Poet of Honour: Keki Daruwalla

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 knock

big green tree near old building
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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
  was mine.

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.

Greek Vases

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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.


art painting
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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

road man people street
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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.”

<strong>Keki Daruwalla</strong>
Keki Daruwalla

Keki Daruwalla writes poetry and fiction and lives alone in Delhi after his wife’s death in the year 2000. He has just stopped his Political column in the Sunday Tribune. He did his masters in English in 1958 from Government College Ludhiana and joined the Indian Police Service.

His first poetry volume Under Orion was published fifty years ago in 1970. He has 12 volumes of poetry, the last of which was Naishapur and Babylon (2018 Speaking Tiger). His next poetry volume is with his publishers, Speaking Tiger.
His interest in fiction these days is evidenced in his three novels, For Pepper and Christ (Penguin 2009), Ancestral Affairs(HarperCollins 2013) and Swerving to Solitude (Simon and Schuster 2018). His first novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth fiction prize in 2010. He has written half a dozen collections of short stories and his next volume will show case his unpublished Long Stories : From the Crevices of the Past’. He has also just completed a novella on the burning of the Old Alexandrian Library.

Daruwalla joined the Indian Police Service in 1958 and retired as Chairman JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee ) in 1995. He was also a Special Assistant to the Prime Minister in 1970-71. He was Member National Commission for Minorities 2011-2014. He was a part of the Commonwealth Observers Group for the Zimbabwe Elections in 1980-81. Was a Fellow under the Colombo Plan at Oxford University 1980-81 where he spent a satisfying year at the Indian Institute and the Bodleian Library.

Awards: Sahitya Akademi 1984 (which he returned), The Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his book Landscapes, 1987, Poet Laureate (Literature Live 2017) and Padma Shri (2014).

To read poets honoured previously here is a roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

Vidyan Ravinthiran

Cyril Dabydeen

Tishani Doshi

Martina Evans

Sinéad Morrissey

Moniza Alvi

Ian Duhig

Raymond Antrobus

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