In September, 2004, when I wrote a tribute to Arun Kolatkar, the well-known Marathi and English poet who had recently passed away, I had no idea that the piece would take a life of its own. The trouble began when I opened Bruce King's Modern Indian Poetry in English in order to refresh myself on Arun Kolatkar and came on the following quoted lines:
i want my pay i said
to the manager
you'll get paid said
but not before the first
don't you know the rules?
Good God, the letter! I thought. While over the intervening decades I had remembered the poem, titled 'The Three Cups of Tea,' I had completely forgotten that it was Arun Kolatkar who had written it. Once upon a time back in the mid-Seventies in Dhaka there chanced into the hands of the five or six of us who seriously followed such arcane stuff, one signal copy of Quest magazine, the whole issue of which had been devoted to Indian poets and poetry in English. To me it had been godsend, acquainting me with a more complete range of poets than was available in Dhaka. While I knew about P. Lal and his Writers' Workshop in Kolkata, about Kamala Das (now Kamala Suraiya), Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Ramanujan, a lot of the others were new to me. One of these was Arun Kolatkar, whose 'The Three Cups of Tea,' an 'anti-poetic' according to King, published in that issue, I instantly liked for its parody of brusque, American tough-guy speech.
Those were bad days for a very young Bangladesh: it was the morning after independence, 'party over, baby,' the revolution felt like a waste what with memories of a famine and political bloodshed, a time of coups and counter-coups, with the slow, bitter-tasting collective realization that freedom and liberation were hollow jokes, of sad, hopeless days filled leaden skies and psychotic evenings. And in those days one wanted poetry that fitted the times. Anything else, any poetry about butterflies, summer romances, water-lilies, ponds, tender skies, nautch girls, exquisite displays of feeling, was nauseating. All poetry was suspect, even Bengali poetry, of which I didn't read much in those days. But I do remember looking beadily at Buddhadev Bose's poem 'Frogs': what was that slimy thing hopping out of its lines? Beauty? Aargh!
And so this poem by Arun Kolatkar, something about its attitude, with its hints of a way out of this stinking heap of leaden skies and crazed evenings, with its hard voice and tat-a-tat rhythms (hey, get laid, get paid, I'm just a working stiff, I need a drink, screw everything else...) was immensely appealing. I lent the Quest to a woman acquaintance who read English poetry extensively, and also had evinced interest in this branching tendril known as Indian-English poetry. With a hearty recommendation of Kolatkar, and I think a couple of other poets. A week later, she called up to say she hadn't enjoyed reading him. Whereupon � yes, today it makes me squirm, but what can I say, back then questions of literary taste in the context of Bangladesh aroused fire � I opened up with both barrels: you bloody bourgeoisie with your sickening tastes in English poets and poetry, your rancid sensibility floating above the people harping on roses and dewy dawns, never in touch with nitty-gritty, forever divorced from reality, fuck your gilded metaphors.
She heard me through, then quietly rang off. A week later, I got a letter from her, five pages, front and back, real ink. It conceded that I had a perfect right to my own tastes in poetry, then went on with what used to be called equanimity to define her own, on the delights of traditional English poetry � little things, for example, about Houseman's 'A Shropshire Lad,' a bourgeoisie poet if ever there was one � paused to ponder, obliquely, on limitations imposed by categories of class and race, then ended by detailing why she liked Nissim Ezekiel (again, almost preternaturally bourgeoisie!), in terms which made me realize that she read him far more closely and thoroughly than I had ever done. Or could, at that time.
And though shreds of former beliefs clung on, that letter altered my poetry reading, made me reach for Hardy, for Old English meters...
As I said, throughout the years I remembered the letter, I hadn't forgotten the poem either, I even remembered the cover of thatQuest (orange and white, with scribbles on it), but I had somehow completely forgotten that Arun Kolatkar had written it. And so today, I wrote the above lines to acknowledge his part in an episode that nudged me forward on the long, rocky road from provincial formulations onto something both wider and truer.