Private Eye

The strange, sensuous world of Manohar Shetty’s poetry

01 April 2013

'FORESHADOWS’, a poem in Goa-based poet Manohar Shetty’s 1981 collection, A Guarded Space, opens with the lines: “Waiting for the shy click of heels/on the stairs, I watch a deep/forest rise from my hand”. A forest rising from shadow-play might seem like a playful image, but coupled with the loneliness of waiting and the prickling impatience felt on skin, it emerges as a foreboding one. Almost immediately, however: “On the green glowing wall/my looped thumb and fingers/transfer a pensive fawn”. The movement from chilling anticipation to a quiet sensuality is unexpected but pleasantly so, an oft-encountered experience in Shetty’s work. The poems in the aptly-titled A Guarded Space, his first collection, appear to belong to an intensely private protagonist who, by casting a magnifying glass over the nitty-gritty of daily urban life, transforms the mundane into poetry that unnerves and yet charms us.

In a brisk assessment of modern Indian poetry in English for the Journal of South Asian Literature more than a decade ago, Surjit Dulai identified three generations of poets, starting with Nissim Ezekiel and Kamala Das in the 1950s. Dulai classified Melanie Silgardo and Manohar Shetty as poets of the third generation, emerging in the late 1970s. Among other similarities, he noted the concern of the latter set with “their immediate environment”. This is certainly true of Shetty, who forces readers into such intimacy with his subjects that, as a character in a Raymond Carver story confesses, recalling an intimate relationship, “I could puke”. The most distinct elements of the urban world surrounding him—animals, human lives and relationships, the city itself—are described in a vocabulary that excavates their origins and intersections so deeply that we are shocked (for instance, at eyes that are “a mesh of veins”) but deeply satisfied with the overwhelming truth of what we have seen.

Manohar Shetty was educated in Panchgani and, like his contemporaries Eunice de Souza and Saleem Peeradina, at the University of Bombay. He was 28 when A Guarded Space was published. He went on to author four more collections of poetry: Borrowed Time (1988), Domestic Creatures (1994), Personal Effects (2010) and, most recently, Body Language (2012). Shetty has also edited Ferry Crossing (2000), a collection of short stories about Goa.

A glance at the names of Shetty’s publishers reveals him to be a part of the tradition of modern Indian English poets who set up small, independent publishing houses in order to publish their own work as well as that of their contemporaries. A Guarded Space was published by Newground, a poetry publishing initiative set up in Bombay by poets Melanie Silgardo, Santan Rodrigues and Raul da Gama Rose in the late 1970s, which along with Shetty published Peeradina and de Souza; Borrowed Time was published by Adil Jussawalla for Xal-Praxis; Personal Effects appeared from Doosra Press, Shetty’s own imprint; and Marathi poet Hemant Divate’s Poetrywala, which has previously published Dilip Chitre’s work, has now brought out Body Language. Shetty’s work has also appeared in poetry anthologies edited by other modern Indian poets, such as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s acclaimed Oxford-India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992), de Souza’s Both Sides of the Sky: Post-Independence Indian Poetry in English (2008) and Jeet Thayil’s 60 Indian Poets (2008).

His having published five collections of poetry by the age of 60 makes Manohar Shetty something of a rarity among Indian English poets of his and preceding generations, who have tended to be rather less consistent in their output. His work resonates thematically with that of his contemporaries; both Peeradina and de Souza, for instance, grapple in their poetry with questions of belonging, alienation and their immediate urban environments, but Shetty’s poetry is darker and more acidic than theirs. Like Peeradina, he finds mention only in the occasional academic paper or in reviews by his contemporaries. His work remains little known otherwise—and most unfairly so for a poet whose citric lyricism offers such startling insights into the deepest recesses of intimacy.

IN THE POEM ‘DESERTION’, from A Guarded Space, the poet describes feeling out of place with his lover at an exuberant party and consequently leaving: “…Your hair/Falls over your face like a cape/As we edge our way, the door closing/On a blocked ring of laughter.” The estrangement of the forlorn lovers from society weighs on their attempts at intimacy: “Your fingers in mine: crushed ice”. ‘Creepers’ on steel rails, however, have a tempestuous affair: they “luxuriate”, “embrace”, “sidle” and eventually, “...Wedged/in webs of entwined tendons, legs, we/become one.”

In Shetty’s later collections, this inverted engagement with the familiar continues: we are repulsed by morning tea, a comforting habit that is now “a blood clot sea”, and fascinated by the grotesque eye of a frog, a household invader, that is slick like “a glossy negative”. The sting we initially encounter in Shetty’s poems dissolves, once we come to terms with the unusual treatment of these familiar subjects, into a tender aftermath.

The disorientation arising from such a powerful focus on the ordinary is partly caused by Shetty’s penchant for animal imagery, which almost inevitably lends a mock-grotesque undercurrent to the object being examined. He says about ‘The Boats’, which he compares to lovers:

Their bones twitch.

Trash as the moon-chained

Tide deepens to darken

Eel-scaled waves.

