The prodigal poet
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Posing in a camouflage jacket and faded denims, poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra looks like People magazine’s sexiest man alive. He has long black hair, a five o’clock shadow, a cigarette between his fingers, and an intense look.
The 1973 photograph is on the cover of Mr Mehrotra’s 2014 book, Collected Poems, 1969-2014.
The picture was taken on a farm in Wisconsin, when the 26-year-old Mr Mehrotra was on a two-year writer’s fellowship in the US.
Forty-one years later, Mr Mehrotra is posing for The Delhi Walla in his drawing room in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. He still wears jeans. He has a long white beard and looks like the American poet Walt Whitman.
Mr Mehrotra’s latest offering is important in the scheme of India’s literature because it is the first comprehensive compilation of all his works, including his acclaimed translations of poems in Prakrit, Bengali, Gujarati and Hindi. The pages offer a sense of centuries of Indian poetry.
The new India, however, appears to be less modern than the ancient. Take Mr Mehrotra’s celebrated translation, The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry From The Gathasaptasati Of Satavahana Hala (first published in 1991). It has poems, among other things, about a mother encouraging her daughter to have affairs outside marriage.
In an India where there are battles about “kiss of love” and “love jihad”, these poems could be criticized for being against so-called Indian values.
“The poems in The Absent Traveller, written 2,000 years ago, are all about fucking — about what goes on before the act, during the act, and after the act,” says Mr Mehrotra. “Most poems are spoken by women, and they are of all ages, from an ingénue to an ancient crone reminiscing about her past affairs. In one poem an old woman is in a temple, worshipping a stone she says she had once used as a pillow.”
Mr Mehrotra adds, “Temples, then, were also places where you went to have sex, and stone gods, placed sideways, had other functions as well.”
The poet risks inviting attention of the undesirable kind.
Indeed, the 67-year-old invites attention on his hometown’s streets because he looks different from his fellow citizens. Many mistake him for a foreigner.
First published in a 1965 issue of the Allahabad University Magazine, Mr Mehrotra has become one of the most significant English-language poets in India. “Arvind is a scintillating poet,” says Bombay-based poet Ranjit Hoskote. He first extensively engaged with Mr Mehrotra’s works through the now-defunct poetry publishing collective, Clearing House, that Mr Mehrotra co-founded with Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel in Bombay in 1976. “His poetic ambition has been to retain the ‘sharp-edged quality’—as he writes in the introduction to his benchmark anthology, Twelve Modern Indian Poets — while achieving intense effects of affect, emotional depth and the evocation of epic historical atmospheres through minimal gestures,” says Mr Hoskote.
“(Mr Mehrotra’s) poems all but stand up and hit you,” declared The Times Literary Supplement in 1984. In 2011, The New York Times hailed his “beautifully translated” poems of Kabir for “blending traditional Indian scriptural allusion with contemporary slang and colloquialisms”.
One would suppose Mr Mehrotra to be a celebrity in this university town. Around 600 km east of Delhi, Allahabad is famous for its holy rivers, its high court and university, once known as the “Oxford of the East”. It is one of the three Indian cities Americans will help develop into smart cities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama agreed on this in October 2014.
“No one knows me in Allahabad,” says the man who has authored five collections of poems.
Mr Mehrotra is also the only Indian to have translated more than 200 Prakrit poetry.
“I came to Prakrit poetry through Kolatkar,” he says. “He was reading the Gathasaptasati in S.A. Jogalekar’s Marathi edition and simultaneously translating its verses for me. I was immediately struck by them; they sounded as though they had been written yesterday. This was in the mid-1970s in Bombay. When I returned to Allahabad I tried to find out more about these ancient poems and ways to read them. The editions I found had the Prakrit original along with a Sanskrit translation, but since I knew neither language I hired a tutor to help me. That’s how the translations came about. By the way, I do think Sanskrit should be made compulsory in our schools. Imagine the amount of erotic poetry, some of it quite explicit, our children will then be able to read and recite. It’s the best introduction to our culture they will ever get.”
