Po­etry In this room, the po­ems come and go

Domus - - CONTENTS - By Gieve Pa­tel Sec­tion cu­rated by Ran­jit Hoskote

Gieve Pa­tel (born Bom­bay, 1940) is a distin­guished pres­ence on In­dia’s cul­tural scene. Ac­tive as a poet as well as a painter and play­wright since the late 1960s, he has com­mit­ted him­self to deep and in­tense artis­tic ex­plo­ration in each of his cho­sen fields. This month, we present a se­lec­tion from Pa­tel’s Col­lected Po­ems (2018), pub­lished re­cently by Poetry­wala. This vol­ume brings to­gether all the po­ems pub­lished in his ear­lier books, Po­ems (Nis­sim Ezekiel Pub­lisher, 1966), How Do You With­stand, Body (Clear­ing House, 1976), and Mir­rored, Mir­ror­ing (Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 1991). In ad­di­tion, this Col­lected in­cludes a suite of Pa­tel’s new po­ems, and some of his trans­la­tions of the 17th-cen­tury Gu­jarati poet Akho. By way of in­tro­duc­tion to the poet, and to this se­lec­tion, I of­fer read­ers a stack of no­ta­tions. Thing­ness and Sight

Thing­ness lies at the core of Gieve Pa­tel’s po­etry. He points to­wards ab­strac­tions of the spirit, but al­ways through a ro­bust ma­te­ri­al­ity of things tan­gi­ble, pal­pa­ble, vis­ceral, things with heft and edge. His po­ems spring from a con­tin­uum of sen­sa­tion and recog­ni­tion, stim­u­lus and re­sponse, im­pulse to act and cur­rent of thought. The in­ter­play of cir­cum­stance and choice, the dance of will and limit, de­fine the ground of his po­ems. Cir­cum­stance: that which stands around. In ‘Spi­der’, the arach­nid pro­tag­o­nist’s life is a con­stant al­ter­na­tion be­tween ac­ro­batic dis­play and a gath­ered-in still­ness.

Mark the in­ter­change of solid and liq­uid in Pa­tel’s uni­verse, the slow dis­so­lu­tion of the ap­pear­ances that sus­tain our sense of the world, and cor­re­spond­ingly, a grad­ual rev­e­la­tion of the in­vis­i­ble forces that hold it to­gether and guar­an­tee its ad­mit­tedly un­pre­dictable con­ti­nu­ity, un­der­write its pre­car­i­ous sta­bil­ity. In ‘The Sight Hires a Boat It Sees’: “a wave of rock”. In ‘Soot Crowns the Stub­ble’: “a tide of ground”. The sight line, in fact the eye it­self, is shaped by these seis­mic ex­pe­ri­en­tial shifts that work their sor­cery some­times glis­sando, some­times con brio.

Phrase and Place

Nis­sim Ezekiel was a key men­tor fig­ure to Pa­tel, es­pe­cially dur­ing the early phase of his ca­reer (it was Ezekiel who pub­lished his first vol­ume of po­ems in 1966). In ‘The Place’, Pa­tel’s po­etry demon­strates the im­press of an Ezekie­lesque phras­ing and world-view. As in this line: “The tryst is in­ward.” The im­per­a­tive of in­te­ri­or­ity is em­pha­sised in the face of a world that has been sen­su­ously em­braced. Pa­tel’s wry­ness play­fully un­der­cuts the more sen­ten­tious freight of the Ezekiel legacy. And in­deed, as an art­ful, self-ironic med­i­ta­tion on love, on the words and si­lences that join and part lovers, on the rigours of yoga and the plea­sures of bhoga, ‘The Place’ is also strongly rem­i­nis­cent of the po­etry of the Meta­phys­i­cal po­ets, of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

Else­where, phrase takes its cue from place, as words are shaped into the mud-bathing buf­faloes in the pond at Nar­gol, Pa­tel’s an­ces­tral vil­lage in Gu­jarat; the bold squir­rels of the Mall in Wash­ing­ton DC; and the streetscape and its chang­ing cast of ac­tors as viewed from what was, for sev­eral decades, the poet’s med­i­cal clinic on Lam­ing­ton Road.

