Manohar Shetty / Photo by Lora Tomas
Manohar Shetty / Photo by Lora Tomas

A room of his own

In conversation with Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty.

Standing on the edge of a cliff behind poet Manohar Shetty's house and watching the sun dip into the cobalt Arabian Sea, it was difficult to believe "there is no intrinsic poetry in external beauty," as the poet wrote in his autobiographical essay 'Drifting on a High Tide'. 

I visited Manohar Shetty in Dona Paula, on the outskirts of Panjim – where he has been living since he left Bombay as a young poet and editor – earlier that afternoon. We talked about poetry, Panjim and Bombay over tea and shrimp puffs. We leafed through poetry collections he took down from his shelves, penned mostly by the Bombay circle of bards, Shetty's friends and acquaintances from his days in the city. 

In his creative career thus far, Shetty has published five books of poems. The titles are indicative of this poet's tendency to deal with his surroundings in the most immediate and intimate register: A Guarded Space (1981), Borrowed Time(1988), Domestic Creatures (1994), Personal Effects (2010), and Body Language (2012). A Homi Bhabha, Fundação Oriente and Senior Sahitya Akademi Fellow, Shetty's poetry has appeared in renowned literary magazines from the UK, USA and Australia, as well as in several anthologies, including Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992), Eunice de Souza's Both Sides of the Sky: Post Independence Indian Poetry in English (2008), and Jeet Thayil's 60 Indian Poets (2008). His work has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovenian. 

In Anniversary Poem, which closes the collection Personal Effects, Shetty maps his journey from Bombay to Goa by revisiting memories of himself as a creature "dreaming/ Of escape first into a neon/ Forest, then into colliding/ Waves, spindrift in the face." It had taken him several years before he could write poems that related directly to Goa: 

"It's just the kind of poet that I am, far more motivated by 'internal intrigue' and uncertainty than, say, a landscape painter attracted by a natural landscape. Bombay is the city I grew up in. It is where I first discovered and wrote poetry. It had some great bookshops like Thackers, the OUP showroom and Strand where one could actually buy the Faber and Penguin poets, besides the USIS and British Council libraries. More importantly, it was also the city of English language poets – poets like Adil Jussawalla, Nissim Ezekiel, Eunice de Souza, Kamala Das and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra who often visited. There was a kind of camaraderie between us which still exists though Nissim and Kamala Das are no more. I don't relate to Bombay in the same manner now. It isn't quite the same. Poetry readings are rarely held, Adil's Loquations at the National Centre for the Performing Arts and Nissim presiding over PEN are things of the past. A hortative culture has been lost. Politically too it has changed with the rise of parochial parties like the Shiv Sena vitiating the atmosphere."

The first time Shetty visited Goa was as a student in the early 70s – the times when its pristine beaches were swarming with soul-searching hippies who hummed Bob Dylan tracks and raved about the Beat Generation poets. But Shetty didn't readily join in: "I know it's now fashionable to think of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso or the other Beat poets as some kind of romantic wandering minstrels, but I don't share that opinion. I just think they're bad, self-indulgent poets." Instead, his influences were the modern masters like Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Thom Gunn and Norman MacCaig. Looking back to his boarding school days, he said he was "greatly puzzled by the poems of Keats and Shelley and wondered what this effeminate, nambypamby stuff was all about." 

When talking about the Goa of the present and the Goa Arts and Literary Festival in December 2013, Shetty said that compared to other states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or Bengal, Goa still has some literary catching up to do: "The Portuguese may have ruled here for four and a half centuries, but they did not leave behind a rich literary legacy, unlike the English in the rest of India. The Lit Fest is a useful platform for local writers to raise their own standards when they come across the wealth of writing from English and other languages. But whether they actually do is another matter."

Shetty's fifth and most recent poetry collection, Body Language, was launched at the Goa Literary Festival in 2012, closely following Personal Effects. Commenting on the gap of 16 years that followed the publication of his third collection in 1994 and the subsequent two, he said he hadn't even realised it had been so long between Domestic Creatures (which contained only some new poems) and Personal Effects

"It is not that I dried up completely in that intervening period – I did write three or four poems a year. What surprised me was that Body Language appeared just two years after Personal Effects. I think I was more ready this time to grasp whatever threads of poetry appeared – I would even get up in the middle of the night to write down a few lines fearing that they might disappear in the cold light of day. But you must also remember that there are very few poetry publishing outlets in India, and it often takes time to get a book out. These long intervals between books are also due to the apathy of mainstream publishers who think they're doing us a favour by publishing us. As poets we are usually left to our own devices. The printing is the easy part – it's the distribution that is a problem. A poet's greater fear is of drying up and that paradoxically is what also drives him. After Body Language I wondered if I would ever write another poem. You feel a bit like Sisyphus, rolling that boulder uphill." 

