It is hard to imagine a modern poet who is more appealing to a researcher’s interests and, at the same time, more refractory to any kind of scholarly investigation than the subject of the book under review. This particular tension, if properly exploited through a combination of sound research and perceptive insights, may go a long way to guarantee the success of a critical study. Fortunately, this is what Laetitia Zecchini, a French researcher at the Centre national de la [End Page 408] recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, achieves in her thorough and eloquent portrait of Arun Kolatkar (1932–2004), a reclusive and ruminative literary maverick, whose utter disregard for publication, let alone publicity, long delayed his recognition as one of India’s most significant poets of the twentieth century. As a result, his “work is still in the process of being discovered,” and his published output represents the tip of an iceberg whose underwater portion consists of thousands of pages of “various novel manuscripts, translations, diaries, sketchbooks, drafts, songs, paintings and graphics [which] are still to be brought to light, and for the time being are preserved in cardboard boxes by close friends across Mumbai” (12).
Born in a Marathi-speaking Brahmin family from Kolhapur, in southern Maharashtra, Kolatkar moved to Bombay to attend the J. J. School of Art, but he soon dropped out, eventually pursuing a career in advertising and gaining a reputation as one of the most talented art directors in the city, if not the country. This talent he often lent to the little magazines and publishing initiatives he became involved in as a poet and translator, and which nurtured the “post-independence Bombay scene for poetry, art and modernism” (35) during the 1950s through the 1970s. This is clearly a scene that deserves a book of its own, in the absence of which Zecchini provides a suggestive compendium of salient features in the first chapter, “Bombay Bohemianism, Bombay Cosmopolitanism,” stressing the “complex interplay of traditions, affiliations and languages, of world culture and subculture,” as well as the “local or ‘rooted’ cosmopolitanism, that articulates the tension and imbrication of deracination and belonging, roots and routes, marginality and worldliness” (59). Zecchini quotes the art historian Partha Mitter’s statement that “colonial cities like Bombay and Calcutta constitute the interface between the local and the global.” If this could be said of virtually any other ancient or modern city, it illustrates well Kolatkar’s poetry and underlying Weltanschauung, focused on the hyperlocal yet nourished by encyclopedic interests and voracious reading habits. (The Kolatkar Papers at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, which Zecchini has explored diligently and in depth, include an extensive collection of books, newspaper clippings, and other documents on a multitude of topics and in several languages.)
A poet of the “unpoetic trivial present,” Kolatkar didn’t need to travel far to find suitable subjects and themes for his art. Except for a pilgrimage of sorts to the Khandoba Temple in Jejuri, southeast of Pune, which inspired his best-known book, he found all his material in plain view on the sidewalks of South Bombay.
Like George Perec in front of St-Sulpice, taking down notes from the vantage point of three different cafés …, but more accurately still like Constantin Guys, painter of modern life and passionate spectator [in Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life”] sitting ‘in the window of a coffee-house,’ absorbed in gazing at the crowd, Kolatkar observed the street life of Kala Ghoda. Every week, for more than 15 years, from the vantage point of the same corner window table facing the traffic island in the Wayside Inn café, the poet patiently engaged with the constantly changing ordinary street life in front of him.(99)
This patient and sustained engagement, which resulted in the Kala Ghoda Poems (published only weeks before Kolatkar’s death in September 2004), shows a modernist sense of the everydayness that owes as much to Baudelaire’s “absolute awareness of the present, the ephemeral, fleeting and...