Poets make news in Britain,
Why poets don’t make news in India?
He belonged to the early years of Freedom and idealism, when subtlety mattered, reticence was a sign of culture and understated elegance was still a way of life. The more noisy, tabloid variety of celebrity status didn’t become still a new vulgarity! So, Dom belonging to the more enchanted era would be our icon of a more elegant cultural symbol. Adieu my dear friend!
It is some months since Dom Moraes, the Indian poet who created a great reputation in England and hopefully in India too, passed away in Mumbai.His friends and admirers have paid rich tributes to his memory and his many facted personality. I had known Dom for more than nearly four decades, ever since I went up to Oxford in the late Fifties. He was already a legend of sorts, for having won the Hwathornden Prize for his first book of poems, titled, A Beginning in 1958, when he was just a lad of 19! This was high praise in England for the poet himself was too young and the prize also was so prestigious and which was not awarded for so many years.
So, the talk of Oxford was all about Dom and about his erratic ways. Yes, he earned to notoriety for “bad” company and his reputation as a poet only added to his poet as romantic image of the man. I was living at New College and he was at the nearby Jesus and though we must have crossed the roads many time, I don’t at this distance of time remember having met him or had any serious discussions. I think I must have met him at the Poetry Club Society meetings, for I joined the Club as soon as joined Oxford. I was myself a poet of sorts, I wrote in Tamil and my poetical output, when I now look back, was quite sustained from the number of poems I preserved and published after I returned to India.
Also, I was closely moving with poets, mostly youngsters and also with veterans, critics and poets like W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Alan Ross, the only names and faces I recollect now. Of course Sir Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College and a famous poetical talent spotter was also an inspiration who invited me one day for tea and spoke about poets, also about Dom Moraes. I also met and became a family friend of the famous Russian poetess and translator, Lydia Pasternak, the sister of the Russian poet who just then won the Noble Prize under very controversial circumstances. Spender’s face still comes before me so clearly, he was both a poet as well as a talent spotter.
It was Spender who on his visit to India in the early Fifties first spotted Dom and read his early poems and back in London published them in the then heavyweight intellectual magazine, Encounter. I was a regular reader of Encounter for long, even before I went up to Oxford. Encounter at that time was sold in Indian newsstands for just Rs 1! It was only many years later it was discovered it was promoted by an anti Communist lobby and lost much of its credibility. Even Spender confessed he didn’t know this fact. Now, much of what I am saying, readers can find out from the writings of Dom himself. He wrote so much, and much on his own life. My Son’s Father, his autobiography is a classic. The very little I am going to add is only from my own personal impressions and what I want to say about a man who was a dear individual to know and his company extremely rich experience. I had my own long years of interaction with him in England and in Mumbai, that most of his friends might not know and might not like to highlight.
It is a very sad thought to think Dom is no more. He died at 65 and he died in circumstances that made me all the more sad for he didn’t have a family life worth speaking about. He got into the wrong company very early in England. He learnt to drink early and his parents had a very sad life, his mother developing mental problems and confined a mental hospital in Bangalore and his father, the highly talented Frank Moraes went on to occupy high positions in Indian journalism and was a close friend of great leaders of the day, Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon and others. The only child, Dom was left to manage himself and once in England in such an early stage led him go astray. Yes, that is the correct word. As an old fashioned friend I must say what my feelings truly are.
In England it is easy to get into bad company and there are too many distractions and Dom fell a prey too early in his life. His first marriage, as feared by many of his friends broke up, his only son now lives in England. Dom, I read with much sadness, was planning a trip this month to see his grandson. What a sad thought. He wasn’t to have that last wish. His second marriage with Leela Naidu was going well, when we, my family used to visit Mumbai in the Eighties.
Leela is such a gifted person, so full of emotions and feelings, she and he made a perfect couple, each one uniquely gifted. But what a sad tale, the couple’s life together proved to be not easting. They parted or Dom walked out of her own flat. I know her father, Dr. Naidu and I know so much about Leela’s own life, the highs and the lows. Yet, when I last visited her flat, she was in a depressed mood and I didn’t want to proceed further. I confess I and my family tried a sort of reconciliation but alas, that was not to succeed.
Now, Dom is no more, thoughts naturally turn to Leela. A dear friend and an accomplished lady of many talents. I want to place on record her life and times and the successes she had in life. She was the daughter of an Andhra father Dr. Naidu, an earlier time nuclear scientist and a native of Madanapalle, Leela used to narrate to me about her late father’s background. As readers might know, Madanapalle is the home of the Annie Besant’s School and Annie Besant’s discovery of J. Krishnamurthy is not all that of a divine inspiration as it is made out. JK was not born of any such divine mission either. He was a poor Brahmin boy of an impoverished poor Brahmin, lowly government employee of the British days and Leela told me once how Annie Besant fancied Dr. Naidu, as her first “discovery” and it didn’t work out. Naidu was from a fairly affluent landed family and he went to Paris to do research under Mme. Curie, the famed scientist. It was when he was in Paris he met and married Leela’s mother, a French national. Leela as a young person was noted for her beauty and brain and she had an unhappy marriage with a big business tycoon of a hotel industry’s fame. It was Leela’s break into film and her film won an international prize that she became known as the ten beautiful faces of the world.
