March 30, 2020
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Poet As The Battlefield

Hoskote’s labour of love is pucca on Moraes’s poetry. It’s his facile, ‘correct’ assumptions on the life that rankle.

Poet As The Battlefield
Jitender Gupta
Poet As The Battlefield
Dom Moraes: Selected Poems
Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Ranjit Hoskote
Penguin Modern Classics | Pages: lxxxv + 282 | Rs. 499

In Bombay some years ago, I heard Jerry Pinto telling a group of younger writers how lucky our generation was. “We could go straight to the fount,” he said. “There were the founders of English poetry, Nissim and Dom and Adil, all in Bombay, and we could just drop in and talk to them. We were so lucky.”

Ranjit Hoskote, who partook of that luck, has created this love-offering. His heavyweight critical edition has 368 pages, including 161 of ‘Introduction’ and ‘Notes’. He has also selected 80 of the 190 poems in Moraes’s Collected Poems, which came out soon after Dom’s death in 2004.

I’m not convinced, though, that Dom needs notes to his poems. We are all contemporaries of Dom. His poems are about our world, and are accessible even when they draw on Norse myth.

The ‘Introduction’ is an overview of Dom’s life and work. A number of facts are new to me—Dom’s marriages and liaisons in particular. But Ranjit is also meticulous in his analysis of the work. I have to say that I differ with many of his premises but, curiously enough, agree with many of his conclusions.

How Dom fitted into India will make a fertile field for doctoral students for years to come. Ranjit says: “I have no use for the puerile stereotypes, put about by nativist critics, of Moraes the India-hater, Moraes the brown sahib, Moraes the incurable Anglophile....” Ranjit is wilfully going to the other extreme to prove a point. I know that Dom had no high opinion of Indian ‘bhasha’ literature, and that his ‘Hindustani’ was uninformed. In his last decade, though—Dom called it ‘the best I have lived’—he awoke to India.

Ranjit is also disingenuous about Dom as a social person: “...he could also arrange interpersonal relationships, among his friends and colleagues, to his own tactical advantage....” He was a manipulator—why hesitate to say the word?—I’ve seen it dozens of times.

Yet again: “Despite [Leela’s] manifest intelligence and manifold talents, however, she belonged to a generation of women who were content to make their contributions largely behind the scenes and claim no public credit.” Leela Naidu, Moraes’s wife, was no shrinking violet. Always outspoken, she had both a fear of and a protective attitude towards Dom. She had her faults, but there’s no question in my mind that her career suffered from her marriage.

Ranjit is also too facile when he says Dom made a “subliminal identification” of his mother with his motherland: he could not love or hate either, he found each too incoherent and insufficient for his needs. I think a poet in command of his craft generally has a good idea of what his subconscious is up to—he sometimes understands it better than he does his conscious mind—and it applies to Dom.

These caveats entered, Ranjit is very good on the poetry. He has put in a lot of hard work, and the deep thinking which accompanies it has yielded valuable insights. Just one instance: “[Dom] had parted ways decisively with his early self and its assumptions about the irrelevance of everyday life to art, and about art’s transcendence from the demands of life.”

For many years I considered Dom’s prose writing to be more important. His poems until about 1990 were practically perfect, but I didn’t think they meant much to us in India. Dom’s doubts and his longings came through much better in his prose, especially in that classic of autobiography, My Son’s Father.

In his last decade, however, as his new muse took charge, he wrote poetry more relevant to us and our times. Earlier, many of them were exquisite museum pieces: exquisite, but museum pieces. This is why I was so happy to see the tone of Dom’s later poems. They have an anger in them, they are not introverted. They talk of things outside the poet. He has enlarged his vision, and I for one am sorry it came so late. Had this happened earlier we would have been better pleased.

Dom was inimitable in his ear and diction. But one of his greatest qualities is certainly meant to be imitated, and there would be more good poetry if it were: He could be honest with himself. He could look within and see what was there, and he was not ashamed to communicate that self-knowledge to the world.

I do not subscribe to the nil nisi bonum nonsense. The greatest service I can pay the dead is to be honest about them. Dom will, I trust, always keep me honest.

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