“Your Missing Person”: Clearing House and the Bombay Poets

The forgotten story of a poetry publishing collective

01 November, 2010

WE SHOULD FORGET ABOUT INDIA,” said poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. He was speaking as a member of the audience at a panel discussion on ‘The Art of Criticism’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year. The consensus on the panel was that literary criticism has let us down—for several reasons, but especially because our critics have not learnt how to make connections from book to book, how to revisit the past, and how to create a larger conversation about literature.

Over lunch the following day, I asked Arvind to elaborate. “We are perpetually starting on a clean slate which is why we’ll all go down the same hole. Which is the hole of forgetfulness,” he said. Arvind thought this was true especially of fiction writers in English, who have rarely felt bound to each other. “There is nothing known as new fiction. But there has been a new poetry. Poets are able to think of themselves as part of a tradition. Few novelists were enthusing younger writers but the poets were. Many younger poets turned to the older poets when they started writing poems.”

I had sought out Arvind to talk about Clearing House, the poetry publishing collective which he, along with poets Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and Arun Kolatkar, started in Bombay in the mid-1970s. I saw a Clearing House book for the first time in the late 1990s when the Cuttack-based poet Jayanta Mahapatra sent me his The False Start (which the collective had published in 1980). Its khaki cover featured a stark image of two sheets of crumpled paper. The book’s unusual squarish size and its elegant font, the simplicity of the design and the wide space given to the poems on the page, the lack of any form of advertisement in the whole, and the beauty of the yellowing pages—all gave it an air of fragility, an aura of having come out of a set of circumstances that was now history. I have been curious about Clearing House ever since.

What was Clearing House? Was it an entrepreneurial undertaking on behalf of poetry or an expression of the friendship amongst a group of poets, a gesture towards that sense of fellowship that Arvind referred to? I wanted to understand how these Bombay poets came to apply their collective energies to an unusual publishing experiment. But I was also interested in the nitty-gritty: how many books were published and what were the print runs? How were they marketed? Who handled what? How did they put the writing of poetry aside to make space for the practical business of publishing?

In Arvind’s description of it, Clearing House sounded like a straightforward venture:

In the early 1970s we all realised that we had manuscripts. There were no publishers. Then Oxford University Press under R Parthasarathy started the New Poetry in India series. Some titles did appear under that. But what would happen to the others? We decided not to wait and formed a co-operative. I had been bringing out magazines like damn you and ezra from Bombay and Allahabad. And I knew something about the small press scene in America… Clearing House was very successful because the books were cheap. We made a pre-publication offer. And Arun Kolatkar designed the covers.


The gentleman who has taken the seat to my left at the lunch table starts to spontaneously join his voice to Arvind’s recollections about the collective. “This is Vijay Tankha,” says Arvind to me. “He teaches Philosophy at St Stephen’s College and he reviewed the first four Clearing House titles in The Book Review.” I am amazed at the serendipity. “This is literary history,” says Arvind.

Eager to net other nuggets of literary history (not impossible, given the huge concentration of the literary fraternity at the festival), I speak to poet and scholar K Satchidanandan. I ask him how and when he first encountered the Bombay poets in Kerala. ‘Satchi’ goes back to the roots of his own poetry. As he starts talking about European modernism and how exposure to it changed his entire attitude to literature, I realise that his reading of, for example, the 1976 Clearing House edition of Arun Kolatkar’s now-famous book-length poem Jejuri, was part of the larger excitement of being a modern poet in Kerala in the 1960s and 70s. And that excitement—of discovering the Penguin Modern European Poets series in a Cochin bookshop, of writing articles on Jean-Paul Sartre at the age of 19, of translating Allen Ginsberg’s Howl into Malayalam—was in turn shared by other Indian poets of the time, regardless of the language in which they wrote. “I know that we were reading similar things because in the conversations it was very clear that we were,” says Satchi.


