Vol. 5 Num 144 Sat. October 16, 2004  

Letter from Mumbai

On October 5, at a Loquations meeting in the darkened Sunken Garden of the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai, a quiet tribute was paid to Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004), "India's best kept literary secret", in the words of his poet friend Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. It was not a large gathering‚ just about 25 people ‚ but as each Kolatkar poem was read, the silences that followed underlined the realization that India had lost one of its greatest writers. Kolatkar's loss has come on the heels of the deaths of two other leading Inian-English poets‚ Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes; for the Indian literary world, this has been a terrible year, made worse by the fact that Mulk Raj Anand has gone as well.

During the coffee break, Kolatkar's friend and fellow poet Adil Jussawalla handed out copies of an article by Mehrotra, published in Tehelka this August. Titled 'The Unseen Genius', it speaks of Kolatkar's 'remarkable literary career'. It is remarkable, Mehrotra says, "because Kolatkar, perhaps for the first time in world literature, has created two distinct, independent, and very different bodies of work".

Kolatkar's Marathi admirers, Mehrotra adds, mention him in the same breath as the 17th century Tukaram. Readers more familiar with English knew him as the poet who won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Jejuri in 1977. Mehrotra also tells us that Jejuri will appear in 2005 as a New York Review Classic in a series that includes books by Dante, Mandelstam, Henry James and Chekov.

Shortly before he died, Kolatkar left behind two major works, published by Ashok Shahane's Pras Prakashan ‚ Kala Ghoda Poems (in English) and Sarpa Satra (in Marathi). Kala Ghoda Poems, though set in Mumbai's art district, spans the universe. Its longest sequence, 'Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda,' encompasses a restaurant in Seoul, where a dog is slowly being strangled; a Russian spaceship, where the cosmonauts have just finished their breakfast of pork, cheese, honeycake, prunes and coffee; and Leda, the 90-year-old who "dreams it's raining bread", and wonders why “she's the only Jew left‚ and what happened to everybody".

Sarpa Satra, on the other hand, is an epic-style poem about genocide, in which the sacrificial fire, still not extinguished, is "blackening the air and filling it with the stench of burning." These books were launched together at a function organized in Mumbai this July. Adil Jussawalla was in the audience, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who had come especially from Allahabad, was on stage; both had worked hard to ensure these books were put together and that people took the time off to be there.

Arun Kolatkar himself sat in the front row, and did not say a word, though he signed a few copies afterwards. When Kolatkar signed my copy--we were renewing our acquaintance after years-- he told me he did not have a telephone but that I could always come across to the Military Cafe on a certain day of the week. I did not know then--or I would have gone there sooner--- that he was suffering from cancer diagnosed a few months earlier, and was in the last stages. Adil told me at the Loquations meeting on October 5 that they were not even sure he would be alive to see the books being launched. There is still a huge body of work waiting to be published, Adil says, so much that it will take a year to put it all together. It is a book that will be worth waiting for, from a writer who has left behind a legacy that has enriched Indian poetry in two languages forever.


For Mumbai's writers, there has been some good news as well. For decades now, writers have recognized the need to get together to find an audience for their work; if you are a short story writer, the chances of being published are almost nil, and if you are a poet, then the situation gets even worse.

A couple of weeks ago, however, a few young writers in Mumbai got together at the Oxford Bookstore to launch Stories at the Coffee Table. The initiative comes from the Bombay Writers Cafe (BWC), a group of writers who came together online on a networking site, Ryze, discovered they had a great deal in common and decided to provide a platform to other writers. They have now moved on to put together a collaborative blog, and have evolved into an offline group, with about 200 members in different cities. So far, they've been accessible at, but Peter Griffin, one of the members, tells me that Caferati is now at its own webspace :

BWC has announced a nation-wide contest, inviting entries for Stories at the Coffee Table, Volume One. They are asking for original, previously unpublished short fiction in English (up to 3,000 words), to be published in book form. The contest is open to all residents of India, and Indian citizens anywhere in the world, and the last date is October 31. Entries need to be sent via email to Check out SATCT-V1.htm for more details on the contest.

The BWC has worked out an elaborate judging method, and with each story being read by at least two of the seven editors and selectors, only the very best should get through.

Sunil Nair, author of a collection of poetry, Vignettes, and a novel, Chatroom Blues, says the BWC's next project will be a poetry venture. If they succeed - and there is no reason why they shouldn't, given their determination to do so - it spells good news for all those young writers in India who have despaired of ever seeing their work in print.


In a city known for its crass commercialism, poetry springs up in the most unexpected places. On October 7, 2004, the makers of Colgate toothpaste, and Sony Entertainment Television, organized a special event for kids. They had conducted a 'Spread a Smile' song-writing competition for school children, and 33,587 children from Class I to V had sent in their entries. Of these, 630 made it into the hands of the well-known lyricist Javed Akhtar, who culled out 36 of the best. "I have been on many juries," said Javed, "but this was by far the most difficult. That's because these were not poems, but 650 smiles in envelopes."

Javed, who described all the 36 prize-winning poems as 'honest' and 'real', then drew on the essence of what the children said, and wrote a song that even a cynic like me had to acknowledge was heartwarming. "The big writers, the big poets, who have all the craft and language, and have read all the books worth reading sometimes tend to forget that honesty and genuine feelings are important," Javed said. A hard-boiled journo, who later claimed to be "passionate about poetry", asked Javed a question. "Don't you think poetry is dying?" he said.

"It's not poetry that is dying," Javed responded. "It's the poets." It was an afternoon designed to promote toothpaste smiles, but I never did figure out what the audience found so funny about that one. The problem is, poetry springs up all over the place, but superficiality is never far behind.

Menka Shivdasani is an Indian English poet based in Mumbai. Her two books of poems are Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990), and Stet (2003).