Saturday, Sep 25, 2021

Gone Away

Dom Moraes did not want chemotherapy interfering with his life or interrupting his work. In the end, it was not cancer, it was a heart-attack. He died in his sleep. He would have been 66 this year.

Gone Away
Gone Away

'Dying is just the same as going to sleep',
The piper whispered, 'close your eyes'...

first lines of the first poem,
Figures in the Landscape
in his first published book, 1957

In the end, it was not cancer, it was a heart-attack. Dom Moraes did not want chemotherapy interfering with his life or interrupting his work. He died in his sleep. "He was alone at the time he died. He was dead when we came to see him in the evening," said family friend Denzil Smith. He would have been 66 on July 19.

I have grown up, I think, to live alone
To keep my old illusions, sometimes dream,
Glumly, that I am unloved and forlorn...

from Autobiography, 1957

He is survived by his only son Francis (from his second wife Judith) who lives in UK. ("I was never conscious of being lonely. I found myself very interesting, a vice that has persisted," he wrote in Gone Away, when he was barely 20. At 65 he maintained, "One of my ideas is to have no home and no relatives. But I do have a granddaughter, Leila, who is five and whom I am very fond of.")

On turning 65, last year, in an interview to Outlook, he had said that the year was certainly going to be his most prolific: "I've already published two books and will come out with three more". But this is not the time to check the book-count.

Dominic Francis Moraes was born in Bombay in 1938, of Indian Roman Catholic and Goan extraction. He had a troubled childhood.

Almost I can recall where I was born:
The hot verandas where the chauffeurs drowse,
Backyard dominion of the ragged thorn,
And nameless servants in my father's house,
Whispering together in the backyard dirt
Until their talk came true for me one day:
My father hugging me so hard it hurt,
My mother mad, and time we went away.

from A Letter

His mother had to be institutionalised by the time he was seven:

You do not understand me.
I am tidying my life
In this cold, tidy country.
I am filling a small shelf
With my books. If you should find me crying,
As often when I was a child.
You will know I have reason to.
I am ashamed of myself
Since I was ashamed of you.

from Letter to my Mother

He travelled the world with his father, Frank Moraes, a celebrated writer and editor (The Times of India, The Indian Express) through Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and the whole of South-East Asia, places he was often to revisit in the course of his career. He would often say that he had visited every country in the world except Antarctica, which, he would go on to add, is not a country. He was 'fascinated by the Congo, but wouldn't like to live there'.

We travelled, and I looked for love too young.
More travel, and I looked for lust instead.
I was not ruled by wanting: I was young,
And poems grew like maggots in my head.
A fighting South-East Asia, with each gun
Talking to me; then homeward to the green
And dung-smeared plains ruled over by the sun.
When I had done with that, I was fifteen.

from A Letter

Dom was certainly a child prodigy--by the time he was 10, he claimed he had already read all Russian classics, and was appropriately nicknamed Domski; by the age of 12, he had begun to write poetry. By the time Dom turned 15, W.H. Auden had read and liked his poems. Stephen Spender published them in Encounter and Karl Shapiro did so in Poetry Chicago. At 19, studying for B.A. in English Literature at Oxford, he published his first book of poems, A Beginning, with the Parton Press in London which won the Hawthornden Prize for the best work of the imagination in 1958. He was the first non-English person to win this prize, also the youngest.

In 1960 his second book of verse, Poems, became the Autumn Choice of the Poetry Book Society. In 1965 came the third, much critically acclaimed book of verse, John Nobody. Apart from these three volumes, he published a pamphlet of verse, Beldam & Others, in 1967. From then to Absences, a privately printed book in 1983, there was to be no poetry. "...In 1965...I was 27. My dissatisfaction with myself continued for the next 17 years", he was to confess later:

"For during that period I published no poetry at all. Someone years back had compared me to Rimbaud, too large a comparison to be sustained by my work. But I have often thought, over those 17 years, that perhaps I was like Rimbaud in one sense. I have never believed Rimbaud abandoned poetry, rather that poetry abandoned him. When he was approached, long after he had stopped writing, at the age of 19, by a number of young French poets for new work, he said, "I have done with that rubbish". This was what I constantly said to people who approached me...In 1982 something happened to me which I cannot account for. I not only started to write poetry once more, but a new style seemed to come to me without my ever trying to master it."

