Commerce, Religion and Sex


From Caravan:

“My pencil is sharpened at both ends,” Kolatkar wrote in a poem, “what I write with one end/ comes out as English/ what I write with the other/ comes out as Marathi.” Since his death, besides English poetry, Pras Prakashan has published several new volumes of Kolatkar’s Marathi poetry too, to add to the four such volumes it published while he was still alive. There are more unpublished works too, in both languages.

The granddaddy of all of these, and perhaps of Kolatkar’s entire oeuvre, is a prose manuscript, in Marathi, over 1,200 pages long. According to Kolatkar himself, it is “a secret history of Bombay, a one-man survey of the sexual behaviour of the citizens, and a report on the values they live by,” all based on the oral testimony of one man—a streetwise Casanova and extraordinary storyteller, who lived by his wits and sang the bhajans of Tukaram and Kabir, named Balwant Bua.

Kolatkar called it a picaresque novel, a collection of stories and a subaltern study; Shahane simply calls it a “prose work.” As a mammoth non-fiction narrative that is constructed like a novel, “held together by the voice of the narrator/protagonist, and with no more structure than what structure his life imposes on it,” as Kolatkar wrote, in its form it seems unlike any text that exists in Marathi or Indian English-language writing. It could be the most important prose work in contemporary Indian literature—only Shahane has read the entire book and knows for sure.

For Shahane, publishing his old friend’s 1,200-plus-page tome could be the culmination of a lifetime’s effort. But, in Kolatkar’s words, the narrative is sketched in “the three primary colours—of commerce, religion and sex—twisting around each other and running throughout the length of it.” It is a book which Shahane does not dare publish in today’s Bombay. And he is running out of time.

The friendship between Shahane and Kolatkar began in the late 1950s, in Pune. Shahane had gone to Pune for college, but formal education was not for him. He said “Ram Ram” to college, as he puts it, and dropped out.

After dropping out, he spent most of his time hanging around in cafes. At this time, he met a struggling artist who was also a promising poet: Arun Kolatkar.

He also befriended Bhalchandra Nemade, then a student at Fergusson College in Pune. Nemade recalled that time in this way:

We had a literary club in Fergusson College called Sahitya Sahakar (Literary Collaborations). We used to meet every week and any one person read out his work to the group. The event was thus—one person reads and the rest of the people, mainly from the hostel, have fun critiquing him and mostly tearing his work down. We were all so young then. There was a lecturer at the time, called Arvind Kulkarni, whom we encouraged to read his poems. Ashok came to our meeting at that time. And when I was in full swing criticizing Kulkarni’s writing, Ashok was sitting there guffawing at the back of the room. That is how we met. We started meeting regularly for a cup of chai at Café Goodluck nearby.

Remember those diaries in Kosla where it says, the protagonist, frustrated with himself, says “Let’s see if they are there at the café. See, there they were the two bastards as always!”

“The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing”, Kushanava Choudhury and Anjali Nerlekar, Caravan