reviews and essays Literature

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.

For decades, they used to meet in cafes in Kala Ghoda, located a few hundred metres away, where Kolatkar spent most of his waking hours. The Kala Ghoda area was so named because it used to be home to a statue of King Edward VII astride a black horse. People are smart, Shahane observed—they ignored the rider and christened the area after the steed. Nevertheless, in the mid 1960s, the local municipal corporation put the colonial statue out to pasture. Kolatkar’s poems from the following decades memorialise the pi-dogs and the destitute who set up residence on the traffic island where it had stood, decolonising the space with the detritus of their daily lives. This year, in a fit of literal-mindedness, a statue of a black horse, sans rider, was installed on the site, in an effort to brand the neighbourhood as an arts-and-culture hub.

The talk at the katta turned to the new statue—and to its manhood, or lack thereof. What was said is largely unprintable.

KOLATKAR WROTE A whole series of works, later collected as Kala Ghoda Poems, the Wayside Inn in the Kala Ghoda area. For decades, the Wayside hosted the Thursday katta. When it closed, the katta moved to Military Cafe, also in Kala Ghoda, and finally to its present haunt, at the Stadium.

They are serving khima pao at Olympia,
dal gosht at Baghdadi,
puri bhaji at Kailash Parbat,

aab gosht at Sarvi’s,
kebabs with sprigs of mint at Gulshan-e-Iran,
nali nehari at Noor Mohamadi’s,

baida ghotala at the Oriental,
paya soup at Benazir,
brun maska at Military Café,

upma at Swagat,
shira at Anand Vihar,
and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn.

For yes, it’s breakfast time at Kala Ghoda
as elsewhere
in and around Bombay.

—up and down
the whole longitude, in fact,
the 73rd, if I’m not mistaken.

These lines, from Kolatkar’s “Breakfast at Kala Ghoda,” map the Bombay of the Sathottari, which literally means “post-1960,” poets and writers—a city of inexpensive cafes, and kattas, at once cosmopolitan and uniquely local. It is here that the type of young men (for they were mostly men) who formed the Sathottaris thrived, and here that, over hours of seemingly pointless conversation, their modernist literature was born.

At the core of this scene has been Ashok Shahane. They began meeting on Thursday because that was the day Shahane had off from his day job at a printing press. Shahane published Kala Ghoda Poems and almost all of Kolatkar’s other books, under the imprint of Pras Prakashan, which he founded. Besides Kolatkar, Pras Prakashan has published Bhalchandra Nemade, Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre, Vilas Sarang and Vrindavan Dandavate, among others. Shahane has also done numerous translations, and edited little magazines such as Atharva and Aso. In short, he has spent his life producing spaces where literature can dwell.

By thus shaping the work of the Sathottari writers and poets, Shahane was crucial to overturning the staid status quo of Marathi literature before him. Along with these writers, he created a sensibility that defined the literary production of a generation, changing the way in which literature was made, who could make it, and what language one could use. His interventions produced a new audience and had ripple effects in class-and-caste politics across Maharashtra.

Yet Shahane is not widely known, especially outside Marathi literary circles. Even in Marathi, his imprint is barely visible in the actual written word per se, since he has written very little himself. But behind the words, it is there, and it is deep.

“He made history, but he has not been counted in history,” the linguist and literary scholar GN Devy, who grew up in Maharashtra reading Shahane’s little magazines, said when we met in Delhi in June. “He deserves a lot more.”

Among the Sathottaris, Shahane’s closest collaborator was undoubtedly Arun Kolatkar. Pras Prakashan published two books of his English poetry, including Kala Ghoda Poems, just months before he died. With those books, Kolatkar’s reputation has grown almost astronomically, across India and abroad. In collaboration with the poet and editor Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Pras Prakashan has since published several more volumes of his English verse too. Scholars in India and around the world have published articles and monographs on his poetry. The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of his first work, the English-language poem sequence Jejuri, while the French publishing house Gallimard has published a French translation of Kala Ghoda Poems.

But there are two Kolatkars: one the author of the English Jejuri, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 and established his international reputation; the other the Marathi writer of the Sathottari generation. “My pencil is sharpened at both ends,” Kolatkar wrote in a poem, “what I write with one end/ comes out as English/ what I write with the other/ comes out as Marathi.” Since his death, besides English poetry, Pras Prakashan has published several new volumes of Kolatkar’s Marathi poetry too, to add to the four such volumes it published while he was still alive. There are more unpublished works too, in both languages.

The granddaddy of all of these, and perhaps of Kolatkar’s entire oeuvre, is a prose manuscript, in Marathi, over 1,200 pages long. According to Kolatkar himself, it is “a secret history of Bombay, a one-man survey of the sexual behaviour of the citizens, and a report on the values they live by,” all based on the oral testimony of one man—a streetwise Casanova and extraordinary storyteller, who lived by his wits and sang the bhajans of Tukaram and Kabir, named Balwant Bua.

