Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Variety of Doms [full version]

A week ago, Mint carried a conversation between Ranjit Hoskote and me, mostly about Dom Moraes and the new Selected Poems that Hoskote has edited. That was, of necessity, a shorter version of the conversation we had. I thought I'd put up the longer version here.

A Variety of Doms 

 Sridala:  I've just finished reading your Dom Moraes: Selected Poems, and it's a wonderful work: the Introduction and Notes, as well as the selection of poems. Tell me how the project began and what made you choose Dom Moraes.

 Ranjit: Sridala, thank you so much for your generous response to my Dom Moraes: Selected Poems. At least since 2006, I'd been mulling over the fact that we do not have a critical annotated edition for any Anglophone Indian poet. By that time, many of our first-generation and even some of our second-generation figures had passed on: Ramanujan, Nissim, Dom, Arun, Shahid among them. And, apart from Vinay Dharwadker's work on Ramanujan, the others were represented by various separate existing editions, collected volumes, and the posthumous publication of unpublished work.

So there was my preoccupation with the annotated critical edition as a form. It was given further impetus when I realised, with a shock, at a reading in an academic context that the poems of some of our older contemporaries would quite simply be undecipherable to teachers who were not inside of the subculture of poetry. Not because poets write deliberately in code, but because they dazzlingly reshape language and compress experiences and insights, and use references in elliptical ways. Every labyrinth needs a thread!

As to why Dom – it is because he, with Keki Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla and Agha Shahid Ali, are the poets I have felt closest to in the tradition of Anglophone Indian poetry. I have been endlessly fascinated by Dom’s poems ever since I first encountered them. Also, I share with him a fascination with classical mythology, with history, and also have shared his intense sense of being a nomad. I identify strongly with several of his key, formative experiences – my own career has not been unlike his, in terms of the editorial work, much international travel and research. And, like him, for political reasons of my own, I am critical of the nation-state as a constricting entity. Speaking of which, one of my stated objectives in framing this selection is to demonstrate very clearly the political Moraes, and the intimate connection between his poetry and his prose as he traversed the ground of the political in both practices.

SS: It's certainly true that there's very little scholarship on Anglophone Indian poetry. It's the reason I find your Introduction so interesting, because - as you yourself say - it comes close to literary biography. And that's a method of entering the work of any writer; a method that students of literature are familiar with. And yet, there's so little of the biographical approach to Anglophone poetry here, don't you think?

RH: I completely agree with you. Anglophone poetry in India has not been fortunate in the quality of criticism it has received. Much of it has emanated from ill-informed academics who have little understanding of poetry, or have ideological axes to grind. We have had to suffer several generations of mindless nativist critics, for instance. The finest criticism of Anglophone poetry in India has come from practitioners themselves.

As to biography, Ramachandra Guha has famously suggested, and demonstrated, that biography is not a genre at which South Asia excels. We oscillate between celebrity journalism at the low end and hagiography at the high end. Archival access is weak, hearsay rife, and the historian's tools of interpretation, analysis and contextualisation are not accorded the importance they deserve.

SS:  The thing about the biographical approach is that Dom makes it easy: with three autobiographies, later collected into one volume. I remember reading A Variety of Absences a few years ago and it was so engaging and showed Dom as a politically engaged person – as you so rightly point out – and far from the Anglophile dilettante he's often made out to be. This is not to, in any way, diminish the extent of your research and scholarship on Dom. I was talking to Adil Jussawalla about this in January at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, and he also talked about the lack of resources for research into the work of poets; and he especially mentioned Dom and asked where one would find his journalism if one wanted to look.

It seems to me that as Anglophone poets of the next generation, we have to work not only within a vacuum as far as primary material goes, but we also work as if it were the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: a permanent blank slate.

RH:  The availability of three memoirs by my subject was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, of course, it was fantastic primary material, and it helped me to map his poetic journeys in relation to those he made in his other careers as an international correspondent, a war reporter, a cultural diplomat, a freelance writer, and a maker of documentary films for television.

However – a big 'however' – Dom is not uniformly reliable in his memoirs. His account of both sides of his family can be misleading and inaccurate, and coloured by the circumstances of his difficult childhood. His recollection of events is sometimes significantly at variance with the recollections of others involved in those events. He can be elliptical or notational, or can telescope circumstances of space and time.