Nevertheless, there are differences. An interesting one concerns poets’ ways of expressing modernity. Satchi’s memories of striking out as a poet are closely connected with a collective of 20 poets, critics and poetry enthusiasts led by the stalwart Ayyappa Paniker, a collective expressly formed, in the late 1960s, to give voice to the ‘new poetry.’ “Until then only metrical poetry was written in Malayalam. We began to use free verse,” says Satchi. The collective launched a quarterly called Kerala Kavita in 1968. “It did entertain older poets who were not really modernists but the bulk of space was reserved for new poetry and writing on new poetry.” Satchi tells me that Kerala Kavita eventually became an annual, not only due to shortage of funds but also because the ‘new poetry’ later began to be published by mainstream journals like Mathrubhumi, and their journal “lost its edge.”

The Kerala moderns not only challenged established poetic conventions, they were also aware of the need to give expression to their difference through journals like Kerala Kavita whose specific mandate was to showcase the new poetry. I can’t think of a comparable manifesto in the case of the English poets, even though they were, at the very same time as the Kerala poets, staking out their own territory. If they did not gather under the aegis of a specific journal or collective or publishing house, how did the English poets in the 1960s and 70s view the pioneering poems they were writing; what name did they give to what they were doing?


What Arvind says about younger poets always having turned to older ones is true, going by the testimonies of younger poets (a testimony sometimes expressed in verse, such as Ranjit Hoskote and Amit Chaudhuri’s poems on Nissim Ezekiel). But does this valuable sense of personal connection between poets amount to an identifiable sense of tradition—if one understands this as laying claim to a self-definition—in the way that Satchi and his contemporaries laid claim to the title ‘new’?

In his introduction to The Oxford India Anthology of TwelveModern Indian Poets, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra makes a telling comment about Adil Jussawalla’s sequence of poems Missing Person (which is possibly the most existentially bleak book of poems ever written in the language). Arvind writes, “In Jussawalla’s sequence, a missing person is not just what our hero becomes, it’s what he is, his very condition defined by absence, ‘the central absence of the Indo-Anglian psyche.’”

This awareness of absence runs through not just Adil’s poetry but his critical engagement with Indian literature as well. Speaking at a conference in Singapore in 1986 about the distrust of English language and literature among Indian writers, he said, “But what if you begin to distrust your whole being, distrust your modernity and everything that’s made you modern? Can you write anything at all then when it was the very force of modernism that compelled you to write a certain kind of literature in the first place?”


When I visit Adil in Bombay to talk about Clearing House, he says, “Something is missing. It’s a sense of literature. What does literature mean in this country? Do we have a literary culture? How do we set about building it?”

This unmoored feeling seems to have prevented English-language writers, even poets, from subsuming their work under banners. What they have done instead is make tentative, private and small-scale attempts to form alliances and have conversations, attempts of which Clearing House remains the most interesting example.

CLEARING HOUSE WAS FOUNDED in Bombay in 1976, in which year it published four books—Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Nine Enclosures, Adil Jussawalla’s Missing Person and Gieve Patel’s How Do you Withstand, Body. Four years later, it published Dilip Chitre’s Travelling in a Cage and Jayanta Mahapatra’s The False Start. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Distance in StatuteMiles appeared in 1982 and HO Nazareth’s Lobo (1984) was the imprint’s last title. “I’ll tell you why we couldn’t reprint our books. We didn’t have the money,” says Adil, sitting in his Cuffe Parade flat, which was the address for Clearing House for most of its existence.

The other Bombay-based poetry publishing collective that appeared almost simultaneously had an even shorter life. Newground, started by Bombay poets Santan Rodrigues, Melanie Silgardo and Raul D’Gama Rose in 1978, published four books—launching with 3 Poets, which carried poems by the three founders—before fading out. In the late 1980s, Praxis, run single-handedly by Adil Jussawalla, published three books of poetry. Other short-lived ventures included The Hack Writers’ Cooperative started by Rajiv Rao and Rafique Baghdadi, which published their joint collection 45RPM in 1983 and—earlier—Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Ezra-Fakir Editions from which appeared, among other things, his long poem bharatmata: a prayer in 1966 (price 50 paise). “Like everything else in those days, it was cyclostyled,” says Arvind.