Kolatkar called it a picaresque novel, a collection of stories and a subaltern study; Shahane simply calls it a “prose work.” As a mammoth non-fiction narrative that is constructed like a novel, “held together by the voice of the narrator/protagonist, and with no more structure than what structure his life imposes on it,” as Kolatkar wrote, in its form it seems unlike any text that exists in Marathi or Indian English-language writing. It could be the most important prose work in contemporary Indian literature—only Shahane has read the entire book and knows for sure

For Shahane, publishing his old friend’s 1,200-plus-page tome could be the culmination of a lifetime’s effort. But, in Kolatkar’s words, the narrative is sketched in “the three primary colours—of commerce, religion and sex—twisting around each other and running throughout the length of it.” It is a book which Shahane does not dare publish in today’s Bombay. And he is running out of time.

THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN Shahane and Kolatkar began in the late 1950s, in Pune. Shahane had gone to Pune for college, but formal education was not for him. He said “Ram Ram” to college, as he puts it, and dropped out.

After dropping out, he spent most of his time hanging around in cafes. At this time, he met a struggling artist who was also a promising poet: Arun Kolatkar.

He also befriended Bhalchandra Nemade, then a student at Fergusson College in Pune. Nemade recalled that time in this way:

We had a literary club in Fergusson College called Sahitya Sahakar (Literary Collaborations). We used to meet every week and any one person read out his work to the group. The event was thus—one person reads and the rest of the people, mainly from the hostel, have fun critiquing him and mostly tearing his work down. We were all so young then. There was a lecturer at the time, called Arvind Kulkarni, whom we encouraged to read his poems. Ashok came to our meeting at that time. And when I was in full swing criticizing Kulkarni’s writing, Ashok was sitting there guffawing at the back of the room. That is how we met. We started meeting regularly for a cup of chai at Café Goodluck nearby.

Remember those diaries in Kosla where it says, the protagonist, frustrated with himself, says “Let’s see if they are there at the café. See, there they were the two bastards as always!”

The novel Kosla, about a group of young, cynical layabouts in a college town, broke the rules about the kind of language that could be used in Marathi literature, on how sentences could be structured, and what kind of values a hero should hold. Nemade memorialised three of Shahane’s essential proclivities in his now classic work: his irreverence, his love of kattas, and his preferred style of working, collectively with friends.

Nemade won the Jnanpith award in 2014, and several of his novels, including Kosla, have been translated into English. Like Kolatkar, he is now a major literary figure, nationally known. Based solely on their work, Kolatkar and Nemade can seem poles apart. Literary scholars tend to characterise Nemade as conservative because he is a nativist, and Kolatkar as cosmopolitan, modern. Yet the two share the same literary lineage, of Sathottari kattas and little magazines and friendship with Shahane.

In Pune at the time, one of Shahane’s friends was taking a course in Bengali. Shahane saw the Bengali alphabet in his friend’s textbook and decided that he would teach it to himself. His initial goal was to be able to read the novels of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, whose novel Devdas was well known across India. The first essay he read in Bengali was by the Bengali modernist poet and critic Buddhadeva Bose, in Bose’s little magazine Kavita. He discovered the contemporary Bengali modernist poets, including the surreal work of the greatest poet of the post-Tagore generation, Jibanananda Das. “When I discovered Jibanananda Das,” Shahane said, “brother, where was Saratchandra?”

In the Marathi literary world, Shahane made a name for himself as a translator of Bengali. In 1960, the state of Maharashtra was created, combining regions spread across multiple princely states and the Bombay Presidency. These territories were being united on the basis of a common language, Marathi. The following year, Shahane moved from Pune to Mumbai, the capital of the new linguistic state, to edit a special issue of the Marathi magazine Rahasyaranjan commemorating Tagore’s birth centenary. He translated essays on Tagore by Jibanananda Das and the leading Bengali poets of his generation. The issue was such a hit that the magazine’s owner offered Shahane funds to run a magazine of his own. Only one issue of that new magazine, Atharva, came out before the owner went bankrupt, but in that issue Shahane had gathered many of the major figures of the new generation of Marathi literature.

Shahane and his wife Rekha now live in a modest flat in a housing society in Malad, a northern suburb of Bombay, an hour away by the “local” from Churchgate on the Western line. If south Bombay is colonial and cosmopolitan, then Malad is middle-class and Maharashtrian. Just as there are two Kolatkars, there are equally two Shahanes, one each in Bengali and Marathi.

Next door, in Malad, they had a Bengali neighbour for a while. “His two-and-a-half year old son used to come into our flat and throw up his hands and shout ‘Ei Je!’” Shahane said. “Now how do you translate that? You can’t. It’s only Bengali. What would you translate ‘Ei Je!’ into in English? I learned a lot from that boy. Words are easy to translate. But try to translate that! That’s hard.”

“Each language has its own chhondo and goti,” its own rhythm and flow, Shahane said. “If you can catch the flow, the rest comes easy.” The rhythm and flow of Bangaliyana—Bengaliness—was best found in Bengali music, he explained, and gave the example of the composer and music director Sachin Dev Burman. “In Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa,” Shahane said, “Sachin Dev Burman smuggled Bangaliyana into Hindi music through the tone, not the words. He didn’t translate lyrics from Bengali to Hindi, but rather smuggled in the tone.”

In early 1960s Bengal, little magazines were being churned out in the hundreds, forming a mainstay of an emerging literary modernism. In Maharashtra, however, they were still relatively new. In Bombay, after Atharva folded, Shahane started a little magazine called Aso which, came to be regarded as the earliest important literary magazines in Marathi, and which hosted path-breaking experiments with the language.

