“Enjoy, and please throw away that organic mass of germs you’ve been calling poetry,” the note said. Enclosed was a shiny new copy of Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, which was reissued this year by the NYRB.
For years, like most of my generation, I’d been reading Kolatkar’s classic poem-cycle in samizdat form–some of us had copies that had been xeroxed so often that Kolatkar’s words assumed ghostly form on the page, some had painstakingly typed (yes, typed, as in on a manual typewriter) copies of the book with corrections made in violet ink. It felt very strange to be finally reading Jejuri in proper book form, to see ‘A Scratch’ laid out perfectly, without smudges, on a page that didn’t look moth-eaten:
what is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
and every other stone
is god or his cousin
there is no crop
other than god
and god is harvested here
around the year
and round the clock
out of the bad earth
and the hard rock
that giant hunk of rock
the size of a bedroom
is khandoba’s wife turned to stone
the crack that runs right across
is the scar from his broadsword
he struck her down with
once in a fit of rage
scratch a rock
and a legend springs
I like Amit Chaudhuri’s clarity in his introduction to Jejuri:
When I reread Jejuri now, I realise how important the modern metropolis before globalisation – with its secret openings and avenues, its pockets of daydreaming, idling, and loitering, its loucheness – is fundamental to Kolatkar as a way of seeing. I am reminded that, although it’s about a journey to a remote (for many) pilgrimage town in Maharashtra, it’s less about the transformations of the journey than about a man who never left the city, or a cosmopolitan, modernist idea of the metropolis; that his journey, and his sense of travelling and of wonder, brought him back to where he was – and where he was is metropolitan, shabby, and dislocating.
Earlier, in 2005, Amit had written about the unease that Jejuri often evokes:
Kolatkar died last year, and his death means he’s safely passed into the minor canonical status that India reserves for a handful of dead poets who wrote in English. But the present consensus about him shouldn’t obscure the fact that his estranging eye in his English work has been problematic to Indian readers.
Even so, I’m not sure I want to trash my “copy” of Jejuri, with each set of stains and perforations on every page marking a different set of memories. But when I find the manila envelope that Jejuri has lived in, missing pages and all, for so many years, it contains only fragments–my cats have been using Kolatkar’s poems as a convenient scratching post. I can move on and enjoy my brand-new copy with no regrets; there’s nothing to hold on from the past.