Thayil’s in extremis terrain

Hoshang Merchant | Updated on: Jan 19, 2018
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Hoshtang

Hoshtang

Behind the snarl, a sweet man… behind the difficult man, a grand poet

I’m 70, today. I remember Jeet Thayil’s and Vijay Nambisan’s Gemini (I have forgotten the poems I then envied.) Next came Thayil’s English . I remember the collection’s archi-tectonics; wrote about it; don’t know where, can’t recall what.

Thayil is a grand poet and his reputation is that of a ‘difficult man’. Some poems here are sweet; most very harsh about hard men he finds funny. (Is hardness a mask? Are the poems about the difficulty of being sweet in a hard world?) Dom Moraes, who gave the young Thayil drink and shelter (in that order), was right about his first book: “He’s good when he’s not too preoccupied with his persona.”

Why is he preoccupied with whores? Coming to think of it, Thayil is our only lapsed male Christian poet. (Eunice de Souza is nominally female.) What a poem to Kamala Das! She quotes the Koran, then speaks of ‘yielding’ in orgasm. God bless us poets! Thayil lived on Shuklaji Street. (Some Bombay poet he! The only other one was Namdeo Dhasal, who was born there.) Vaginas, to Thayil, smell like Camembert cheese. Everyone knows Narcopolis . No one knows the poems. “This is as it should be,” says Thayil.

And the drug-reveries: when does a drug-reverie become a dream? These addicts, Thayil says, will worship anything. “I worship a shoe.” This is the rage of the lapsed Christian. Lapsed Christianity plus drugs make the world luminous.

Julia Kristeva says poetry is ‘feminine’. (Sorry, ‘macho’ Jeet!) Words in a poem come out like a drug-addict’s or a schizophrenic’s ‘word-salad’. But what words! And sometimes, so tender, as with his dead wife, and with the dead poet Agha Shahid Ali. Why did they have to die? Ali gave Jeet ghazals, while alive and dead. But the wife, dead, took his poetry with her. Or so Thayil says in the Preface. He’ll write no more poems. He’s 55.

He likes Babur. (So do I. So did Moraes.) He likes other Bs: Brodsky, Bolano, Botero. And, of course, Baudelaire, whom he characterises in one line: “Napoleon’s hair, Poe’s eyes” (as in the Manet etching). Indeed! Bolano pops up in Thayil’s Bombay poem; helps him to his poetic feet. Brodsky comes up as a pastiche. Rilke is reworked, thrice, in autumnal tints. Life is unfair. We’ll be unfair to it in a poem. But we’ll always be fair to poetry: ghazal, sonnet, villanelle, sestina. Sanity, thy name is poetry, even if a poem be insane.

Vijay Seshadri says Thayil is truly contemporary. His world is our world: the same Kentucky Fried Chicken from Bombay to Hong Kong to New York. All three cities are places Thayil has lived in and written about. No need to strive for ‘Indianness’, said Adil Jussawalla of Thayil. Thayil says, “I am me.” That ‘I’ is contemporary. “I was born the year Billie Holiday died,” the Preface to Collected Poems begins. It is the world of jazz, drugs and death. Naresh Fernandes speaks of it in Taj Mahal Foxtrot , where Shuklaji Street is sanitised at Apollo Pier. (It is also the world of the new ‘Bombay noir’ film Bombay Velvet , which bombed at the box office.) Drugs and death are the same for the Bombay whore and the hobos in the American West. Only the details differ. All men are sinful, especially the poet. Poetry will redeem them. This poem is the ‘god’ in a godless world. The poet’s eye takes in the dunghill and the beauty of nature’s plenty. Behind the snarl, Thayil is a sweet man. “Betray me before I betray you,” he writes.

Guilt: when the wife died, did she leave a note saying “Nobody’s to blame”? So the poet says, “I am Nobody”. You can’t win with a guilt-ridden person. He has to hate himself, go through orgies of repentance, come out with a burnished poem. What is damnation, what redemption? The two are the same, just as for the body, spirituality and sensuality are one and the same. The Mind, the Mind has to be cured. This snake in Eden: put it to sleep with drugs, sex, drink, love, poetry. Frances Newton Souza comes to mind: the churches made resplendent with drink-sodden priests; the nunneries, their harems. No wonder the Cardinal of Bombay, Valerian Gracias, thirsted for his blood. The Fathers of St Xavier’s, Bombay (he was my father’s contemporary) kicked him out of college. We got the paintings.