In 1962, a year before Shahane started Aso, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited Bombay. He befriended Shahane and Kolatkar, and they wandered the city together, with the two locals gate-crashing events organised for the American guest by Bombay’s literary and intellectual establishment.

Partly inspired by Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Shahane and Nemade wrote a manifesto—“Aajkaalchya Marathi vaangmayaavar ‘ksha’ kiran,” or “An X-Ray of Contemporary Marathi Literature”—declaring themselves part of a new “generation” of writers united by a shared sensibility. They named among their comrades Kolatkar and Chitre, the novelists Bhau Padhye and Ravindra Kapoor, Vrindavan Dandavate and his brother, the poet Raghu Dandavate.

They wanted no relation with the Marathi mainstream writers of the time or their immediate predecessors. They connected themselves instead to the medieval Marathi bhakti poets Tukaram, Namdeo and Dnyaneshwar, to the European writers Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, and to the Bengali writers and poets Sudhin Datta, Annadashankar Roy, Kamalkumar Majumdar and Jibanananda Das.

“This is our world,” they declared. “The little that has been published [by us] is an attempt to show the sheer joy of living. Being alive, that is the only element in them all”

In his essay, ‘Marathi sahityateel teenpani khel,’ or the three-card poker of Marathi literature—the poet Vilas Sarang, their contemporary, later wrote of the Sathottaris: “Often in Bombay, one finds a gang of young men, mostly vagrant, sitting in a group by the roadside. If you venture closer, you will see a game of teen-patti”—or three-card poker—“in full swing. Any Mumbaikar will tell you that it is dangerous to linger in such company for too long. The Sathottari poets started the trend of playing teen-patti on the streets of the literary world.”

The manifesto was among the few things that Shahane ever wrote himself. After it came out, he remained a propulsive force behind the Sathottaris, connecting people and introducing new texts and ideas.

There were others in Bombay then who looked to link themselves to literary movements in Europe or America, or with the Hindi-Urdu writers of northern India, but there were very few who trafficked in ideas and ways of being across the Chota Nagpur plateau from Bengal. Like Sachin Dev Burman in the Hindi film world, Shahane among the Sathottaris proved to be one of the great smugglers of sensibility across India’s state lines.

THE SATHOTTARIS AIMED to change Marathi society by changing the Marathi language. They developed a new aesthetic, writing in a way that was close to the spoken language, and taking their subjects from the whole breadth of human experience, no matter how insignificant or scatological or ephemeral. They began printing little magazines featuring the writing of non-writers, just as avant-garde directors were making films with non-actors. They challenged the limits of what the Marathi language could do, and what it could become. This had political implications in a society where writing was still the preserve of an upper-caste, upper-class elite.

The Sathottari’s favourite target in their battle with the establishment was the magazine Satyakatha, the long-standing arbiter of literary taste in Marathi, and the singular authority on what passed as literary at the time. It was against this magazine that the Sathottari poet Raja Dhale penned the famous essay ‘Satyakathechi Satyakatha’—or The True Story of the True Story—declaring war against its dominion over literature.

“We were rash and brash. We were originals,” Dhale said when we met at the Asiatic Library, near Kala Ghoda. The alabaster steps and columns of the Asiatic are familiar even to those who are not from Bombay. For decades, its façade has been used in establishment shots for courtroom scenes in Hindi films. Dhale had come to the Asiatic to see Shahane, who visits the library three times a week, riding the local from Malad to Churchgate, the crowds be damned. Shahane arrived wearing an orange kurta, three of its buttons undone, and brown corduroys. His photochromatic glasses had turned dark in the afternoon sun, and contrasted sharply with his shock of white hair, white moustache and goatee. He looked like a man operating in disguise.

Shahane turned on a table fan, and started telling a story, moving about like a bird, thin and spry, with a tin of tobacco and lime in one hand as he gesticulated. The great folklorist Durgabai Bhagwat used to come to the library for years, he said, like it was her office, working from morning till evening on the popular culture and folklore of the Marathi-speaking people. Her imprint is seen in Kolatkar’s poems and also in the habits of the Sathottaris, a generation younger than her. In the 1960s, some of them also started going to the Asiatic and clocking bankers’ hours, before heading out to their kattas.

Dhale, who is five years younger than Shahane, has thick gray hair, and was wearing an off-white kurta pajama. He and Shahane became friends in the offices of Rahasyaranjan, and he, like Shahane, is a product of the little-magazine movement, starting a series of his own little magazines, beginning with Atta. He is perhaps best known for “Black Independence Day,” a piece he wrote on the eve of India’s Independence Day in 1972 that became a clarion call for Dalit writers in Maharashtra. Dhale, along with Namdeo Dhasal and others, went on to co-found the Dalit Panthers. The essay also got Dhale beaten up and his fingers broken by police, he said. He had many cases filed against him, including by Durgabai Bhagwat, the Sathottaris’ erstwhile guru, who was personally affronted by Dhale’s essay, according to Shahane, because she had fought in the Indian independence movement.

By the time “Black Independence Day” appeared, the Sathottaris were splintering. Even Dhale and Dhasal eventually went their separate ways politically in 1974. A new wave of Dalit poets, including Dhale and Dhasal, forced wide open the questions the Sathottaris had broached, of what language and subject matter belonged in literature, and who could write it.

