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Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture by Anjali Nerlekar

Reviewed by Daniela Cappello, University of Heidelberg

Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture, Anjali Nerlekar. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2016. $34.95. ISBN: 9780810132733.


“It has no future./ It is pinned down to no past./ It's a pun on the present.”

(From “The Butterfly”).

In these verses from Kolatkar’s Jejuri, the butterfly represents the transience and self-referentiality of language, the distinguishing mark of the literary underground scene of Bombay during the Sixties. Born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, in undivided India, the avant-garde poet, editor, publisher, graphic artist and translator Arun Kolatkar (1931-2004) has become an icon of the “roaring Sixties” of the city of Bombay, deeply rooted in the local Marathi culture and yet transnationally located at the crossroad of global modernisms across the world. 

            With Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture, Anjali Nerlekar provides a close reading of his bilingual poetry in English and Marathi and an analysis of the editorial activity of the small presses in Bombay. Set on the background of the emergence of the Shiv Sena and the creation of a monolingual Maharashtra, the bilingual poetry and the anti-commercial projects of the small presses Clearing House and Pras Prakashan, run by poets such as Kolatkar, Mehrotra, Patel, Shahane and Jussawalla, tried to shatter the monolithic projection of Bombay’s cultural world. Nerlekar brings to life the stark contrasts of post-independence Bombay, at the juncture of regionalism and national politics, through the prism of bilingual experimental poetry and the alternative literary practices of the small presses and little magazine publications. Engaging with “bilingual and material readings of literature” (3), the author reveals a new methodology for multilingual literary spheres and for the interpretation of Indian modernisms. She explores the textual, visual and physical features of the literary sources through her skilfull engagement with the poetry collections, little magazines, diaries and correspondence in English and Marathi.

           A scholar of postcolonial and diaspora literature, Nerlekar departs from the traditional approach of this field to attempt a “material” reading of Arun’s poetry and little magazines to show the interaction among texts, actors and institutions in the Bombay underground circle. Addressing the lack of interest for the genre of poetry in post-colonial studies, Nerlekar proposes a multi-layered analysis of the poem as “a site that stages the inexpressible contemporaneity of Bombay” (15). Her approach to primary and secondary literature is addressed in the introduction in which she critically engages with some problematic terminology such as “sathottari” and cultural toponyms like “Bombay”. While the adjective sathottari (lit. “post-1960s”) came to be associated with the more conservative Marathi avant-garde, she revitalizes the term emphasizing the interplay between the local and the global in the bilingual literary sphere of post-independence Bombay (7-12). The city, turned into a centre of modernism and avant-garde experimentation, becomes essential in the unfolding of Nerlekar’s reformulation of literary modernism: she proposes in fact an extended idea of the city of Bombay that connects to other places of modernism, such as Latin-America, the United States, West Bengal and the Hindi heartland (58-67). The multiplicity of the literary worlds and of the linguistic environments that inform Kolatkar’s poetry is also a mark of Nerlekar’s theoretical approach that aims at highlighting the volatility and fluidity of critical concepts, such as “modernism”.

            The book is structured in two sections: “The Context” and “The Texts”. In Part One Nerlekar investigates the activities of the small presses Clearing House and Pras Prakashan and explores their role in providing a global platform of experimental writings that helped shaping a multilingual community of literary exchange. According to the author, the little magazine is a crucial material for showing the links between global and local for the sathottari writers. As Eric Bulson points out in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (2013), the little magazine is a “world-form”, yet it is infused with the “locus-specific practices” that bring to the bilingual literary world of Bombay to the surface. In Chapter 3, Nerlekar historicizes the process of translation and its relevance for Bombay modernism. The practice of translation mostly took place within the little magazine which functioned as a space of negotiation between languages, canons and traditions. Through translations from Western (i.e. English, American, French, Latin American), South Asian literatures (i.e. Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil) and from Marathi bhakti poets, the Bombay poets fashioned a “unique sense of the local” that combines the international and the transregional, thus replacing traditional definitions of modernism (107).

            In Part Two, the author deals with a close reading of Arun’s poetry collections in English (Jejuri, Sarpa Satra, Kala Ghoda Poems) and the Marathi Bhijaki Vahi. The interplay between word and image, the attention to the visual and the para-textual elements of the publications, and the “material constructs of the book and the page” (170) are some of the main features characterizing the “material modernism” involved in these collections of poems. In his collection Bhijaki Vahi (Chapter 4), a poetic narrative of the weeping woman around the world and across the ages, Kolatkar uses a mixture of traditional forms of Marathi poetry, such as the metre pasaydan, to represent the modern theme of women’s abuse throughout history. The book of poems seems to grow out of the structure of the little magazine with its unlimited possibilities of combination, both in terms of form and content of the poems, and “expands the semantic content of the work” (143).

            The English collections, Jejuri, Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra (Chapter 5) are examined as exemplars of Kolatkar’s poetics: they force the reader to retrace the connections between word and image, sign and real life. In her analysis of Jejuri, the most studied of the poet’s collection, Nerlekar again suggests exploring the book in its material relevance as an “aggregate of paper and ink” (170) that continues and enhances the semantic sphere of the poem. Moving through the different layers of the text, from the content to the visual, Nerlekar argues that the poem represents the ambiguous space of precariousness and marginality of existence, as shown in selected extracts from Kala Ghoda Poems (182-3).

            In the last chapter of the book, she proposes a close reading of selected poems from the English and the Marathi Jejuri to question the efficacy of the concept of translation and to show the slippery nature of translational practices (196). The collection of poems Jejuri was originally written in English in the seventies and was published in the Marathi version only in 2011. Comparing both versions, she shows the equivalences, the differences and the departures that Kolatkar has followed in order to “show respect for the literary and linguistic traditions of both languages” (200), when in some cases the translation revealed an impossible task, as shown in the poems “The Butterfly” and “Pulapakharu” (203-6). She argues that Kolatkar’s bilingual “way of writing and living”, which expresses itself in his self-translations and simultaneous bilingual transcreations, interrogates issues of authority, authenticity and originality (209).

            Backing up the previous study on Kolatkar by Laetitia Zecchini (Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India: Moving Lines. Bloomsbury, 2014), which included only the English writings of the poet, Bombay Modern expands the scholarship on global avant-garde and modernisms in South Asia providing valuable heuristic tools of analysis for multiple literary and historical contexts. Although Nerlekar tends to repeat some of the main arguments that are foregrounded in Zecchini’s book (i.e. multiple modernisms; cosmopolitanism; multilingualism vs. monolingualism of the nation-state), Bombay Modern has the merit of enriching it with sources in Marathi, from the poetry collection Bhijaki Vahi to the little magazines like Aso, Atta and Vacha, and of bringing a fresh insight into the cultural underworld of “little” editing and publishing practices in both English and Marathi. This accurate monograph can be recommended not only as a complementary study to the reading of Kolatkar’s poetry in English, but also as an independent work per se that explores the intricate web of material practices of literature, poetic experimentation, protest and resistance in the decades following the independence of India.