Deshmukh on Nerlekar, 'Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture'

Anjali Nerlekar
Madhuri Deshmukh

Anjali Nerlekar. Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. FlashPoints Series. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2016. xix + 292 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8101-3274-0; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8101-3273-3.

Reviewed by Madhuri Deshmukh (Oakton Community College) Published on H-Asia (July, 2017) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Modern Literature from Maharashtra

Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture focuses on a fascinating and pivotal period, place, and poetics that, if studied carefully, can overturn a good lot of common literary assumptions about language, modernity, nationality, and cosmopolitanism in South Asian literary criticism today. First off, Bombay Modern is worthy of notice for the simple fact that it is one of so few studies to focus on South Asian poetry rather than fiction or history or sociology. Indeed, it would seem absurd to think of English or American or European modernisms without the poets, and yet, when it comes to South Asia, the poets have been largely overlooked in the efforts to articulate the “alternative modernisms” of the subcontinent. Nerlekar’s book makes a convincing case that the poem is “the unit of the modern rhythm of post-independence Bombay” (p. 213).

The book introduces us to a periodization that will strike those trained in English-language literary studies as new: Sathottari, referring to literature written between 1955 and 1980 and published in little magazines, often edited by poets themselves, and by the small publisher movement that emerged in Bombay as a defiant challenge to the literary establishment and the polite, middle-class readers who were its patrons. Indeed in introducing readers to this period, Bombay Modern enacts the very thing it is trying to locate, the bilingual nexus of writing in English and Marathi that defines the modernity of poets caught in the tension between the global and the local, the national and regional. The writing of this period was, in many ways, a response to two significant events: the carving out of the monolingual state of Maharashtra, with polyglot Bombay city as its bleeding heart, and, in 1956, the conversion of millions of Dalits to Buddhism under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Nerlekar shows that the post-independence disillusionment incarnated in the Angry-Man of the 1970s films actually has its roots in the transgressive, highly physical, sometimes scatological, demotic poetry of the Sathottari period.

Nerlekar divides the book into two parts: the first part is a detailed overview of the little magazine and small publisher movements that emerged in Bombay between 1955 and 1980, and the second and more compelling part, a study of the work of Arun Kolatkar, arguably the most important of the poets to emerge out of this rich period. The second half includes a first-ever study in English of Kolatkar’s astonishing Marathi magnum opus, Bhijaki Vahi (2003) (The Drowned Manuscript), a book about and in the voices of women, some real and some mythical, who have faced the oppression and violence of patriarchy. The title itself is drawn from the story of the drowned notebook of Marathi bhakti poet Tukaram, who was compelled to throw his poetic compositions into the river by Brahmins threatened by his poetic and religious stature. It is also, as Nerlekar shows through analysis of the poems and graphic art, an image of a book drenched by the tears of the women in it: Cassandra, Helen, Rabia, Kim (the young girl fleeing napalm in the Vietnam War), Dora Marr (Pablo Picasso’s girlfriend), Susan Sontag, and Maimun (a Muslim girl from Haryana, India, who was gang-raped and killed for marrying outside her caste)—just to name a few. One poem analyzed by Nerlekar is about Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of Osip Mandelstam, in which the speaker says: “My eyes are simply / Quoting these tears / Without your permission / Nadezhda // I am not going to wipe them off // These quotation marks / standing in my two eyes / let them stay hanging there / forever” (p. 157). Kolatkar’s “quotation marks” here refer not only to a self-consciousness about his cultural appropriation of Nadezhda’s suffering but also to her own act of writing out her husband’s banned poetry from memory after he had been exiled by Joseph Stalin. Nerlekar’s translations and careful analysis of these poems gives English readers a glimpse into the importance of Kolatkar’s prodigious Marathi poetry.

Notable also is Nerlekar’s comparative analysis of Kolatkar’s most well-known book of poems about an important religious and pilgrimage site, Jejuri (1977), written first in English and then translated into Marathi, though the term “translation” does not do justice to the varied literary acts involved in the endeavor as Nerlekar shows with her fascinating and original side-by-side analysis of the companion English and Marathi poems. Kolatkar was roundly criticized for writing Jejuri in English, not only by Nativists, like the novelist Bhalchandra Nemade, but also by many others who were taken aback by the way the use of English defamiliarized and distanced such a well-known local place. The poet Dilip Chitre rather brilliantly writes about Jejuri that “even Kolatkar could not have conceived it in Marathi. Its ironic objectivity is a property of Kolatkar’s poetic ideolect, and he is using his other language—as the language of the other in a spiritual sense as well” (p. 196). Nerlekar shows that this sort of grappling with the dislocations of modernity, linguistic and religious, can only be seen and studied through a multilingual critical approach.