Al­ways, the ar­tic­u­la­tion of the ten­sions be­tween in­di­vid­u­als – and within in­di­vid­u­als — as they con­tour re­la­tion­ships through stress, strain and storm. By con­trast: the sump­tu­ous, daz­zlingly co­her­ent, al­most theo­phanic there­ness of place.


De­lib­er­a­tion. This word, which oc­curs in ‘For­tunes’, in our present se­lec­tion, em­bod­ies a key el­e­ment of Pa­tel’s ap­proach to experience. To go into out­right rap­ture — over a per­son, a land­scape, a piece of mu­sic, a paint­ing — is vi­tal. But so too, in Pa­tel’s scheme of things, is the pause be­fore an im­pul­sive ges­ture, the con­sid­er­a­tion that must pref­ace any act that, in­evitably, will trig­ger off a chain of con­se­quences.

An ev­ery­day cri­sis: How the uni­verse and its events con­spire against any co­gent dis­play of in­di­vid­ual agency. On the other hand, how to shake an in­di­vid­ual out of some in­her­ited or in­ter­nalised pro­to­col that im­poses pat­tern on chaos, a char­ter of rules on tur­bu­lence?

Ev­ery now and again, in Pa­tel’s po­ems, we come upon the con­flict be­tween the sta­sis of a pre­scribed role and the Eliotan “aw­ful dar­ing of a mo­ment’s sur­ren­der”. In the early ‘Vis­tasp’, the poet-per­sona star­tles a younger cousin im­mersed in prayer (the Parsi Gu­jarati term dayo-damro at­taches it­self in­stantly to the du­ti­ful lad). In the more re­cent ‘All Night’, the poet-per­sona gains in­sight into his own re­pressed or so­cially mon­i­tored self when look­ing at a tree sway­ing in a noc­tur­nal gale out­side his win­dow.

Charisma and Power

Dur­ing the late 1960s, Pa­tel’s gen­er­a­tion rang a spe­cific vari­a­tion on the so-called ‘tra­di­tion vs. moder­nity’ de­bate. On one side: the coun­ter­cul­ture, with el­e­ments of Al­dous Hux­ley, Wood­stock, LSD, psy­chother­apy, and sex­ual lib­er­a­tion. On the same side, roughly, but at an angle: the 1967 Nax­alite up­ris­ing and the 1968 move­ments of stu­dent re­sis­tance glob­ally, and the tidal

waves of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal mutiny rip­pling out from the protests against the Viet­nam War. On the other side — or was there re­ally just one het­ero­ge­neous, kalei­do­scopic side to this pe­riod? — the de­sire to re­trieve di­men­sions of con­scious­ness and experience that had been lost to cold pos­i­tivism and cor­ro­sive doubt. Thus: Freud, Jung, Car­los Cas­taneda, R D Laing. And also an at­tempt to re­trieve wis­dom from be­neath the ac­cre­tions of blind faith, so­cial cus­tom, dogma. Thus: a turn­ing to­wards spir­i­tual teach­ers such as Jiddu Kr­ish­na­murti and Swami Prem Kr­ishna (for­merly Ron­ald Nixon) and Swami Mad­hava Ashish (for­merly Alexan­der Phipps) of Mir­tola, who pro­posed routes to il­lu­mi­na­tion that were more mod­ern and cos­mopoli­tan than tra­di­tional and sec­tar­ian.

From a re­flec­tion on the in­ti­mate links be­tween spir­i­tual charisma and tem­po­ral power, heal­ing and con­trol, the shift­ing power dy­namic be­tween a leader and his fol­low­ers: Pa­tel’s ‘The Mul­ti­tude Comes to a Man’.