Collected Poems, 1987

Collected Poems in 1987 was not the last anthology, as Serendip followed in 1990 and Cinnamon Shade in 2001;  and last year saw selections included in a new anthology, Typed With One Finger--all his life he had typed with one finger, the others were presumably kept too busy with countless cigarettes.

"Much of my prose was written for money. You can't earn money by writing poetry."

In 1968 came the book he is perhaps best-known for in India, My Son's Father, as many have since read at least excerpts from it in school. An autobiography at 30? Well, that's the sort of man he was. He had published his first book of memoirs, Gone Away, in 1960, when he was all of 22; he was commissioned to write it when he was barely 21. These two were later collected and published last year as A Variety of Absences, along with the part two of his autobiography, Never at Home, published in 1992 as a sequel to My Son's Father.

With his single-digit typing, he produced a large body of work encompassing 23 books of non-fiction (later books were to be co-authored with Sarayu Srivatsa), including a biography, Mrs Gandhi (His father wrote one on Pandit Nehru): "When I met her after this book, she gave me a nasty look. Obviously, she didn't like it." And there were over twenty television documentaries from England, India, Cuba and Israel for the BBC and ITV that he scripted or produced. In between, he also found time to edit magazines based in London, Hong Kong and New York (Sunday magazine of the New York Times from 1968 to 1971; managing editor of Asia Magazine from 1971 to 1973) and was even an honorary colonel in the American army. 

"...For some years [1973-1977] I was employed by a UN agency as a sort of literary adviser. In the process of seeing reality I was always introduced to people as 'the poet'. I cringed from the word."

As a correspondent, he covered the war in Algiers, where a bomb exploded in a bar he was drinking in, converting it suddenly into an abattoir; went off to the jungles of Indonesia off Djayapura to visit the cannibalistic Dani tribe for two weeks; went to Santiago to meet President Allende who was assassinated shortly after the brief encounter.

"If you are in a position to slightly manipulate events, you should do so," he told an interviewer about his journalistic assignments. Dom had gone to Jakarta to interview Suharto. "It was Ramzan and the whole town was shut. Suharto refused to give an interview until after Ramzan. Dom heard, from another journalist, about a prison island called Buru, which had 10,000 political prisoners. Reaching there was not easy. But Dom and his photographer did, and as a result of what he wrote, 7,000 of the prisoners were eventually released."

Apart from the life-long trauma of the loss of his mother, there was, of course, the troubled and ambivalent relationship with India where he returned to stay in 1979.

Your eyes are like mine.
When I last looked in them
I saw my whole country,
A defeated dream
Hiding itself in prayers,
A population of corpses,
Of burnt bodies that cluttered
The slow, deep rivers, of
Bodies stowed into earth
Quickly before they stank
Or cooked by the sun for vultures
On a marble tower.

from Letter to my Mother

Any regrets about settling down here?

"No, not in the end. I regretted it in the beginning."

Opinionated? Of course. No wonder, even the card-carrying liberals had problems with his candour:

"Early leaders made a big mistake in assuming that India was a secular country Gandhi and Nehru presupposed that Hindus and Muslims liked each other. The idea that they lived as friends is a total myth."

There were mean things said about him and friend Ved Mehta and their writing about India ("The India hands. One can't see. The other can't hear").  There were many who found him "effortlessly, even infuriatingly, patronising". And of course they would call him an outsider, an alien. A charge he would deny vehemently--for example, sample this from a recent interview:

"Anyone who goes to Bihar, wherever he comes from, would feel a bit astounded. I got along pretty well with many people in Bihar, but Laloo seemed like someone from another planet ... People have accused me of being Western. But I don't think I belong anywhere. I feel no loyalties to either England or India. But I don't feel disloyalties either."

If poetry came and went, as he said, and came back again, so did women. It amazed him to realise how easy it was for a poet to find women to sleep with, he was to recall later.

I sowed my wild oats
Before I was twenty.
Drunkards and turncoats
I knew in plenty.
Most friends betrayed me.
Each new affair
Further delayed me.
I didn't care.

