Essay | Reading Bombay through Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems – Saranya Subramanian

 
Shit city, he thunders;
the lion of Bombay thunders,
Shit city!
 
I shit on you.
You were a group
of seven shitty islands
 
given in dowry
to the Shit King of Ing
to shit on
 
— and now it’s all
one big high-rise shit,
waiting for God
 
to pull the flush.
And it won’t be long
for God is great.

- The Shit Sermon, Kala Ghoda Poems, Arun Kolatkar[1]

I read Arun Kolatkar to read Bombay. Is it right to read a poet, or poetry, as an extension of a place? I don’t know. Maybe not. Or maybe there is no right way to read a poem, or a poet for that matter. Still, I can’t help but see Kolatkar as synonymous with Bombay. Or perhaps synonymous with a Bombay that is musical and hilarious, twisted and hopeless, and very much existent even today. To me, Kala Ghoda Poems is an honest, unique narrative of my city that was otherwise unapparent to me until I read Kolatkar. For the first time I stopped to notice parts of Bombay that were right under my nose all along, but perhaps not visually appealing or relevant enough to be worthy of my seemingly precious time.

I started my initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, as a continuation of my research. My graduate thesis was a digital humanities project, where I used the software tools of spatial mapping to chart Kolatkar’s stellar collection published in 2004, the Kala Ghoda Poems, onto a map of Bombay and the world. Pinning poems, characters and events onto a visual map was a fantastic, insightful experience that explicated on the truths and fantasies of urban development. But the real fun, and the real struggle, was in finding these locations firsthand in my own city. My primary research involved walking around Bombay to follow the animals, people and piles of rubbish in Kala Ghoda Poems. To see Kolatkar’s Bombay is to see a city stitched together by a poet (and the Pi-dog). Ordinary things are turned upside down and magnified. Multiple lives jostle against each other and are made apparent in lyrical verses that subtly expose the collateral damage of a city plagued with development. The Bombay that Kolatkar writes, while being a global city, does not project the illusion of globalization as one that only involves skyscrapers and successful narratives of becoming rich and famous worldwide. The very real consequences of uneven development—pockets of rich and poor, past and present, grand buildings and piles of rubbish coexisting—distort this illusion. Kala Ghoda Poems teaches me to shift focus of my own city to the sidelined people on the streets and the scraps of dirt that are peppered on the ground. Kolatkar writes them down in poems that are delicate and light, never taking themselves too seriously. The poems are just as whimsical and musical as they are jarring and expository.

The first thing that strikes me about Kala Ghoda Poems is its characters. These are animals, objects and people who are almost spillovers of development, pushed out from social institutions and buildings onto the streets. For the first time, I viewed them as stuck, stranded, marooned in Bombay, far from home. The people from Kala Ghoda Poems are best described in “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda”: “the little vamp, the grandma, the blind man/the ogress,/ the rat-poison man,/ the pinwheel boy,/ the hipster queen of the crossroads,/ the Demosthenes of Kala Ghoda,/ the pregnant queen of tarts,/ the laughing Buddha,/ the knucklebones champ.[2]” As opposed to the bankers and lawyers who remain on the periphery of these poems, here are street dwellers, prostitutes, drunks and the homeless, made out to be almost mythical, magical creatures, asserting themselves over unmarked patches of land. The Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads has dominion “over two traffic islands/ and three pavements,[3]” the so-called Man of the Year stands proudly at a street corner, the girl who looks like “a stick of cinnamon” sits upon a concrete block “as if it were a throne[4]”. I see how the whole city, including my home, is literally either in their hands or on their body. Pi-dog’s body patches look like a “seventeenth century map of the city,”[5] the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads wears Bombay on her sari: each flap representing Dadar, Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla, Bori Bunder, Flora Fountain and Kala Ghoda.

Kolatkar’s characters make me question my own identity and experience of Bombay. Suddenly the colonial Kala Ghoda statue, that lent its name to the entire South Bombay locale, is replaced by the Pi-dog who commands his city from there. The Pi-dog chooses his lineage by tracing his descent from his mother’s side—a bitch who was brought from England to Bombay. He consequently opts for a narrative twice subversive: of colonial and matrilineal descent, challenging common postcolonial attempts of reclaiming the Indian identity. My position in an increasingly commodified world is questioned when I find myself wearing or carrying objects that are presented in Kala Ghoda Poems as rubbish littered on the road, in ubiquitous piles and pieces of junk that have been ridden of all their utilitarian properties. Yesterday’s commodities become today’s garbage, and Kolatkar urges me to stop and look at them—really look at them—as he individually picks out a red plastic hair comb, scraps of paper, an old bicycle tyre, a three-legged chair, castoff condoms, prawn shells, dead flowers and clay. As I walk around the beautiful, artistic hub of Kala Ghoda, home to a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s turned into a garbage dump. But rubbish and urban expansion are inextricable from each other, and I am reminded that much of Bombay is built on landfills converted into sparkling suburbs. As Kolatkar says, “the more you clean Bombay,/ the more Bombay there is to clean[6].”