I had to develop a chart with various time-lines marked on it: one time-line for Anglophone poetry in India, another for post-World War II British poetry, yet another for political events around the world, yet another for India. In addition, I cross-checked Dom’s memoirs against the account of Ved Mehta, who shared some of Dom's early return journeys to India. Also, and very importantly, I was privileged to have several conversations with Dom's aunt, the wonderful Dr Teresa Albuquerque, who made family archives and her own work as an urban cultural historian available to me. Also, vitally, I sifted through the personal archive of Adil Jussawalla, and could develop contexts for the cuttings and invitations, the ephemera and the records and reportage that Adil has put together. The literary biographer is also a historian working with a jigsaw of material.

For instance, when I'd put together some of Dom's articles on the immigrant crisis in the UK in the late 1960s (from Adil's archive), I began to sketch out the context of that period. From another part of my life, there came back memories of Enoch Powell, whose obituary I had written in my role as one of The Times of India's leader-writers and one of its resident obituarists. And I began to link the dots between the immigration crisis and Dipak Nandy, who Dom included in his list of globally important thinkers when he compiled Voices for Life. ‘Why Nandy?’, I asked myself. Back to the salt mines of research – back to the debates of the late 1960s, and so back to old issues of the Labour Monthly, and Nandy's profoundly prescient writings on class and race, labour and resistance in late-1960s Britain.

 SS:  This is fascinating, your journey through Dom's work and his life. It's interesting that you say Dom is often unreliable – aren't all memoirists? Erica Jong called it 'inventing memory'.

RH:  Indeed, all memoirists are unreliable – that comes with the territory, and we go along because it can be such a delightful ride. And it is not entirely fabricated either! You have to balance the delight with sober factuality! That's why I've tried to cross-check every reference from Dom's memoirs with other extant accounts of those events, histories and assessments of the period or place. This is why so many other characters enter these pages – Gregory Corso, Lucian Freud, Hannah Arendt, Francis Bacon – to name only a few.

SS: Ranjit, you occupy a unique position in the canon, as it were, because though you belong to our generation, you've spent so much time with Nissim, Dom and all the others. You'd be the right person to talk about lineages, legacies and traditions, such as they are, in our poetry. What fascinates me about this question of legacy is that of erasure, which as an idea has begun to obsess me. What to leave out and what to leave for the world to see? Who claims legacy and how?

RH: Yes, I suppose I occupy a peculiar place in our unfolding history. I came of age, as the sorcerer’s apprentice, in close proximity to Nissim, Dom and Adil. And because my first book was published rather early, when I was 22, I belong to the publishing generation of 1989-1992, alongside some contemporaries who are nearly a decade older than I am. While I was still in my early 20s, I worked closely with Dilip Chitre on several editorial and translation projects. And Arun Kolatkar, in his quiet way, was a source of inspiration to me through my 20s and 30s. Arun very graciously designed the cover of my third book of poems, The Sleepwalker's Archive, this process involving conversations with him about everything from leaf venation through Amazonian musical instruments to the theories of Velikovsky. I’m not launching out in autobiographical vein here! This is just to point to the close, substantial, material associations that I’ve had the privilege of having with an older generation of practitioners. To me, that’s a strong, living definition of a legacy—living in, and carrying forward the impulses of, a community of practitioners, an experimental continuity, a gharana.

SS: It occurs to me that in creating a volume of Selected Poems, you will have done your own kind of erasure, if that's not too strong a word, on Dom's work. Could you talk about why Selected and not Collected?

RH: Dom already had two editions of Collected Poems -- the first was the 1987 edition, which marked his 'comeback', if you will. The second was the posthumous 2004 one, which appeared a few weeks after his death on 2 June 2004. So it was important for me to work with the 190 poems that he evidently wished to be represented by, at the very end of his life. Of these, I set myself the task of extracting what would be the absolutely non-negotiable, essential Moraes. It gave me the occasion to ask: what was the most important curve of evolution within Dom's poetry? I detail much of this in the Introduction -- but briefly, I decided to eliminate most of the early apprentice work, Dom in his Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite mode, and to focus on the compelling, finely worlded voice of experience through the 1980s, with some fine pieces from what turned out to be the last, very fertile period of his activity. So yes, it was very important for me to propose a shape for his career, as seen retrospectively. As a curator, I saw this as a task equivalent to planning a posthumous retrospective of a great artist's work.

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