Mr Mehrotra’s Collected Poems, introduced by novelist Amit Chaudhuri, has 34 new poems along with selections from his earlier published works. Some of these new verses, like some of the old ones, are set in Allahabad. An anthology Mehrotra edited a few years ago was called The Last Bungalow: Writings On Allahabad.
But Allahabad shows no gratitude. No local newspaper has ever profiled Mr Mehrotra. Neither has he ever spotted an Allahabadi with any of his books. The idea of reading poetry to an Allahabad audience seems laughable to Mr Mehrotra, who flies to the US every other year to lecture on ancient Indian poets. He returned a month ago from such an assignment at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Of course, Mr Mehrotra doesn’t compose poems in order to be recognized in this city where “everyone thinks that it’s all happening here, when actually there’s nothing happening here. Allahabadis have to be constantly reminded that their city is not the centre of the universe. They feel upset when you say this.”
Yet it is this town that has shaped the poet. Born in Lahore in 1947, he spent a part of his childhood in Allahabad. After his dentist father moved to Bhilai, then in Madhya Pradesh, he returned to the city for his college education — he retired as an English literature professor from the university two years ago.
Today, the poet appears to be winding up his life in this town. His wife Vandana and he spend most of the year in quieter Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s capital, devoting only three months to the second-floor flat in Jyoti Apartments, a neighbourhood close to the chaotic Hira Halwai chauraha. Their only child, the writer Palash Krishna Mehrotra, lives in Delhi.
The story of Mr Mehrotra’s productive years as a poet in Allahabad illustrates a creative man’s frustrations in a small town in New India.
The couple has lived in this cramped flat for 25 years. Peopled with chartered accountants and businessmen, this is not a writers’ block. “The apartment will collapse if we stop coming to Allahabad,” says Mr Mehrotra. “There are small repairs to be done, bills to be paid; and then half of our books are here.”
On the spur of the moment, the Mehrotras decide to head out in their yellow Tata Nano to the Indian Coffee House for lunch. It’s in posh Civil Lines.
With its chipped wooden tables and turbaned waiters, the café has as much atmosphere as its big brother in Delhi. The couple orders the usual: cheese omelette. A waiter brings the Hindi daily Prayagraj Times. Apparently, it is given free to every customer. Daylight enters the dark hall through prison-like window bars. Pointing towards a grim-looking man at the next table, Mr Mehrotra says, “He is Rustam Gandhi, one of the few Parsis still left in Allahabad.”
“During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, every Hindi writer, known or unknown, could be seen sitting at these tables,” says Mr Mehrotra. “I am sure they would be featured in the local Hindi papers, especially when they won awards, or when they died. I am little noticed in Allahabad, or too much noticed, and for the wrong reason. Boys call after me, ‘Bin Laden, Bin Laden’.”
Mr Mehrotra has come from a tradition of university poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, Louis Simpson, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Josephine Miles and John Hollander. They all taught in universities but for Mr Mehrotra, college teaching was not a demanding and exciting pursuit that shaped his aesthetic ideas. His long years at Allahabad University were completely incidental. “It had little or no role to play in my life,” he says. “There was no connection between what I taught and what I wrote. Which is not the case in other parts of the world, where your teaching and writing, at least academic writing, are closely linked. You try out ideas in class first, with your students, or with your colleagues.”
Allahabad University has just witnessed a rather violent election campaign for its students’ union. A local daily reported that of the 23 candidates, 15 have criminal cases against them at various police stations.
“This is the cow belt,” says Mr Mehrotra. “You walk 2 miles in any direction and you hit a village. Most of my students come from these adjoining areas and many are the first generation in their families to learn English. It is difficult to teach them Shakespeare or Shelley when they are barely familiar with the alphabet. Basically, they bring a textbook to class and you tell them a few things in Hindi. The miracle is that even after 43 years of teaching, I did not end up brain dead, not by teaching Macbeth in Hindi but doing the same thing over and over again, as though I was working in a car assembly line. Teaching, at least in Allahabad, always felt like a grossly overpaid and overrated profession.”
Didn’t he ever think of leaving?
“I did quit it once, for about two years. In the late 1970s I was at the University of Hyderabad, and though the students and faculty there were both excellent, in Hyderabad I felt even more like I was living in a foreign country than I did in the US. May be if I had stayed longer I would have gotten used to the language, the people, and the landscape of the Deccan, but I was impatient and hurried back at the first opportunity,” says Mr Mehrotra.
