Keki Daruwalla is a leading figure in Indian poetry in English today. He is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (1984) and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1987) for Asia. Born in Lahore, Daruwalla holds a Masters degree from Punjab University, Chandigarh. He joined the Indian Police Service in 1958 (the recurrent theme of violence in his poetry has frequently, and somewhat reductively, been attributed to his choice of profession). He is retired and lives in Delhi.
With the publication of his very first book, Under Orion in 1970, Daruwalla established himself as a name to reckon with in Indian poetry. Senior Indian poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel applauded his work as “impressive evidence not only of mature poetic talent but of literary stamina, intellectual strength and social awareness”.
Over nine books and more than three decades, Daruwalla’s poetry has journeyed a long way both formally and thematically. However, it retains certain strong distinguishing characteristics: an ironic stance, an evocation of the multi-layered contradictory realities of Indian life, a preoccupation with diverse cultural, historic and mythic landscapes, a terse, vigorous and tensile style, supple imagism, sustained narrative drive, an ability to segue between metrical patterns and free verse, and a capacity to combine an epic canvas with a miniaturist’s eye for detail.
A remarkable feature of Daruwalla’s poetry is its ability to vividly materialise its abstractions, to strike a creative tension between image and statement. His poetry has the narrative energy and sweep to paint, for instance, a vast portrait of post-Independence India as “a landscape of meaninglessness”: “Then why should I tread the Kafka beat/ or the Waste Land,/ when Mother, you are near at hand/ one vast, sprawling defeat?”
But it can also offer a fine-tuned vision of the particular, evident in his evocation of the rumbling innards of a miserable multitude listening to the speech of a corpulent political leader: “Within the empty belly/ the enzymes turn multi-lingual/ their speech vociferous/ simmering on stomach wall”.
His landscapes extend from the ancient kingdom of Kalinga under the reign of the great Indian emperor Ashoka to the seething contradictions of the modern metropolis of Bombay (“From the lepers, the acid-scarred, the amputees/ I turn my face. The road, I feel/ should be stratified so that/ I rub shoulders only with my kind”) as well as rural and small-town India (Benaras is unforgettably evoked as the place where “corpse-fires and cooking-fires/ burn side by side”, even while the sacred river Ganga flows on, “dark as gangrene”).
His most recent book, Map-maker (2002), offers a compelling series of dramatic monologues by figures as diverse as a disciple of the Buddha and an old map-maker from Majorca, suggesting that the passionate interest in other cultural and historical milieux is alive and well. But there is also a more marked fascination with inner worlds, with philosophical notions of time and space.
In Migrations, for example, the metaphysical is integrally linked to the concrete and the singular, as the poem explores the theme of migrations across space and time, from the violent biography of nations to a searing moment of personal biography: “Now my dreams ask me/ if I remember my mother/ and I’m not sure how I’ll handle that./ Migrating across years is also difficult.”
The poems presented here are a mix of recently published and unpublished work by the poet. Even while they represent a fragment of Daruwalla’s prodigious corpus, they offer some idea of the range and formal variety of his work.
On this site:
The Decolonised Muse
A personal statement by Keki Daruwalla (Erlangen, West Germany, 1988)
On Maps and Metaphors: In Conversation with Keki Daruwalla
An interview with Arundhathi Subramaniam (2004)
The Maker of Myths: The Craft of Keki Daruwalla
Essay by Jane Bhandari (2004)
Under Orion (Harper Collins Publishers India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1970)
Apparitions in April (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1971)
Crossing of Rivers (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1976)
Winter Poems (Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1980)
The Keeper of the Dead (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1982)
Landscapes (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1987)
A Summer of Tigers (Indus, New Delhi, 1995)
Night River (Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2000)
The Map-maker (Ravi Dayal, Delhi, 2002)
Two Decades of Indian Poetry 1960-1980 (Vikas, Delhi, 1980)
Links to some external sites featuring Keki Daruwalla:
Keki N. Daruwalla – English Writer
The South Asian Literary Recordings Project
Indian English Poetry
A Summer of Tigers
Review in World Literature Today
Quiet flows the river . . .
A review of Night River: Poems by Manohar Shetty
Indian Poetry in English: Daruwalla
The Daily Star Web Edition, Vol 4, No. 157