None of these ventures developed into institutions; indeed, for the most part, the poets seemed to have come together only to publish themselves and their friends, the focus was overwhelmingly on Bombay poets, there was no clear differentiation between editorial and administrative responsibilities and everyone pitched in, personal funds were usually involved, and no one seemed to know much about how publishing actually worked. “Some money was spent foolishly,’ says Adil of Clearing House. “I thought we would get orders from abroad, so I got a list of bookshops abroad—Gotham in New York and so on—and we sent out a flyer designed by Arun [Kolatkar]. A bookseller friend of mine said, just don’t do it, nothing will happen. Sure enough, there wasn’t a single order.”


A different flyer was designed for readers within the country, inviting them to avail of a pre-publication offer. For a total of 25 rupees, they could buy all four titles which would otherwise cost them twice that price. The response was encouraging and half the print run of 750 copies per book was sold this way. When the time came to publish a new set of books, a new flyer with the same terms was sent out, but Clearing House found that this time there were much fewer takers. It was as if, having once tried mail order for novelty’s sake, readers felt no obligation to try it again. Printing further titles was only possible if a sufficient number of pre-publication offers could be sold and since they were not, Clearing House had to eventually fold up.

The Clearing House flyer adopts a tone both direct and wry—the voice of poets speaking to their readers without the bombast of marketing spiel:

You’ll get all four books for 25 rupees. Which is just about what it’s going to cost Clearing House to print them. Amazing how one comes across examples of selflessness now and then in a world run on avarice… The idea is simply this: To bring the poems within reach of anyone who wants to read them. After all they [the poets] have nothing to lose but their money and an entire audience to gain.

Most Clearing House books did not make their way out of Bombay. Much can be said about the intellectual fault lines, the differences of language, history and feeling, that render the edifice called ‘Indian literature’ something of a fiction, but Adil thinks material factors like poor distribution and infrastructure are equally responsible. If poetry published in Bombay cannot be read in, say, Calcutta (and Clearing House made very little headway in Calcutta), then thinking of Indian literature as one whole is something of a trap, thinks Adil.

While the publishing and distribution of poetry continues to be a challenge, the localness of these poetry collectives is also the mark of an achievement: the contribution to a ‘scene’ in Bombay which laid the ground for the genre known as Indian poetry in English. To appreciate this, one has to step back from instances of book publishing and look at poetry-related activities as a whole in that city starting from the years after Independence. A glance at the catalogue in the back pages of Bruce King’s seminal Modern Indian Poetry in English reveals that for several decades after Nissim Ezekiel founded the magazine Quest in 1955, poets in that city did more than write poetry.


The number of journals that appeared after Quest and the speed with which they disappeared suggests a scene charged with energy and risk-taking, with poets crisscrossing between different activities, of which writing poetry was only one. Ezekiel himself pioneered this kind of intense and varied commitment to the field. Apart from writing and teaching (and mentoring poets), he was editorially involved, at different times, in TheIllustrated Weekly of India, PEN, Imprint, Poetry India, Kavi India and Freedom First. These publications set the standards for Indian literary journals. “The six issues of Poetry India (1966-67), edited by Ezekiel, were one of the high moments of modern Indian poetry…” writes Bruce King. “For two years India had a poetry magazine of the highest international standards.” Several other Bombay magazines with names no one remembers today flitted past during that time—Bombay Duck, Opinion, Dionysius, Blunt, Indian Writing Today, Tornado, Opinion Literary Quarterly, Volume, Fulcrum, Keynote, Kaiser-E-Hind, The Bombay Literary Review and so on.

“They all folded up eventually, some like mayflies,” says Manohar Shetty, who edited the first three issues of Keynote over 1982-83. “As the editor, I knew that the magazine would not last too long given the erratic nature of its financing. So I decided to include as much as I could on the arts so long as the going was good.”

