When the French novelist Anatole France visited the Grotto of Lourdes, he was shown the rows upon rows of crutches left behind by grateful pilgrims who had been healed. The arch-skeptic quipped, "What? No artificial limbs?" I suspect that even a mountain of cast-off prostheses wouldn't have stilled his skepticism. But his witticism has a brittle ring. Perhaps he wasn't simply mocking the dubious vestiges of miracle but protecting himself against the enormous pressure of yearning such shrines possess. For pilgrimage is seldom disinterested. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims travel "the holy blissful martyr for to seek," but it's because the martyred Thomas à Becket has helped them "when that they were sick." In a sense, such shrines aren't even places; they are the ever-receding destinations of a fervent longing — to be cured, to be restored, to be made whole again.
Jejuri in the Indian state of Maharashtra is a temple-town sacred to the local divinity Khandoba, an especially generous god often invoked by women desperate to conceive. "Jejuri" is also the title of an unusual sequence of poems by Arun Kolatkar which has just been re-issued (New York Review Books, 88 pages, $12.95). This little volume, which first appeared in Bombay in 1974 in the quaintly named magazine "Opinion Literary Quarterly," and then as a book two years later, marks the true beginning of contemporary Anglo-Indian poetry; a slim, almost skeletal book, it has had a huge impact. Why this should be so isn't immediately obvious.
To American readers, Kolatkar's dry, spare verse will seem deceptively familiar but it is the very antithesis of the florid, highly rhetorical poetry long favored by Indian poets writing in English. Kolatkar's tone too strikes a new note, by turns caustic and tender; there's an unexpected affection in his contempt. Of an itinerant priest, with his "lazy lizard stare," he writes
The sun takes up the priest's head and pats his cheek familiarly like the village barber.
This doesn't blind him to the priest's mercenary intentions; when the bus stops, "purring softly in front of the priest," it reveals
A catgrin on its face and a live, ready to eat pilgrim held between its teeth.
The trip to Jejuri is a skeptical pilgrimage, but Kolatkar is no Anatole France. He discovers the deity not in a lavish temple but in the ramshackle byways of the holy town. In a collapsing shrine, where stray dogs rear "pariah pups" and the wreckage is "enough to strike terror in the heart/of a dung beetle," he finds a hidden holiness. The "heart of ruin" is "no more a place of worship" and yet, "this place is nothing less than the house of god." The literary distinction of "Jejuri" — along with its mischievous charm — lies in Kolatkar's creation of a place all the more invisible for being thronged. He views Jejuri as a place littered with the fragments of human hopes. He discovers a kinship with the temple rat and the station dog; he discerns a god in the worndown stones (at Jejuri, the distinction between "what is god" and "what is stone" is "very thin.") In "A Low Temple," he writes:
A low temple keeps its gods in the dark.
You lend a matchbox to the priest.
One by one the gods come to light.
Amused bronze. Smiling stone. Unsurprised.
For a moment the length of a matchstick
Gesture after gesture revives and dies.
As Amit Chaudhuri notes in his introduction, Kolatkar was a curiously unambitious literary lion. Celebrated both for his poems in his native Marathi and in English — "Jejuri" won the 1977 Commonwealth Poetry Prize — he preferred spending his afternoons in out-of-the-way cafes with his cronies. A prize-winning graphic designer with a successful career in advertising, he refused to have a telephone in his house. Only the approach of death in 2004, when he was in his early 70s, prompted him to assemble his last collections of verse.
For all their spare, almost notational style, the poems construct a setting that lingers in the mind. The poet is a pilgrim without expectation; this allows him to see the town as it is. But he is also like some curious child confronted by a gaudy carrousel who ignores the painted ponies and tinkling calliope to examine the concealed gears and levers that set the illusion awhir. He remains unmoved by "Gods who tell you how to live your life, / double your money / or triple your land holdings." Such gods are "too symmetrical." He reserves his worship for dishevelled gods, those who peep unexpectedly out of broken windows or share the cow-sheds with the bawling calves.