Pol­i­tics and the Parsi

Al­though a con­sid­er­able num­ber of Par­sis — splen­didly out of pro­por­tion to the de­mo­graphic strength mus­tered by this ac­com­plished mi­cro-mi­nor­ity — have been en­gaged in pub­lic life, the av­er­age Parsi’s favoured self-im­age is that of the ge­nial, non-in­ter­fer­ing non-com­bat­ant who re­mains un­in­volved in the sub­con­ti­nent’s deeply en­trenched racial, re­li­gious, re­gional, lin­guis­tic and sec­tar­ian strife. The fence is the Parsi’s throne. The hap­pen­stance of for­eign de­scent, the di­as­poric sen­si­bil­ity, the abil­ity to tran­sit with rel­a­tive ease among dis­parate cul­tures — none of which are Parsi mo­nop­o­lies in South Asia — are cher­ished as uniquely Parsi char­ac­ter­is­tics. And as pre­texts to stay out of the fray, tak­ing no sides.

So where does the Parsi take his stand in a coun­try whose In­de­pen­dence in 1947 was gained at the cost of Par­ti­tion? These events were tainted by bloody com­mu­ni­tar­ian vi­o­lence and an ex­change of pop­u­la­tions be­tween Bri­tish In­dia’s suc­ces­sor states on a scale un­prece­dented in hu­man his­tory. This re­sulted in the in­cal­cu­la­ble loss of life, home, and home­land for mil­lions of people. And in last­ing schisms that have al­lowed re­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal forces to po­larise Hin­dus and Mus­lims against one an­other. Mean­while, the Parsi plays at well-mean­ing phi­lan­thropist, stead­fast truth-teller, or harm­less buf­foon.

In a dev­as­tat­ing self-por­trait that satirises these sur­vival strate­gies, Pa­tel of­fers us ‘The Am­bigu­ous Fate of Gieve Pa­tel, He Be­ing Nei­ther Mus­lim Nor Hindu in In­dia’.


Pa­tel em­braces the ex­cla­ma­tion — usu­ally de­rided by more up­tight writ­ers — with verve and zest. Look, he’s an ac­tor point­ing at things vis­i­ble and in­vis­i­ble! In ‘How Do You With­stand, Body’, in ‘Soot Crowns the Stub­ble’, in ‘A Vari­a­tion on St Teresa’, and in ‘Moult’, the ex­cla­ma­tion con­veys his cu­rios­ity, his amaze­ment at the world’s mar­vels. And the self’s abil­ity to marvel at its own ca­pac­i­ties for self-delu­sion, self-am­bush!

In ‘A Vari­a­tion on St Teresa’, the ex­cla­ma­tion car­ries the rip tide of pas­sion ar­row­ing to­wards the ocean of sa­cred ev­ery­thing­ness. Pa­tel works with the woman saint’s famed use of a volup­tuary and car­nal vo­cab­u­lary as a path to the tran­scen­dent, not by mor­ti­fy­ing but by cel­e­brat­ing the flesh. We think of the re­luc­tant St Au­gus­tine in his Con­fes­sions: “Da mihi casti­tatem et con­ti­nen­tiam, sed noli modo (“Lord, give me chastity; but don’t give it yet!)”

In ‘Moult’, the Ma­hab­harata hero Karna will­ingly hands over the ar­mour that is his skin to the god In­dra, who wishes to leave him vul­ner­a­ble, prey to his en­emy in bat­tle. Karna is the epit­ome of gen­eros­ity, even at the cost of death. But what if, Pa­tel asks slyly, what if Karna’s self-sac­ri­fice were not, in fact, sim­ply the shiv­er­ing de­feat of a flayed war­rior? What if the lost ar­mour-skin is, in fact, an eman­ci­pa­tion of the body from its strait­jacket of du­ties, ascribed by so­ci­ety or self-im­posed?

Even as the ex­cla­ma­tion lifts free of the con­straints of well-be­haved prose, these fig­ures ex­claim them­selves out of their fate: re­leased from the bur­den of their con­texts, the ar­ma­tures of so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion and self-sworn moral­ity, they find their way to a place of spir­i­tual free­dom.