Alongside magazine publishing, the figure of the poet-anthologist, surveying the scene and trying to impose some kind of order on it, properly makes its appearance for the first time in the early 1970s. Saleem Peeradina’s anthology of Indian English poetry first appeared as a special edition of Quest in 1972 and was considered a critical response to P Lal’s massive and apparently less discerning Modern Indian Poetry in English which had been published three years previously. “I was still a grad student in the English department at Bombay University and I can never forget the confidence the people at Quest placed in me,” says Saleem. The selection was issued by Macmillan as Contemporary Indian Poetry in English: An Assessment and Selection, and is still in circulation today.


Seen from the perspective of this dynamic, even frenzied, literary activity, Clearing House and the publishing experiments it inspired appear less like failed business ventures and more ways of giving body and substance to the ephemeral business of writing poetry in English. If there has never been anything like a Bombay school of poetry, there has, nevertheless, been this: a shared belief in the worth of writing poetry in the English language and a sustained attempt to give expression to this belief through a network of publishing, distributing, reading, writing and editing activities. The story of English poetry in Bombay is not just one about individual poets but a story about the many ways in which these poets tried to have conversations about poetry.

MELANIE SILGARDO remembers the Bombay poetry scene from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s as being ‘buzzy.’ Having started writing poetry under the influence of Eunice de Souza, her teacher at St Xavier’s College, Melanie went on to work at two different literary magazines of the time—Imprint and Keynote—as well as at the publishing house Macmillan (then based in Bombay); she also collaborated with Santan Rodrigues and Raul D’Gama Rose to create Newground. “The assumption of the time was that all the poets writing in English lived in Bombay,” says Melanie, who, when I met her in a Bandra café earlier this year, was visiting from London where she has lived since 1984.

This assumption makes it possible to think of Bombay, when talking about Indian English poetry, not just as a place where the poetry was written but also as a place that, uniquely, made the writing of this poetry possible. Poet and painter Gieve Patel believes that this enabling quality is represented by a triangular formation—Clearing House, Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes. Gieve is talking not of schools of thought but nodes around which Bombay poetry developed. The poets associated with Clearing House tried to see how publishing could be made not just an end in itself but also a means to assert affinities, an example that seems to have been followed by other presses of the time and even later. (Gieve thinks that Bombay poet Anand Thakore’s more recent Harbour Line press, for instance, is possibly inspired by Clearing House.)


Nissim contributed by providing steerage to successive generations of Bombay poets, whether through direct conversations or through his critical writing, teaching and editing of literary magazines. The fact that he was involved in so many different projects indicates not just sustained interest but also a constant sense of search. Just as Clearing House remains an attempt at self-expression, rather than an instance of institution-building, Nissim’s broad engagement with the poetry world suggests that all of it flowed from his constantly evolving poetry and his idea of what it means to be a poet. Gieve reiterates this when he points out, “There is a whole trajectory of values that Nissim promoted from the 1960s to the 1980s. They changed over the years as his own poetry changed. People would show him their work, and the things he pointed out to them changed over time.” The third node in this triangle, Dom Moraes, formed a separate centre of influence, being involved with neither Clearing House nor aligned with Nissim (though it’s worth noting that the young Dom showed Nissim his poems and received advice from the older poet). “Dom was an outsider, compelled over the years to become something of a reluctant, quasi-insider in the Indian (English) poetry scene,” says poet Manohar Shetty, who was part of the Bombay scene until he moved to Goa. It is interesting that the younger Bombay poets who sought out Nissim (Saleem Peeradina and Santan Rodrigues, for example) are usually different from the ones who were attracted to Dom (such as Jeet Thayil and Vijay Nambisan.)

If Bombay was more than the physical setting in which poets lived and wrote, then it is possible to think of poets who didn’t live in Bombay as ‘Bombay poets’ too, drawn to and in turn contributing towards Bombay’s cosmopolitanism. Gieve makes this case for AK Ramanujam.

Ramanujam, who was in Chicago, is, as a writer of poetry in English, more connected to Bombay than to Bangalore or Mysore. His closest friends in the poetry world were Nissim, me and Adil. It was important for him to know that we were reading his work here. He was basically not writing for fellow American poets even though he lived in Chicago.

