Intercultural transfer in the poetry of Arun Kolatkar – Nora Selmani

Image: M. F. Husain – Man, 1951

Nora Selmani is an academic marketing executive, co-editor of Porridge Magazine and part-time witch interested in gender and diaspora. Her work has appeared in Dead King MagazineFEMRATPeach MagO GOCE, and OCCULUM. She tweets @arbnoraselmani

Intercultural transfer in the poetry of Arun Kolatkar

‘Lady if I start a poem
in this country
it will not be yours.’ – Kei Miller

Intercultural transfer as a process is a useful way to think about different modes of translation and the success of literatures in their target languages, however in using it to define and analyse postcolonial poetry one must acknowledge that it makes assumptions about the target readers of postcolonial poets. It seems, to me, quite arrogant to assume that poets writing in English do so for the interest of the metropole. Liberation for formerly colonised states does not only involve a political upheaval but a means of confronting the cultural imperialism that came with colonial rule. Colonialist efforts like those of Thomas Babington Macaulay to create ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste’, involved the widespread distribution of English literature through specialist schools. It is difficult to move from this ‘point of contact’even after independence; bilingual Indian poets are faced with an anxiety revolving around pandering to the colonial gaze or engaging with a nativism that does not fully encapsulate the multi-faceted cultural prism they write within.  Although these writers write in a cosmopolitan continuum, it seems difficult to escape the accusation that to write in English act as a ‘colonial tourist’.

Given that these literatures and their languages begin to make up the cultural fabric of the nation, there must be a point where non-nativist writers are not considered to be writing for a Western readership.  In other words, the Indian poet in English can be writing for India. Arun Kolatkar’s implicit attention to the richness of culture in his native Mumbai in the Kala Ghoda Poems provides an interesting lens by which to address these anxieties, given the focus on a distinctly Indian urbanity that simultaneously refuses ideas of cultural singularity.

To consider the complexities of the intercultural processes at work in Kolatkar’s poetry, this essay will reflect on the Indian writers in English that preceded his work as well as writers outside of India, while looking at the myriad cultures which Kolatkar references in his work. In this respect, I will consider how Kolatkar grapples with the idea of nativism in his work, and how he pushes against its ideas of purity and authenticity, dismantling its claim to be genuinely representative of India by trying to return to a pre-colonial moment. Kolatkar instead considers both histories in a manner similar to Walcott in ‘The Muse of History’, identifying contemporary Indian culture as a culture of hybridity which is indebted to indigenous and colonial histories. I wish to look at three poems in detail, two from the posthumously published Kala Ghoda Poems, ‘Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda’ and ‘Pi-Dog’, and ‘A Scratch’ from Jejuri.

To be able to adequately identify the process of intercultural transfer in Kolatkar’s poetry and discuss its necessity, we must first consider what is meant by the term ‘culture’. Culture is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period.’ Though this definition offers a plethora of different ways to conceive culture, critical approaches to Kolatkar’s work have been preoccupied with the idea of a singular national culture, rather than the differing customs of the populace. It seems more appropriate to focus on the distinctive customs of the people given the poems’ intimate interaction with the popular, achieved through a use of a free indirect style as in ‘Watermelons’ (150-153) which moves seamlessly from the anthropomorphisation of the watermelons — ‘they’re truly alarmed when the cart stops’ — to the internal monologue of a young boy (‘my heart leaps up’). Seemingly insignificant inanimate objects are figured through the language of personhood and are given autonomy alongside the people of Mumbai illustrating the complex interaction of cultures which form its landscape.

‘Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda’ (125-144) is a fantastic example of the popular intercultural processes at work in Kolatkar’s poetry. Within its 591 lines he weaves together references to the cultures of numerous countries and the differing cultures within India itself, using experimental basic conceptual metaphors familiar to Western readers and content more recognisable to Indian readers. He begins by employing the ‘Time is an evaluator’ metaphor when he notes that the clock will ‘correct [him] if [he is] wrong’. In giving the clock this evaluative power, the importance of this shared temporality is emphasised, thus breakfast time becomes a point of contact for these different cultures, providing Kolatkar with the opportunity to stride across the globe in a lyrical moment. The clock, like the idlis later on, facilitates the poem’s cultural movement from India to Tokyo, Texas to Peru then finally to India and its fabric of cultures. While the evaluative clock creates a site for intercultural exploration, hinting towards a cosmopolitan presence, it is the poem’s focus on food-as-culture which is intrinsic to the process of transfer.

