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The Rediff Special/Jeet Thayil
July 24, 2003
I was living in Bombay (not Mumbai). I was between jobs. I had played guitar for rock bands in various cities; spent two years as a copywriter with a Nariman Point ad agency; worked as a sub-editor on a daily newspaper in Bangalore, and as a reporter on a magazine in Bombay. Each job was worse than the last. I was adrift, writing poetry, unpublished except in Debonair, admittedly a skin magazine, but also one of the few Indian publications that published poetry.
Also see: Noted writer Dom Moraes deadIt was 1985; nothing made very much sense.
The Indian publishing boom was yet to begin. Very few writers had had books published; there were no writer's societies, and few readings; there was no milieu for writers, much less for poets. Worst of all, I had no idea how to be a writer -- in the sense of writing as the main focus of one's life -- and live in Bombay. At the time it seemed an impossible thing to aspire toward.
One evening I went to a poetry reading at Nissim Ezekiel's PEN center, near Churchgate station. The poet Dom Moraes was to read new poems, the first he had written in some 17 years. Moraes was a friend of my father's, I had met him and his wife in New York in the 1970s, but this was the first time I was seeing him as an adult. I sat in the first row.
He was nothing like I remembered. His hair was completely white, his bearing unsteady. He was only 47 but he seemed much older. In fact, though I did not know it at the time, he was ill. His hands were shaking, and when he lifted a glass of water to his lips he spilled more than he drank.
From where I sat I could the poems he was going to read. They had been typed, each poem on a single sheet of paper. The typing was meticulous, the words clean, without crossings out or smudges; in fact, the page in front of him was pristine, crisp as a new banknote, seemingly untouched by the human hand.
Ezekiel introduced him and invited him to take the lectern. Moraes declined. He asked if he could read sitting down. Ezekiel said yes, but he seemed slightly worried by the request.
Moraes' manner did not inspire confidence. His voice was so low as to be barely audible. When he spoke, the entire audience craned forward as one person, so as to hear him. He spoke with a ripe Oxbridge accent that only made matters worse. There were about 25 people in the hall, a musty second-floor room surrounded by antique shelves full of enormous leather-bound volumes dating from the British Raj.
I did not know it at the time, but an audience of more than ten was considered extraordinarily successful for a poetry reading in Bombay. By those standards Moraes had a fairly healthy number of people waiting to hear him. At the moment, though, they were shifting in their seats. The reading seemed to be getting off to a bad start.
An attendant put a microphone in front of Moraes, another refilled his water glass, and one of Ezekiel's students placed his poems by his elbow. He picked up a printed page, but his hands were shaking so badly that he hastily put it down again. Then he cleared his throat, held on to his spectacles with one hand, and began to read a poem titled 'Babur.'
In the poem the emperor speaks to his dead son, and you did not have to know the details of Moraes' life to hear the resonance in the poem's last lines: 'If you look for me, I am not here. /My writings tell you where I am. /Tingribirdi, they point out my life like /Lines drawn in the map of my palm.'
He put the poem away and read another, and another. As his voice began each new poem it would start off sounding unsure, but soon it would be pure and strong, the words perfectly articulated, not a single misstep or hesitation. I closed my eyes and heard the words ring in my head like a prophecy, or an angel's promise. I think I heard in his words the possibility of redemption. More than anything, I heard power. When I opened my eyes it was difficult to connect the words, which rang in the air as if they had been carved in stone, with the frail man who was reading them.
I left after the reading, too shy and unhappy with myself to go up and say hello. I remember going back to my room at the Y feeling as if a door had opened in my head. Moraes was an Indian poet, who conducted himself as if he were part of an international community of writers. I realized that it was possible to write as if your life depended on it. After all, he obviously did.
Some weeks later, a childhood friend took me to Moraes' home in Colaba. We went for dinner, but ended up staying till well past midnight. It was the first of many visits. My room at the YMCA was a five-minute walk from his house on Allana Marg. I learned the route well, and walked along it at various times of the day and night.
Five years later I would move to an apartment in Bandra, and my visits to Colaba would become less frequent. In time, Dom too would move to the suburbs. His life would change in some fundamental ways, though in terms of writing it would stay as steady as ever. In 1992 he would shepherd my first collection of poems into print, and write an introduction. We would show each other poems; he would even appear to value my opinions. In some ways he would become a kind of family - I hesitate to say father figure - at a time when I desperately needed one.
But that first night in Colaba all of this was still far away. We spoke of many things - food, Bombay's terrible humidity, drinking at the Harbour Bar in the Taj hotel, love and its loss. The one thing we did not talk about was poetry. He did not seem to want to. But as I said good night, Dom took my hand.
"You know about the handshake, don't you," he said.
I said I did not.
"Well, this handshake goes all the way back to Shakespeare, the first poet," he said. "You see, just as you're shaking my hand, I shook Eliot's hand, he shook Yeats' hand, Yeats shook Tennyson's hand, Tennyson shook Keats' hand..." and so it went, all the way back to Shakespeare.
I was enchanted. I had the strangest feeling that everything would turn out all right. I felt there was a living tradition of brilliance, everything was connected; the dreariness of my room somehow no longer mattered.
Now, almost 20 years later, we live in different countries, and correspond infrequently by e-mail. Some months ago he underwent an operation to remove a tumor, which he had nicknamed Gorgi.
But it has been an extraordinarily prolific time. Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, a book he co-wrote with Sarayu Srivatsa, has been very well received. It is an account of six years of constant travel by the two writers, speaking to as many people as possible about India. A Variety of Absences, his collected memoirs, has just appeared; so has a new and selected poems, Typed With One Finger. Coming up is his collected travel writings, and a definitive new Collected Poems.
Of course he has his own reasons for the flurry of publications: "I expect they are all going on the premise that recently dead authors sell better than those who are still around to cause trouble and strife, as I used to do."
Knowing him, as I do, I doubt if he will ever be a dead author. Dead authors are those that are not read anymore. It has nothing to do with one's corporeal state. His output - 23 books of prose, 10 collections of poetry, and innumerable columns, essays, and reviews - is in itself an enormous achievement. And as long as people read poetry, his poems will be read.
Last week, July 19, was his 65th birthday, but sending a birthday message by e-mail seemed somehow inadequate. That is why I wrote this. It is a way of saying, Happy Birthday Dom.
Photograph: Jewella C Miranda
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