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Veteran poet Keki Daruwalla speaks out
Keki Daruwalla, 69, has beads of perspiration on his forehead and is taking rapid breaths. It is clear he is unwell. In Mumbai, for a reading of his latest book, Collected Poems-1970-2005, he manages to read two poems and then feels faint. After a while, he apologises and leaves the Theosophy Hall. But the show goes on. On behalf of Daruwalla, fellow poets, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Anju Makhija and Arundhati Subramaniam read from the book…
A couple of days later, I meet Daruwalla at his brother’s house and he looks far better. “It was a viral fever,” he explains.
Daruwalla is sturdily built and does not look like a poet at all. When I tell him this, he laughs and says, “In An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul says Indians like to play their designated roles. So, the poet has to look dishevelled and be drunk all the time. But that is not how it happens.”
He says he knows of poets who work in insurance, banking and publishing. “And, of course, there is the famous case of T.S. Eliot who worked as a director of [publishing house] Faber & Faber.” Daruwalla, himself, has retired from the Indian Police Service; he was once Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
So what are the themes he has written about? “History, myth, travel, dreams, violence, the Emergency, the inner life and landscapes,” says Daruwalla. Says poet Anju Makhija: “He is extremely prolific. The poems have strong imagery, and you can read them over and over and gain something new each time.”
Eunice D’Souza, the retired English professor of St. Xavier’s College, says Daruwalla is versatile. “He has written on a wide range of subjects, many of which no one else has dealt with,” she says.
However, one of the criticisms the Indo-Anglian poet has faced is that he is emotionally distant in his poems. “Yes, I agree,” he says. “But that is part of the culture of Western poetry. You write according to the culture that permeates you. In Indian and Asian poetry, the tendency is to write with your heart on the sleeve.”
Emotional or not, in the modern-day money-obsessed publishing scenario, poetry is way down the list, in terms of importance. But Daruwalla says this has nothing to do with the calibre of the poetry. “We have some good younger poets like Jit Thayil, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhati Subramaniam. Unlike our generation of poets, they can make a line sing.”
When I convey this praise to Subramaniam on the phone, she sounds surprised. After a few moments of silence, she says, “Daruwalla is being generous about us. It is rare to see this kind of generosity shown by one generation to another.”
The biggest problem for poetry, says Daruwalla, is vanity publishing. “Any rich housewife who can scribble a few words thinks she should come out with a book,” he says. “That destroys the credibility of poetry. If a reader goes into a bookstore and picks up one of these books, he will think, ‘Oh God, is this what Indian poetry has come to?’”
By now, Daruwalla begins to tire, so I pop in one last question: what role does religion play in his life? “Not much,” says this father of two daughters, whose wife died in 2000. “I am a rational man. I am reminded of the joke when [French philosopher] Voltaire was dying. A priest came to him and said, ‘You must denounce the devil.’ And Voltaire replied, ‘This is no time to make new enemies.’”