Earlier in the poem, the boats “toss in the restless darkness”. They then “lurch closer” and their “bodies chafe/ And whisper, wince at each touch of the wind”. The violence implicit in intimacy is made vivid in this image of the bodies of two decaying, wooden beasts knocking against each other. The turbulence suggested by verbs such as “lurch” and “twitch” is underscored by the hard consonants pervasive in each line: the ‘t’s, ‘b’s and ‘d’s. What distils this violence into nausea, however, is the unexpected grease of the metaphor of “eel-scaled waves”. The polish of water that we otherwise find seductive is now suspicious, even slimy.

Shetty is, indeed, most imaginative when he writes about animals, especially those that go on to become domestic creatures of an unusual sort. His ‘domesticating’ animals such as pigeons and spiders perhaps tempers the savageness arising from his often unrelenting eye. Shetty’s domestic creatures are not household menaces, although that is how we are accustomed to perceiving them. In ‘Pigeon’, a sub-poem of the four-part ‘Domestic Creatures’, the creature is “swaddled cosily”. It consequently “settles by the window,/Burping softly; eyes half-closed,/Head sinking/ In a fluffy/Embroidered pillow.” This pigeon is no longer the dim, clumsy bird we loathe—it is an infant, being watched by a fond, protective eye. In ‘Fireflies’, he writes of a young boy caging fireflies in a glass bottle, fascinated by their “stare like luminous dials” and possessing them like “a schoolboy’s ornament”. But “…the insects, worried/By coarse hands, the walls of glass/Baffling their tiny wings,/Wilted to lifeless specks.” The soft ‘w’s cruising through the stanza, the vulnerability suggested by “baffling” and “tiny”, conjure up empathy for the poor creatures, crushed by an innocent schoolboy’s enthusiasm.

Borrowed Time features a series of odes to animals, some of which have been reprinted in Domestic Creatures: ‘Domestic Creatures’ itself (consisting of ‘Lizard’, ‘Pigeon’, ‘Spider’ and ‘Cockroach’), ‘Bats’, ‘Ants’, ‘The Elephants’ and ‘Migratory’. All these poems bring into focus the human eye, and cast a gentle, inward look at its role in vilifying or humanising animals. Except for ‘Domestic Creatures’, all these poems end on a note that mocks man for his cruelty and ignorance—a quiet strain that grows more stringent in Body Language—whilst gently personalising the creature in question. In ‘The Elephants’, we are “Amazed by their vegetarianism,/Alarmed by their gaping memories”, appreciating only those habits of the beast that we can identify with, or aspire to possess; we are, at most, patronising, but not overwhelmed. In the case of ‘Spider’, “Tenuous threads of her tales/Glitter like rays/From the fingertips of a saint.” The unexpected affection we feel for the spider—courtesy the comparison with storytelling and the simile of light, which lend her an almost elderly-aunt appeal—is enriched by the amusement that accompanies it. At the end, Shetty’s spider, as much as his elephant, has been rendered a domestic creature.

The obsession with animal lives continues in Shetty’s later poems. ‘Lice’, from Personal Effects, is a dry, exasperated ode to the defiant louse that forces us to confront it; the poem reminds us of one by Arun Kolatkar that shares its name but not its sentiment. Kolatkar’s ‘Lice’ builds a tender atmosphere of affection before approaching the act of louse-picking itself. Against all expectation, the latter is rendered by the poet as a publicly acceptable—even lyrical—demonstration of love:

As her fairy fingers run through his hair,

producing arpeggios of lice

and harmonics of nits,...

Shetty’s poem, however, adopts a different strain, one that takes a hard, unromantic look at the louse, relishing its trickster ways:

Raking fingernails

Will crush a few, ablutions

Of oil, soap, shampoo

Flush out a legion.

[...] Dogged, deep, it’s an itch

That invades both

Indigent and chic.

Shetty is able to sustain ‘Lice’, possibly because of his ability to gaze unflinchingly and humorously at a world too common to be noticed by the layman. Shetty’s relish for the details of everyday life—particularly aspects of the human body that we might be embarrassed to acknowledge—produces some memorable confrontations. In ‘Meeting’, where two lovers “snatch one small end of the day” to meet, he says:

I touch your hair which falls in

Slovenly curls like a waif’s,

Your breath on me gone stale with neglect.

An accusation of neglect, mild as it is, is unpleasant enough without spotlighting the delicate threat of stale breath. In ‘The Recluse’, reproduced in Domestic Creatures, Shetty writes of the “mucous lids dense as cobwebs” of a man who has just awoken, successfully evoking distaste in us and consequently, a desire for distance. These images repel us precisely because they reveal and make us self-conscious of our most private moments. In ‘Bodybuilders’ from Body Language, the poet glances sharply at men with “tortoise-shell abs” to whom “…potbellies are no social/Indicators of prosperity”. There is almost a sense here that we are being spied upon relentlessly—potbellies and mucous lids are hardly thoughts most people want to linger over.