On a semi-conscious level, food is viewed as a means of cultural identification, we recognise fish and chips as being representative of England, despite the availability of fish and potatoes in most countries across the world. Kolatkar exploits this cultural affiliation on a national level; food replaces the need to explicitly identify the different cultures in the Indian cultural landscape. In the seventh section he brings together ‘dal gosht’ (Pakistani) ‘puri bhaji’ (North Indian) ‘upma’ (South Indian and Sri Lankan) and ‘fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn’ (Anglo-American). Different delicacies, and therefore different ethnicities are seamlessly woven together into this fabric of India, emphasising the coexistence of a patchwork of cultures, contesting the idea of a definitive Indian experience. Interestingly, Kolatkar’s placement of the Anglo-American in this fabric allows him to assert the organic presence of western culture in Mumbai.

Kolatkar’s links between identity and food are expansive and are not restricted to India. In the third section, Leja becomes the source for the description of the matzos ‘freckled/like her own 90-year-old skin’, generating a direct relationship between food and personhood, and therefore culture and identity. However, there is also a lot at stake in Kolatkar choosing to include a description of a Holocaust survivor in Warsaw; it pre-empts the ‘small group of Jews’ later on in the poem who return from the synagogue in the Kala Ghoda while serving as an implicit reminder of the extremes of cultural purism. Through food, a concept which is often communal, the poem works to unite the inhabitants of Kala Ghoda in a way which moves beyond the ethnic essentialism of nativism. Although the poem is not moralistic but celebratory, it bears considering that at the time of writing the Shiv SenaIndia’s Marathi and Hinducentric right-wing party—were gaining serious momentum. This poem works to identify the many layered fabric of India’s culture, a national culture made up of different ethnicities that have been present in Mumbai prior to and post colonialism. Thus it is important that it is written in English, not because of its assumed cosmopolitanism but because it is a language shared amongst all of these diverse ethnicities. Kolatkar’s observational style allows for the pluralistic representation of India’s cultural landscape through anthropological study and challenges the homogeneity of culture envisioned by colonisers and nativists.

The opening number of the Kala Ghoda Poems ‘Pi-dog’ (75-81) problematizes the concept of a target audience through its complicated conceptual grid; for every reference one may perceive to cater to an English audience, Kolatkar alludes to Indo-specific religious texts and manipulates literary expectations by using non-indigenous forms to convey indigenous concepts. This hybridity in reference extends to Indian writers in English, specifically, Nissim Ezekiel, who is widely regarded as the first poet since Tagore to revitalise Indian poetry in English.  When Kolatkar writes ‘when I can call this city my own’, there are resonances of Ezekiel’s anxieties in ‘A Morning Walk’ about belonging to and taking ownership of the city:  ‘the morning breeze released / no secrets to his ears’.  Ezekiel presents an anti-flâneur who walks around the city yet cannot fully become immersed in it, he is constantly struggling to penetrate the city. This causes frustration and results in resentment of the city with which he cannot form a meaningful connection. When he finally acknowledges his belonging, it is only as an ‘active fool’ in a city that is ‘constricting’ and causes him ‘pain’.

Amit Chaudhuri identifies the flâneuristic elements in present Kolatkar’s work, rightfully remarking the Kolatkar may not have been familiar with Walter Benjamin’s theory. However, Kolatkar was aware of and even admired Baudelaire, whose work Benjamin analysed for its flâneur. Ezekiel’s speaker struggles to be mystified by the junk of the city whilst Kolatkar’s revels in it. Kolatkar’s speaker is more assured in his standing, in his belonging to the city, as there is no anxiety around claiming the city for himself, and when the city’s people come to the fore, Ugh is sceptical of their ownership of the city:  ‘surrender the city/ to its so called masters’.

