The wayfarer of 'Wayside Inn', the unique 'double agent'

Every Thursday afternoon, after his stint with an ad agency as a graphic artist, Arun Kolatkar used to make his way to the now defunct ‘Wayside Inn’ at Kala Ghoda in Bombay. Here, for several years, around a checked tablecloth and pots of tea, a motley crowd gathered around him. This included a bearded man who reared pet crows in his balcony in Colaba, a ginger-haired manufacturer of safety belts for cars and aeroplanes, an ageing folk singer with mischievous eyes and a pakhwaj player, another lean, dapper man with a profound interest in hats who ran an art gallery, a busy, hollow-cheeked Marathi publisher, a PR officer and poet who worked for a multinational corporation at Churchgate, and another youngish poet who looked like a bartender and in fact ran a bar and restaurant in Tamarind Lane close by.

Occasionally, other ‘senior’ poets or visiting poets from abroad would join in. The occasion was not exactly a ‘poetry darbar’, with the conversation ranging from the history of the city to the news in the afternoon papers which Kolatkar bought diligently every day. The conversation was often bilingual, in English and in Marathi. This eclecticism and bilingualism is at the heart of Kolatakar’s poetry, an art he practiced in both languages with equal ease. 

Born in Kolhapur where he did his schooling in Marathi, his work embodies both the rustic and the urban. In those ‘Wayside’ days, Kolatkar, despite his huge reputation as a poet, had published just one book of poems in English, Jejuri, a remarkably sustained piece of writing centred around the pilgrimage town of Jejuri in Maharashtra. The book became a totemic byword in the annals of poetry in English in India; it also won a Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977. After that, and indeed even before the publication of Jejuri, only occasional poems in English by Kolatkar found their way into print. It was almost three decades later that two books appeared simultaneously, in 2004, just a few months before he died in Pune in September of that year. These were Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra.

The remarkably long gap between the publication of those books and Jejuri did not in any way reflect a prolonged dry spell that poets often go through. It meant that Kolatkar was not a conventional ‘career poet’, bringing out a book every few years to remind critics and academics of his presence. He did not see poetry merely as a ‘career’, but as a way of life, as second nature to his own existence. 

In multilingual India, there have been many other bilingual poets, but none with the same facility and easy dexterity of Arun Kolatkar. In his illuminating introduction, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra puts it well: ‘Enchanted by the ordinary, Kolatkar made the ordinary enchanting’. Even outright vernaculars like ‘ghatan’ or ‘dagdu, dhondu or pandu’ fit hand-in-glove into the English text. The apparent ease of range, which includes some infectious and underrated Blues numbers, is hard won coming as it does from a wide and close reading of world literature, ranging from Tsvetayeva to Tukaram.

During his lifetime, Kolatkar did not seek or crave recognition from the West. Neither did he go down the traditional academic path of established figures like Nissim Ezekiel or A K  Ramanujan. To many, he was the heroic ‘outsider’ who — metaphorically — bunked English Lit classes to write poetry in the canteen. With his malleable mind, he was the ultimate ‘double agent’ who declared, “half my work will always remain invisible/ like the other side of the moon.”  

Readers owe an enduring debt to Mehrotra’s dedicated editing and to Kolatkar’s loyal — and stylish —publishers Pras Prakashan for making that dark side of the moon clearly visible.

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