The Poet as Profane Monk

In conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam


Gieve Patel talks to Arundhathi Subramaniam about his “slightly sick concern with the body” and translation as séance.

He has a forthcoming exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York, in January 2006, with artist Sudhir Patwardhan. His annual poetry workshops at Rishi Valley School have yielded a collection of 150 student poems, due to be published by the Sahitya Akademi early next year. He remains committed to his long-term translation project on the work of the 17th century Gujarati poet, Akho. His medical practice set up in 1974 on a busy Mumbai road remains as bustling as ever. By any standards, Gieve Patel’s life is a productive one. An exceptionally productive one.

And yet, it’s been fourteen years since his last book of poems.

“I believe a work of art must be born of a state of inner necessity, to use Kandinsky’s phrase,” says Patel. “And for some reason, ‘the inner necessity’ in recent years seems to be operating very intensively in the area of painting, rather than poetry.”

The remark intrigues me. It’s an unconventional peg for a story – discussing a book of poems that hasn’t happened rather than one that has. But I have a hunch that a conversation with Gieve Patel will yield some interesting insights. And I’m not disappointed. An interview also offers me the license to be nosy – something I have always been about Patel and his ability to segue fluently between the mind-bogglingly diverse roles of poet, playwright, artist and doctor.

There is nothing showy about Patel’s versatility. Unlike so many self-conscious neo-Renaissance multi-disciplinarians, he never gives you the feeling that he’s a mere collector of nouns. Instead, there’s the sense of a doer, a sleeves-rolled, willing-to-get-hands-soiled attitude of a worker, that makes you trust his varied creative engagements. I also confess to a longstanding curiosity about how exactly he is able to exude the air of a man so genuinely comfortable inside his own skin.

We start our conversation over coffee by talking about the poetry that currently isn’t happening. “I think my translations of the 17th century Gujarati poet, Akho, have probably come in as a kind of substitute for writing my own poetry. Each of my earlier books explored a certain chunk of experience. Perhaps my present chunk of experience needs something like Akho’s poetry to come through. I’ve had his poetry for over thirty years, but have never been able to translate it successfully. Now I find Akho’s vision and my technical capability to handle that vision, seem to have come together naturally.”

Patel’s first book of poetry, Poems, was published in 1966 when he was 26; his second, How Do You Withstand, Body, was released ten years later; and his third, Mirrored, Mirroring in 1991.

The first book prefigures several of Patel’s abiding concerns: the fascination with the ‘thinginess’ of things, with the finite, embattled materiality of the human condition (“It is startling to see how swiftly/ A man may be sliced/ From chin to prick”) and death (“The difference in the morgue is the fact that ‘the mouth’ is ‘not dried/ Into attitude,/ Surprise is clear”).

“In Poems, I was feeling my way around,” analyses Patel. “The book deals with early experiences of death (of people close to me and of patients), with early experiences of painful social reality and what it means to live in this difficult country. There is also a certain reaching out towards wider issues.”

He acknowledges that the second book was more cohesive than the first. “The second book focuses on the body, its needs and torments. It brings together my exploration of my own body (what it means physically and its relation to my own inner life) and the savagery inflicted on the human body in various circumstances all over the world.” Patel defines the fundamental question raised by the book: “Is one trapped? Or is there an exit towards something bigger and more inclusive than this torment? If so, what might that bigger thing be?”

One wonders whether his medical profession contributed in any way towards this preoccupation with the body under siege – or the other way around. Patel maintains, however, that he has nobody and no profession to blame for it. The decision to become a doctor, he explains, was primarily the result of family tradition (his grandfather and uncle were both medical men). But he admits that his daily medical encounter with the body might have given him “extra material to think about”.

The need to explore the persecuted, vulnerable, ravaged battlefield of the human body – the impulse to ‘grossly return/ To nerve endings’ – led, not surprisingly, to the next book. Mirrored Mirroring, which came out almost fifteen years later, actually dared to formulate what “that bigger thing” might be. It even dared to stick its neck out and utter the big unmentionable: the ‘G’ word. God is no stranger to poetry, of course, but He has his seasons; and poets and pilgrims alike have been known to revile, bury, forget and resurrect Him over centuries – and sometimes in the course of a single lifetime. “The book does take a step towards what is known as the mystic dimension,” says Patel. “It acknowledges its power and presence, but without overstating the case.”

Certainly nothing about the first poem of the book, ‘The Difficulty’, remotely resembles overstatement: “In the beginning/ it is difficult/ even to say,/ ‘God’,/ one is so out of practice./ And embarrassed./ Like lisping in public/ about candy./ At fifty!” The tone is that of wry grudging admission, rather than fervid or ecstatic affirmation.