FROM: Po­ems (1966) Spi­der

Be­tween ac­ro­bat­ics The spi­der is still, Each sta­tion­ary spot A cen­tral spring Of thought and feel­ing: Stone wall, warm wood, The flesh on my arm, The stra­tum’s fer­vour, Mean­ing, mat­ter, Dis­tilled, ab­sorbed, Into mind and heart.



I’m cer­tain it was a crow: The let­ter stamped, licked And ready dis­ap­pears the Mo­ment I leave the room: Writ­ten with such de­lib­er­a­tion, Each line a de­ci­sion, and again The fi­nal choice be­tween seal­ing Or de­stroy­ing as thin

As a tossed coin; with all along An im­plicit knowl­edge: I haven’t The courage to write again.

Though I’m fit for read­ing for­tunes now. *


He was pray­ing be­fore the lamp— Petro­max. I crept up from be­hind, Caught him at his shoul­ders, Heaved him up above my head. When I put him down, turned him Around, I saw his face: shocked, Speech­less, as though he were the very god I had flung into the air; but also

A silent thump­ing joy

At the ou­trage.

Now the thing was an im­pulse— Given thought I wouldn’t do it—

I am not god-de­stroyer,

I have lit­tle against prayer,

But he would have to take ac­count, Ac­com­mo­date the fact

Of be­ing swung out of ho­li­ness Into a mean­ing­less mo­tion,

An arc of time to trace

A fu­ture doubt.

Would my silly act have made him A thinker?

Later he came to me, shy and merry: ‘This evening when I am pray­ing,’ he said,

‘do it again.’

* FROM: How Do You With­stand, Body (1976)

How Do You With­stand, Body

How do you with­stand, body, De­struc­tion re­peat­edly Aimed at you? Min­utes, Sec­onds, like gun re­ports, Tat­too you with holes.

Your area of five

By one is not

Room enough for

The fists, the blows;

All in­stru­ments itch

To make a hedge­hog

Of your hide. It’s your fate, Poor slut: To walk com­pli­antly Be­fore heroes! Of­fer­ing

In your de­mo­li­tion

A be­sot­ted kind of love: Dumb, dis­coloured, Bat­tered patches; meat-mouths For mon­sters’ kisses.


The Sight Hires a Boat It Sees

The sight hires a boat it sees:

A speck, two fin-like sails,

The dis­tant move­ment en­larged in Imag­i­na­tion as though

One were at the spot—waves Reach­ing three quar­ters up the mast, The boat boil­ing for­ward Through steam. I on land Watch­ing I

At sea. And where

Is the deck more se­cure? Ci­tyquake says alas

To one view of that ship

Be­fore eye level sinks

Un­der a wave of rock.


Soot Crowns the Stub­ble

Soot crowns the stub­ble, the grass Shorn off by a wave of fire.

It could’ve been hair off my chest.

That I should seek to equate breast ex­panse To mead­ows; claim fly­ing rights

Over a plain ever so of­ten flam­ing Un­der the sun’s ig­ni­tion! Pre­scribe me A true lim­i­ta­tion! Do I not waste years Deny­ing arms and legs per­mis­sion

To be else­where; in­sist­ing

Birds alone are agents

Of dis­per­sal, each vulture Shel­ter­ing in its giz­zard

The eye or the limb of what

Was one cor­pus? Though even the Mono­lithic tamarind del­i­cately

Torn by spar­rows’ beaks

For miles is dis­persed as mere Drop­pings: flesh first in­gested

And pro­cessed to dung,

A stow­away in birds’ in­nards, Lev­i­tat­ing from

A tide of down-pulling ground.


The Am­bigu­ous Fate of Gieve Pa­tel, He Be­ing Nei­ther Mus­lim Nor Hindu in In­dia

To be no part of this hate is de­pri­va­tion. Never could I claim a cir­cum­cised butcher Man­gled a child out of my arms, never rave At the milk-bib­ing, grass-guzzing hyp­ocrite Who pulled off my mother’s vo­lu­mi­nous Robes and sliced away at her dugs. Plan­ets fo­cus their fires

Into a worm of de­struc­tion

Edg­ing along the con­ti­nent. Bod­ies Turn ashen and shrivel. I

Only burn my tail.


