Unbroken. Remembering the Bombay Poetry Circle.
In tree-lined Kala Ghoda, there is a vegetarian restaurant called Chetana, famous for its hearty Rajasthani, Maharashtrian and Gujarati thalis. Somewhat unusually, Chetana also serves a generous helping of Indian philosophy and culture on the side. A book shop by the same name does brisk business in an adjacent room, where books by Krishnamurti and Gandhi stand shoulder to shoulder with translations of the Gita and the Ramayana. The combination made it the kind of spot that involuntarily occupied a great deal of real estate in the memory of this then-starving, still-young poet.
But on a higher floor in the next building, there is an empty room that fixes for me, an even more compelling memory. Late one afternoon, (was it 1986?), a dozen or so young men and women took the broad and dusty wooden stairs to a large, dim room on the first floor. Bare tube lights hanging from a high ceiling backlit the distinctive silver halo of Nissim Ezekiel’s hair. There was a solitary chair, and Nissim sat on it. The rest of us, poets every one, sat on the floor, in a circle, ready to share our work. The first meeting of the Bombay Poetry Circle was in session.
We each distributed a poem. I remember Ranjit Hoskoté, George Oommen and Anju Makhija being present – I feel bad that I do not easily remember the names of the others. Then the group critiqued each piece, and each poet defended his or her work — or if we were generous — the work of others. Ranjit read a poem called Body Politic. George Oommen read Why these lies mother, a poem that surprised me with its natural use of Indian English. I read a poem titled What are years. When a couple of the other poets sharply criticized it, Nissim delighted me by taking it upon himself to defend my poem. It was a kindness I never forgot.
I still have all the poems from that first meeting carefully saved away somewhere, but I never attended another meeting. In the years between 1989 and 1991, I got married and moved to Hong Kong. I know the Bombay Poetry Circle carried on its work for many more years. My late mother, Lorna Barrett, would bring me news of many other meetings and events.
I am grateful that Ranjit kept the circle unbroken for quite some time, publishing our poetry in the Hindu’s Folio, and then gathering so many of us again, in Reasons for Belonging (Viking Penguin, India, 2002). At the time of writing this, Ranjit has published more of my poetry than anyone else, it is safe to say.
Nissim was already a mentor to most of us in that room. In 1989, he would publish What are years in the journal of PEN India, along with George’s piece and a poem by Anju. Nissim had me gather my entire oeuvre, such as it was at the time, and prepare it for publication. My first book was to be part of Rupa & Co’s Young Poets series, which would publish the first collections of some 14 young poets. Alas, the venture folded after just three collections were published.
And, while that young poet has grown old, he did not stop writing. Understan, my first collection of poems, is to be released by MG Vassanji’s Mawenzi House press, in Toronto where I now live, in spring 2020. I owe much to that very first meeting of the Bombay Poetry Circle, where Nissim taught us to be poets and poetry taught us to be friends.
Unbroken is a memory of the Bombay Poetry Circle, written in Fall 2019, at the request of Jerry Pinto.