She was voted as such by no less an authority than the Vogue magazine. This was in the Sixties. Incidentally, if I am not mistaken, Leela was related to the great AP leader, Prakasam.
At one point of time Leela wanted to build a beautiful house in Madanapalle and settle down in its rural surroundings and alas, I know personally things didn’t work out as the couple dreamed about.
This is my personal memoir and I am not saying anything here about Dom’s litery merits. Dom is a poetical genius, meticulous writer and columnist. A Reading Dom’s poems is a totally new and absorbing experience. For me and I am sure for any other. Just now as I finished writing this piece I dipped into some of his poems, into some of the lines. They suddenly seem to have lifted me into a world away from the one I live, an aetherly world of strange sights and sounds and lofty mountains and deep seas…
Writing to his mother, in a lonely hospital bed in a remote India :
Your dream is desolate
It calls me every day
But I cannot enter it.
You know I will not return.
Forgive me for my trespass.
One of his later poems where he reflects on his life, different partners, a son and a life ahead that seems uncertain….
We have conversations with children
Not born to us yet, but named.
Leela-Claire, and the first death.
Mark, cold on a hospital tray
At five months….
We shall leave at the proper time,
As a couple, without complaint,
With a destination in common
And some regrets and memories.
We shall leave in ways we believed
Impossible in our youth,
A little tired, but in the end,
Not unhappy to have lived.
Write, scribe. I was my army. The world was mine,
exciled from two countries I hated and loved
at the end of the day I was my own enemy.
But, scribe, write: at the end of it I had lived
a life so crowded others envied it; also
my path would not have been gladly chosen by most.
Every word that I wrote was true
this way or that, meant to praise
whatever was worth it on earth.
Little deceptions fill the whole life
driving me to my bitter refuge, verse.
He wrote beautifully and he commanded a “very high fee” for whatever he wrote. His books were published in London by reputed publishers and as Indian readers should know, publishing industry in London is big business and the writers, especially the established writers commanded unimaginable advances. So, Dom, as far as I know, commanded handsome fees and commissions and thus, I would say he was a big money earner. So, was he a big spender. The Dom-Leela couple enjoyed high life and they lived like king and queen, literally and metaphorically. As the “Special Ambassador” to the UN World Population Fund Dom and Leela travelled all over the world and they “dined and wined” with the great and mighty.
All these are well narrated by Dom himself in his numerous books and columns and I needn’t go over them once more. He met the Presidents, Prime Ministers and great dictators. He interviewed them all in their palaces and stately homes. He became friend of the Marcoses of the Philippines, so too with cannibals in Australian and other remote tribal belts of the world.
Dom’s great qualities : Dom’s many great qualities I know and very much appreciated. I asked him once to write for my small magazines. He said instantly yes and we fixed the fees. When Dom mentioned the commitment and the fees, Leela was aghast! “What?” She almost screamed! The fee Dom agreed to write for me was such a modest sum. She couldn’t believe Dom would really write for me. But to my surprise Dom was one of my most committed and very regular columnist. He would ask me when I want the column and the number of words. Yes, he used to charge per word and there was always a queqe at his door. I was eye-witness for such a queue! Dot at the time of his promise he would deliver his copy and the payment also would be made on the spot!
“My income and my debts remain the same
Still I can feed my typewriter each day
My agent tells me that I have a name
An audience waits, he says, for what I say
My audience:- kempt, virtuous and strange”…
Of course, all of Dom’s friends know well, rather too well, alcohol was his one great spoiler and he was rather over indulgent to the drink evil. So too the cigarette. But poets and artists are what they are.
As Tarun Tejpal had written in his latest Tehelka issue, “Dom was a doomed romantic”. I am not sure. He was also worldlywise, as far as I know and he had many plans for his life back in India. He once told me about the land or property outside the Goa airport, the property belonged to his father and he had plans to develop it. He was a romantic yes, in a sort of way. In that sense everyone of us romantic, aren’t we? Those who are given to write poetry more so. May be. But Dom was much more than a dreamer. Yes, he liked his fellow poet, Dylan Thomas, he knew almost all of the great poets of his days in England and it is often said by Dom’s friends, that like Dylan Thomas, myth-soaked world, “raging against the dying light” he lived a carefree life. Yes, he might or, as I see what alternative he had, given the circumstances in which he found himself?
