Poet of Honour, an accolade by Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation, celebrates our best contemporary poets we should have read by now. They are iconic and a major inspiration.
You cannot read post-colonial Indian poetry by disregarding Daruwalla.
The recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (1984) and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1987) for Asia, Daruwalla is at his best with his poems engaging with nature. Poet and critic Arundhathi Subramaniam reiterates this in a foreword to a volume of his collected poems: “I decided to allow the throb of the natural world, rich and instinct with life, to lead me through this diverse compilation of fifteen years of (Daruwalla’s) poetry. That meant following the birds. It meant listening for the distant strains of birdcall, tracking changing patterns of migration, and waiting for a magical sighting of a heron’s underbelly or a flash of hawk plumage. As a readerly strategy, it proved rewarding.” The birds are often the birds of prey, observing from the aerial view of history and current affairs, broody landscapes or the social and political disruptions, violent or full of struggles. They scoop Babylons and Naishapur, Luxor and Jerusalem, CIA and MI6, Khayyam and Akhmatova, and more, with rafts and everything in between. However, his career in the Indian Police Service in 1958 has made him confront violence. A selection of his poems is politically vocal. As a man of achievement, he can withstand the adverse political wrath, so, recently, he dared return his Sahitya Akademi Award in protest and highlight the purge on intellectual and artistic freedom. We have included an extra poem at the end to capture the timbre to discover here a different and “chatty” Daruwalla, standing away from the musical disposition and the orderly lyric of the natural world he observes and finds himself in it watched. His collection of poems lets us into distinct departures through a transformation of language and poetics, almost at times, to contrasting tenors from different Daruwallas. It will be wrong to judge this poet with an extensive repertoire with any tunnel vision of poetry.
The change is the only constancy in life; hence, we begin with a poem tuning into a knock on the door from the wind!
-Yogesh Patel MBE
Poems by Keki Daruwalla
The wind knocks at your door
and you let it in
Dry leaves scrape your door
and you let them in.
If you were to ruminate
(if you ever had time
for rumination, that is)
you’d feel for a fly-by moment
that a particular knock you heard
on the far edge of awareness
On the other hand you may never have heard
a shadow’s tenuous leaf-tap, muffled tap.
It was a harmless knock, I can tell you
–perhaps to meet and tear apart a solecism
or share a perfect iamb I had prised out
of some crumbling book
But you were another island
The window and skylight of your airy house
may have opened to a gust of rain,
to gnat and insect, even a firefly pulsing
low on battery.
But you were so much in love with light
you couldn’t hear a shadow knock
you wouldn’t let a shadow in.
On their red-and-black vases and their amphorae
the equatorial bulge of their amphorae
are spearmen setting out, one of them
about to climb onto a one-horse chariot.
When soldiers move one knows their travel plans–
long sapping marches through scrub and marsh,
and deserts where the oases have fled;
till one windy night they come upon an escarpment
overlooking a plain embered with campfires,
Trojan or Turk or Persian
and know in the pith of their hearts
that the next dawn means enemy horse and steel.
But we are circling black vase and amphora
and find the spearmen clad in armour
and their spears etched
on the baked memory of clay-
spears longer than the lines of Homer
or the chronicle of Callisthenes.
Behind them are tearful women-
wives and mothers always in black,
as if already in mourning.
Lament and prophecy:
Trojan women, Andromache and Cassandra,
clamber on to the vase without being there.
he doesn’t know her
and he knows
that actually nobody knows anybody
he doesn’t know where she lives
the unknown is everywhere
distance and perspective
from the unknown
to the unknowable
he has seen her once
the face hard
as if some resolve had
built a bunker there
he had seen her face once
and the words blue titanium
had, like the thin winter cry
of a himalayan thrush,
suddenly entered his mind
that grief inhabits her face
he has sensed
a hard face does not turn soft
but can turn to broken shale
he wants to say
lady with the broken-shale aura
enclose your darkness,
this dark enclosure is yours
no one can flail or flounder here
but he cannot say it
he does not say it.
Of Vote Banks
all living beings got the ballot
they got the right to vote
snake and earthworm and reptile
wolf and jackal and goat…
jackals asked, with their vulpine howls,
for the wilderness to be extended
while roaches demanded more cities
and drainpipes not to be mended
the monkeys wanted more forests
their list of demands was crass
while the tiger stalking his deer
plugged for savannah grass.
the PM fingering his beard
said it is as I feared
we found ourselves in glutinous soup
the moment that lady appeared.
we must call for a vote-count madam
let us ask what the parties desire
this freedom of speech can’t be given to each
we must douse these fanatic fires.
they questioned their friends in whispers
nobody sounded the gong
as they asked the party of Engels
and the party of Mao ze Dong
and they questioned the Marquis Yechury
and Count and Countess Karat;
these people of vision said in unison
‘yeh hai koi poochne ki baat?’
other parties who were sounded
went into huddle, propounded
‘give us some time, these are issues sublime
we won’t be stampeded or hounded.’
they landscaped the political garden,
I mean they first set the scene
and finally said, “we want the head
of the writer Taslima Nasreen.”
To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.