I put no end to
The life that led me

From Song

There were many liaisons and loves, none very enduring. Henrietta Moraes, the first wife (when they met, he was 18 and she 25) describes how they parted in her eponymous memoirs, Henrietta: "One fine morning Dom said, 'Look darling, I'm off to the pub, just going to get some cigarettes. See you in about ten minutes.' He didn't come back." It was a life of alcoholic binges, whimsical travel, and mindless partying.

In India, of course, he was envied for his third marriage (the second wife, Judith, predeceased him)--for marrying the woman whom Vogue called "one of the five most beautiful women in the world", Leela Naidu.

"Leela complained that I didn't share my worries with her. It was obvious, she said, that I had some, but since I wouldn't tell her what they were, she felt helpless. But it has been endemic in me, since childhood, to keep whatever I felt inside me, not to allow it to seep in to other people's lives. This, I thought, had been one of the reasons, why poetry emerged from me instead."

By 1996, the couple had separated. Since then, in fact from some years before, Sarayu Srivatsa (aka Sarayu Ahuja) had been his muse, companion, collaborator and co-author:


And so there were always reasons
How our lives became complete
For me the main one was I loved you

from Typed With One Finger

And of course there was booze, from very early on, which perhaps accounted for the much-older-than-his-age appearance. Ved Mehta recalls E.M. Forster's observation on Gone Away, "On the opening page of the book brandy is mentioned twice, whiskey three times, and this continues until the reader longs for a non-alcoholic edition". Tarun Tejpal elaborates:

Dom once told me about receiving instruction at the feet of W.H. Auden, then the world's most celebrated poet.

Dom said he would show up with the draft of a poem at 10 in the morning. Auden would be in the darkened living room, all the blinds drawn.

"Boy," he would say straight off, "can you find your way to the bar?"

The prodigy would say, yes.

"Then fix me a martini."

"Well," said Dom, "when you fixed Auden a martini you fixed yourself one. And when you fixed him a second, you fixed yourself a second."

"With examples like that," sighed Dom, "how could one fail to learn to drink?"

A boozy mist clung to him, observed Tarun Tejpal about that meeting in the 90s, but Dom was to tell us when we last interviewed him last year: "I haven't been drinking for some time."

Vinod Mehta recalls:

"He was an exquisite writer who had a turn of the phrase nobody else had. I remember he once wrote a piece saying the monsoons had come to Bombay like Russian diplomats - stealthily and quietly. He was the product of the bohemian 1960s and 1970s. It was then almost mandatory for poets to be alcoholic. He drank quite a bit, knew every pub in Soho till he realised that he had burnt the candle at both ends. After he came to know he had cancer, he was racing against time. He said he had to complete a number of projects."

No surprises, then, that he did not want to go gentle into that good night and would rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though normally very soft-spoken and measured, Dom was also known for being direct--and for his candour. A couple of years back, he summed up his impressions of VS Naipaul throwing a hissy fit at a literary conference. He said he had found the latter to be "a very wise and witty man, when he allows himself to be," but that, "a great change had taken place in the shy young writer I first met in the French pub.Change isn't always for the better". (He had reviewed An Area Of Darkness: "I thought it was a wonderful book"). This when other luminaries at the conference, apart from a certain Ruchir Joshi, had kept diplomatically quiet.

Likewise, ask him about Salman Rushdie's infamous remarks in the New Yorker in 1997 about non-English writers, and he wouldn't hesitate: "He should either read them or meet them." (He did, however, speak up for Rushdie when Shiv Sena wouldn't let Moore's Last Sigh be released in Bombay). And this from a man who never learnt an Indian language other than English. "But my father didn't either," he would reply smugly.

My income and my debts remain
Still I can feed my typewriter each day
My agent tells me that I have a name
An audience waits, he says, for what I say

from John Nobody

If we go by the last book review he did for us, only a few weeks back, it is not difficult to see why. He was taken seriously as a critic, and took himself seriously too. "I know how much young people get hurt," he admitted in an interview. "But one has to be cruel in one's response. Otherwise, it not only gives them false hopes, it also is a waste of paper".

We start out as white slime and end up ashes

from Derelictions

Books by Dom Moraes reviewed in Outlook:

For articles and reviews by Dom Moraes for Outlook, please click here .


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