In time, Bombay’s politics came to be dominated by another set of young men, the Shiv Sena, who demanded jobs and respect for the native Marathi-speaking population, and whose rise shrank the freedom of expression that writers had in the city. The Sathottaris, even as they veered in different directions, largely steered clear of this movement. Some, like Dhale, opened up space for radical Dalit politics. Nemade moved to Aurangabad and developed desivad, a Marathi linguistic nativism opposed to the rise of English pedagogy, though his vision shared little with the ethnic chauvinism of the Shiv Sena. Other Sathottaris moved towards the socialists and communists.

One critique made of Shahane and Kolatkar, including by Dhale, is that, through all these transformations, they remained apolitical. Their aesthetics suggested a radical politics, but they were never ones to initiate it. For them, the political sphere merely showed the symptoms of an ailment which had to be cured at the level of language.

From the Asiatic we repaired to the Coffee House, on Homi Modi Street. Dhale announced that it was Shahane’s birthday. He had turned 82. He was born on the day of Saraswati puja in 1935. We ordered strong black coffee to celebrate as Shahane and Dhale talked about the Rahasyaranjan days.

We lingered there at the katta until we were kicked out at 7 pm, and made our way through the Fort area, past mobile-phone repair shops and showrooms, through the dense street life of south Bombay, toward Churchgate. Shahane saw Dhale off in a taxi near Flora Fountain, and we continued walking towards Churchgate Station.

Amid the crush of evening commuters, Shahane gesticulated, talked philology, linguistics and politics, questioned the ordering of the Marathi alphabet, challenged the very notion of an establishment and an anti-establishment, his tin box always at the ready, a ball of tobacco and lime under a cheek and a provocation always on his tongue. Standing outside Churchgate station, he seemed in no hurry to go home. It was the first time in a long while that he had seen Dhale, and he felt good.

BY THE MID 1970S, the Sathottari moment was over. Shahane kept his day job at Karwar Press, and maintained his friendships. He attended the Thursday katta, kept reading and translating Bengali.

In 1975, Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency. In response, Gourkishore Ghosh, a well-known writer and the editor of Anandabazar Patrika, the biggest newspaper in West Bengal, shaved his head, as Bengali Hindu men do to mourn the death of a parent, and wrote an open letter to his son in which he mourned the death of democracy. The letter was published in a little magazine and widely read in Bengal, but soon the magazine was banned and Ghosh was sent to jail. Somehow, a copy of the magazine reached the Anandabazar Patrika office in Bombay, and from there it reached Shahane. He translated the entire issue, but no Marathi magazine would publish the articles. So he circulated the translated issue in samizdat style, he said, handing it out to his friends. He also asked for contributions to aid Ghosh, and managed to collect about Rs 400, which he sent by money order to Ghosh’s wife.

When Ghosh came out of prison on parole, he thanked Shahane and invited him to Calcutta. How will I recognise you at the station, Shahane asked. When he arrived at Howrah, Ghosh was waiting for him with a copy of one of his Bengali novels, Lokta, in his hands. After two decades of reading and translating Bengali, it was Shahane’s first visit to Bengal.

“They were amazed that I had learned to read Bengali on my own and had been reading all their work,” he told us. “And then they asked, how did you learn to speak like us, without an accent? That I really don’t know.”

Through Ghosh, Shahane met many of the most illustrious people in Calcutta’s literary and cultural sphere. But what struck him most was the atmosphere at Anandabazar Patrika.

Anandabazar was a zoo,” Shahane said. The paper employed all types of writers, from the sports novelist Moti Nandy to Shakti Chattopadhyay, arguably the greatest Bengali poet after Jibanananda Das. “They kept Shakti on staff but he only really worked three days a year, during the Joydeb Mela,” Shahane said. The paper used to send Chattopadhyay, with an assistant who acted as stenographer, to that annual gathering of bauls at Kenduli village. Each evening there, Chattopadhyay, too inebriated to write, would dictate the day’s report to his assistant, who filed it with the paper’s Calcutta office.

Chattopadhyay’s drunkenness was as legendary in Calcutta as his poetry. “You are not to go anywhere with him,” Shahane recalled Ghosh telling him when he first met the poet. The two became firm friends. For Shahane, used to the ways of Bombay, someone like Shakti working in the heart of the Bengali establishment was unthinkable. He talks of it with awe to this day.

The space made for figures such as Shakti in mainstream Bengali society, Shahane felt, was the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore. As he saw it, Tagore, by transforming the Bengali language, had given Bengalis a new sensibility, which allowed for the marginal experience of the poet to become part of everyday life. “Bengalis were very lucky that Tagore had been born in this age,” Shahane said. “In Marathi we haven’t had a figure like that in the last 200 years. The last figure like that was Tukaram. That’s why Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, people who had no religious inclinations, studied Tukaram. For his language.”

In Bombay, the poets Adil Jussawalla and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, along with Kolatkar and Gieve Patel, started Clearing House. This was a small press, which the four ran collaboratively to publish books of their own English poetry. Clearing House was legendary and short-lived, as many such ventures are, but in its first year it published books by each of the founders, including Kolatkar’s Jejuri, about an urban man’s journey to the temple town that gave the work its name.

