Keki N. Daruwalla as a Poet
While serving in the police department, K.N. Daruwalla has been writing English poetry in which he has really made a name. He has written poetry in the English language, and done so with conspicuous success. We regard him as one of the major Indo-Anglican poets, even though critics have been somewhat slow and reluctant in giving to him the praise which is his due. We have no doubt that in the course of the next dozen years or so, he would be recognized as one of the top-most Indo-Anglican poets.
Daruwalla published the following volumes of poems in the course of his literary career:
(1) “Under Orion” (published in 1970)
(2) “Apparition in April” (published in 1971)
(3) “Crossing of Rivers” (published in 1976)
(4) “Winter Poems” (published in 1980)
(5) “The Keeper of the Dead” (published in 1982) and
(6) “Landscapes” (published in 1987)
He may not be a prolific poet but to have published six volumes of poems in the span of seventeen years is no mean achievement. However, what needs particularly to be pointed out is the fact that, in recognition of his literary work, he was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984. This fact, namely his winning this distinction, is a befitting reply to our grievance against the literary critics for not having shown much enthusiasm for his poetry
Daruwalla is determined to avoid the ‘maudlin mud’ of sentimentality, but deprivation and misery, disease and death move him acutely, often making his satire ‘drip with bile and acid.’ Daruwalla brings a combination of these attitudes to bear on his view of the rioting mob, the tub-thumping politician, ‘Evangelical Eva’ and ‘Rotarian Renu’, the Maulvi who dies of tongue cancer, the leper at the Taj, the ledge-walker, the epileptic woman, the bandit chief and many others.
His view of religion-whether his own, the Zoroastrian, or Hindu is characterized by a modern skepticism tempered by a lively human curiosity as in his vignettes of Benaras “the octopus city” in The Water Front. Daruwalla’s favourite images are those of violence (the gun goes off on many pages), disease (for instance, the Taj is “domed leprosy”, rain is “arthritic”, and the river “dark as gangrene”) and fire (a by-product of his Parsi heritage after all).
Daruwalla’s naturalness, which constitutes his primary strength, is also however, the source of a definite poetic weakness. It has a potential corollary, carelessness, which obtrudes into his poetry now and again. A resistance to the need for transforming his material or pruning it prevails to a fault in some of his poetry. It manifests itself in the frequent sloppiness of his punctuation and in the occasional lapses into prosiness. In a poem like Pestilence the gloom of contagion and death incorporates another dimension, the sinister duplicity of official reports:
“who says they have cholera?
they are down with
diarrhea who says it is cholera?
it is gastro-enteritis
who says they have cholera?”
Daruwalla’s mode is that of narration and description. His is a poetry of incident and event. Even when writing about nature, Daruwalla resorts to accident, as in Winter Poems: 5 (which is about bees). Because he tends to describe incidents in detail, adding his reflections and comments, his poems tend to be longish; they often have a lax appearance, characterized by prolixity. A poem like Monologue in the Chambal Valley (in the volume entitled “Under Orion”) tells us interesting things about a bandit and an informer, but would have really been better as a short story.
Many of Daruwalla’s poems are laden with information, too much information. Part of it may achieve the status of significant poetic image or even of symbol; but one wishes that Daruwalla had worked more with selective imagery, condensing and distilling his material into more compact poetry. Daruwalla is at his best when he works with selective image and metaphor, as in The Beggar and Vignette I. Kohoutek (in “The Keeper of the Dead”) presents a constellation of powerful metaphors. Fire-Hymn works through incident, but here two incidents are juxtaposed effectively, and described with economy, achieving an intense, dramatic effect.
Daruwalla has been praised for his bitter, satiric tone, which is rather exceptional in Indian verse in English. Instances may be cited from Dialogues with a Third Voice, Collage I, and Death by Burial.
The landscape of northern India-hills, plains, and rivers-is evoked in many poems, notably in The Ghaghra in Spate where the terror of the villagers at night as they fought the river, is recorded with compassion and understanding.
There is an obviously Indian element in Daruwalla’s poetry, especially in his use of the landscape. When it is not ornamental, the landscape comes alive as a presence of its own. The language then is pared to the bone. Images are concrete and exact. “Writing a poem”, says Daruwalla, “is like a clot going out of the blood.” This is true of a poem like Death of a Bird which has an intensity, a thrust that makes it a significant experience.
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