to empathise with his writing. It is kinder, and simpler to understand Dom’s writing if he was thought of as a very young writer, whose childhood was tragically aborted and therefore denied to him, than a man older, and possibly wiser.
I have tried to do this, as in the last years of his life. When needed, I slipped on the make-believe guise of his mother. So deep, intense and hurtful where his feelings about the “mothering” he had been starved of.
I could totally understand therefore, when he told me that the only passage, inarguably the most endearing part of the book, that ever made him shed tears was from John Steinbeck’s novel about the dark realities of the Great Depression: Grapes of Wrath. Sheltering in a barn against the flooding rains, Rose of Sharon who, despite her many tragedies, commits an act of astonishing humanity. She has recently lost her baby, and she breast-feeds a starving man to keep him alive.
Dom’s mother went mad when he was seven and he spent most of his adult life in England, a cold country that possessed him and yet marked him an immigrant. I remember the time in London, when we were getting out of a taxi and Dom fumbled in his pocket to get change for a tip. Another customer, a white man, was waiting on the curb for a ride. “Get the fuck off, you Paki,” the driver roared at Dom unnecessarily.
Dom got off and walked quickly ahead of me as though he didn’t want me to see the hurt in his eyes. When I caught up with him he muttered, “This is my problem. In my mind I am English, but regretfully in my skin I remain an Indian.” He mentions a similar situation in his autobiography Never at Home:
One Sunday afternoon I was smoking and writing my book when I ran out of cigarettes. I pulled on a coat from an assortment in the hall, and set out for the tobacconist on the corner. The coat was suede and had once been very expensive, but was now torn down one side. I hadn’t shaved that Sunday. Halfway down the street a policeman stopped me. I knew most of the policemen in the area, but this one was new. He barked, “Here, you! Stand against the wall. Let me see your papers.” I was startled, and stood against the wall, and he moved forward to frisk me. As he did this, I found that I was angry. “What the hell is this?” I asked. At the sound of my accent, he stopped and looked at me hard. Then he said, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m really very sorry.” He then stepped out of my way and saluted.
After this I felt even more furious. England was my home. Was I to be treated like an immigrant? Then it occurred to me that I was an immigrant.
In the end he was a stranger wherever he was, and perhaps even to himself – “They by their treasons made me whatever I am” – he writes, assigning blame for who he had become. Bereft of his roots – his mother, his birth-country that he despised because of his mother, and orphaned and forgotten by an insular Britain, he faced the world a bit lonely, but more lost.
That afternoon when I first met Dom, he said, “I feel the deep loneliness in you. I know this because there is a similar loneliness deep within me.” Before I left he gave me a copy of My Son’s Father. “So that you can know me better,” he said. Reading the book I sensed his loneliness concealed behind the arabesque of words. Words comforted him, kept him sheltered and together, distant and remote from people and events that confronted and confused him.
Excerpted with permission from the introduction to Under Something of a Cloud: Selected Travel Writing, Dom Moraes, edited by Sarayu Srivatsa, Speaking Tiger.