The Commonwealth Poetry Prize catapulted Kolatkar to international recognition. Before the Bombay Modernist poets, in the English-speaking world, Indian poetry meant the romantic verses of Sarojini Naidu and Aurobindo. The sensibility of Jejuri, urbane, modern and witty, seemed utterly new.

The prize also led to increased demand for the book, but Clearing House, for various reasons, was not able to put out a second edition once the first print run sold out. So Shahane, who worked as a professional printer, published the second edition in collaboration with Kolatkar, in the same format as the first. To do this, he created his own imprint, and named it Pras Prakashan.

Shahane and Kolatkar worked collaboratively with friends, and so they did not have to pay one another. Pras was thus immune to the pressures of profit. Any money that came in was poured back into making books. Kolatkar designed the book covers, using his skills from the advertising industry, where he worked as a “visualiser,” designing images to go with ad copy. Shahane, meanwhile, used his printmaking expertise to create carefully crafted books. For him, making beautiful books was an integral part of the work of making literature.

“Most publishers publish books of all the same size because they are easy to pack. That’s a travesty,” Shahane said. “If I have two children, they are not the same. Each looks distinct. Then why should that also not be the case with books?”

This artisan approach gave authors a lot of control over the design of their books, and enabled them to experiment with images and typography—for instance, by varying the spacing of printed characters through a book—as they often did in little magazines.

After Pras Prakashan’s publication of Jejuri, and a volume of his poems in Marathi, Kolatkar showed no interest in publishing any more of his writing over the next two and a half decades. In that time a narrow idea of Marathi identity came to dominate politics and society in Mumbai. Kolatkar’s poetic consciousness could find a place only on the margins of this society. Still, he continued to write extensively, if only for himself and his friends. He led two lives: one as an adman, earning his keep, the other as a poet, spending most of his workday in Kala Ghoda, observing the world of the streets unfold.

In this period, Kolatkar increasingly gravitated towards music. He learned to play the pakhawaj from Arjun Shejwal and attended weekly bhajan-singing sessions with Balwant Bua. Singing was not Bua’s only talent. “He was not a very literate man, and yet he also had a lot to say about life,” Shahane said. “And his stories were very entertaining. He couldn’t write. But he could talk.”

Balwant Bua became Kolatkar’s friend and interlocutor, and the weekly lessons continued for years. Kolatkar began keeping notes of their conversations, initially with the idea of writing poems about the man. His 2003 book Chirimiri—literally “Petty Theft”—is a cycle of poems in Marathi about Balwant Bua’s pilgrimage to a shrine in Pandharpur with 101 prostitutes.

“Those who can’t write can teach us a lot,” Shahane said of Balwant Bua. “The work of language can be done without writing. All that language requires is the strength to speak. Nothing else is required.”
As Kolatkar’s notes of his and Bua’s conversations ballooned, they took on the form of a work of prose.

“The main point is about a man of the lower strata, almost a street person, and it’s his life story,” Shahane said. “He has seen various things. The big themes of history, like Partition, have not touched him much, but he has his own world, which is a solid concrete world. He has nothing to lose, and from that he derives a peculiar sense of humour, like we find in Chaplin. In each of Chaplin’s films, why is he always a vagrant? Because he has nothing to lose. That’s the origin of the humour. What will he lose? From that situation, language-wise, it’s very vulnerable, because everything is in the open.”

Kolatkar had spoken to Penguin about publishing his book on Bua, in English, as early as in 1986. He wrote a book proposal and translated six short chapters into English, but nothing came of the project. A translated excerpt appeared in 1994 in a volume edited by Dilip Chitre, titled, “His Earliest Memory or Madhvi the Peppermint Woman and Why She was so Fond of Balwant Bua When He was a Little Boy.” In the three-page story, Bua recounts how, when he was two and a half years old, a neighbourhood woman, Madhvi, used to take him out for evening perambulations. These walks with the child served as an alibi for meeting up and having sex with her lover. The ending goes like this:

Madhvi was using me. Obviously.

But at my age, 96 or thereabouts, and especially for someone like me who continually reproaches himself for having spent an utterly useless life, it’s nice, once in a while, to look back and discover that I, even I, have, on occasion, had my uses.

Shahane told us there are more than a thousand pages in that vein, all in Marathi. “In terms of form, it’s a narrative. One man speaking about his life. That’s it. Said in that way, it sounds very simple. But it isn’t that simple. It isn’t so simple at all.”

A two-and-a-half-year-old’s eyewitness account of roadside fornication may upset a few readers. Bua’s frank discussion of religion will strike many more as blasphemous. When Chirimiri was published, in the year before Kolatkar died, he and Shahane feared that it might provoke a reaction. But nothing happened. “The fact that few people read poetry is a good thing,” Shahane said. “Among those who read, even fewer understand poetry. That’s even better.”
But a prose work is a different matter. That which can be obfuscated in poetry is exposed in prose. “The prose is open from all angles, 360-degrees open,” Shahane said.

