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The stranger who found belonging at last

Dom Moraes, who passed away June 2, was no ivory-tower dreamer or fantasist. RANJIT HOSKOTE pays tribute to a major poet who was also a war correspondent and critic of society, wresting his scintillating verse from the combat zones of life.


AMONG the earliest names in the now-tattered phonebook that I've used since I was a college freshman are those of the poets to whom I showed my poems then: Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla. Adil's number has never changed, apart from having undergone periodic alterations in exchange code. Nissim's never changed either: he remained at the PEN All-India Centre, virtually synonymous with it, until the spectre of Alzheimer's disease claimed him. Against Dom's name, I have six different numbers, a sequence that maps his movements from the mid-1980s to his death on June 2. First, now lightest, is an old six-digit Colaba number, overwritten with its seven-digit successor: these mark the large-windowed, high-ceilinged home that Dom shared with his wife Leela Naidu, shaping his exquisite, melancholy verses in its spacious light. Next comes the number of a Worli hotel where he stayed briefly after his separation from Leela, followed by the number of a film-maker friend whose home on the Bandra seafront was Dom's next refuge. Finally, an arrow away, are the numbers of the two apartments at the Bandra Reclamation that served him, successively, as home in his final years. Although the Indian phase of Dom's upbringing had been conducted entirely in South Bombay, he returned at the end, as though by some atavistic instinct, to suburban Bandra, where his mother's family had once owned vast tracts of land.

Those of us who knew Dom well knew that he was going, since he had refused to submit to the abstemious regimen and harsh radiation treatment demanded by the cancer that had gripped him. But the going was no less sudden, abrupt and shocking for that. It was, perhaps, a consolation that he slipped away quietly in his sleep, avoiding fuss, incarceration in a hospital ward, or the drawn-out pain of cancer in its more irascible avatars. As I accompanied him a small distance on his final journey, serving as one of the pallbearers at his funeral, I found myself asking which was the more preferable departure: Nissim's, this January, or Dom's? Nissim's was a long goodbye, his intellect, senses and memory draining away; it was only a shell to which we bade farewell. Dom left us mid-passage, with conversations still to be completed, appointments to be made, books in progress, journeys yet to be undertaken.

* * *

DOMINIC FRANCIS MORAES was born in Bombay on July 19, 1938, several decades before his time. His father was the famous journalist and writer Frank Moraes, who became the first Indian editor of the Times of India after independence; his mother was a pathologist. As a child, he suffered from his mother's nervous breakdown and eventual descent into clinical insanity; yet he also accompanied his father on his travels through South-east Asia, the Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. He was sent to England to prepare for Oxford, and remained there until 1968, fashioning himself into an English poet with an elusive but nonetheless distinctive otherness about him. His choices and expressions were often misunderstood because they anticipated the contexts in which they could be evaluated. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, he was viewed by Indian readers through the frame of a dogmatic nationalist sentiment: as a maverick whose refusal to subscribe to the dogma of Indianness exposed him to the charge of unpatriotic behaviour. Had he begun to write in the 1980s or 1990s, I have no doubt that his poetry would have been regarded as evidence of a postcolonial, even postnational play of identities: born to a Goan father and an East Indian mother, raised in a highly Anglicised ethos, he long saw himself and was regarded by others as an English poet living in exile in India; in England, he was an inexplicable Indian, brilliant at his craft and magical in his themes, irreducible to the standard clichés about the postcolonial subject who mimics his master. Dom was a figure of paradox: belonging, to him, was a matter of being at home in a period rather than a place, the London and Oxford of his youth, and yet he could make himself at home on the road, travelling from one crisis to another, adjusting his focal length to the human condition as he confronted it in a variety of locations from rural England through war-struck Israel to the riverine darkness of Vietnam.

When Arundhati Roy, in recent times, declared her secession of one from a Republic that had tyrannised or wilfully neglected its duty to its citizens, her gesture was decried, but also much praised. When Dom did much the same thing at the beginning of the 1960s, by publicly protesting against the annexation (or liberation, if you will) of Goa by the Republic of India and giving up his Indian citizenship, he was universally denounced. It was a Quixotic gesture, lonely in its heroism and its insistence on the dissenters claim to truth; he freely conceded this in the wry John Nobody (1965), alternately wistful and ironic: "And I grew homesick for an Indian day./ But there, last year, a moral issue arose./ I grabbed my pen and galloped to attack./ My Rosinante trod on someones toes./ A Government frowned, and now I cant go back." Dom had, at all times, a gift for entering political situations at an angle, from a creative tangent: in Israel, although close to Hebrew writers, as friend and translator, he empathised with the Arab predicament; in India, more recently, he recorded with grief and anger the poverty and dehumanisation of Bihar, the brutalisation manifest in the Gujarat pogrom.

Dom was by no means the ivory-tower poet some thought him to be. People tended to forget that he had covered the trial of the Nazi death-camp commandant, Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem in the early 1960s; that he had reported from the battlefield during the Algerian revolution in 1962, the massacre of the Communists in Indonesia in 1965; that he had worked under fire in combat zones in Israel and Vietnam, as a war correspondent and as an investigator for a United Nations agency. Like his father, who covered the Burma and China fronts of World War II in the 1940s, Dom's sympathies lay with the impoverished, the oppressed and the disempowered: he wrote an article about a prison island in Vietnam in the early 1970s, which moved Amnesty International into action and secured the liberation of thousands of prisoners. Dom never spoke of the personal danger he had courted, and the endurance these projects had involved; characteristically, his prose treatment of these experiences is self-deprecating, while the alchemy of poetry allowed him to weave them into a tapestry of love and quest, sex and death. In the poem, "Autobiography", he reflects: "the moon, leprous, inverse,/ Rising: the girl at Hanoi with her white/ hands and dogs eyes, dripping with amber light:/ Have these things shaped me for the craft of verse?"