An early unhappy childhood, a remote father, a lonely childhood and a lonely adulthood, all these were potential dangers for a life of growing up in a London environment. So, from the very early age, he was trapped in this world of insensitivity and uncaring society. So, he lost his path so soon and his first marriage, not unexpectedly broke. His second marriage also went on the rocks, once the marital and material interests collided. As they were big earners, the couple were also big spenders. What this meant was some periods of sheer economic troubles and much uncertainty and both, given their artistic temperament and lack of worldly sense to manage their home and material affairs, discord and disconnect was to occur. That proved the big tragedy. I salute Dom’s memory for much that was great in the Indian artistic life. He was politically aware and sensitive. He wrote a controversial biography of Indira Gandhi whom he sought to portray as he thought fit, the great lady sought to get back to power or martyrdom. At that point of time the book didn’t bring much glory to either of them.
The stories the Dom and Leela couple would narrate about their days and months with Indira Gandhi were quite entertaining. He was also writing much of political columns but they were, starting from his first encounter with Pandit Nehru to the later years of Rajiv Gandhi somewhat lacking in political insights. Dom is basically a wordsmith. No one handled a word or a phrase as beautifully this genius of a man did. That was his lasting glory. Dom is not only an alcoholic but he is a workaholic as well. Those who know him intimately know well, how systematic he was in his daily work habits. He would be at his typewriter, that loyal old Olivetti, at all times. I had noticed how he would be so punctual in keeping his deadlines and delivering copy. He would type with one finger and his last book of poems is aptly named, Typed with one finger!
His Britishness :Much is said and much can be said of his assumed or typical Britishness. Yes, he spoke the language as a typical English-man, the BBC made a documentary on him appropriately named, Brown Englishman. He spoke only English he knew no other Indian language, readers should know. He is Goan and Roman Catholic and they spoke English at home and hence his assumed Englishness or his alienness.
He was cast, as rightly noted by Tajpal, in the perfect archetype of the long line great many young poets who died young and left great poetical legacies. Keats, Byron, Shelley and Dylan Thomas himself.
Tejpal says this to make the observation that even if Dom had died by thirty he would have left the same amount of greater legacy. Hence, says the journalist, Dom lived rather long.
Of course, this is not true. Dom’s was a privileged childhood, born in a great family and comfort, his father and grand father went to Oxford. How many Indian families you can have like that. And yet Dom’s childhood was also an unhappy one, his mother’s love was not to
be had as other children would.
Dom’s adulthood was also privileged, he travelled extensively as a young man with his father to Asian countries, lived in Ceylon for sometime, and went to Oxford so early. And yet as it was, Dom’s adutlthood had all the fine flowering of genius and also a ruined adulthood, spoilt adulthood! His mature years, when he left Oxford and was a budding poet and a great traveller, he produced wonderful poetry and also exquisite prose, he wrote his first travelogue, Gone Away when he was not just twenty, he formed some strange notions.
He met Pandit Nehru famously; when Nehru asked the young man, what he would do for a living, Dom famously answered : “I think I would settle down in England and live as a poet”. The great leader who had that rare sensitivity for such niceties of living and writing poetry said: “Oh, yes, India needs not poets, poets can’t make a living in India and India needs “workers”, India needs to be built by hard work…” So, Dom wanted to be an Englishman and he didn’t like the country of his birth.
His return to India : “But I grow homesick for an Indian day, What an irony! Fate would have it otherwise, The same “brown English man” met his match in an uneducated English man, this time he was a British cabby, police constable. One day, a Sunday, when Dom went out of his room to by some cigarette, the police man called him, hey, brownie” or bronie”. That stung Dom, whose innate, inborn indianness asserted itself! It was on that fateful moment, he says somewhere in one of his autobiographies, he decided to return to India! How great, I used to wonder! Dom returned to India and lived the rest of his life in India, in Mumbai which city he loved and wrote so much about. Mumbai’s many beauties I learnt to appreciate only by reading of Dom’s many narratives.
Dom’s inside knowledge of India, his insights into India’s tribes and countryside used to amaze me. Such rare insights you could see in his books on the MP tribes. It is to the credit of Arjun Singh, the present HRD minister, who when he was the CM of MP commissioned Dom to write extensively about MP’s tribal communities. You can read this all in his books and I had heard from Dom himself so many amazing, unbelievable stories of his wanderings in the tribal belts.
So, here is my tribute to my friend Dom : he would be remembered for all the unusual gifts and achievements with which he enriched Indian literature, culture and taste.
He would all be there everywhere, wherever poetry, writing, English language and much of the topic of literary genius is talked about. Dom belonged to the Indian writing in an English heritage, long before this sphere came to be dominated by commercial writers, big advances, big times and much celebrity talks. I have only that one question left to ask. Some consolation comes for all my lives.