In the introduction to his book of essays, Clearing a Space, Amit Chaudhuri refers to the “symbolic and statistical” way in which cosmopolitanism is understood in India. Bombay, he says, is considered cosmopolitan because people of different backgrounds co-exist there, because it has a multicultural demography. Amit counters with this an understanding of cosmopolitanism as a form of ‘inner exile’ and “a ‘high’ cultural eclecticism that has been the mark of outsiders.” It is in this sense that Bombay becomes a cosmopolitan setting for the Bombay poets: it is the place which permits them to be creative ‘outsiders,’ working in English. According to Gieve, “We were creating a reality in the English language, a world of poetry-writing in English, it helped us to see the other realities created by other poets around us.”


I asked Adil Jussawala how he sees this past reflected in the work of younger poets. What does such a legacy of cosmopolitanism mean for this poetry today? Adil believes that older poets are likely to have an influence on younger poets less in terms of their work and more in terms of their idea of the future. “What is the future? Is it a perishable empire? It seems to be. This is a house of cards, English literature… Younger poets haven’t paid sufficient attention to history or to the archives.”

Nevertheless, the idea of cosmopolitanism remains a compelling basis for thinking about Indian English poetry, though such cosmopolitanism is often—disappointingly—reduced to the poets’ diverse physical locations, as in the introduction to Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets from 2002, where he talks about how these poets “are at home in a world in which the boundary between the local and the global has increasingly been blurred… They live in, or have significant experience of, India’s major cities; some have joined the South Asian diaspora...” Similarly, Jeet Thayil, in his 60 Indian Poets says, “Indian poetry, wherever its writers are based, should really be seen as one body of work. Towards that ambition, this anthology includes poets who live in Denmark, France, Canada, Australia, the United States, China, the United Kingdom—and India.”

But what do these diverse locations mean for the writing of poetry?

AK Ramanujam, whose languages were Tamil, Kannada and English and who operated as a poet, translator and scholar in all three (and whom Gieve claims as a Bombay poet not because he lived in that city but because of his connection to it from afar), was one of the few Indian poets who understood this delicate and always difficult relationship between where you live and what you write about and for whom. In a fascinating 1982 interview with the Malayalam poet Ayyappa Paniker (printed in the November/December 2009 issue of Indian Literature), Ramanujam consistently resists Paniker’s equating being in Chicago with writing in English, and being in south India with writing in a south Indian language. To counter this, Ramanujam not just offers the plain fact that he has written Kannada poetry while living in Chicago, but also makes the point that the culture he draws on as a poet is ‘present’ to him not only in his external environment, but, crucially, internally as well. “It always amazes me how we contain it within ourselves—culture,” he says. And a little later, “…India is present to me. My entire way of looking at things is constantly changed by my study of it, my feeling of it.”

DESPITE THE IMPORTANCE of this intangible and yet concrete ‘presence’ of culture for poetry, its most solid expression remains a very tangible thing—a set of poems between bound covers.


“Everyone was bringing out a book,” says Rafique Baghdadi, who was involved in The Hack Writers’ Cooperative. He also ran the Jaico bookshop in Bombay, which had a special corner for poetry, and was involved in the magazine Kavi India. At the other end of the country, several books of poetry appeared throughout this period from the Calcutta-based Writers Workshop run by P Lal, whose publishing work over five decades is a vital part of the story of English poetry in India. Writers Workshop grew into a full-fledged publishing house; what marked the Bombay scene was a more experimental, do-it-yourself approach, aided by poets playing multiple roles.

Rafique contributed eight poems to the only book of poetry The Hack Writers’ Cooperative published—45 RPM, which was designed to look like a 45 RPM single. “I think my poems were very bad, I stopped writing poetry after that. I never talk about that book either. But a lot of people bought the book because it was a novel thing to give as a birthday present.”

Arvind, who edited ezra and damn you, as well as bringing out small collections of the works of different poets under the Ezra-Fakir Editions imprint, was closely involved in production, having learnt typesetting and book production for a year in 1972 at the University of Iowa’s typographical lab. He also designed the covers of his magazines. “ezra had, in addition to a postage stamp-size portrait of Pound by Gaudier-Brzeska on the cover, a flat paper face mask stapled (or stuck). I sold the magazines in the streets, in trains, and in Samovar restaurant in the Jehangir art gallery,” he says.