In spending so much time on the little magazine and small publisher movements in the first half of the book, Nerlekar seems to have one particular element above all others in mind, the importance of the materialist-textual context and contours of the poetics that governed this period. Thus, the ephemerality of the little magazines, covered in detail in the first half, itself becomes a kind of aesthetics that helps us better understand the fluidity and editorial history of Kolatkar’s Bhijaki Vahi, while Kolatkar’s involvement in the technical decisions of layout and graphic arts as an editor of a small press and an award-winning graphic artist in his own right helps us to see Kolatkar’s poetry as “a materially oriented act of imagination where ‘meaning’ is most fully constituted not as a conception but as an embodiment” (p. 179). Indeed, Nerlekar’s analysis of layout, the effect of blank spaces, the retro and verso placement of poems, and the graphic elements of his books, all published by small publishers, sheds new light on his poetry and makes a convincing case for their meaning-making centrality.

There is, however, less emphasis on interpretation of the content of the poems here, on those elements we might group under the word “meaning.” Perhaps this is because the very materialist aesthetics Bombay Modern draws out cautions against any such forays as mere speculation. As the poets strove to marry word and thing, so Nerlekar stays grounded in the material-textual presence of the poems and their immediate literary context, never straying much further to interrogate the larger cultural and historical concerns of the poets themselves. For example, more detailed analysis of the crossovers, contrasts, and concerns of Sathottari poetry and the Dalit Renaissance of the 1970s might have helped readers new to the literature better understand their historical place and significance. In general, the hefty questions of caste, gender, class, and ideology addressed by the poets of the Sathottari period take a backseat to the literary-textual focus of Bombay Modern. To some this may seem a weakness of the book, and indeed there are places in the book where one wishes for more critical engagement, but given the relative paucity of focus on literary concerns in South Asian scholarship, dominated as it is by the social sciences, Bombay Modern still remains refreshingly distinct.   Nerlekar’s comparative methodology draws in poets from all over the world, not only Allen Ginsberg and the Beats who actually knew and promoted the Sathottari poets, but Adrienne Rich, William Wordsworth, Margaret Atwood, other Marathi writers, A. K. Ramanujan, and many others, thus clearly hewing out a unique multilingual literary space for analysis.

Nerlekar’s notable contribution to literary studies is her unique focus on bilingual South Asian poetry as a challenge to the facile pronouncements of an English-dominated global cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and to the parochial Nativism of monolingual writers who also, in the opposite way, fail to account for the polyglot realities of South Asian lives on the other hand. The bilingual poets of the Sathottari period shed light on the intricate, multilingual, and local workings of modernity in South Asia, the alienations and deracinations effected by it, and the changes wrought by it. Kolatkar and other poets of the period, like Chitre, did not see this alienation as particular to the modern, but, as their engagements with the corpus of bhakti poetry shows, in continuity with a particular South Asian past and also the global present. It is this particular moment in time, neither past nor present but both at once, and aesthetic space, neither global nor local, national nor regional, but all of these at once that Nerlekar attempts to bring into focus for us. As Kolatkar puts it in his unfinished poem “Making Love to a Poem”: “Some of the finest poetry in India, or indeed in the world, has come from a sense of alienation.... It is the central experience of a lot of bhakti poetry for instance / it’s at the bottom of a lot of Dalit poems / it has given us poems like ‘Cold Mountain’ / folk poetry where women sing their lot” (p. 183).

The best thing that can be said about any book of literary criticism may be said of Nerlekar’s book: it makes readers want to go and read the poets for themselves again. Hopefully, Bombay Modern will bring much deserved scholarly attention to the words and legacy of Kolatkar, to the Sathottari period, and to the momentous output of South Asia’s bilingual poets so far so unjustly neglected in studies of South Asia.

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Citation: Madhuri Deshmukh. Review of Nerlekar, Anjali, Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL:

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So much goes into the making of a critically thoughtful review like this one -- thank you, Madhuri Deshmukh for this close engagement with the book, and also the editorial team at H-ASIA/H-NET for the care taken in commissioning these scholarly reviews and the behind-the scenes diligence of the copy-editor as well.