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.

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