Emerging from the coffee house, the couple peers into the office of an insurance company, housed in what must once have been an old bungalow. “The main office that we see must have been the drawing-dining room, and the two bedrooms would have been on either side,” says Mr Mehrotra, adding, “Now you have to piece together the original bungalow in your head.”
In his college days, Mr Mehrotra lived nearby, in a relative’s bungalow, on 20, Hastings Road. Uncle Kelly, married to an Englishwoman, was an English literature professor at the university. His expansive house was set amid a cluster of fruit trees.
This afternoon, after a gap of 20 years, Mehrotra decides to take a look at Uncle Kelly’s bungalow.
During the British Raj, Allahabad was the capital of the erstwhile United Provinces. There is a sense of that status in the old offices, mansions and bungalows lining roadsides. Neglect has chipped away at most of them but they are still imposing. And the All Saints Cathedral in Civil Lines looks as magnificent as any grand Gothic church in Europe; its architect also designed Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial. This afternoon, a dozen fruit vendors are sitting on the traffic circle outside the cathedral, selling Allahabad’s legendary guavas.
Speeding down Thornhill Road, Mr Mehrotra gestures towards a half-standing structure. “A bungalow is being demolished,” he says.
Allahabad has an astounding number of absolutely stunning British-era bungalows. Some of them have been transformed into government offices and schools; vines and grasses colonize others.
The car enters Hastings Road. The younger generation knows it as Nyaya Marg. Mr Mehrotra parks his car at a turn and walks to a pink bungalow. He had sketched an evocative portrait of this house in Partial Recall, the short memoir he wrote for his Allahabad anthology.
Its owners say the plaster is peeling and water drips from the roof. They plan to rebuild it into something more liveable.
Walking back, Mr Mehrotra says, “The house seems unchanged but I don’t feel moved in the least. The people associated with it are no longer there.”
A neighbouring bungalow, surprisingly well-preserved, used to be the home of Mr Mehrotra’s closest college friend, Hindi novelist Premchand’s grandson. He died early.
Of late, times have been tough for Mr Mehrotra’s wife, whom he addresses as bachhi (child) though she is three years elder to him. Her sister and brother died within the space of a few months. Her brother was a Gujarati poet who appears in translation in Mehrotra’s Collected Poems. Vandana, whose father was a Hindi novelist, first met Mehrotra during their postgraduation at Bombay University.
A painter, she has displayed two of her works in the drawing room. Every other room is filled with books. Old copies of The New York Review Of Books lie everywhere.
From the building’s roof, Vandana points out the neighbourhood of Anglo-Indians, where houses are usually rented out to Christians.
“Arvind wants to dispose of this apartment and move permanently to Dehradun,” she says. “But this is home.”
These days Mr Mehrotra is translating Vinod Kumar Shukla. “He is perhaps the finest living Hindi poet. There is a quirky simplicity to his work, in which the most ordinary things appear other than what they are, making for the constant surprise of his lines. You will find some of his poems in the Collected Poems.”
Looking at the book’s cover, Mr Mehrotra says: “I was, at the time, a visiting writer at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. I was already married and Vandana was with me. It was our first trip abroad. From Delhi we flew to Tel Aviv, then to Rome, where we spent half a day sightseeing. The next stop was London, then straight to Chicago, from where a small plane took us to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I had always dreamed of America. The place was strangely familiar. I already knew it through its writers and poets.”
Will he eventually leave Allahabad?
“Though I have written about this city in my poetry and prose, including my new poems, and edited an anthology on it, in my mind I left it long ago. Over the past 40 years Allahabad has grown uglier, more violent, and increasingly provincial. It’s a city to leave rather than a city to return to, much less live in. Last week, though, they installed the first traffic lights.”
1. (Wisconsin, US, in 1973; photo by John P. Beah)
3. (The couple in Allahabad in 1974; photo by Herwig Palme)
4. (The couple in Allahabad in 2014)
6. (At Uncle Kelly’s ex-home after 20 years)