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Song of Subaltern: Arun Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems
by Hemang A Desai   
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Last edited: Saturday, September 20, 2008
Posted: Saturday, September 20, 2008

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Singing out the Song of Subaltern: A (Post) Post-Colonial study of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems
Dr. Hemang Desai
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the sound of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
-Jawaharlal Nehru
The huge rumbling of these lines that sounded the death knell of the Empire and promised a proud verbalization of the ‘nation’, dies down flimsily after an overlong duration following official decolonization, with the publication of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems in 2004. Popularly enough the agenda of the nation-formation, nation-building and national identity in opposition to imperial ‘Great Game’ of representational orientalism, has been central to the post-colonial discursive writings. However, a definitive conceptualization of the category of ‘nation’ as well as ‘nationalism’ has eluded theoretical endeavours because of the differing common denominators operating at the level of culture, ideology, community and ethnicity within a geopolitically sensitive country like India. The co-existence of multitudinous realities, which, most probably, are more replicating than diverging in their mutual relationships, has always resisted the utterance of the category of ‘nation’ in the Nehruvian sense. In his essay “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness”, Franz Fanon cleverly differentiates between nationalist anti-colonialism and “national consciousness” in an effort to appropriately validate and justify the sentiment as a historical necessity, though not without pointing out its inherent ideological pitfalls. While nationalistic anti-colonialism can potentially degenerate into a parochial nativism or a lop-sided indigenous elitism, national consciousness has liberationist, anti-imperialist and anti-totalitarian undercurrents and promises to be “…the only thing that will give us an international dimension….It is the national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows.”1 Unfortunately for Kolatkar, as for many other Indians, the dream of nation building has not been translated into a generic reality either because of the birth of home-grown neo-colonialist powers or on account of partial and half-hearted percolation of national consciousness in post-colonial era or due to both of them. The end result has been the perpetuation of the wretched condition of the colonized, the powerless or the underprivileged who stand twice removed from the colonizer, the powerful or the privileged.
Arun Kolatkar has consistently and masterfully dealt with extremely problematic dialectic of nation and culture, religion and politics, marginal and mainstream, tradition and modernity, indigenous and exotic in his collections of English poems like Jejuri for which he was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and Kala Ghoda Poems that still awaits a posthumous felicitation of still greater magnitude for its unparalleled polemic, aesthetic and literary brilliance. In both these collections, Kolatkar, quite unambiguously, engages with the quotidian, the unnoticeable, the marginal and the banal. Just as the old beggar woman, the school boy, the mangy bitch with her puppies, the wide-eyed calf and the station dog in Jejuri make their archetypal presence felt on the reader’s sensibility, there is no dearth of the unremarkable, thwarted and humble dramatis personae, both in animate and inanimate forms, like the old fisher woman, the hash seller, the rat poison man, the tart, the goon lover, the one-eyed baby bather, the rat-poison man, the bicycle tyre, the crow, the pi-dog and the rubbish in Kala Ghoda Poems. Kolatkar’s treatment of these social outcastes or left-outs in their impoverished and beleaguered world is wry, colloquial, unsentimental and of course full of compassion that borders on empathy rather than sympathy. The poet’s ingrained and heartfelt concern for the pariah surfaces in poems like “Bon Appetite” and “Breakfast at Kala Ghoda” where the accuracy of the objective observation intensifies to such a degree that in the moment of poetic crescendo, the poet starts identifying with the frail old fisherwoman about to start a quick breakfast. He confesses,
“for I can almost taste
her saliva
in my mouth.”(p.125, KGP)
However, even a cursory reading of the poems makes it crystal clear that the poet is cagey about not allowing his compassion to blunt the political edge of his poems. Far from just being a piper who would play hackneyed tear-jerkers detailing marginal woes and wretchedness, he stares downright into the eyes of the maladroit establishment with an unmistakable glare chastising it for being invidious or lethargic in granting the underdog the right to life and happiness. The hard core of Kolatkar’s poetry is starkly political, non-conformist and anti-establishment. The architectonic accuracy, beauty of imagery and remarkable originality of treatment are the condiments that make the reading succulent for poetic palates. Adil Jussawala, a close friend of Kolatkar’s, mentioned that the line from the Gospel, “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,” was something that Kolatkar particularly cherished.2. As he has wonderfully put in Jejuri, he strove to show,
