Some poets tend to be too inward looking, so much so that they are too hesitant to acknowledge their poetry, let alone publish them. Gerard Manley Hopkins of Britain in the 19th Century never saw his poetry in the reflected glow of print and was published posthumously. That was sad in a way because the author never knew that he was being read by the British literati, debated and even dissected. A pastor that he was his outpouring was a result of intense soul-searching and persistent belief that he was not living up to his faith. And his language was too complex and outlandish that few ventured to read them, let alone grasp what he said.
Arun Kolatkar, the famous Marathi poet who wrote in English also, was a kindred soul of Hopkins in his reluctance till the last to publish his collected version of poems. He persuaded Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, the literary scholar, to edit his poems and the latter subsequently brought his only collected volume of English poems in 2010, a few years after he passed away. He has a few volumes of Marathi poems to his credit but what ran as a distinguishing streak in his poetry was his clear sense of identity, - he knew what he was – unlike some of his contemporaries who were obsessed with having lost it. Kolatkar, in fact, told one of his interviewers when asked about God that he would leave that question alone and it did not matter if he took no position on the issue one way or the other. Forthright that he was it never crossed his mind as to how it would be interpreted. His list of influential poets ran so long as to contain nearly 50 multilingual names including Hopkins. But his poetry does have a touch, acerbic, witty, and basically humane.
His volume on Jejuri, a pilgrimate site in Maharashtra known for the temple of Lord Shiva, was a moving one on developing a sense of belonging though as he admitted later was not religious. A look at some of the poems reveals a biting undercurrent of irony about a place which was basically impoverished and gloomy. For instance ‘Old Woman’ is a classic example where you are not able to shake off one who tugs at you for a penny to take care of an immediate need.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
A depressing scene and the poet (or any one else for that matter)is forced to shrug off his indifference and concede “And you are reduced to so much small change in her hand.” If one reads his ‘Low Temple’ it is almost hilarious in its black humour. What beats your incredulity is the greater credulity of the priest who insists that the deity of your devotion is an ‘eight-armed goddess’ when you think that she has eighteen. In between runs a skein of sneer in the line “A sceptic match coughs.” But the rounding off in the ending brings out the bleak picture in its totality.
You come out in the sun and light a charminar.
Children play on the back of the twenty-foot tortoise.
His two poems on Chaitanya, the famous Bhakti bard, are metaphorical reminders of the impermanence of his influence. In a nutshell they hit your evanescent sensibility where it hurts.
A herd of legends
on a hill slope
looked up from its grazing
when chaitanya came in sight.
the hills remained still
was passing by
a cowbell tinkled
when he disappeared from view
and the herd of legends
returned to its grazing.
Jejuri was his utopia though he had an abiding love for it despite its backwardness, pastoral settings and the tradition. The other poems 'Heart of ruin' and Makarand have a skein of scintillating black humour of an agnostic though Kolatkar was openminded on God and religions. A ruined temple of Maruti is of no consequence to the onlookers or visitors except for a bunch of mongrel's puppies ensconced there. Abandoned, yes but provides shelter to some form of life is the essence of the poem. Similar elements run through two other poems "Station Master" and 'Indicator' where what strikes the reader more is the flow of time over which no one has any control or awareness. Kolatkar seems to have a resigned acceptance of the ultimate truth that meanings are what one makes of life.
His poems have a way of startling the reader and keep him riveted on them though understanding him requires a studious exercise.