Kolatkar’s imagining of the city is also less damning than Ezekiel’s who describes Bombay as ‘barbaric’ and ‘sick’, ‘deprived’ and occupied by ‘hawkers’ and ‘child-like masses’. Ezekiel paints the picture of a drab, lifeless city that the speaker struggles to escape from, similar to the denigration of the city seen in Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. Though ‘Pi-dog’ is by no means an idealised depiction of the city, it offers a more colourful, multi-faceted vision of Mumbai replacing the depersonalised beggars and hawkers with ‘a magpie robin’, ‘the wail of an ambulance’ , and a ‘young girl…violin case in hand… at the Max Mueller Bhavan’. Unlike Ezekiel and modernists like T.S.Eliot, Kolatkar’s description of a modern India is not of a hopeless trap, but rather an intimate and humanising rendering of the city that does not lament the urbanisation of India. He valorises the street-people that Ezekiel cannot connect with, especially in other poems in the collection.

In his discussion on intercultural transfer, André Lefevere looks at the importance of form in the process of transferring cultural ideas, asserting that literary forms have their own sets of cultural meanings and resonances, referring to form as the textual grid. Kolatkar exploits the cultural significance of the epic in ‘Pi-dog’ through his mimicry of its form and his use of allusion within a conceptual grid which is anti-nativist but not anti-India. The division of ‘Pi-dog’ into eight numbered sections parallels the segmentation of epics into books, its tercets, though they are non-rhyming, are reminiscent of the terza rima of Dante’s divine comedy.

Of course, in terms of length ‘Pi-dog’ is significantly shorter than the epics and this is indeed a structure that many of Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems take.  However, his explicit allusion to other epics in ‘Pi-dog’ indicates an intent to write back to them in the context of contemporary Mumbai, and his refiguring of the epic hero as a mutt enables this. Homer, Virgil, and Spenser looked to write the nation in their respective works, writing a history framed through an epic hero who both initiates this history and embodies its legacies. Kolatkar seems to have similar aims in ‘Pi-dog’, writing the city instead of the nation with an epic protagonist in the form of Ugh whose own body resembles ‘a seventeenth century map of Bombay’.

The scaling down of the subject matter is parallel to the paring back of the poem. Early on, the protagonist explores his mixed family history, and therefore the dual history of India and its literature ‘my ancestor became the only dog/ to have made it to heaven’, referencing the seventeenth book of the Indian religious epic, the Mahabharata. Kolatkar demonstrates his familiarity and his engagement with a native Indian literary history, citing its importance in the fabric of modern India. This reference to the Mahabharata also challenges critical assertions that Indian writers in English had no history to work with, like those of Nirmal Verma who boasted that his own decision to write in Hindi linked him ‘to a tradition of 5,000 years’. Kolatkar easily writes himself into this 5,000 year old tradition despite his use of English, placing himself within a double-history. This paternal Indian epic history is placed in parallel to that of a more recent matrilineal colonial history, which is acknowledged yet receives less respect than ridicule.

In explaining the origins of Ugh’s name, there is a wealth of intercultural reference and transfer which prompts the re-examination of perceptions of the target audience of this poem. Prior to the appearance of the Vedas, the pronunciation of ‘Ugh’ is illustrated through differing cultural linguistic references, taking into consideration both Western-English speakers and Indian speakers of English, ‘not the exclamation of disgust’ is sensitive to Western English dialect while a philosophic Hindu scripture ‘as in Upanishad’ (94) is placed alongside the American, ‘[ghost, ghoul, or] gherkin’. The meaning of Upanishad is not explained or footnoted, indicating that the poem works within the assumption that the reader will understand the reference.

I do not assume that Kolatkar is placing faith in the wider cultural knowledge of a western readership in this moment. However, a very subtle explanation for the Vedas is offered in ‘the scriptures’ and through some exposition Kolatkar gives insight into their length and other information not readily available to non-Indian reader, ‘the Rig alone contains ten thousand/ five hundred and fifty two verses’, ironically his knowledge does not begin and end with the one verse that he goes on to recite. The verse is included in its full Gayatri meter and the monolingual English-speaking reader is refused a translation ‘please don’t ask me what it means though’. Kolatkar does include a translation in the final stanza of section eight, ‘may the sun-god amplify/the powers of my mind’ which paraphrases the Veda in English. While this would be lost on a reader unfamiliar with the Veda itself, an Indian reader would be able to appreciate the irony. Thus despite the intertwining of cultural references, the poem is always most successful to the reader who has multiple points of reference which come from multiple ‘points of contact’, a postcolonial subject who has had this double exposure to the linguistic and contextual cultures.

