In Arun Kolatkar’s footsteps, 50 years later
Lhendup G Bhutia | 28 Jun, 2019
I stand at the base of a large and imposing hill. Around me are more hills. Each one of them like the one in front of us—dry, scraggly and brown like the shaggy fur of a hyena. There is little sign of life on this earth. There are no birds in the air or insects on the ground. Underneath my feet is the scrunch of crisp dried leaves. The few trees here are without leaf, the grass has long turned brown and parched, and even the fleshy parts of the cacti have burnt into dry crisps. On occasion, higher up in the hill, one comes across cacti, their spindly limbs so outstretched as though they were spreading their arms to catch any little moisture from the air. But there is no moisture. Only a strong harsh sun.
And yet, at the base of this inhospitable hill, there is a cheerful gaggle of newlyweds. Some of them are still dressed in their wedding fineries—the men in shiny kurtas, the women with henna on their hands and colourful bangles on their arms—as though they have just taken off from their nuptial ceremonies. Just by looking at some of them, you can tell the circumstances of their marriages. Old familiar lovers push and pull one another up the hill; others, presumably in arranged marriages, walk, always together but a respectful arm’s length away, in connubial silence. There are others too, noisier families consisting of older people and children. But the newlyweds outnumber them. And after a while, when one gets used to the glare of the harsh sun, and one can look up at the hill, one can see these couples everywhere, little bright dots of colourful saris, at the hills’ various folds, making their way up amidst all its desolateness.
We have arrived here from Mumbai by road. The names of the familiar places, once so easily dropping off our tongues—Khandala, Lonavla, Pune— turning harder as we move inward, away from the sea, deeper into Maharashtra. Yewalewadi. Bopgaon. Saswad. Until you reach what really appears to be nowhere, this bare hill crawling with newlyweds in Jejuri.
Yet, it is this same place which some 50 years ago inspired—or at the least became the setting for—what is widely recognised as one of the seminal moments in Indian English literature. Arun Kolatkar first went to Jejuri in the early ’60s but it would take him more than a decade to finally come out with a collection poems on it. The novelist Amit Chaudhuri, in his introduction to the poems (in the New York Review of Books’ Classics edition), places it on the same pedestal as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While Midnight’s Children might open up an obsession with the monumental, Chaudhuri writes, Jejuri brought forth the possibilities of another lineage, that of the literary flaneur’s, ‘of the idiosyncratic delight in the freedom to withhold, assign, and create meaning, its consignment of History to the scrap yard, and its bringing of the scrap yard into history…’
Kolatkar’s Jejuri is a set of 31 poems which provides the account of a man who reaches the town at sunrise in a ‘state transport bus’ with a couple of companions. (Kolatkar’s friend Manohar Oak and brother Makarand, with whom it is said he travelled to Jejuri, both make appearances in the poems). The poems end at sunset with him presumably leaving on a train. Between these two events, each poem leading to the next in an almost linear novelistic fashion, lies the Jejuri of Kolatkar’s experience. Narrated dispassionately, the man, although he remains staunchly secular, undergoes something of a mystical experience. Chaudhuri points out that the experiences excite the narrator oddly, ‘though not to worship, but to a state akin to it while also quite unlike it’. It is an idiosyncratic journey, where Kolatkar casts his eyes on odd things that catch his fancy.
It is difficult to tell exactly what Kolatkar meant by the poems. Although he was always to be found at a corner of a popular establishment then, formerly the Wayside Inn, looking out from a window into Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda locality, he was known to be a reclusive figure. He didn’t own a telephone (one always had to ring him in his neighbour’s house), didn’t answer letters, and very rarely agreed to interviews. Once when the BBC did a programme on him, it is said he agreed to read a few poems but refused to talk.
Kolatkar was also odd. He wrote steadily, both in English and Marathi, but rarely published. He had a deep suspicion of contracts and requests from publishers. Jejuri, for a long time, was difficult to source. It could only be found at some places, like the Strand Book Stall in Mumbai and Pras Prakashan in Pune. But even that was difficult. After the initial print run, Kolatkar, it is said, used a photocopy machine to pirate his own books.
When asked how he had come to hear of the place Jejuri, he once told the poet Eunice de Souza, that he had discovered the place in ‘a book on temples and legends of Maharashtra’. ‘There was a chapter on Jejuri in it,’ he said. ‘It seemed an interesting place.’ Kolatkar was also going through an inner transition when he journeyed to Jejuri in the ’60s. This was the period when his first marriage broke.
Not everyone was thrilled with the poems. Many Marathi critics believed Kolatkar was scoffing at the beliefs of poor devotees. One of them, Balachandra Nemade, said, ‘Kolatkar comes and goes like a weekend tourist from Bombay.’ When he was once asked if he believed in God, he told the interviewer, ‘I leave the question alone. I don’t think I have to take a position about God one way or the other.’
The town is obscure, some 200 kms from Mumbai. As Kolatkar writes in A Scratch, ‘there is no crop / other than god / and god is harvested here / around the year / and round the clock / out of the bad earth / and the hard rock.’ Jejuri is a desolate wasteland, with large bare hills, which, according to folklore, are really slain demons.
The two most important places here are two hills, at whose summits are temples dedicated to Khandoba, the presiding deity at Jejuri. One of the hills, the place I’m currently at, is a much longer walk. To reach the temple here, Kadepathar, which is the older of the two, it takes over an hour, not because of the steepness but because of the aridity. The other temple, located within a fortress complex on a much smaller hillock, Gadkot, is the more popular of the two, situated as it is relatively comfortably just a few hundreds of steps away.
Khandoba began his career, as Chaudhuri points out, as a local folk- god and a protector of cattle and sheep before graduating slowly to Brahminical acceptance as an incarnation of Shiva. According to the historian DD Kosambi, the cult of Khandoba spread in the Middle Ages by swallowing many traditions. Many academics point to Khandoba’s many wives, for instance, who hailed from different castes and communities, to show how the cult has grown to encompass various communities. The two most important wives being Mhalsa (a Lingayat) and Banai (a deity of the Dhangar nomadic community). There is also a wife from the oil-presser caste Teli, considered by some to be Muslim. Although Khandoba may be considered to be an incarnation of Shiva, his is not a Brahminical shrine, and the priests at Jejuri in fact hail from non-Brahmin backgrounds, such as Guravs (an OBC).
At Kadepathar, the hour stretches slowly, as we make our way up the hill. At various points appear small ramshackle establishments, made up of wood and torn tarpaulin sheets, where water and drinks are sold at a premium. I ask a person who runs one such establishment, a gruff-looking man with harsh features, why everything here is so expensive. He mutters what appears to be an obscenity in Marathi. A customer offers an explanation. “How else can a person make money here?” he asks. The only thing the gruff man is willing to talk about is the rain, although such rain would no doubt impact his business.
Above us a dark cloud moves ponderously like the hull of dark ship casting pleasant shadows over us. Look, I point out, it might rain. “It’s been like this for days. Keeps moving in, and away,” he says.
Once I reach the mountain top, the cloud is so close I can raise my nose and smell the rain. But the cloud, like the stall owner said, moves away.
Kolatkar’s poems describe a somewhat run-down and dilapidated place. In one poem (Heart of Ruin), he talks of finding a mongrel bitch and her brood in an abandoned temple where the roof has caved in. Kadepathar is no more like that. All temples are carefully maintained. The main temple complex, both here and at Gadkot, have strangely large chandeliers dropping from the ceiling. Inside, one often finds dogs taking shelter from the sun, but they do so because they are permitted and considered to be the companion of Khandoba.
Suddenly, at my feet, life begins to appear. The dried grass shakes to reveal large slimy frogs. Around me, from within the grass, hidden insects suddenly come to life and take flight. And then with a loud crackle, the rain comes down as though the tip of one of Khandoba’s demon hills have pierced the cloud. The rain falls in large monumental drops. All of us—newlyweds, tourists, families, priests and dogs— stand silently at the sides of the temple watching a mist suddenly snake its way into the bareness of the area. Some people, wearing yellow polythene bags over the heads, begin to descend the hill. These bags have turned yellow from the turmeric they held. And soon the colour washes from the bags on to their heads, as we watch them silently, without smiles.
I’m at the Gadkot temple the next day. From the top, one can see how the town has spread, from the base of the hill, filled with its bustling bazaar selling all sorts of wares for the visiting devotees, from turmeric for the gods to plastic toys for children, to sparer and fewer buildings, until the town suddenly disappears. This hillock is a much busier area. There are devotees, priests, hawkers and all sorts of beggars and mendicants. Throughout the steps, photographers hustle you until you agree to get a photograph shot. They stand beside plastic tables of turbans and fake swords and a large picture of the temple serving as a studio backdrop.
Up at the temple, couples appear on their feet. The men only carry their wives on a few steps, and not the full way as tradition demands. Older, infirm devotees arrive on rented palanquins. Amidst this gathering are the priests. They walk around, scanning the crowd, reminiscent of one of Kolatkar’s poems (‘A cat grin on its face / and a live, ready to eat pilgrim / held between its teeth’), for wealthy pilgrims. Some priests look more respectable than others. They wear clean white vests and saffron dhotis. Their mobile phones are placed within their white vests, and it is not uncommon to find, instead of the dimpled spot at the vest where belly buttons should be, strange square protrusions. Other priests, with shaggy hair and torn sleeveless T-shirts, appear more disreputable.
The successful among them, having acquired several groups of devotees, take them to a separate enclosure where they conduct something of a mass prayer. The devotees sit on the floor, each group clutching their puja plates, eyes closed in individual prayers, while a single standing priest, chants a common mantra. “This is like a Wi-Fi connection, several phones, one router,” a visitor can be heard telling.
I feel a tug on my shirt. An old man with an immobile face has materialised beside me. His desire is old, but the method new. He points to the phone in my hand. “Can you take a picture and send it (over the internet) to his son,” he asks. I agree. He calls for his wife, who walks with a limp. Both of them are in their early seventies.
I ask them to stand in front of the temple. “No, no,” they deride me. They don’t want to send a picture of themselves at the temple. Just the temple. “Why would I want to send my son my own picture?” he asks in mock-amusement.
There is no internet connection on the hill. So I promise to send later. As he begins to walk away, the old man puts an unusually strong arm on my shoulder, draws me in, and says conspiratorially, ‘Don’t forget. You have made a promise at God’s house.’
In his book, Kolatkar devotes a number of poems towards the end to the railway station. He writes somewhat feverishly and impatiently (for after all it appears he is waiting for a train no one appears to know when it will arrive), about his time here, observing the train indicator, the station dog, talking to the station master and stall owner.
It is close to dark when I near Jejuri’s railway station. The rains have halted and the sky has taken a deep amber hue. I’m in for a shock. The station building really just consists of a counter and a small waiting room. Inside, are two platforms, one raised with cement, and the other still consisting of pebbles.
There are very few people around. I find a man behind a stall which sells only tea and vada pav. In the poem The Tea Stall, Kolatkar writes of finding, ‘the young novice at the tea stall / has taken a vow of silence / when you ask him a question / he exorcises you/ by sprinkling dishwater in your face’. I make a mental calculation. The man, behind a pair of large glasses, somewhere in his late-60s could have been Kolatkar’s ‘young novice’.
Time, it appears, has softened him. He is willing to answer some queries.
I thought the station was being redone? I ask. (According to media reports, the station has gotten Rs 50 lakh sanctioned for a makeover.)
“You are standing on it,” he says. It appears the raised platform has recently been done.
Please give me a vada pav?
‘No,’ he says without explanation.
I point to a large stack of pavs hanging like the washing over a table. He looks at me unmoved. I learn later, from another man observing us, that the vadas (the potato fillings) hadn’t been prepared that day.
Why are there so few people?
He mutters an obscenity. The other man tells me later again that this is because a few stations away the rails are under repair.
I take my plastic cup of tea to the end of the platform and observe the sky. In the last poem, The Setting Sun, Kolatkar writes, ‘the setting sun / touches upon the horizon / at a point where the rails / like the parallels / of a prophecy / appear to meet…’
The vacant rails are there this evening, and so is the horizon. But no sun touches them.
What to carry? Water bottles, a good pair of shoes, a change of clothes (more details below), and, if you want a puja done, your own priest. Many get their own priests; the ones at the temple can prescribe expensive pujas and may conduct them in large groups.
What to wear? Not whites. There’s a lot of turmeric thrown in the air.
What not to say? Why is there a dog in the temple? Are we there yet? (It’s a long hike. Everyone is equally tired.)
What to keep an eye out for? Yeshwant Rao’s idol outside the Gadkot temple. Doesn’t possess a head, arms or legs, devotees offer wooden arms and legs. Rao is believed to have protected Jejuri from the Mughal army. Recommended by Arun Kolatkar with these lines, ‘… He’s the god you’ve got to meet. / If you’re short of a limb, / Yeshwant Rao will lend you a hand / and get you back on your feet…’
Ice-breaker with devotees: Jai Malhar!
Travel book recommendation: Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri
Lhendup G Bhutia