Shetty’s portrayal of Indian urbanism, too, is almost invariably in conjunction with human flesh. These poems, while conveying an eager embracing of our daily existence, are tinged with brutality. In ‘One Morning’ in Domestic Creatures, the comfort of daily routine is calmly disturbed by the fact that “Last month’s runover mongrel/Was part of the tar” of the road to the bus stand. ‘Bombay’, in A Guarded Space:

Is pounded thin, veins splayed

To the sea’s rim, fingers

Spread-eagled towards the horizon.

Bombay’s wrinkled flesh is unsurprisingly irresistible to most modern Indian poets; from Nissim Ezekiel’s early paean to its rhythms in ‘A Morning Walk’ (“Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,/Processions led by frantic drums/A million purgatorial lanes,/And child-like masses, many tongued”) to Arundhathi Subramaniam’s reverent testimony about the ‘5:46, Andheri Local’ (“A thousand-limbed/million-tongued, multi-spoused/Kali on wheels”), Bombay’s flesh has been mapped closely through vocabulary that venerates the city’s ambition. In ‘Bombay’, Shetty goes on to admire its “Ribs like ladder rungs/Convex stomach ballooning”, which constructs an anatomy of the city similar to the scale of Ezekiel’s “iron-lunged” masses, and Subramaniam’s “thousand-limbed” local train, and together with theirs creates a litany of poetic images of the island. In A Guarded Space, “...highways fork and/Stream like veins in my hand”, and his cartographer in Personal Effects watches warily “As nations rewrite themselves/With torn nerve-ends.” This reliance on the glossary of the human body gives an edgy, ephemeral quality to the landscapes in his poetry.

Shetty’s eagerness to look decay—of the body, the environment and relationships—in the eye may intimidate us, but the gaze is more subdued than harsh, especially where human relationships are concerned. Shetty’s figures are lonely but not pessimistic; their struggle with memories is rooted wholly in the present. In Personal Effects, a dead friend is erased from cellphone and email lists, the ‘Last Rite’ of the poem’s title, but the memory of his death is fully confronted only with the realisation that he has moved “To a place/Where old stars detonate”. In the short but wistful ‘Memoir’ from Body Language, the poet reminisces, briefly, about those times when “We raised our faces/To the heavens and, drenched,/Found shelter under/The dripping banyan tree,/Our fingers locked,/Our clothes transparent”—but it is only on a rainy day in the present, one that is “just right for cards and chess” that such an intense memory can be indulged in. The past is contained only within the present memory of it; as Singaporean poet Arthur Yap says in his poem ‘There is no future in nostalgia’, there is “...certainly no nostalgia in the future of the past”. Shetty’s figures are hesitant to excessively sentimentalise their past. We eventually learn to trust their comfort with loss, and are, on occasion, even attracted to their unashamed vulnerability.

THE TENOR OF THE POEMS in A Guarded Space is primarily that of despair; Shetty’s figures are highly strung and the cadences of his writing are unmemorable for the most part, intensifying only in clumps. More attention is paid to sustaining the sentiment through the course of the poem than tightening language, but the later collections develop his economy with words into an exciting terseness. His second collection, Borrowed Time, particularly demonstrates this quality; it is a slim but rich volume and the heightened feeling of disquiet that a first reading produces is one to savour, and worth returning to the book for. The poems at the beginning of the collection appear to be an extension of A Guarded Space, possessing strains of the dismay that haunts the latter but this dismay transforms into an attractive melancholia later in the collection, when the poet preoccupies himself with gazing at various figures and animals in the city. The 13 new poems in Domestic Creatures—one wishes there were more—continue to develop this peculiar allure of gloom with a boldness hitherto not seen in Shetty’s work. These poems explore, with unexpected wryness, the personae of dismayed florists, determined scarecrows, and nostalgic printers. Personal Effects improves on this boldness by handling sensitive subjects like grieving families and asthmatic children with a brisk sympathy that doesn’t dissolve into self-pity. The discomfort that we associate with his earlier poems translates here into an unease that is affecting rather than merely troubling. The gentle treatment of subjects entirely lacks, at times, the acerbity we have come to associate with him but the poems are stronger than ever, perhaps even more so than those in Body Language. This latest book is, on the whole, moodier than his other collections, but the tenderness first discovered in A Guarded Space is still present, leavened here, however, by a more skillful use of irony.

Shetty’s five books present us with an introverted poet casting his delightfully ironic and occasionally sulky eye on the innards of human nature, and producing revelations that will not immediately—or conventionally—please but will inevitably linger. Dom Moraes described him two decades ago as a poet who “seems to peer out of the window of a train in rapid movement. He does not necessarily know where he is, but he is aware of what, in flashes and seconds, he sees.” It appears from his poems, though, that Shetty never boarded that train, that he chose to remain on a solitary bench at the station, mesmerised by his surroundings. He sees not in flashes, but steadily, perhaps even frightening his readers with his fierce compulsion for detail. In his endeavour to silently watch life move around him, he has developed, perhaps, a patience for magnifying our unexpected collisions with ourselves—our worst fears, our tics and our private dreams.

Sharanya  is reading for a PhD in drama and anthropology from the University of Exeter. She was formerly an intern at The Caravan.