MANOHAR SHETTY Pays a Tribute to DOM MORAES On His First Death Anniversary



To use the title of a poem by Jon Silkin, 2004 was a year which left ‘a space in the air’ in the diminishing world of English language poetry in India. This bleak period saw the passing away of three mentor-like figures: Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar and Dom Moraes. At 66, Moraes was the youngest. He was also the youngest to be crowned by fame when at the age of 19 in 1958 he won the Hawthornden, Britain’s most hallowed poetry prize. The early success did not go Moraes’ head. (Except briefly, when he infamously denounced the liberation of Goa. ‘I am horrified, ashamed and appalled by the action of the Indian government’, he declared in the ‘Evening Standard.’ in the UK). He followed up ‘A Beginning ‘with equally accomplished work in ‘Poems’ (1960), ‘John Nobody’ (1965) and ‘Beldam & Others’ (1967). Then followed a long, fallow period of 17 years when the poems dried up. There may have been some unnerving moments (all poets know the fear of falling silent) but Moraes thought of the time as a ‘germination period for words, while experience and travel took over my life’.

It was 1983 by the time he eked out ‘Absences’, published privately in a limited edition.   By this time Moraes had left England and settled, warily, in Bombay. More new poems appeared in ‘Collected Poems’ (1957-1987). But it was only in1990, after a gap of 23 years, that another full-length collection, ‘Serendip’, emerged. In between these books, Moraes published extensively– travelogues, autobiographies, notably the candid and moving ‘My Son’s Father’ and biographies of Indira Gandhi and Sunil Gavaskar.

‘Absences’ marks a hyphen between his ‘English and ‘Indian’ periods. Moraes may never have felt at home in India, but the language, the reference points, the sensuous lyricism never changed in the poetry itself. Though some of his later work was more elliptical, the allusions increasingly elusive, the poems were still stamped with his trademark sentient images and an undercurrent of emotion. Only a certain levity found in earlier poems like ‘At Seven O’clock’ and ‘Bells for William Wordsworth’ was missing. The institutionalizing of his mentally ill mother early in his life continued to haunt him in middle-age. But he was now able to confront the pain directly. In the apparently simple and compellingly sad ‘Letter to My Mother ‘he writes:  ‘I am ashamed of myself/Since I was ashamed of you.’ This is a departure from ‘A Letter’ in his second book where he remarks defensively, ‘My mother mad, and time we went away’.

The fine-tuning of emotion, as in the magnificent ‘Future Plans’ in ‘Serendip’, is what lends grace and validity to Moraes’ opulent lyricism. As he puts it: ‘All the pain of the poem is the pain of the poet.’ Even at his lowest creative ebb, Moraes was never merely a technician producing poems ‘written by a typewriter on a typewriter’. This ‘felt lyricism’ spanned his preoccupations with exile and mythical figures, loneliness, lost (and found) love, and forebodings of death.

It is an irony that Moraes himself would have recognized that though his early poems were received rapturously in the West, his work now is not currently fashionable there, though it is in India. In a sense Dom Moraes’ life had come full circle. The best of his poems will surely survive transient trends.

With his gangly good looks, his adolescent smile, the quizzical eye looking out and over his reading glasses, and the world-weary carelessness (pay packet spilling out of his back pocket, whiff of mid-morning whisky), Dom Moraes was an urbane but vulnerable minstrel. He was a brilliant conversationalist, full of amusing stories and anecdotes (some possibly apocryphal). But one had to strain hard to catch his near-imperceptible flow of words. Not so for the poems which speak as eidetic entities.

Courtesy: ‘Time Out Mumbai’, 2005

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