                        What is god
                        And what is stone
                        The dividing line
                        If it exists
                        Is very thin. (p.28, Jejuri)
He makes it very clear that he knows how to read the word ‘God’ backwards. He knows it “as fangs / inside my flanks / but I also know it / as a lamb / between my teeth.” Thus in ‘Heart of Ruin’ the dilapidated godless temple in which the mangy bitch and her puppies have found a shelter is nothing short of the house of god. The epiphany ensconced in these poems is indubitably indebted to Kolatkar’ conviction for subverting the given binaries, dismantling the hierarchy and situating things at a horizontal level. The dissident, deconstructive and assertive tone of Jejuri which further assumes thunderous decibels in Kala Ghoda Poems is essentially postcolonial in nature, so what if the identity of the Empire has shifted from the exotic to the indigenous. In Kala Ghoda Poems, the poet appears up in arms against the socio-political establishment of post-colonial India holding it responsible for maintaining, maneuvering and magnifying the illusory and scandalous discourse of development that had shrewdly brought about and perpetuated the faceless, indistinctive and uncultured subaltern identity in the colonial period. The poet squares up in an oppositional stance against neo-colonialist exploitative power bases that have further colonized, historicized and reduced the peripheral other to cultural diminutives in the post-independence period by trumpeting the mythical and hypothetical discourse of development that is manipulated to mean primarily growth, evolution and increase3.
Cleverly using the colonial framework of development that bestowed supremacy and dominance upon the colonizer at the expense of the identity, well-being and self-realization of the colonized, Kolatkar pits the pie-dog in the very first poem of the collection against the over-urbanized, technocratic and apathetic establishment of Mumbai city to pinpoint that things have not changed yet. The pie-dog sitting in a ‘traffic island’ – a functional parking lot for cars-, looking “ a bit like / a seventeenth century map of Bombay/ with its seven islands/ not joined yet” can call the city his own only in the early morning hours since with the sunrise he has to “surrender the city / to its so-called masters.” In spite of his present ostracized condition, the pie-dog proposes to “leave the realm of history” and revive the binary subversion accomplished by Harlan Ellison in “A Boy and his Dog”,
“in which the ‘Boy’ of the title
sacrifices his love,
and serves up his girlfriend
as dogfood to save the life of his
starving canine master.” (p. 19, KGP)
Evocatively enough, the pi-dog whose paternal genealogy goes back to the royal dog that made it to heaven with Yudhishthira “in recorded history” traces his descent to a strong matrilineal tradition,
                        “to the only bitch that proved
tough enough to have survived
first the long voyage,
and then the wretched weather here
-a combination
that killed the rest of the pack
of thirty foxhounds,
imported all the way from England.”(p.17, KGP)
Despite such bio-cultural superiority, the pi-dog is denied his right to space in the physical as well as cultural sense of the term. He helplessly witnesses the city crumble to pieces every night and “slowly reconstruct itself / stone by numbered stone” at a cockcrow to pay homage to the neotypical forces of development, colonization and subjugation. The poet’s heart grieves for the marginalized for whom the nightmare of colonial woes and wretchedness continued long after the nation awoke to life and freedom. The cataract eyes of old lavatory attendant Parameshwari, the nobody’s fool as she is, makes her
“see through the new day
and know it
for the clever forgery it really is.”?(p. 25, KGP)
In “Meera”, the “tireless fossil” of the Great Empire - ‘the honey cart’ - which was designed for the hoof-friendly roads of Mayhew’s London and which came to Mumbai “with the noble mission / of cleaning this city” still haunts the city, however without fully accomplishing its mission as
“…more and more of Bombay
keeps mushrooming
on land wrested from the sea
the malarial swamps
salt marshes
and creeks that surround it
and reclaimed by sweepings,
such as this trolley collects
day after day;
with the result, that
the more you clean Bombay
the more Bombay there is to clean.” (p.31, KGP)
The poem beautifully elucidates and derides the unabated and ruthless execution of the negative, lop-sided and imperial project of expansion, advancement and increase by claiming and reclaiming the marginal spaces in post-colonial India. In his characteristic style, Kolatkar proposes to title the installations of rubbish in front of the Jehangir Art Gallery “Homage to Bambay, one” and so on,
                        “since a good bit of the city stands
                        on sweepings such as these.” (p.28, KGP)