Poet Keki Daruwalla once wrote perceptively of Patel’s compulsion to conduct a post-mortem on every experience that came his way. It is an impulse evident in all three books: a fierce, almost brutal need to look unflinchingly at the grimmer, darker, baser and more angular aspects of the world. It is in the third book that the possibility of the “meditation on the nature of truth and beauty” enters Patel’s beleaguered poetic universe. But the lyrical is not born in retreat into an inner world, but in unsentimental confrontation with the outer.

‘From Bombay Central’, for instance, does not mince any words in its evocation of the quintessential Indian railway station: the “amalgam/ Of diesel oil, hot steel, cool rails,/ Light and shadow, human sweat,/ Metallic distillations, dung, urine,/ Newspaper ink, Parle’s Gluco biscuits . . .” But it does offer a brief vision of something vaster, grander, even revelatory in “the station’s high and cool vault” and its “miraculous heraldic shafts of sunlight”. And in ‘Time’s Up’, the speaker’s vision of a dead soul departing on a third class carriage of Indian railways (“with open windows/ on a day/ not/ too crowded”) gives an ironic, but implicitly positive, even redemptive, juxtaposition of the sublime and the squalid.

“What motivates most of my creative activity is the need for knowledge,” remarks Patel, as he muses over Daruwalla’s observation on his penchant for poetic autopsies. “My way of ‘knowing’ something is by writing or painting. This gives me a sense of having made it on my own. The end result is a move towards inner clarity, however clothed in ambivalence.”

The subject of ‘knowing’ leads us inevitably to Akho, the medieval Gujarati poet whose jnani or gnostic leanings appealed to Patel’s sensibilities. “Sometime in 1967 or ’68, I went to Baroda to visit some painter friends. One afternoon, I happened to be sitting with my friend, the writer Suresh Joshi (considered to be the Father of Modern Gujarati literature), discussing poetry and drinking tea. Suresh bhai asked me if I had read the work of Akho, and when I said I hadn’t, he pulled something out of the shelf with a puff of dust. And I’ve been carrying those poems around for thirty-eight years now.”

Patel describes Akho’s poems as “sharp bitter acerbic comments on people and the society of his time, each crafted like a jewel”. Akho’s resolutely this-worldly preoccupation authenticates his mysticism, in Patel’s view, rather than invalidates it. “The spiritual life is suggested as an obverse of what he’s talking about,” he says with obvious approval.

For Patel, the writer-translator relationship is a deeply intimate one, unaffected by the fact that one happens to be on the other side of the grave. “Translating has the feeling of a séance. It’s like someone entering your body and speaking through you. For you to allow that to happen, you have to have a very special feeling for the person you’re translating.”

Talking translation with an Indian poet invariably leads to the topic of A.K. Ramanujan, distinguished translator, scholar and poet. “The two poets I’ve had a very specific professional, literary relationship with are Nissim Ezekiel and Ramanujan,” says Patel. “In a sense, it almost seemed worth writing a poem because one knew that they would see it and understand it. Of course, we’re three very different writers with different sensibilities, but we responded to each other’s work and had this almost dotty sharing of concerns.”

Patel recalls meeting Ramanujan soon after his first book of poems was published. “I was twenty-six, he was older and well-known, and the admiration he expressed for Poems meant a great deal to me. His positive feedback for the second book meant even more because it initially received ambivalent reviews.” What the two men shared, in Patel’s opinion, is “a slightly sick concern with the body”. “Our journeys were very different but we knew we were carrying all this difficult baggage with us. It was the case of one fellow profane monk recognising the other.”

Patel also recognised in Ramanujan the case of a man who channelled much of his own life experiences into his translations. “Ramanujan was a confirmed agnostic. He’d been told by someone with powers of divination that he would be a visitor at many temples but would worship at none. But in his penultimate book there are poems that seem to be simultaneously sneaking towards and edging away from the mystical. In his posthumously published poems, there’s one about Arunagiri, the south Indian saint, which shows an obvious identification with the man. The sad thing is that when he died he was at the point when he could have taken what he had learnt from translation and channelled it into his own poetry.”

From poet as profane monk and translator as medium, we turn finally to the role of doctor. As one who values the profanity in the sacred, the metaphysical in the material, it is not surprising perhaps that Patel has never really seen himself as the ‘good doctor’ – or regarded his medical profession as particularly noble. Life at the clinic, he says as he prepares to leave for his evening tryst at his medical practice, ‘is integrating – both for the peace that it gives and the disturbance that it precipitates. Since the clinic is on the main road, one gets to meet a variety of people. That gives me a sense of being part of the bazaar. It makes me feel part of the city in a comforting way.”

And have the avatars of writer, painter and general practitioner never clashed? “There was a very brief period of conflict when I was in medical college,” grins Patel. “My family wanted me to do medicine only; there were some friends who encouraged me to pursue only writing – on the grounds that one would interfere with the other. But then, these people began to give up on me. That helped! I decided to do all three and I’ve been happy since.”

© Arundhathi Subramaniam  
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