Reading Shetty’s last two poetry collections one cannot help but feel the presence of the archetypal, though the poet’s gaze is fixed on quotidian existence. He extracts his metaphors and squeezes the poetry out of the seemingly banal and ordinary, and does so through compressed sketches of flora, fauna and still life, as well as vignettes of personal and interpersonal universes. Both collections are brimming with similar recurring themes that function as leitmotifs, refrains, almost incantations. It seems as if the poet had been exiled not from but to a mythical garden, and is now trying to find a name, a mantra, for everything he encounters within its walls. His highly condensed expression is suggestive of an abstract drawing for its brusqueness, precision and seeming effortlessness that could only have come after years of dedication to the craft of snatching thoughts and images “miraculously from midair” and making them “palpable on paper”.

“To me the startling original image is always important. I admire the work of Craig Raine, for instance, for the way he uses the outlandish simile to reflect a broader reality. Just this morning, at the breakfast table, the discarded stem of a bunch of grapes reminded me of human arteries; the rind of an orange looks like the skin of an old person. But these are isolated images. In itself they are only an indulgence. Only if you can connect them to an outer reality can they have any true meaning or substance. Poetry is about making these connections and making these metaphors significant to the reader. It is not about self-indulgence, however clever,” Shetty said.

His metaphor is always fresh and unexpected, and his prickly irony and satire unapologetic, neatly fitted into verse held together by the innate rhythm and premeditated structure of working in miniature. Whether he is directing this irony and satire at himself or the brave new world, as he sees the high-tech generation – the “new chic” or “new inheritors” with their “razor-thin laptops” and yawning “ribboned poodles,” the worshippers of exotica and sterility – his poignant remarks retain the same edge.

The same holds true when addressing religious concepts and deeply ingrained beliefs. In his poem ‘Visitants’ in Body Language – which tells of snakes being flushed out of their hiding places in the rains, found hissing on bookshelves and at doorsteps – the poet writes how a cobra in his backyard reminded him of a “Deity in a haze of incense curling round/ My neck like a noose/ Since my childhood.” In ‘Rope Trick’, furthermore, he dismissively writes that he’s “never seen/ The Indian rope trick.” Commenting on these two poems, Shetty said that “‘Rope Trick’ doesn’t actually talk about religion per se. I was trying instead to disabuse people about their clichéd notions about India. ‘Visitants’ does speak about the sacredness of the cobra but I think it’s more about how religious myths have such a strong hold when they are inculcated into you during your impressionable childhood.”

Shetty also consistently turns to the body; the weight of the self. In the entertainingly satiric ‘Bodybuilders’, he ponders with a sort of wonder mixed with strange awe: 

What Herculean spirit moves them,
their tortoise-shell abs rippling,
– their grin
Tigerish –
They strike poses like Nataraja.
– Atlas-high but unburdened
By the globe –
Maybe I’ll be their equal
When we become grandfathers.
But right now they look down
On my hunchback walk
And dragging feet, the whole bloody
World on my shoulders.

These lines leave us to wonder whether the poetic body is the body of Atlas, cursed to bear the world and the heavens for eternity, while at the same time safeguarding his intimate space, his garden. As British author Jeanette Winterson writes in her retelling of the same myth, the burden is not only that of the globe – Atlas carries and contains much more: “The dead. Time. Light patterns of millennia opening in [his] gut,” and has been doing so “ever since a star-sized bomb exploded nothing into being” and is now ominously ticking away. Similarly, in Shetty’s poems, everything is beating, clicking, clacking, clucking and ticking – hearts, clocks, typewriters, teleprinters, bodies, and the wings of butterflies and moths. The universe is echoing with tala, “a thrilling tabla rhythm.” In ‘Living Room’ the poet writes: 

I was sixty and still
Ticking when they
Let me go
With a farewell speech
And a wristwatch.
The watch (called ‘Titan’)
Stopped years ago – Our hearts steady
As the beat
Of the big clock
In my living room.