That the so-called civilized, superior and developed metropolis has to owe its existence to filthy rubbish is glaringly ironical. “Song of Rubbish” underscores this reality with a blatancy that is disturbing and revealing at the same time. Unlike the grapes, being crushed underfoot by vineyard wenches, that has the good fortune of aspiring to ‘greater glory’ and the clay, being treaded by potter and tested in fire, that finds ‘a new purpose’, the heaps of rubbish exiled into the wilderness of a landfill site has to undergo a long “period of silence and seclusion” before realizing their tryst with destiny, which was promised to them long ago at the time of independence. The rubbish becomes a witness to the birth of a ‘new’ city that has no place for it. Kolatkar cleverly breaks the stanza between the words ‘new’ and ‘city’ to highlight the appalling gulf between the fact and figment, projection and reality. The political fanfare of ‘India Shining’ sounds all hollow and appears to be contrived in the absence and at the expense of those who are groveling in the darkness of marginal obscurity. Unsurprisingly the baby bathed by the ogress on the edge of the pavement “looks around / at the whole honking world / that has massed its buildings / menacingly around him” and pisses on it for being what it is. This unmistakable verbalization of marginal rage, the post-modern subversive tendency and the overwhelming conviction to turn things upside down surface as oft-formulated leitmotif in a slew of poems in the collection. Thus the eponymous Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads, deliberately magnified by the poet to cover the various suburbs of Bombay in the neat accordion folds of her sari as she qualmlessly puts it on in front of the leering “voyeur world revolving / around her”, is screened by utter contempt for the ogling poets, painters, ‘clean-nosed’ dirty old men, “other jerks and assorted arseholes”. Such a subaltern ire against the puny hypocritical trappings of upper class respectability comes out very well in the poem “An Old Bicycle Tyre” in which a cast-off bicycle tyre, “a wobbly zero / a spastic shunya” – a worthless entity in a world of numerical and digital hype, bravely rejects the antiquated modes of an overbearing civil society for the retention of identity and existence by denying to join “some silly commune / of ascetic / bicycle tyres” on treetops or to listen to the ‘pseudo-Wagnerian’ squeals of crickets and cicadas. The persona non grata prefers to immolate itself “to warm some shivering bums / by the roadside” on a fine winter morning or even “to give a slap-happy boy / a good run/ for his money”. A wholesome whack from the boy, no doubt, gives it a terrible shudder but that is what keeps the tyre going, that is what actually it lives for. Kolatkar cleverly works the sensory and spatial binaries of movement and inertia, fragrance and stink, higher and lower, sacred and blasphemous in order to subvert the fundamental binary of the privileged and the underprivileged, the civil and the barbaric, the worthless and the worthwhile, the colonizer and the colonized. The postcolonial practices of empowerment of the indigene, revivification of the nativity and exultation in quintessential identities of the subaltern find unmistakable and poetic assertion in almost all poems of Kala Ghoda Poems. Thus, the little piles of rubbish in front of the wide-agape sleeping Jehangir Art Gallary offer a fresh, though transient, series of installations celebrating the essential impermanence of art. Again the rubbish, exiled into the peripheral wasteland is made to achieve a glory greater than that of the grapes and the potter’s clay when it is crushed within the wicker bin by Meera, a modern counterpart of Lord Krishna’s devotee, when it starts giving off its essence, exudes “the wine / of worthlessness, express / an attar of thankfulness”. “Breakfast at Kala Ghoda” in which the only traffic island that escaped the evil eyes of developers and planners transforms into a virtual oasis of peace and communitarian bonding at breakfast hour with idlis and sambar becoming common denominators in the complex sum of living. Nirmal Selvamony sheds revealing light on this entire myth of development publicized by the colonizer. “Considering the negative development of the colonies, we might say that the unity of the families is imperiled, their histories and memories are obliterated by forces such as urbanization, employment aborad, expatriation and dislocation. Economic development is negative when man is isolated from his communitarian bonding with other men, nature and supernatural powers and seen as an individual with infinite potential and wants.”4 The fact that the whole coterie of the pariahs comes together at one ‘trisland’ for breakfast and exult in the joy of living with surprising optimism and matchless energy in contrast to hectic, tense and disintegrating life of their masters insinuates towards the ravages of colonization that has boomeranged against the colonizer himself. Kolatkar rightly sings,
                        The convergence
of all the loose appetite in the air
within a one-mile radius
to that one spot
has created a bubble in time,
shimmering with the joy of living,
reflecting all the colours
of hope, (p.112, KGP)
Cast in the role of a spectator, the poet feels doomed to witness “the slow disintegration of a city / I cared about more than any other” in the wake of devastating detonation of consumerist consciousness, mammoth capitalism, cybernetic reality and narrow centralized development that took its toll on the organic, environmental as well as human ecology. “The Boomtown Lepers Band” wails the increasing dehumanization of Mumbai, “a city without soul”, as it embarks on its regular begging rounds.
