The absent traveller
A prolific writer of prose and a poet of high calibre, Dom Moraes was ‘the most English poet India has produced’. E V RAMAKRISHNAN pays tribute to this great literary figure who passed away recently.
Dom Moraes died in Bombay on 3rd June, at the age of 65. Poet, journalist, columnist, author of biographies, travelogues and documentary-scripts, Dom Moraes was one of the few Indian-born writers who was internationally known. Despite being a prolific writer of prose, he would be remembered mainly for his poems. As he wrote in the foreword to his Collected Poems, he was always haunted by the Muse though for about 17 years, between 1965 and 1982, he was stopped from writing poetry ‘by time, circumstances and my own technique.’
He has left behind an impressive body of intense poetry that records his struggles with the demons of a restless and inquisitive mind. His mastery of the English prosody and idiom sets him apart among Indian English poets. Behind the facade of his tight and taut lines there is the pain of an insecure and vulnerable self which was never totally at-home in this world. He found the right metaphors for the imaginative world of a man who was homeless in a fundamental sense. While the mainstream of British poetry largely ignored him for being Indian, he does not figure in most of the volumes of Indian English poetry for being too much “English”. The obituary in The Guardian rightly noted that he was ‘the most English poet India has produced’.
His father, Frank Moraes was a nationalist and had a formidable reputation as the editor of Times of India and Indian Express. Dom Moraes had a traumatic childhood due to his mother’s disturbed state that finally forced her into an asylum.
As his father went on various assignments, he travelled with him through Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and the whole of South-East Asia. This perhaps set the tone for his future career as a wandering reporter. It also must have unsettled him for life as his works reflect a migrant’s compulsive desire to witness and report and not to get involved. While his poems are always technically perfect they have very little to say, seen from a socio-political perspective. His thematic range remains small, despite his virtuosity of verbal skills.
Even before he went to Oxford, Dom’s early poems had appeared in Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender. At the age of 19, he won the prestigious Hawthornden prize for his first volume of poetry appropriately titled, A Beginning. The second volume, Poems (1960) was the Autumn choice of the Poetry Book Society.
In 1967 he published John Nobody the achievement of which was never surpassed by his later poems though they became progressively relaxed in tone. After this came a long lull in his creative life during which he moved between Hong Kong, London and New York, working in Sunday magazines and periodicals. He was a war correspondent and also covered the trials of Nazi criminals.
His writings give the impression of a man never at peace with himself. In A Letter he writes: “We travelled, and I looked for love too young./ More travel, and I looked for lust instead.” Later in the same poem he says: “I stumbled dumbly through the English rain,/ The literature, the drink, the talk, talk, talk.”
He never recovered from the damage done by these early years as he lacked the sustained attention to produce works of consistently high quality. He excelled in lyrics that turned intimate hurts into something remote and mythical with the suggestion of deep emotional violence, very much like early Lowell.
But one lacks in his poetry the power of plain speech and the wisdom born of self-questioning. In his columns he talked of his bouts of drunkenness but this lighter vein vanished in his poems. Like the 60s generation, he cast himself in the role of an outsider and he found it difficult to come out of it.
In one of his early poems, Autobiography he says: “I have grown up, I think, to live alone/ To keep my old illusions”. If this was adolescent posturing, it became a permanent attitude later, shutting him out from involvements and commitments. In a poem addressed to Peter Porter he wrote: “All of you now have homes, Peter, not me.” The figures he celebrates in his poetry, Sinbad, Caxton, Jason, Babur, Dracula and Frankenstein are all self-destructive, maniac and lonely figures. They all seem to be afflicted by a curse which is inseparable from their own slanted and twisted vision. The apocalyptic melancholy of these poems now appears curiously dated, despite their perfect poise.
One of the last books he authored was on Thomas Coryat, a dwarf from Somerset who walked a distance of 10,000 miles to reach the court of Jehangir in the year 1613.
A curious maniac, again, who was destined to die a traveller in an alien land. This book titled The Long Strider which he wrote in his last years in collaboration with Sarayu Srivatsa, his companion in these years, along with three autobiographical works collected under the title, A Variety of Absences, are his best prose works and will definitely be read by future generations of readers.
He always had an ambivalent relationship with India, despite being born and brought up here. This is perhaps because in his formative years he identified with Britain and its literary traditions.
At the same time, there was hardly any part of India he had not visited. He understood and valued the plurality of Indian life. He was outspoken in his criticism of religious fundamentalism and condemned the ban on Rushdie’s book in strong terms.
In his recent book Out of God’s Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land one can sense a concern for India’s fragmented social fabric as he speaks of a country “breached and broken by political stupidity, inhabited by a largely innocent and profoundly hurt population.”
When he came back to India in the late 80s, he knew he had an audience here. He was a respected figure in the Bombay literary circles and his chiselled prose and intricately textured poems will continue to remind us of his haunted mind.
The author is a writer, poet and critic, and is a Professor of English at South Gujarat University, Surat