Thayil is in good company. Drink is the curse and glory of the Bombay poets: Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Vijay Nambisan, Santan Rodrigues (he died young). His predecessor is the Jewish, guilt-ridden Nissim Ezekiel, who dropped acid once and only once and came out with “Latter-Day Psalms”. My Parsi guilt (at my homosexuality) makes me “drool karma and dharma” from my sadhu-beard into my soup. No maudlin religious compensations for Thayil. His people die on him. How dare they? His wife, his grandma, his poet-friend Ali. But wife is not mother, mother’s mother is no wife, poet-friend is no lover; wife: lover, though, was a fellow-poet. He has discrete poems for these discrete loves. “I alone am left to tell this love.”

Compassion is too lily-livered a word for Thayil. He is no liberal, he is no Catholic. He is a wounded animal with a bleeding wound. He knows what it is to bleed. He knows how to stop bleeding. And he knows how to laugh and make us laugh. He can imagine lives. (One of the poems here is called “How to be a Girl”.) He knows fauna. He likes best the exotic fish that starts eating itself ‘from inside out’. He would like to be that fish! Children like to show off before their mothers; especially mothers who aren’t easy to impress. But the son, Jeet, also begs pardon from his mom, who had to birth his ‘big, fat head’. (It’s bald now and his trademark.)

He has also grown a beard. He calls it ‘white as snow’. Did Thayil mature when we weren’t looking? When he wasn’t looking? But as I said before, there always was a great deal of sweetness there. And, an Indian indebtedness to gurus (even if made fun of): Gandhi, his father, Dom Moraes, the Western poets who gave him lines, the mother, the mother-tongue, Malayalam.

Early on, Keki Daruwalla had said that Thayil, with his pithy images, will make it to the anthologies. Not one queer poet has made it there. Why? Following Freud, Judith Butler finds ‘a great melancholy’ in heterosexual men; for the homosexuality they have rejected. Thayil understands this melancholic current under male-male relationships. In his poem, Thayil has, for an American hobo, “one final kiss on the mouth”. But for me, Thayil had a savage hyena-laugh at the Jaipur Lit Fest. (I hid behind the boy I was then hitting on). Thayil eulogises the vagina like no poet before or after him has.

I think Thayil’s seminal poem is “English”. After all, he’s an English poet from India; a world-poet, really. He starts with the mad Christopher Smart: “For every word has its marrow in the English tongue.” Language is gendered. The French word ‘genre’ means ‘gender’. In French, nouns are given ‘fictive genders’, which is quite hilarious. (‘La’ is feminine, ‘Le’ masculine.) All gender is fictive; hence funny. The genre of Indian English is funny to the English. (Peter Sellers then, Salman Rushdie now with his Hinglish.) Thayil begins with Bombay: “(...) I stand for the seventh and last time / by a sign that says, ‘Welcome to Bombay’.” He brings home some larvae in a hat. They “(...) slap their genitals / once more with rage and decry the terrible / litanies of St Thomas, ‘Mary you too may / become a living spirit resembling males. / For every woman who makes herself male / will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’“ ‘Phallologocentrism’: quite a mouthful!

The dung beetle is led by the poet into ‘God’s crazy teeming garden’. The phallus is male, God is male, language is male, the Poet is male. (But poetic language is female.) The female dung beetle has to have a sex change to enter heaven. Sorry feminists!

In Hong Kong these days, homeless old ladies die sitting in all-night McDonald’s joints. An old lady rowed Thayil across in 1997. “Her wide and unforgiving face is as impassive / as December on the South China sea.” Burning, burning St Augustine came to Carthage. “Thou pluckest me out, O Lord, thou pluckest me out.” Eliot echoed Augustine in The Wasteland . Thayil echoes both in the modern wasteland of the great Asian metropolis: “My God thou has shriven me, he says / aloud. Yes, Lord, thou hast taken from me / all vanity and surcease. Bone-weary, / I beg recompense. I wait to be plucked / and played but all night thy terrible hands / push against the stern”. Even a literary revolution is not a tea-party. It demands blood. (‘Blood’ is another favourite ‘b’ word of Thayil’s.)

“At Kabul Zoo, the Lion” shows us that only those who truly love animals can love human beings. Thayil proves himself a lover: “So this is fear: / (…) Everything burned: / The tiger shrugged fire / off his shoulders. / (…) Blind in one eye / my jaw in shreds, my mane / singed to a useless crop, / I wait for these men / to come to me.”

The spirit in extremis: this is Thayil’s terrain.

Agha Shahid Ali’s and Vikram Seth’s rhymes are more brilliant than Thayil’s, whose rhymes sometimes feel forced. But this is a minor flaw in a major poet.

Thayil has his own territory of which he is slave, master, judge and record-keeper. A brilliant record, indeed.

Hoshang Merchant is a poet, critic and gay activist

Published on January 01, 2016
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