Here is the second entry in my occasional series on poems that deal passingly or centrally with themes, locations and/or images of food/eating/hunger etc. (See here for the first entry, on Imtiaz Dharker’s, “At the Lahore Karhai.) This week’s poem takes on a very different geography than Dharker’s poem (Bombay rather than London) and is formally more…well, formal and forbidding: in place of free verse, a set rhyme scheme—though not meter—and in place of declaration, elliptical, almost opaque observation.
But I’ve started in on the poem itself without telling you anything about the poet. Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) was and is by any measure one of the most significant writers of the 20th century and a giant particularly in the world of Indian poetry, specifically Indian poetry in English. He was one of the central figures in the modernist flowering in the little magazines published in Bombay in the 1960s and 1970s and influential despite the fact that very few collections of his poetry were published when he was most active as a poet. His first English collection, Jejuri, only came out in 1975 (when it won the Commonwealth Prize for poetry) and two others only emerged in 2004 after his cancer diagnosis.
Kolatkar was also significant—though not unique in his milieu in this regard—in that he was a bilingual writer. Where the vast majority of Indian literary production is by writers whose output is monolingual, writers like Kolatkar, Vilas Sarang and Shanta Gokhale worked in both Marathi and English. For more on the larger literary scene from which Kolatkar emerged and of which he was a part, see my friend Anjali Nerlekar’s excellent survey and analysis of Kolatkar and his world, Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. It’s an academic book and therefore unconscionably expensive but if you’re interested the entire book is available online as a pdf (legally). Anjali is an energetic and engaging writer and her prose rarely takes a turn towards academese.
Kolatkar was, among other things, one of the great cartographers of Bombay. His poetry records the city at street level, from the democratic spaces being left behind—and now mostly disappeared—in the rapidly modernizing and homogenizing megalopolis. He observes with an eye sometimes documentarian (as in the wonderful sequence “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda”), sometimes elliptical (as in this poem) but always unsentimental. The poet, as marginal—if not in the same way—as the subjects and scenes he records, writes them into the city’s memory.
“Irani Restaurant Bombay” was written in the late 1960s but was only posthumously published in the collection, The Boatride and Other Poems. Like some (many?) of his other poems in English it is a poem that existed first in Marathi before being recreated (rather than translated) in English. It takes as its scene and subject one of Bombay’s iconic spaces, the Irani restaurant or cafe. Now almost entirely extinct in its natural form, existing mostly as fetish in the decor of restaurants such as Dishoom in London or the Sodabottleopenerwala chain in India, Irani restaurants were central to the cosmopolitan and artistic life of the city. Kolatkar and his friends would meet regularly at one of these restaurants, the Wayside Inn (now gone)—a location invoked directly in his poem, “The Rat-poison Man’s Lunch Hour”, and where decades earlier Babasaheb Ambedkar (also invoked in that poem) wrote swathes of the Indian Constitution.
My understanding is that the restaurant in this poem is not the Wayside Inn or any other individual Irani restaurant but a composite of several that Kolatkar frequented. What he’s after here, at any rate, is not the recording of a particular space but the evocation of a particular mood and subject position: that of the loafer (if you want to be fancy and French you could say the flaneur). The loafer who is both observing and being observed in this poem does not eat or drink anything—is the glass of water his? nobody is eating the decomposing cake. He observes the scene and the poem observes him. The rhyme scheme is maintained (abab cdcd and so on) but the lines are of variable length, the enjambment taking us from one image and thought into another. The rhyme offers an order that never quite becomes available—images proliferate but meaning eludes us.
The mood, however, does not. This is not an easy poem but—at the risk of lapsing into banality—it evokes the ineffable lassitude, the rich solitude available uniquely in spaces as public as restaurants and cafes, particularly ones like Irani restaurants that seem not to be interested in the passing of capitalistic time—though, of course, they have mostly been consumed by it.
Irani Restaurant Bombay
the cockeyed shah of iran watches the cake
decompose carefully in a cracked showcase;
distracted only by a fly on the make
as it finds in a loafer’s wrist an operational base.
dogmatically green and elaborate trees defeat
breeze; the crooked swan begs pardon
if it disturb the pond; the road, neat
as a needle, points at a lovely cottage with a garden.
the thirsty loafer sees the stylized perfection
of the landscape, in a glass of water, wobble.
a sticky tea print for his scholarly attention
singles out a verse from the blank testament of the table.
an instant of mirrors turns the tables on space.
while promoting darkness below the chair, the cat
in its two timing sleep dreams evenly and knows
dreaming to be an administrative problem. his cigarette
lit, the loafer, affecting the exactitude of a pedagogue,
places the burnt matchstick in the tea circle; and sees it rise:
as when to identify a corpse one visits a morgue
and politely the corpse rises from a block of ice.
the burnt matchstick with the tea circle makes a rude
compass. the heretic needle jabs a black star.
tables chairs mirrors are night that needs to be sewed
and cashier is where at seams it comes apart.
You can find this poem and all of Kolatkar’s English language poetry—as well as some of his translations from Marathi—in the excellent Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by his friend Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. (The image on the cover of is a photograph of Kolatkar at the Wayside Inn.) The publisher is Bloodaxe, who also published Dharker’s I Speak for the Devil. The only other extant publication of Kolatkar’s poetry that I know of is an edition of Jejuri, his most famous work, brought out by the New York Review of Books in 2005 (a scant 30 years after its original publication). You could buy that but you’re much better off getting a used copy of the Collected Poems off Alibris. It’s got all of Jejuri in it and a lot else besides.
One bit of literary trivia in closing: the character of Bhupen Gandhi, a minor but important character in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is modeled on Kolatkar.