In 2015, the “India” issue of the literary magazine Granta featured another translated excerpt from the book, titled “Sticky Fingers.” This was Bua’s account of his days as a pilfering fruit seller. Kolatkar’s life-long friend and fellow poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who has read the book proposal and English fragments of Bua, said that Kolatkar spent more time on the manuscript than on any other work and had been writing the book for decades. The project contains all the major themes of Kolatkar’s work, he said, especially his lifelong interest in documenting street life in his poetry, as found in the Kala Ghoda Poems. In a postscript to the Granta story, Mehrotra wrote that if the book is published Kolatkar’s fame as a prose stylist may supersede his reputation as a poet.

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL FEBRUARY AFTERNOON when we met Shahane at the Thursday katta in the Stadium, and after emptying our tea cups we strolled past the surrounding art deco buildings toward Kala Ghoda.

Shahane said that he and Kolatkar had begun editing the Marathi edition of the Bua book together, and progressed through the first few hundred pages, before his friend died. “He said to me, ‘Will you publish this?’” he recalled. “I said, “Yes, I would like to. ‘Okay,’ he said. Then he thrust it into my hands with these words: ‘If you run short of money, then you are to take the funds from me.’”

But Kolatkar also gave Shahane a warning: “He said to me, you will probably have to wait 30 years—a generation—so that the intolerance outside decreases, before you can publish it. Now 12 years have passed, and the intolerance has increased, not decreased.”

At 30 years from Kolatkar’s death, Shahane would be 100 years old. Even that, he thinks now, will be too soon.

“I don’t think society will be able to accept it now,” he said. “Conservatism has increased. And from conservatism has come intolerance, and from that various things. Now, how many years I’ll have to wait I don’t know.”

There is a story Shahane likes to tell about the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the faint sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself.

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.”

There is a great clamour now to release all of Kolatkar’s unpublished work. Many worry that the Marathi material, especially, can only be edited by Shahane.

Shahane, while he has had a hand in feeding this hunger, seems indifferent to this growing global demand, even wary of it. Pras Prakashan’s way of working remains artisanal. When a librarian from Cornell University, Bronwen Bledsoe, came to Mumbai to purchase the imprint’s books for the university’s collection, Shahane took the local train armed with two bags full of books and delivered them himself. Pras Prakashan has no website or online sales. The famed Marathi bookshop, People’s Book House, carries most of Pras books that are still in print. When they run out of copies, they send a person to Malad to pick up Pras books personally from Shahane. When he does not deliver them by hand, Shahane distributes the books to customers by mail, handling the task himself. Making money is clearly not his main goal.

Shahane has filed numerous copyright cases against those who have reprinted Kolatkar’s work without his permission. In 2013, he took the Marathi newspaper Sakal—owned by the family of the politician Sharad Pawar—to court because of a violation of copyright regarding Kolatkar’s poetry. He won the initial case, but did not want monetary compensation. “The printed word is currency for me. I don’t want money,” he said. By not asking for copyright permission, “they are in effect taking away our right to say no.” The case was eventually settled in December 2013, with the paper issuing a rare apology to the publisher and the deceased poet.

There are those who believe he should publish the Bua book. Publish it, the unspoken demand goes, before you die and the manuscript gets lost and vanishes forever.

But it is not as simple as that. Literature is not as innocent as a branch gesturing to the moon, and Shahane, who has fought on the battlefield of literature his whole life, knows it.

It was almost dusk as we reached the Kala Ghoda traffic island, immortalised by Kolatkar in his poetry. The place had been taken over by the Kala Ghoda Festival, now an annual arts event. Stalls selling craftwork and tchotchkes surrounded the traffic island and lined the nearby roads, under the still eyes of the new black horse. Aside from these, the festival also offered a plethora of panels and other literary events where writers could publicise their works. The stalls obscured the view of the Wayside Inn, now closed. All that remained of it was the signboard. It was hard to find anything here anymore of the district that inspired Kala Ghoda Poems.

The festival did not provoke Shahane, or interest him at all. He simply ignored it. We were standing across from the famed Jehangir Art Gallery, one of the anchor institutions of Kala Ghoda’s recent makeover.

“I find it peculiar that in the Kala Ghoda poems there are almost no poems about the art gallery,” he said. “As if the art gallery doesn’t exist.” Then he remembered one poem set in it—about Parameshwari, the urinal attendant at the gallery’s toilet, where denizens of the Wayside Inn used to go to pee since the cafe had no bathroom. The poem ends:

The Kutchi witch with the leathery face
and shrivelled dugs
may have lost her gift of prophecy;
she cannot transform herself

into a bird, for example,
kill a milch cow with a look
or turn a young onager
into a willing beast of burden,

but she is still sharp as ever
and nobody’s fool.
Even with her one eye dim
and mucus-green with cataract,

she can see through the new day
and know it
for the clever forgery that it is.

We proceeded through the lanes of Kala Ghoda, the festival stalls and the art galleries giving way to water-pump stores and other shops of sundry machinery in a busy commercial district, and ended up at Military Cafe, one of their old Thursday haunts. The cafe had since changed hands; now they served beer not tea. Shahane stopped on the sidewalk.

The main issue is that to publish it means to have to go to jail,” he said. “Before I die I will have to publish it. Let me see.” He headed inside and made for a corner table, and ordered chai like it was an old habit. The waiters recognised him and brought him tea from down the road.

A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified Raghu Dandavate as seated “second from Left.” He appears seated on the extreme right. The Caravan regrets the error.

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.