People had many names for Dom, often hard ones: nostalgist; dreamer; alien. The role of Stranger was one he played to great effect, for is not the Stranger the haphazard member of the herd, in Freud's phrase, whose silences and gestures provoke anxiety but also indicate a threshold of engagement? By this token, Dom was not the aloof, colonial hater of India that he was often made out to be; rather, what he hated was the unreason and brutality woven into the texture of contemporary Indian society, its capacity for self-deception and lack of generosity. In Out of Gods Oven, which he co-authored with his partner of the last 14 years, Sarayu Srivatsa, he expresses his alternate attraction towards, and revulsion from, Indian realities; but the anger and bitterness are balanced off by sorrow and compassion.

* * *

I FIRST met Dom in December 1986, at the inaugural reading of the Poetry Circle, held in the library of the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, Bombay. He seemed vatic in his emphases, the Merlin of his own poems, enslaved to a routine of columns and articles, the alienated labour that supported his poetry. In "Merlin", a self-portrait, he writes: "The art I drew from the Druids/ No longer of any importance!/ What is Merlin but a mad mendicant/ Working as hodman and scarecrow/ For a thickened oaf with foul breath?" I spent an afternoon with him, having been taken there by a poet who was then in his inner circle, on his 49th birthday, July 19, 1987. He sat at a table chaotic with books and papers, his typewriter a lonely sentinel of order; in the room, people came and went, acolytes, aspirants and hangers-on, some immensely talented, others merely parasitical. Dom's public persona may have been forbidding; few knew how generous he was, in actual life.

In those years, Dom had emerged from a long poetic silence to write again; he had led what Stephen Spender somewhat biliously called a privileged existence as director of topical films for TV, as highly paid roving correspondent with private aeroplanes at his disposal, as guest of grandees in Third World countries, but had been haunted by a sense of having failed at his true calling. This prolonged dry spell was, he later acknowledged, a germination period. Coming back from England, travelling and writing prose books, he had prepared quietly for the return of the Muse. Nearly 50, he appeared to be playing with, rather than imprisoned by, the models of bohemian poet and hard-drinking journalist: there had always been a strong self-destructive streak, a romantic element of death-worship in his poetry, and indeed, in his world-view. He had paid his dues to the tradition of late English romanticism and surrealism of the 1930s and 1940s, to which he was an inheritor, with his friends David Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, David Wright and Peter Levi; he was also a participant in the post-World War II Soho bar scene. Bernard Kops, who first met Dom in the mid-1950s, recalled last week that the Indian poet had brought a different aura to the post-war atmosphere of uncertainty and cynicism in London literary circles: "We all fell in love with Dom immediately ... Whenever he entered the caff, the whole place burst into light."

There were many Doms: the imperious, magisterial figure at the poetry reading was not the chuckling, attentive figure of the dinner party; he could pass quickly from the withdrawn, introspective dreamer to the twinkling-eyed gossip with his impish grin; those who thought the memorialist of 1960s literary London was all there was to know, were shocked by the intense critic of society who could take his place. In autobiography, a genre at which he excelled, he recorded the events of his life: in Gone Away (1960); My Son's father (1968); A Matter of People (1974); and, most recently, Never At Home (1994). But it was poetry that articulated his themes most powerfully: absence, departure, dislocation, loss. His mastery over cadence allowed him to break music with surprise; the recurrent leitmotifs of his poems, his suns, sails, bones and journeys, are offset by the richness of specific detail, the precise adjectives and adverbs, the weight of syllables, the visuality of the images. In his poems, which have been called hermetic but are never obscure, we meet the isolated child, hurt and confused; the young outsider in England, making up for his insecurity by his dazzling presence; the solitary exile, steering among the illusions and uncertainties of belonging.

* * *

THE British obituaries take a view from the West that Dom thought he could belong in, but eventually left behind. Alan Brownjohn, writing in The Guardian (June 4), memorialises the writer he had known in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on a meeting in Bombay in late 1988, he remarks on Dom's sense of failure and displacement in an India that he did not care for. This was a threshold period; shortly afterwards, Dom launched on the happiest and in some ways the most happily creative period of his life, which defied the romantic dictum that one must suffer in order to sing.

"Dom's conversation that November day in 1988 suggested a feeling that his literary career had not worked out well, that it was somehow not suited to the times," writes Brownjohn. This account misses out on the Dom of the 1990s, the stranger who found a kind of belonging at last, which animated him, diminished his bitterness, and allowed him to burst forth in a candid and sometimes shockingly beautiful poetry, brought together in his "Collected Poems", to be released next month.

The last 15 years of his life were a time of revitalisation: with Sarayu Srivatsa, he entered into a phase of luminous emotional fulfilment, for she was at once friend and foil, support and critic, redemptive love and reality check. From this period of love and repose, interwoven through an active public life, came a sequence of travels and writings, movements forward and outward from the self-captivated self. An intensely private man, he released himself towards Maoist guerrillas in Bihar and shadow-reading astrologers in Tamil Nadu, wrote on caste warfare in Gangetic India and the horrors of genocide in Gujarat. Although already in the grip of cancer, he left for Ahmedabad as soon as the post-Godhra pogrom began in 2002. The war correspondent was traumatised by the evil he saw; he reverted repeatedly in conversation to an eight-year-old girl who had been anally raped by policemen. Despite the horror he had witnessed, his last poems dwell on the future, often incarnated in the figure of a child, the magical survivor of experience, who lives on, to sing.

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