I have touched on Baudelaire and looked at Ezekiel but it is worth noting that the breadth of writers that Kolatkar was influenced by was as wide-reaching globally and generically as the ‘globe-encircling stride’ Mehrotra sees Indian poetry as making. In an interview for a small Marathi magazine where he was asked to name his favourite writers, Arun Kolatkar reeled off eighty-three names ranging from poets to novelists to musicians. Of these many names the ones I found most interesting were those of Ginsberg and cummings, whose linguistic inventiveness and rejection of lingo-cultural norms mark them out as a writers of particular interest not only to Kolatkar but also to his contemporaries like Mehrotra. Here I will move on to the poems in Jejuri, Kolatkar’s first collection in English.

The publication of Jejuri in 1976 saw critics like Nemade accuse Kolatkar of being ambivalent towards religion, and ‘exoticising his own culture for foreign recognition’.  These accusations were often motivated by the critics’ own qualms about the inauthenticity of the English language. I would argue that far from exoticising his own culture, Kolatkar’s rendering of the experience of Jejuri is incredibly sensitive, providing a more nuanced view of religion than his critics suggest through his interest in intimate detail. ‘A Scratch’ (53) offers some of this nuance and brilliant intimacy, and I would like to look at it alongside cummings’, ‘these children singing in stone…’. In the comparison of these two stylistic texts I would like to draw attention to Kolatkar’s treatment of non-indigenous forms to write about concepts that are incredibly localised, and the way in which he adopts the textual grid cultivated by cummings to talk about a concept that is intrinsically Indian.

Kolatkar opens the poem with two questions ‘what is god /and what is stone’ creating a parallel that invites the reader to consider the two objects in relation to each other whilst avoiding directly metaphorical language until he collapses this pretence in the final couplets of the first stanza, ‘every other stone /is god or his cousin’.  In some respects, it is easy to see how one would read this as bombastic, and could read into it the ‘barely suppressed anger at the institutionalised or fetishized aspect of traditional idol worship’ that Nerlekar finds in ‘Heart of Ruin’, if we assume that these stones are actually idols. Idols are at the heart of cummings’ poem, where static children sing in a ‘a silence of stone’; the children sing, their mouths are frozen open but they are not real.  The concept of statues is emphasised by a cluster of words which emphasise death ‘flowers’, ‘wreathed’ and the fatalistic ‘wound’ in the first stanza. The children’s muteness is absence of capitalisation, as all becomes muffled and indistinct. Everything is in stereo as their stone voices remain trapped in their stone mouths ‘for//ever’.

In ‘A Scratch’, the retention of the syntax but the absence of punctuation, the irregular stanzas and non-capitalised lines, and proper nouns, work towards a different end, reflecting consciousness that grapples with the significance of objects within a religious place. The absence of complete sentences suggests an indeterminacy caused by an exploration of faith more nuanced than the ‘starkly secular poem’ suggested by Chindhade. To fully appreciate the depth of subtlety in the self-interrogation at work in this poem, I feel it is necessary to look at George Lakoff’s perfect is regular / imperfect is irregular metaphors (emphasis his). Lakoff writes ‘when we combine the metaphor imperfect is irregular with the knowledge that real things are irregular this entails… that living things are inherently imperfect while abstract nonreal ideas can be perfect.’ I would like to examine the dichotomy of real / nonreal presented here by Lakoff. What is imperfect is irregular yet it is living and therefore accessible.  In the Kolatkar stone is imperfect and tangible, whereas God is always conceptualised as perfect and therefore abstract. In figuring God as a stone, Kolatkar makes God imperfect, bringing Him into the physical realm. Thus God becomes more ‘real’ to the speaker and to the reader who is immersed in this experience.

