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Still Romancing Jejuri

Time:2019-07-07 22:22Shoes websites Click:

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I stand at the base of a large and imposing hill. Around me are more hills. Each one of them like the one in front of us—dry, scraggly and brown like the shaggy fur of a hyena. There is little sign of life on this earth. There are no birds in the air or insects on the ground. Underneath my feet is the scrunch of crisp dried leaves. The few trees here are without leaf, the grass has long turned brown and parched, and even the fleshy parts of the cacti have burnt into dry crisps. On occasion, higher up in the hill, one comes across cacti, their spindly limbs so outstretched as though they were spreading their arms to catch any little moisture from the air. But there is no moisture. Only a strong harsh sun.

And yet, at the base of this inhospitable hill, there is a cheerful gaggle of newlyweds. Some of them are still dressed in their wedding fineries—the men in shiny kurtas, the women with henna on their hands and colourful bangles on their arms—as though they have just taken off from their nuptial ceremonies. Just by looking at some of them, you can tell the circumstances of their marriages. Old familiar lovers push and pull one another up the hill; others, presumably in arranged marriages, walk, always together but a respectful arm’s length away, in connubial silence. There are others too, noisier families consisting of older people and children. But the newlyweds outnumber them. And after a while, when one gets used to the glare of the harsh sun, and one can look up at the hill, one can see these couples everywhere, little bright dots of colourful saris, at the hills’ various folds, making their way up amidst all its desolateness.

We have arrived here from Mumbai by road. The names of the familiar places, once so easily dropping off our tongues—Khandala, Lonavla, Pune— turning harder as we move inward, away from the sea, deeper into Maharashtra. Yewalewadi. Bopgaon. Saswad. Until you reach what really appears to be nowhere, this bare hill crawling with newlyweds in Jejuri.

Yet, it is this same place which some 50 years ago inspired—or at the least became the setting for—what is widely recognised as one of the seminal moments in Indian English literature. Arun Kolatkar first went to Jejuri in the early ’60s but it would take him more than a decade to finally come out with a collection poems on it. The novelist Amit Chaudhuri, in his introduction to the poems (in the New York Review of Books’ Classics edition), places it on the same pedestal as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While Midnight’s Children might open up an obsession with the monumental, Chaudhuri writes, Jejuri brought forth the possibilities of another lineage, that of the literary flaneur’s, ‘of the idiosyncratic delight in the freedom to withhold, assign, and create meaning, its consignment of History to the scrap yard, and its bringing of the scrap yard into history…’

Kolatkar’s Jejuri is a set of 31 poems which provides the account of a man who reaches the town at sunrise in a ‘state transport bus’ with a couple of companions. (Kolatkar’s friend Manohar Oak and brother Makarand, with whom it is said he travelled to Jejuri, both make appearances in the poems). The poems end at sunset with him presumably leaving on a train. Between these two events, each poem leading to the next in an almost linear novelistic fashion, lies the Jejuri of Kolatkar’s experience. Narrated dispassionately, the man, although he remains staunchly secular, undergoes something of a mystical experience. Chaudhuri points out that the experiences excite the narrator oddly, ‘though not to worship, but to a state akin to it while also quite unlike it’. It is an idiosyncratic journey, where Kolatkar casts his eyes on odd things that catch his fancy.

It is difficult to tell exactly what Kolatkar meant by the poems. Although he was always to be found at a corner of a popular establishment then, formerly the Wayside Inn, looking out from a window into Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda locality, he was known to be a reclusive figure. He didn’t own a telephone (one always had to ring him in his neighbour’s house), didn’t answer letters, and very rarely agreed to interviews. Once when the BBC did a programme on him, it is said he agreed to read a few poems but refused to talk.

Kolatkar was also odd. He wrote steadily, both in English and Marathi, but rarely published. He had a deep suspicion of contracts and requests from publishers. Jejuri, for a long time, was difficult to source. It could only be found at some places, like the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai and Pras Prakashan in Pune. But even that was difficult. After the initial print run, Kolatkar, it is said, used a photocopy machine to pirate his own books.

When asked how he had come to hear of the place Jejuri, he once told the poet Eunice de Souza, that he had discovered the place in ‘a book on temples and legends of Maharashtra’. ‘There was a chapter on Jejuri in it,’ he said. ‘It seemed an interesting place.’ Kolatkar was also going through an inner transition when he journeyed to Jejuri in the ’60s. This was the period when his first marriage broke.

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