Saleem remembers his excitement over the making of First Offence, his first book of poems from Newground. “Newground stuck pretty much with the size and design elements established by Clearing House. I was involved in all aspects of the publication: finding a printer, designing a cover which I did myself, buying mailing lists, arranging reviews and readings. I worked with a printer who took a real interest in formatting the pages, choosing a font, and working with me every step of the way.”

Melanie’s work with Newground evolved into a deeper interest in printing production, a subject in which she went on to take a degree at the London College of Printing. As part of her course, she created a slim volume of her poems called Skies of Design, which went on to win the Best First Book Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Asian Section.

The poet most closely associated with the aesthetics of book production—Arun Kolatkar—was also a poet largely unconcerned about being published, according to his publisher, Ashok Shahane of Pras Prakashan. “He was very clear in his mind about what his job was. His job was writing poems. Whether they got published or not was not his job and he refused to get involved in it.” While Kolatkar chose not to publish for decades in either Marathi or English, the books that did appear—such as Jejuri, Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra—reveal the care that Kolatkar took over the printed page. Ashok tells me the story of how, when the Clearing House edition of Jejuri was exhausted and a major publisher expressed interest in republishing it, Kolatkar’s sole question to them was: “Would it be too much for the poet to expect that a line he considers a single line be printed as one?” The publisher’s response was that they needed to check back with their London office and the answer from London was no. The format of the series could not be changed to accommodate Kolatkar’s unbroken line. Jejuri was reissued by Pras instead and thus began Ashok Shahane’s three-decade involvement with the work of Arun Kolatkar.


Pras started out with Jejuri and went on to become a well-regarded Marathi publisher—Kolatkar remains the only author they published in English. In many ways, theirs was an artistic collaboration between friends of a kind reminiscent of Clearing House, with both writer and publisher equally involved in discussions on font, paper, design, layout, order of poems and, centrally, the poems themselves. Unlike Clearing House, Ashok Shahane managed to sustain Pras, but like Clearing House he sees himself as working at an angle to the market rather than representing it. “Keeping Jejuri alive was not a business proposition,” he says. “We were not doing business.”


Nevertheless, publishing remains a business, predominantly, and one that the Bombay poets appear to have had mixed feelings about. “The whole process of bringing out a book is a painful one for me,” says Adil. “That’s why I feel happy at poetry readings. I prefer to hand out the work.” It’s interesting to compare Adil and Arun’s ambivalence about being published with the central role publishing has played in the career of a poet such as Jayanta Mahapatra who, in the outpost of Cuttack, has put out book after book as a way of making himself heard. By the time his The False Start appeared from Clearing House, Jayanta had already published five books of poetry from presses as varied as Samkaleen Prakashan in Delhi and the University of Georgia Press. The journal Chandrabhaga, which he ran intermittently from 1979 to 2008, is not just a rare example of a long-running literary journal but also Jayanta’s way of bringing poetry to the small town and then sending it back into the world.


In his introduction to Melanie Silgardo, Raul D’Gama Rose and Santan Rodrigues’ 3 Poets, Adil writes, “…the phenomenon of poets publishing themselves and other poets is not a secondary feature of Indian publishing, but the chief one. We are not and never have been poor cousins of big publishers. We have been the only means by which poetry has been kept alive while the big publishers slept.”

Today, despite the growth of Indian publishing and books becoming big business, the publishing of poetry remains as sidelined as it was in the Clearing House era. However, the innovativeness that fuelled ideas like Clearing House and the critical ferment around it seem to be in short supply. To hear the often unanimous views about the paucity of publishing opportunities, the decline of critical standards and the lack of a historical imagination is to wonder: where are the writers and critics who can rescue these failing standards? Clearing House and the other efforts on behalf of poetry in Bombay around that time remind us that once it was the very writers who were aware of the fragility of their ‘perishable empire’ who had set about trying to rescue it.