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Eye for detail

A doctor writing poetry? Ask Gieve Patel how he goes about it

Photo: K. V. Srinivasan

Views in verse Gieve Patel

What exactly is that ‘train smell,’ which swallows you at any Indian railway station worth its bread-omelette, and then proceeds to lovingly cling to your clothes, hair and skin till it’s scrubbed off?

Popular doctor-poet Gieve Patel, in his poem ‘Bombay Central’, describes it as an amalgam “Of diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,/ Light and shadow, human sweat,/ Metallic distillations, dung, urine,/ Newspaper ink, Parle’s Gluco biscuits.” And suddenly, you not only realise he’s absolutely right, but also that it’s surprisingly satisfying to have it broken down so clinically, and in such simple, yet colourful, detail. That’s Patel forte. And the reason he’s been in text books, and recited in classrooms, lectures and conferences for so long.

“I think people react to something they are familiar with. Something they know, but is — at the same time — out of their grasp,” says Patel after a quietly intense reading at Pasha (The Park) as part of the Poetry With Prakriti festival. He states that a lot of people ask him how a doctor, who needs distance to be precise and clinical, can write poetry, which requires a high level of involvement. “A doctor needs to be distant and involved to help,” he says, adding, “that’s how to write a good poem… You can’t be too emotional – emotion spills all over the place.”

Commentator on life

So it’s not really surprising that he doesn’t believe in writing poetry to save the world. Rather, he seems to see himself as more of a commentator on life. Which could explain why he finds the fact that schools use his best known poem ‘On Killing A Tree’ to discuss deforestation, vaguely amusing. “It doesn’t really say not to kill trees,” he grins, “In fact it describes how a tree is killed in great detail.” (So hack and chop… Then, the matter/ Of scorching and choking/ In sun and air,/ Browning, hardening/ Twisting, withering/ And then it is done.) Yet, the author is visibly pleased his poem has inspired ordinary people to fight deforestation, even if it was unintentional.

He’s clearly enthused by this evidence that poetry still has significance in the modern world.

“I teach poetry at the Rishi Valley School,” he says, “and I myself have doubts. Am I imposing sometimes, particularly with resistant students?” He talks of how he discussed it with one of the teachers who firmly told him education has become so technology-driven, it’s essential students don’t lose touch with the humanities.

Aural culture

“Poetry is an aural culture and we are no longer aural. At one time everything was written in verse – ancient medieval tracts, agricultural documents… That culture is gone, and with that poetry has also become distant,” he says, adding, “It’s not altogether a bad thing, since it’s acquired another role. More private, more of a search for self,” he pauses thoughtfully, adding, “It’s more investigative.”

Investigative can mean many things in student-speak. In Patel’s latest compilation, “Poetry With Young People,’ written by his students at Rishi Valley, poems range from a contemplative first-hand version of the horrors of war to charming couplets, such as “How did they live/ before chocolate was invented?” Ultimately, as Patel emphasises, when you write, you should talk about things you really feel. Which could explain why there are a range of ditties on classmates, like the one on unsuspecting Gopal Menon. “Oof - that Gopal Menon/ What a pain he is/ He actually licks toes/ He once even sucked his toes.”

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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