Inasmuch as he did his utmost to make his books impossible to buy, a task in which to his everlasting credit he succeeded when he was alive, Arun Kolatkar was a secret writer. He had a suspi­cion of contracts and any request from publishers to bring out his book-­length sequence of poems, Jejuri – which had appeared in 1976 from Clearing House, a publishing co-­op of which he was a member – was ignored.

The Clearing House Jejuri had a print run of 750 copies that sold out when the book won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Subsequently, it was reprinted by Kolatkar’s Marathi publisher, his old friend Ashok Shahane, who had set up Pras Prakashan in 1977 with the sole purpose of bringing out Kolatkar’s first Marathi book, Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita.

The arrangement with Clearing House and later with Pras suited Kolatkar. There were no contracts to sign, and he had complete control over the design and layout of both his books. The only flaw in the arrangement was that Pras, like Clearing House (a small press), did not have much by way of distribution, and Jejuri was only ever available at Strand Book Stall in Bombay. In the 1980s and 1990s it was also often out of print, sometimes for years at a time.

I’d then ask Kolatkar to find out from Shahane when he’d be reprinting it, and Kolatkar would assure me that he would. But he never did, though he and Shahane met three times a week and spent hours in each other’s company. The problem of the book’s unavailability persisted, until Kolatkar took matters into his own hands. He began to “pirate” it. He had discovered a photocopier who made perfectly respectable lookalikes of Jejuri: square format; front and back covers that were colour­-photocopied; black endpapers. These he was quite happy to give away to the more persistent of his ad­mirers.

Though you can now order Jejuri in NYRB Classics over the Internet, the Pras edition was until recently available in the same distinctive format and design that Kolatkar chose for it forty years ago. Oxford University Press India had offered to bring out Jejuri in their Three Crowns series (devoted to poetry and fiction in translation) and, as a concession, even waived the necessity of signing a contract. All they asked for was a letter from Kolatkar giving permission to publish the book for a limited period. Kolatkar, astute as ever, showed no interest.

As it turned out, the biggest university press in the world, with branches in Auckland, Cape Town, and Dar es Salaam, dropped its poetry list in 1999, while a book put out by a one-­man small press from a two­-room flat in Malad East, Bombay, had a longer life.

Arun Kolatkar sometimes reflected on what it meant to be Arun Kolatkar.

From the day he started writing in the early 1950s until his death in 2004 he wrote in two languages, Mara­thi and English, and came up with strikingly different meta­phors – different from Shelley’s and Jarrell’s – for poetry and poetic composition. While preparing a posthumous edition of his uncollected work, The Boatride & Other Poems, I came across a bunch of Kolatkar’s notes. Written on pieces of scratch paper that in Bombay are sold by weight, they were stuffed inside a brown envelope that made no mention of the contents:

I have a pen in my possession 
which writes in 2 languages 
and draws in one


My pencil is sharpened at both ends 
use one end to write in Marathi
the other in English


Whether half my work will always remain invisible
like the other side of the moon
whether a reader in one language will have to be content 
with the side facing him
Whether my work is 2 bodies of work in spite of their common origin
which have developed independently of each other 
each with its separate history

A puzzling figure even to himself, in these notes Kolatkar tries, through metaphor, to understand who he is, or what he is.

He is among the finest English ­language Indian poets of the last century, while to his Marathi admirers, those who can see the other side of the moon, he is the true successor to the great seventeenth­ century Marathi poet Tukaram. The English poems and the Marathi poems exist independently of each other, “each with its separate history/ ecology life forms”. When you look at some of Kolatkar’s manuscripts you find lines and phrases in English and Marathi on the same page, as though the poet were flipping the pencil “sharpened at both ends” as fast as he could, trying to keep pace with the bilingual flow of his thoughts.

The “history” and “ecology” of the English poems and the Marathi poems may be separate, but both drew in unexpected ways on the same wide reading spread over the two languages in which Kolatkar wrote. Bhijki Vahi, which translates as Tear­-stained Notebook, consists of individual poems and sequences, each about a mythical or historical woman who had witness­ ed or otherwise known extreme suffering. They range from the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and the pagan philosopher Hypatia to Nadezhda Mandelstam and Susan Sontag.

