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The Rediff Special/Lindsay Pereira
June 04, 2004
Death has a funny way of reiterating things we have long taken for granted. A way of dredging up old memories, odd bits, early kisses, and, every once in a while, a desire to shut the door and give oneself up to regret. I had one of those moments early on Thursday morning. Dominic Francis Moraes, the only child of Frank and Beryl Moraes, had died.
My agent tells me that I have a name
An audience waits, he says, for what I say -- John Nobody ('John Nobody', 1965)
I never met Dom Moraes, which is something I blame myself for entirely. I first ran into him -- and 'ran into' I did, bumping into him head first while coming up a flight of stairs at full tilt -- in 1993. I was 17, a slightly undernourished first-year student of English literature at St Xavier's College. He was 56, a legendary poet whose work happened to be part of my syllabus. What could I have said to him? What sort of conversation could we possibly have had?
Poets have always had a way of intimidating the young.
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A decade passed. And then, on July 19, 2003, Moraes turned 65. I remember a journalist asking him, at the time, about why he happened to be a poet with more prose to his name. 'Much of my prose was written for money,' he replied, in a soft voice. 'You can't earn money by writing poetry.' I remember smiling, thinking about how nice it would be to meet him, finally, after a decade of studying literature, and have a long chat.
I could have asked him about his father, perhaps, who was first the literary editor of the Times of India, then its chief editor. But that would be too personal. Or his grandmother, the first Indian woman doctor. The topics were limitless, really, for anyone who happened to pick up either of his two volumes of autobiography. They contain admissions about his early years such as: 'The flat was always full of unshaven and furtive young nationalists who had either just emerged from prison or were hiding from the police...' Compared to the quiet, middle-class home I grew up in, that alone had me more than a little open-mouthed.
Poets can intimidate adults just as easily.
|Darryl D'Monte. Former resident editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express and Dom Moraes' cousin|
|We used to speak off and on. We weren't in touch for a while, especially after he left for England, but he got back in 1969 and we worked together at The Indian Express. I remember him as an extremely warm, shy, human being. He spoke very little, and usually managed to keep to himself. Another thing I remember about him is his ability to type almost effortlessly. I remember standing by his desk at The Indian Express, watching, as he would churn out pieces completely devoid of typographical errors. He typed flawlessly. As for his real talent, it always was poetry. I am not a student of literature, but I am convinced the canon of Indian writing in English has lost a very strong, beautiful voice. There is a book of unpublished poems waiting, and I hope others can see it soon. What do I miss about him the most? Just him. His presence. He hardly ever intruded; he could occupy a room quietly. And few people I know can do that.|
|Jerry Pinto. Poet and journalist. Executive Editor, Man's World|
|I first met Dom Moraes when he had just broken a silence after 17 years, with the publication of Serendip, a cycle of poems about Sri Lanka. He was condescending, irritable and phlegmatic. He didn't seem like the kind of person I would ever see as a friend. But then he wasn't the kind to offer instant intimacy. His poetry was also like that, a thing of adamantine beauty but which you had to approach on its own terms. It was flawless in its prosody, and did not hesitate to engage with big themes: life, death, history, sex, love, madness, betrayal. |
So, those conversations never did happen. I went for the more boring option of reading about his life instead. Of the time, for instance, he met the British modernist poets W H Auden and Stephen Spender: 'I went to hear them read, and could not believe it: there they actually were, physically present: Auden with a lined, expressive face, grave and heavy: Spender tall and stooped, with a white cloud of hair and large, intent blue eyes. I had thought of them as very young men, and was surprised: then a new idea of the poet came to me, the poet dedicated, apart, carrying his work on through a lifetime, wrapped in a vatic cloak.'
The English poets grew to know him well. When Dom was 15, Auden decided he liked the boy's poems. Spender had them published. The 19 year old went on to win the Hawthornden Prize in 1958 for A Beginning, his first book of poems. He was the first non-English person, and also the youngest, to win. More volumes of poetry followed, and 23 books of prose, and a bit of scripting, then directing television documentaries.
His last major work -- one of my favourites -- was The Long Strider, an account of the life of Thomas Coryate, a British eccentric who walked all the way from Britain to India. It was an apt topic to work on, considering the sense of homelessness implicit in Coryate's life. I grew to think of Moraes as a homeless eccentric in his own way, thinking of how he would sometimes tell colleagues of mine about 'home' being an abstraction as well as a concrete place, with neither coalescing around a single location.
In this cold, tidy country.
I am filling a small shelf -- Letter to My Mother (A Beginning, 1958)
Where there's a poet, there's an angst-ridden critic. And Dom Moraes must have met quite a few over 65 years. There were some who said that he always promised, but rarely delivered. One even called him a 'slave to the regular iambic line.' I have absolutely no idea of how he would react to something like that. I rather like the idea of him reaching for comments like those, burning little, black holes into them with a cigarette, and sipping cognac, calmly, with his feet up.
It's all a bit of a fairy tale, really. About a precocious, talented little boy and his brilliant father. A home full of hysteria, with a beautiful mother who was slowly losing her mind. A tale about the coming of age of a poet. About writing while escaping bombs in war-torn Algeria. About meetings with cannibals in the jungles of Indonesia. Being seduced by a woman called Henrietta, then marrying Leela Naidu, once listed among the ten most beautiful women in the world. Dom Moraes lived through this long and winding tale, rarely speaking about it, divulging nothing. It's almost as if genuine access to the essence of the man lay in his writing alone.
'We start out as white slime and end up ashes' -- Derelictions, (Typed With One Finger, 2003)
It is now Thursday night. Little more than 24 hours have passed since Moraes died of a heart attack, in his sleep, far from the dreaming spires of Oxford, at home in the chaotic suburb of Bandra. Yes, I never met him. No, I can't say I don't know him at all. No one who spends time with his work can claim not to. Nissim Ezekiel. A K Ramanujan. Kamala Markandaya. R K Narayan. Dom Moraes. Where have all our writers and poets gone?
I am told he once wrote: 'A little tired, but in the end, Not unhappy to have lived.' I hope to God that's true. I really ought to have met him. In another time, perhaps. Goodbye, Mr. Moraes.
Image: Uday Kuckian