For decades, they used to meet in cafes in Kala Ghoda, located a few hundred metres away, where Kolatkar spent most of his waking hours. The Kala Ghoda area was so named because it used to be home to a statue of King Edward VII astride a black horse. People are smart, Shahane observed—they ignored the rider and christened the area after the steed. Nevertheless, in the mid 1960s, the local municipal corporation put the colonial statue out to pasture. Kolatkar’s poems from the following decades memorialise the pi-dogs and the destitute who set up residence on the traffic island where it had stood, decolonising the space with the detritus of their daily lives. This year, in a fit of literal-mindedness, a statue of a black horse, sans rider, was installed on the site, in an effort to brand the neighbourhood as an arts-and-culture hub.

The talk at the katta turned to the new statue—and to its manhood, or lack thereof. What was said is largely unprintable.

KOLATKAR WROTE A whole series of works, later collected as Kala Ghoda Poems, the Wayside Inn in the Kala Ghoda area. For decades, the Wayside hosted the Thursday katta. When it closed, the katta moved to Military Cafe, also in Kala Ghoda, and finally to its present haunt, at the Stadium.

They are serving khima pao at Olympia,
dal gosht at Baghdadi,
puri bhaji at Kailash Parbat,

aab gosht at Sarvi’s,
kebabs with sprigs of mint at Gulshan-e-Iran,
nali nehari at Noor Mohamadi’s,

baida ghotala at the Oriental,
paya soup at Benazir,
brun maska at Military Café,

upma at Swagat,
shira at Anand Vihar,
and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn.

For yes, it’s breakfast time at Kala Ghoda
as elsewhere
in and around Bombay.

—up and down
the whole longitude, in fact,
the 73rd, if I’m not mistaken.

These lines, from Kolatkar’s “Breakfast at Kala Ghoda,” map the Bombay of the Sathottari, which literally means “post-1960,” poets and writers—a city of inexpensive cafes, and kattas, at once cosmopolitan and uniquely local. It is here that the type of young men (for they were mostly men) who formed the Sathottaris thrived, and here that, over hours of seemingly pointless conversation, their modernist literature was born.

At the core of this scene has been Ashok Shahane. They began meeting on Thursday because that was the day Shahane had off from his day job at a printing press. Shahane published Kala Ghoda Poems and almost all of Kolatkar’s other books, under the imprint of Pras Prakashan, which he founded. Besides Kolatkar, Pras Prakashan has published Bhalchandra Nemade, Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre, Vilas Sarang and Vrindavan Dandavate, among others. Shahane has also done numerous translations, and edited little magazines such as Atharva and Aso. In short, he has spent his life producing spaces where literature can dwell.

By thus shaping the work of the Sathottari writers and poets, Shahane was crucial to overturning the staid status quo of Marathi literature before him. Along with these writers, he created a sensibility that defined the literary production of a generation, changing the way in which literature was made, who could make it, and what language one could use. His interventions produced a new audience and had ripple effects in class-and-caste politics across Maharashtra.

Yet Shahane is not widely known, especially outside Marathi literary circles. Even in Marathi, his imprint is barely visible in the actual written word per se, since he has written very little himself. But behind the words, it is there, and it is deep.

“He made history, but he has not been counted in history,” the linguist and literary scholar GN Devy, who grew up in Maharashtra reading Shahane’s little magazines, said when we met in Delhi in June. “He deserves a lot more.”

Among the Sathottaris, Shahane’s closest collaborator was undoubtedly Arun Kolatkar. Pras Prakashan published two books of his English poetry, including Kala Ghoda Poems, just months before he died. With those books, Kolatkar’s reputation has grown almost astronomically, across India and abroad. In collaboration with the poet and editor Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Pras Prakashan has since published several more volumes of his English verse too. Scholars in India and around the world have published articles and monographs on his poetry. The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of his first work, the English-language poem sequence Jejuri, while the French publishing house Gallimard has published a French translation of Kala Ghoda Poems.

But there are two Kolatkars: one the author of the English Jejuri, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 and established his international reputation; the other the Marathi writer of the Sathottari generation. “My pencil is sharpened at both ends,” Kolatkar wrote in a poem, “what I write with one end/ comes out as English/ what I write with the other/ comes out as Marathi.” Since his death, besides English poetry, Pras Prakashan has published several new volumes of Kolatkar’s Marathi poetry too, to add to the four such volumes it published while he was still alive. There are more unpublished works too, in both languages.

The granddaddy of all of these, and perhaps of Kolatkar’s entire oeuvre, is a prose manuscript, in Marathi, over 1,200 pages long. According to Kolatkar himself, it is “a secret history of Bombay, a one-man survey of the sexual behaviour of the citizens, and a report on the values they live by,” all based on the oral testimony of one man—a streetwise Casanova and extraordinary storyteller, who lived by his wits and sang the bhajans of Tukaram and Kabir, named Balwant Bua.

Kolatkar called it a picaresque novel, a collection of stories and a subaltern study; Shahane simply calls it a “prose work.” As a mammoth non-fiction narrative that is constructed like a novel, “held together by the voice of the narrator/protagonist, and with no more structure than what structure his life imposes on it,” as Kolatkar wrote, in its form it seems unlike any text that exists in Marathi or Indian English-language writing. It could be the most important prose work in contemporary Indian literature—only Shahane has read the entire book and knows for sure

For Shahane, publishing his old friend’s 1,200-plus-page tome could be the culmination of a lifetime’s effort. But, in Kolatkar’s words, the narrative is sketched in “the three primary colours—of commerce, religion and sex—twisting around each other and running throughout the length of it.” It is a book which Shahane does not dare publish in today’s Bombay. And he is running out of time.

THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN Shahane and Kolatkar began in the late 1950s, in Pune. Shahane had gone to Pune for college, but formal education was not for him. He said “Ram Ram” to college, as he puts it, and dropped out.

After dropping out, he spent most of his time hanging around in cafes. At this time, he met a struggling artist who was also a promising poet: Arun Kolatkar.

He also befriended Bhalchandra Nemade, then a student at Fergusson College in Pune. Nemade recalled that time in this way:

We had a literary club in Fergusson College called Sahitya Sahakar (Literary Collaborations). We used to meet every week and any one person read out his work to the group. The event was thus—one person reads and the rest of the people, mainly from the hostel, have fun critiquing him and mostly tearing his work down. We were all so young then. There was a lecturer at the time, called Arvind Kulkarni, whom we encouraged to read his poems. Ashok came to our meeting at that time. And when I was in full swing criticizing Kulkarni’s writing, Ashok was sitting there guffawing at the back of the room. That is how we met. We started meeting regularly for a cup of chai at Café Goodluck nearby.

Remember those diaries in Kosla where it says, the protagonist, frustrated with himself, says “Let’s see if they are there at the café. See, there they were the two bastards as always!”

The novel Kosla, about a group of young, cynical layabouts in a college town, broke the rules about the kind of language that could be used in Marathi literature, on how sentences could be structured, and what kind of values a hero should hold. Nemade memorialised three of Shahane’s essential proclivities in his now classic work: his irreverence, his love of kattas, and his preferred style of working, collectively with friends.

Nemade won the Jnanpith award in 2014, and several of his novels, including Kosla, have been translated into English. Like Kolatkar, he is now a major literary figure, nationally known. Based solely on their work, Kolatkar and Nemade can seem poles apart. Literary scholars tend to characterise Nemade as conservative because he is a nativist, and Kolatkar as cosmopolitan, modern. Yet the two share the same literary lineage, of Sathottari kattas and little magazines and friendship with Shahane.

In Pune at the time, one of Shahane’s friends was taking a course in Bengali. Shahane saw the Bengali alphabet in his friend’s textbook and decided that he would teach it to himself. His initial goal was to be able to read the novels of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, whose novel Devdas was well known across India. The first essay he read in Bengali was by the Bengali modernist poet and critic Buddhadeva Bose, in Bose’s little magazine Kavita. He discovered the contemporary Bengali modernist poets, including the surreal work of the greatest poet of the post-Tagore generation, Jibanananda Das. “When I discovered Jibanananda Das,” Shahane said, “brother, where was Saratchandra?”

In the Marathi literary world, Shahane made a name for himself as a translator of Bengali. In 1960, the state of Maharashtra was created, combining regions spread across multiple princely states and the Bombay Presidency. These territories were being united on the basis of a common language, Marathi. The following year, Shahane moved from Pune to Mumbai, the capital of the new linguistic state, to edit a special issue of the Marathi magazine Rahasyaranjan commemorating Tagore’s birth centenary. He translated essays on Tagore by Jibanananda Das and the leading Bengali poets of his generation. The issue was such a hit that the magazine’s owner offered Shahane funds to run a magazine of his own. Only one issue of that new magazine, Atharva, came out before the owner went bankrupt, but in that issue Shahane had gathered many of the major figures of the new generation of Marathi literature.

Shahane and his wife Rekha now live in a modest flat in a housing society in Malad, a northern suburb of Bombay, an hour away by the “local” from Churchgate on the Western line. If south Bombay is colonial and cosmopolitan, then Malad is middle-class and Maharashtrian. Just as there are two Kolatkars, there are equally two Shahanes, one each in Bengali and Marathi.

Next door, in Malad, they had a Bengali neighbour for a while. “His two-and-a-half year old son used to come into our flat and throw up his hands and shout ‘Ei Je!’” Shahane said. “Now how do you translate that? You can’t. It’s only Bengali. What would you translate ‘Ei Je!’ into in English? I learned a lot from that boy. Words are easy to translate. But try to translate that! That’s hard.”

“Each language has its own chhondo and goti,” its own rhythm and flow, Shahane said. “If you can catch the flow, the rest comes easy.” The rhythm and flow of Bangaliyana—Bengaliness—was best found in Bengali music, he explained, and gave the example of the composer and music director Sachin Dev Burman. “In Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa,” Shahane said, “Sachin Dev Burman smuggled Bangaliyana into Hindi music through the tone, not the words. He didn’t translate lyrics from Bengali to Hindi, but rather smuggled in the tone.”

Page 1 of 3123
View as  
Single Page
Multiple Page

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.

READER'S COMMENTS

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing”

In 2014 Leititia Zechhini published her scholarly book “Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India – Moving Lines” both in French and English. Around same time Bloomsbury of London published complete published work of Arun translated in to English that was edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. I am an avid reader of Marathi literature and have witnessed the movement started by Shahane and Arun and have full collection of Arun’s work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *