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The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing

Ashok Shahane’s deep imprint on Indian modernist literature

IT WAS THURSDAY, and Ashok Shahane was in south Bombay at his weekly katta—the Marathi version of an adda—telling a story. It was about a mermaid statue in the Byculla neighbourhood whose spirit used to haunt the mother of the poet Namdeo Dhasal. Everyone weighed in on the story’s veracity, arguing over whether it was Dhasal or his mother who had made it up, or whether the mermaid really was possessed. Shahane and his companions were eating brun maskas and drinking chai at the Stadium restaurant near Churchgate station, the last stop for the suburban trains that pour into the city on the Western Line. For the last 50 years, they have been meeting every Thursday afternoon, in one cafe or another.

What is the agenda of these meetings?

“No agenda. No agenda!” said Dilip Bhende, an old friend of the poet Arun Kolatkar, with whom he worked in advertising. The very idea of an agenda, a purpose, is antithetical to their meeting. Vrindavan Dandavate began telling a story about visiting Tortilla Flat—a town in California that formed the basis of one of John Steinbeck’s novels, with a population in single digits—and asking a young woman at a gift shop there if he might volunteer his services to increase the birth rate. Dandavate, too, worked in advertising with Kolatkar. He is also a playwright and designs book covers. Since Kolatkar’s death in 2004, he has designed the covers for new releases of the poet’s books. Their friendship with Kolatkar is part of what still binds the regulars, most of whom are around 80 years old.

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Kushanava Choudhury is the books editor at The Caravan, and the author of The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, which will be published in August this year.
Anjali Nerlekar teaches at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and is the author of Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. Along with the academic Bronwen Bledsoe, she is archiving the Bombay poets’ material at Cornell University.

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