He wanted very much to write on Héloïse, but despite reading everything he could on her and Abelard, he could not find the glimmering historical detail that, in his retelling, would make the fiction of poetry seem like plain historical fact. The books that helped Kolatkar enter the worlds of these women (some of the books bought second­hand from Bombay’s pavement stalls, which he never walked past without stopping to check what they had) were drawn from the world’s literatures: Innuit folktales, the Rig Veda, the New Testament, Homer, Virgil, Edmund Gibbon, Farid­ ud­ Din Attar, the Chinese translations of Arthur Waley, Alain Danielou’s Shilappadikaram, and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiographies.

Then there are the newspaper clippings that were the sources of yet other poems. One of them is the sequence called “Kim”, a reference to the nine­-year-­old Kim Phuc fleeing her village outside Saigon after a napalm attack, the moment captured in Nick Ut’s famous 1972 photograph.

It would seem from the above that the poems in Bhijki Vahi were written in English, but they’re in Marathi, the winged Marathi beast – at 393 pages Kolatkar’s longest book – emerging feather by feather from the skin of the English one, the language in which he did his reading for the poems.

Kolatkar, who had been painting from the time he was in school in Kolhapur, had studied at the JJ School of Art, Bombay, which he joined in 1949.

VS Gaitonde was a few years ahead of him, Tyeb Mehta was his contemporary. He quit the School in 1951 without completing his diploma. Sometime in the latter half of 1953 the painter Ambadas introduced him to Darshan Chhabda. They met at the Artists’ Aid Fund Centre in Ram­part Row, and Darshan remembers Kolatkar had with him a book of Dylan Thomas’ poems. They got married the following year.

Darshan Chhabda came from a wealthy Punjabi family originally from Pakistan. They owned cinema theatres in Ahmedabad and Bombay and her brother, Bal, directed at least one film, Do Raha (1952), in which the artist character is played by MF Husain. Bal had been to Hollywood to learn film­making, but referred to the experience in self-­deprecating terms. He was a flamboyant character, easy to get along with. Husain introduced him to his painter friends – Raza, Gaitonde, Mehta, Padamsee, among others – and he was soon part of the group. Around 1954 he started to paint himself, and, not so much for investment but because he wanted to help the painters, he started to buy.

As a struggling 23­-year-­old art student who had given up his diploma midway, Kolatkar, when he married Darshan, would have been only too aware of the background she came from.

They themselves had very little money and lived in lodging houses, moving frequently. Kolatkar responded to an advertisement for an office peon and for a while worked in a Malad toy shop, painting wooden toys, a job Husain had got for him. After a year of living like this, in which Kolatkar published his first poem in Marathi and his first poem in English, they decided, in 1955, to leave Bombay and move to Madras.

From what I can recall of my conversations with Darshan, though she never said it in so many words, the move seems to have been for the good. They had new friends, the city’s Tamil and Telugu poets and writers, and Kolatkar was productive, writ­ing new poems in both English and Marathi. He painted pots and tried to market them, and was still on the lookout for a regular job. There was a small allowance coming in from Dar­shan’s mother that would have made things easier for the young couple.

The initial opposition of their families to the inter­caste and inter­class marriage by now seems to have eased. The non­-Brahmin Chhabdas would have seen Kolatkar, a college dropout, as one more penurious painter; the Brahmin Kolatkars would have seen the Chhabdas as flashy upstarts. It was a case of the Bombay film industry, around which there then hung a slight air of disrepute, meeting the stern district inspector of schools, which Kolatkar’s father was, though he was far from stern. “c is for chhabdas / grossly grossly” Kolatkar wrote light­heartedly in his love poem “an alphabet for darshan”.

Darshan and Arun were back in Bombay in 1957, when Arun finally completed his JJ School diploma, standing first in order of merit. In June of that year he joined Ajanta Advertising, the first Indian-­owned advertising company, as a visualiser. The transition to advertising is mentioned in “an alphabet for darshan”; it comes immediately after the reference to the Chhabdas: “c is for copywriting / bravely bravely”.

In 1988, thirty-­one years after he entered the profession, Kolatkar was inducted into the Communication Arts Guild Hall of Fame. The price of going into advertising was that he abandoned painting, but if he paid a price he also came at a price. Kolatkar knew what he was trading, and he didn’t come cheap. In the words of the song he wrote, set to music, and recorded in his own voice, he had decided that he was not going to be “a poor man from a poor land”: “i’m a poor man from a poor land and everything about me is wrong / my guitar is warped my voice cracks but i’ve written a damned good song”. Or as he wrote in another poem, “i’m god’s gift to advertising”.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on Arun Kolatkar, excerpted with permission from Mehrotra’s new book, Translating the Indian Past and Other Literary Histories, published by Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University.