Emma Bird suggests that Kolatkar displays simultaneous scepticism and faith in the legends of Jejuri. She highlights the line ‘god is harvested here’ as an example of Kolatkar’s initial scepticism, however I would argue that this moment is more suggestive of that ‘inherent faith’, given that harvesting is not just a commercial enterprise, it is a means of survival. In this agricultural metaphor Kolatkar makes use of the Abrahamic ‘God the Sustainer’ term, and it is made apparent that Jejuri is dependent on God twofold, as means of spiritual enrichment and a means of capital.  Survival is reinforced in a later couplet ‘out of the bad earth / and the hard rock’ generating an environment of adversity which can be overcome through the belief in and the commodification of God. The initial cultural separation between the speaker and the inhabitants of Jejuri fades as the speaker steps outside of his privilege and secular prejudices.

The final couplet of ‘A Scratch’ echoes the themes of permanence of ‘these children singing in stone...’. ‘Forever’ appears four times in the cummings poem in total, and twice in the first line of the ultimate stanza ‘forever to always children singing forever’. The repetition fosters hopelessness and futility, the placement of the ‘children’ between the repeated ‘forever’ makes visual the feeling of entrapment. However, the speaker at the close of Kolatkar’s poem is more optimistic as he marvels at the dexterity of folklore. Legend, a word that is culturally charged, takes the place of forever, ‘scratch a rock/ and a legend springs’ revelling in the spontaneity of tradition and its fragility. In ‘springs’ there is an optimism which flows under most of Kolatkar’s work as well as a cultural freedom. Unlike cummings’ children trapped in forever, the stones become a source for refreshed and renewed cultural traditions. This is bombastic and seems flippant yet is so distinctive of the celebratory and attentive style observed in Kolatkar’s work.

Although he uses recognisably western textual grids in a language that was historically imposed, Kolatkar happily marries these grids with concepts which come from a pre-colonial Indian cultural history. There is no reason his work should be assumed to be for a non-Indian audience simply because of his engagement with literature in English as through paradox and nuance, his work refuses this kind of pigeonholing which is a result of clashing postcolonial anxieties. The repeated allusions to Indian religious texts, foods, and earlier Indian literatures are indicative of a writer who proudly engages with an indigenous tradition but recognises the futility of circumventing non-indigenous influences. That is not to say that Kolatkar cannot be for the West- I feel that that claim would be disputable given that the text I have repeatedly referenced is a product of an English publishing house- but it must be acknowledged Kolatkar’s writing has taken place in, and belongs within a ‘continuum’ which privileges India in its contemporary cosmopolitan state.


A History of Indian Literature in English ed. by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (London: C. Hurst & Co, 2003).

Bird, Emma, ‘Re-reading postcolonial poetry: Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2012 47(2).

Chaudhuri, Amit, Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008).

Chaudhuri, Rosinka, The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Cultural Sphere (Bern: Peter Lang, 2014).

Chindhade, Shirish, Five Indian English Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre, R. Parthasarathy (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2001).

“culture, n.7.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2008. Web. 20 December 2015.

cummings, e.e., selected poems 1923-1958 (London: Faber & Faber, 1969) p.61.

Kolatkar, Arun, Collected poems in English / Arun Kolatkar; ed. by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, (Tarset, Bloodaxe Books, 2010).

Lakoff, George; Turner, Mark, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (London: University of Chicago Press,1989).

Lefevere, André, ‘Composing the Other’, in Postcolonial Translation: Theory and Practice, ed. by Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, (London: Routledge, 1999).

Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna, ‘Translating the Indian past: The poets’ experience’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2014, Vol. 49(3).

Miller, Kei, There Is an Anger that Moves (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007).

Nemade, BV, ‘Arun Kolatkar and bilingual poetry’, Indian Readings in Commonwealth Literature ed. GS Amur et al (New Dehli: Sterling, 1985).

Nerlekar, Anjali, ‘The rough ground of translation and bilingual writing in Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri’, Perspectives 2013, Vol. 21 (2).

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets ed. by Jeet Thayil, (Terset: Bloodaxe, 2008).

Walcott, Derek, “The Muse of History”, What The Twilight Says (London: Faber & Faber,1998).


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