The Mul­ti­tude Comes to a Man

The mul­ti­tude comes to a man When he ac­quires the power To heal: slowly the mul­ti­tude Comes drag­ging

Its heel. What

Can the mul­ti­tude want

As I join it to visit

The man who can heal?

The mul­ti­tude sees its own power Ac­cu­mu­late be­fore

The heal­ing man, and ex­changes Will­ingly power

For power.


FROM: Mir­rored, Mir­ror­ing (1991) The Place

See now, Well Loved, we make

Too much of places where to meet, And why some should seem right, Not oth­ers. The tryst is in­ward.

Any atom on earth should do

To sit by. But we fuss, we cavil,

We make pon­der­ous choices, re­ject­ing That cool well-side for no mor­tal rea­son, Favour­ing in­stead a lumpy, dusty stone To sit upon, as the one spot

We had been ur­gently seek­ing.

And it isn’t as though we were as­cetics. Out­right beauty too has pleased us. Like that seashore, dense with moon­light Ig­nit­ing wa­ter, sand and air

Into a blind shim­mer; our Re­cur­rent wran­gling the

One divi­sion to mar

That place’s sim­ple per­fec­tion.


A Vari­a­tion on St Teresa

When­ever You with­draw only a lit­tle way from me I im­me­di­ately fall to the ground.

I wait upon the strings You hold. In this equa­tion what­ever to make of love? And of any in­de­pen­dent per­for­mance of a glo­ri­ous kind? My limbs at best may be in­fused by an outer force; and so in­con­solably

I await Your storms: scream­ing seas, rip­pling gales, clouds tum­bled across the mouths of val­leys spew­ing light­ning, with trees shaken like rat­tles in a child’s fist!

These then, at last, do move me. Yes, I am moved, in­deed I am, I am.


FROM: New Po­ems (2018) All Night

All night long the tree crack­ling, shiv­er­ing, hurled right to left and back again by the dark air. It was brac­ing to wake up at least four times in the night, each time to lis­ten to its for­tunes, then slide back into sleep. How is it that an­other be­ing’s rest­less­ness could make me feel rest­ful? The tree’s ac­cus­tomed stately quiet— and maybe it might even wish once in a while to be tossed about the way it was this night, and I could sense a ju­bi­la­tion, an ex­ul­tant cry splin­ter­ing its throat. Sens­ing the tree’s delir­ium

I was given re­cip­ro­cal un­der­stand­ing of my own rac­ing jour­neys night fol­low­ing night, hair all awry, the wild tou­selling sound­ing screams I never get to ut­ter oth­er­wise.



for Ran­jit Hoskote, for his won­der­ful Karna play based on Bhasa

The sod­den, drip­ping weight which he moulted and of­fered to the god who re­ceived it in cupped hands — was it skin re­ally, or rather some­thing am­phibi­ous, half metal­lic scales, half mutely scream­ing in­tegu­ment smelling of fish, while flayed Karna shiv­ered from a cold he had never thought to en­dure, shiv­ered an­i­mal-like, a mere beast pre­pared for the cook­ing pot, and walked to the bat­tle­field cer­tain to be pierced by the first lance aimed at him. But the bur­den! Amaz­ingly it had lifted, and might it not be one’s heart’s de­sire ful­filled to die un­re­hearsed of light­ness?


The im­ages seen in the back­ground are de­tails from the trip­tych ‘Joan of Arc af­ter Carl Dreyer’ by Gieve Pa­tel (char­coal and graphite on Arches pa­per, 2016).The trip­tych was part of the ex­hi­bi­tion Foot­board Rider by Gieve Pa­tel, cu­rated by Ran­jit Hoskote. The ex­hi­bi­tion was on dis­play at Ga­lerie Mir­chan­dani + Stein­ruecke, Mum­bai from 19 Jan­uary to 18 March 2017. All im­ages courtesy of Ga­lerie Mir­chan­dani + Stein­ruecke.

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