Keki Daruwalla reconstructs an ancient world
Author: Keki N. Daruwalla
Over the last decade, especially after the publication of his Collected Poems (1970-2005), Keki Daruwalla has quietly assumed the mantle of our best poet in English. He now offers a volume of historical poems on the Persians and the Greeks, which were written in 1991-93 as a by-product of a commissioned book that didn’t fructify. One is not told why these poems lay in a closet for so long.
Though there is an old Greek connection with India inaugurated by Alexander, and a more profound and pervasive Persian connection which ran through the centuries of Muslim rule, Daruwalla casts barely a glance in that direction. He sets himself the starker task of recovering poetically an older period when both the Greeks and the Persians were at the peak of their glory as the two biggest powers in the world as known to them.
This period is quite forgotten for “Persian history now starts with Islam”; the choice was “either the foreskin or the jugular”. In his fond reconstruction, Daruwalla runs through the A to Z of ancient Persian lore from Ahura Mazda, Ahura Vairya and Ardeshir to Zarathushtra, Zoroaster and Zohak. Against this populous background, only the great Cyrus and the greater Jamshed are truly individuated.
Among the few other Indian poets to mention Jamshed is Mirza Ghalib. His grandfather came to India from central Asia and he wrote much of his poetry in Persian, but he also seems to have been quick to localise: “Better than Jamshed’s chalice is my earthen Indian cup/ For if it breaks I can go out and simply buy another.” In contrast, Daruwalla’s ‘Jamshed-Nama’ offers a paean to this primordial hero which is the more striking for being in prose: “He was older than rust for iron had not yet been mined…before Pahalvi or Avesta was Jamshed…He was before metaphysics and theology… He was here before we could identify the absoluteness of God from the absolute nothingness of the void.” Daruwalla sub-titles this piece ‘On Carbon-dating Jamshed,’ as if to ironize the scientific procedures of history when faced with legend.
Oddly, Daruwalla’s section on the poet Firdausi fails to catch fire, with would-be epigrams sounding just a little strained: “The past and memory – (a bit of the same thing,/ one a mirror to the other, aren’t they?)” But he makes up by rubbishing both Homer and Herodotus, and by speaking vividly of “the nomads/ drifting on the river/of their migrant tongues.”
In his sonnets, a form he favours, he holds metre and rhyme on a tight leash and often produces pithy felicitous effects. And his charged eloquence finds a fit subject in the Delphic oracle Pythia pronouncing her notoriously ambivalent prophecy: “The sacred bay-leaf she has chewed/the sacred waters she has drunk./The vapors rise, the fevers come./She gyrates, contorts her frame./A voice that’s reedier than hers/escapes her like a hissing flame.” This is Daruwalla at his best.
The egregious Nirad C. Chaudhuri once lumped Daruwalla with “your Khomeini”, and when Daruwalla protested that the Parsis had been living in India for 1300 years, shot back: “You don’t become an Indian in thirteen hundred years.” Apparently, Daruwalla did not carry that argument further, but here he shows what a proud Indian he is by turning the tables on a modern Greek writer.
He points out that the people Cavafy called the “barbarians” were not barbarians at all, and anyhow, they never actually arrived in his overrated poem for a good reason: “While the West waited,/we sailed eastwards to Gujarat.” We can all feel gratified that they did, thus adding another rich layer to the palimpsest that is India.
Harish Trivedi is former professor of English, Delhi University