                        “Let the city see its lion face
In the flaky mirror of our flesh.” (p. 124, KGP)
Greed becomes the operative principal of this economics. In order to satisfy all the wants of the people, megatechnology is pressed into service with the result that the environment is degraded beyond repair. Such an economy goes hand in hand with the totalizing centralized polity and bureaucracy.5 The poet’s disgruntlement at the disruption of ecological balance wrought by the devouring evils of development comes out very well in “Man of the Year” in which the passing year feels morose at the prospect of being left out of history books for not being a witness to any cataclysmic events like revolutions, wars, genocide, and disasters.
“Nothing much happened, except
That the Himalayas rose by another inch
Fewer flamingos came to Kutch
And the leaning tower of Pisa leaned
A little further out
By another 1.29 millimeters
The Danube poured
Two hundred and three kubic kilometers
Of fresh water into the Black sea
The hole in the ozone layer widened
The earth became poorer
By two thousand seven hundred plant species.” (p. 159, KGP)
Avaricious socio-political establishment in its bid to promote and commission more and more centralized development projects ignores the gradual but gruesome rot setting at the heart of biological sphere. “David Sassoon” is dazzled by the pace at which the city changes its face, from one with the gaslights and gaslighters to one with Lady Electricity “who has robbed my nights of mystery and stars”, from the one with horse-drawn trams to the one with “a plague of motor-cars” choking the streets. He flinches at,
                        “A cement-eating blood-guzzling city
                        Pissing silver, shitting gold,
                        And choking on its vomit.” (p. 148, KGP)
The small parable explicated in “David Sassoon” holds an unforgiving light on the unrelenting project of colonization that has assumed ghastly proportions in the period ensuing the alleged decolonization. Though the executioners of the colonial project have changed, the hoard-core policy of exploitation and otherizing has been enforced with unprecedented vigour and venom. The black horse of the nation leaps off its pedestal unhorsing its imperial master in turn,
                        “But the valiant prince, from what I hear
                        With true Brit grit
Managed to get back in the saddle
And there abides
In total command of his steed
Once again” (p. 151, KGP)
These lines bring us back to the oft-raised moot points of decolonization, nation-building and National consciousness. India which rose to freedom with the proud policy statement of “Jay Jawan, Jay Kisan” (Victory to Youth, Victory to Farmers) has to helplessly negotiate the bitter reality of brain drain and farmer suicides at the juncture of the diamond jubilee of her independence. Kolatkar’s city of Mumbai represents India at microcosmic level and his concerns transcend cartographic constraints to encompass the entire humanity under the pangs of marginalization. However, like every great artist, Kolatkar doesn’t attempt to investigate the root-causes of the emergence of neocolonial forces or the continuation of the abject condition of the marginalized, or even to chalk out a future course of action for them to ameliorate their lot, possibly for the simple reason that he is a poet and not a theorist.
Works Cited
  1. Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. Harmondsworth: Penguine, 1967, pp. 247-48.
  2. Quoted by Subramaniam, Arundhati. “Arun Kolatkar”, in Indian Literature 223, Sept-Oct – 204, pp. 19-25.
  3. Selvamony, Nirmal. “De-developing Society: A Case for Tradition”, in Value Education Today: Explorations in Social Ethics, eds. J.T.K. Daniel, Nirmal Selvamony,Tambaram: Madras Christian College and New Delhi: All India Association for Christian Higher Education, 1990, pp. 86-87.
  4. Selvamony, Nirmal. “Post-Coloniality and the Discourse of Development”, in Post-Coliniality: Reading Literature, eds. C.T.Indra, Meenakshi Shivram, New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, 1999, p. 62.
  5. ibid, p.63.

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