The first time I followed the Kala Ghoda Poems trail, I expected to be taken on a linear journey from morning till night through 28 poems, but that was far from reality. In between “Pi-dog” and “Traffic Lights,” Kala Ghoda Poems goes back and forth in time and space, tugging me all around the world even, making a chronological trail an impossible feat. Other time zones and time periods are very much alive and breathe life into Bombay’s present reality. David Sassoon’s spectral presence looms over Bombay, indicating how the 19th century Baghdadi Jew painfully watches over his “cement-eating, blood-guzzling city[7]” of which I am a part. A queen from 13th century Granada is embodied in the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads, whose demeanour could very well make the pavement she dominates equivalent to a courtyard in Alhambra. Time is also a paralysed, stagnating thing in Bombay. Kala Ghoda Poems stops time and stretches moments of a box of idlis collectively sighing, a pinwheel rolling down the street, or a woman delousing her lover’s hair. I am made to stop and smell the idlis. In “Knucklebones” a women selling drugs controls time in the modern world: “Your sari wears a grin/ where your buttocks have sucked it in./ Which sets us all back by a good ten seconds./ It isn’t just your sari;/ it’s time itself that feels the pinch./ The clock outside the Lund & Blockley shop/ that shows the different times/ in all the big cities around the globe/ stumbles and loses ten seconds worldwide./ Flights are delayed./ Trains run behind schedule[8].” Suddenly, I see the fate of all my travel and business plans in the hands, rather buttocks, of this street peddler. The absurdity of development depending on the economically weak sections of society is made obvious in hilarious verse.

Some locations are often impossible to find or measure in exactitude while on The Kolatkar Crawl, locations that are beneath mahogany and banyan trees (trees themselves are a rarity in Bombay these days), at a street corner and a pavement teashop. Others are impossible to reach, such as the Danube River, the Black Sea, Hindu Kush Mountains or Heaven, Sheoul, all of which are tied to Bombay through drug trading, migration and even violent processes of war and colonization. Buildings that have lent their names to roads and areas become mobile caricatures stripped of all magnanimity and glory. Jehangir Art Gallery is “sleeping with its mouth open, as usual,[9]” St Andrew’s church “tiptoes back to its place,/ shoes in hand,/ like a husband after late-night revels,[10]” and the drunk in “The Shit Sermon” yells curses that circle over “the stock exchange,/ the High Court and Mantralaya”[11]. These buildings of art, religion, finance and law, are made comical and fluid, cursed and laughed upon.

Walking through Bombay and reading Kala Ghoda Poems recreates a city that is constantly shifting and dancing around, full of noises and colours, all the while exposing those lives that are pushed out of an expanding concrete jungle, hidden under bright lights and tall towers—the triumphs of development. Kolatkar weaves a Bombay that has no spatial and temporal coherence. I walk in zig-zags and stop midway to search for the smallest of creatures: crows, dogs, homeless snails, injured rats, black cats. Bombay, I realise as each poem pulls me in all directions, cannot only be drawn on the ground. It is a collection of fragments from land, air and sea; it is a disjointed, multidimensional city. Kala Ghoda Poems is an evocative, visceral read. The collection heightens all senses, making me smell and taste and hear all sorts of things as I even visualise Bombay through a charas pill’s journey and traffic lights. It’s a city full to the brim with filth and life pouring out from all cracks and corners.

Is there a right way to read poetry? I don’t have the answer, but I believe that experiencing poetry physically allows me to see things that I have never noticed before. Right now, under lockdown, the characters from Kala Ghoda Poems are important voices of those generally treated as dispensable—migrant workers, unemployed labourers, hungry, homeless strays—victims of a glaringly uneven development. Living on the streets, outside of Bombay’s high rises and social institutions is detrimental, today more than ever. I started The Kolatkar Crawl as an initiative to take people on walkthroughs of Kala Ghoda Poems, but the entire pandemic, lockdown and migrant labour crisis has fuelled the collection with a renewed urgency.

The Kolatkar Crawl is momentarily paused due to lockdown, but the virtual world still allows us to share our thoughts on Bombay and poetry. I conducted a conversation with researcher Laetitia Zecchini and poet Arundhathi Subramniam titled “Reading Kolatkar Under Lockdown” on 6 June 2020, which explored all three of our own entry-points into Kolatkar’s work. Bringing together the perspectives of a poet, an academic and a self-entitled flâneur (myself), was an enjoyable, enlightening experience. Arundhathi spoke about how she is drawn to Kolatkar’s incisive usage of unsentimental, unflinching image and tone and how there is reverence in his seemingly irreverent poems. Laeitita Zecchini seconded this, and added how she is fascinated by how Kolatkar never, never imposes his voice onto the characters in his poems. He gives them time to surface, and in doing so immortalises a city that hasn’t yet been ‘cleansed’ and sanitised.

Reading Kala Ghoda Poems becomes an act of reading Bombay. Now, I surrender fully to the delegations of crows, walls of cafes, watermelon carts, the legless hunchback and jerrycan of kerosene, delinquents in jail, lepers and potato peelers, street dwellers ruling over pavements and playing cards under banyan trees. I learn from them how my city has a shared geographic history with a larger subcontinent and I see the multiplicity of lives and stories that coexist with my own. I learn that my city cannot be tied down to a singular language, identity or history. This is the Bombay that Kala Ghoda Poems encourages me to experience. This is the poet’s city.

WORKS CITED:
Kolaṭakar Aruṇ, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2010.

BIO: Saranya Subramanian is a writer and theatre practitioner based in Bombay. Under her initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, she takes people on walkthroughs+readings of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, bringing the poet’s city to life, verse by verse and step by step. And she writes because, well, it’s all that she can really do.

Follow @thekolatkarcrawl on Instagram and Twitter for updates!

[1]Kolatkar, Arun. “The Shit Sermon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 146–149.

[2]  Kolatkar, Arun. “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 120-144.

[3] Ibid., 124.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 87.

[7]   Kolatkar, Arun. “David Sassoon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 173.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 149.