On the other hand, he often refers to the ceaseless and frequently meaningless “clucking of cyberspace”, in which unselective information is exchanged at light speed. This repeated image could be juxtaposed with the obscure, though relevant, poetry collections as the one described in ‘The Insouciant Muse’: the cobwebbed and unflipped book of poems is “an outsider, like Humphrey Bogart,” but doesn’t demand “excitable public relations,” while the “defiant smoke rings” on its covers are unmistakably evocative of the actual cover of Personal Effects. The books Shetty talks about, as well as (poetic) bodies, whether worn out by time or (mis)use, are “broken at the spine”.

There is a kind of pleasant gloom in his poems that envelops the relics of times gone by: with their stopped clocks, sepia photographs, musty notebooks, cobwebs, and calendars, his poems feel like exercises in memory and nostalgia. It seems that, while carrying the world, the poet is also decoding it, rummaging through silt for fossils. 

However, in ‘Template’ Shetty speaks of poetry and the weight of the body in a newfound manner: “Carry your own cargo/ as lightly as your clothes./ Grasp the lucid intervals/ Between the frenzied hours.”

In ‘Close Reading’, the last poem in Body Language, Shetty elaborates and expounds upon his ars poetica, whether in praise or defence of his chosen subject matter, and questions the notions of audibility and credibility: “should I make an/ Arcane reference/ To the Book of Exodus/ And ancient Greek and Sanskrit/ Should I cite a footnote/ From the Iliad/ Or join the feud in Mahabharat.” What does it take to be heard? What are the so-called grand narratives worthy of continuously recycling in verse?

When it comes to prose, Shetty has recently finalised an anthology of travel writings on Goa from the 16th to the 20th centuries, entitled Goa Travels. He said “it’s an area that has still not been adequately documented” and he hopes “to fill in that vacuum” since “these travellers and adventurers left behind a rich legacy of writing on the Goa of those times which deserves to be known to a wider audience. While compiling this book what did strike me was that none of these great travellers, ranging from John Huyghen Van Linschoten to Pietro Della Valle or Jean-Baptiste Tavernier or Richard F Burton mention the beaches of Goa! They were mostly merchants, traders and evangelists. Even the artist, Lopes Mendes, who drew hundreds of sketches of Goa in the mid-19th century, had only one single illustration of a beach.”

The book will be published in 2014 by Rupa Publications, and is the second anthology on Goa curated by Shetty, coming after the 1998 volume Ferry Crossing: Short Stories from Goa, which presented readers with a far more viable and levelheaded image of this Indian state than those conjured by the tourism-promoting catchphrases. “My main reason for putting this book together has been clearly spelled out in the introduction – to debunk all the myths about Goa being just a place for fun and frolic. Holiday destinations inevitably end up being branded in this manner. It is demeaning to the people here. For instance, you don’t hear too much about serious literature emerging from Hawaii or the Bahamas,” said Shetty, about Ferry Crossing.

“But I’m pleased to report that I have a few new poems up my sleeve,” he added, saying that he hoped to soon bring out a new book of poems called Living Room. This new collection, he explained, includes a section called ‘Lexis Local’, containing some poems written in ‘Indian English’, a genre the Jewish Indian poet and playwright Nissim Ezekiel – who belonged to the same Bombay circle of poets as Shetty – sometimes indulged in. They also turn more explicitly to politics and social issues. “I’ve tried not to sound patronising or politically incorrect. ‘Political correctness’ is a fashionable phrase these days, but it needs to be borne in mind that it is not a universal yardstick. What is considered ‘politically incorrect’ in the West may not be so in India. I have also written a few poems for children – a genre new to me. On their success or failure, I leave that to the children who would be the best judges.”

Examination of these poems reveals their flowing playfulness: the fast-paced verses spill over with acutely visual, almost tangible imagery that sharpens (or addresses) the poetic sensitivities in children by presenting them with an array of unforgettable metaphors and similes, the likes of one comparing a yogi to an ampersand. Once again, Shetty’s stream of thought doesn’t fail to amaze with its unexpected twists and turns, subverting the mode of idle perception of the world around us. We have a thing or two to eagerly anticipate in the forthcoming works of this strikingly original poet.

~Lora Tomas is a Bangalore-based Indologist, freelance writer and translator, from Croatia. She contributes to Croatian and Asian publications. She has co-edited and translated into Croatian a selection of contemporary Indian women’s writing, Popodnevni pljuskovi (Afternoon Showers), 2011.

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