Hoshang Merchant - The Poetry of Jalwah*

Aparajita Roy Sinha

Adapted from Channel 6: Hyderabad & Secunderabad July 2003, p. 22

      Hoshang Merchant on the Cover of Channel 6: Click on image to enlarge From Hoshang Merchant's mother's side he descends from a line of teachers and preachers. He has a Masters from Los Angeles and he did his dissertation on Anaïs Nin from Purdue University, where he studied Renaissance and Modernism. He has lived and taught in Heidelberg Jerusalem and Iran where he was exposed to various radical movements of the Left. His anthology Flower to Flame was published by Rupa in '92. He is the editor of Yaraana: Gay Writing from India (Penguin). I first met Hoshang Merchant at a wedding dinner at painter Laxma Goud's house. A few friends were sitting around relaxing over drinks, while the long tables behind us were being arrayed with an aromatic biryani dinner. Laxma is a Hyderabadi to the core and that was one of my first experiences of the warmth of the Telangana heart and hearth! -- liquor flowing, choice food, and company (and conversation) to match. The white-haired, bearded man in black sitting enigmatically silent, glass in hand reminded me of artists I'd seen in Bombay where I grew up: urbane, beautifully attired in kurta, embroidered shawl and jooties. Only his eyes, alert like a child's, darted here and there. This mix of childlike candour and austerity is actually characteristic of the poetry Hoshang writes. Hoshang is a poet-bard -- and bards traditionally sang of truths that others did not know or were afraid to speak. Children and holy men perform the same service to society to this day.

Laxma introduced me to Hoshang as the daughter of a film-maker, and it broke the ice at once. Over the years I have known him Hoshang has surprised me again and again with his familiarity with the film-world of Bombay, of the 50's and 60's. It is a world I love and was intimately connected with. Many people have a glamour struck, partly voyeuristic image of Bollywood, few have the patience or imagination to see the tinsel behind the glamour, the real struggles and heartbreaks underneath the magnum opus tragedies. Hoshang's gaze is at the same time both impassioned, and impartial, the poet's special felicity. I do not find many people here who can talk with the same sensitivity as Hoshang can about the films of my father, and other directors of that time whom he admires such as V. Shantaram, or Guru Dutt, and it drew me to him at once. One day after he'd known me for some time, he came for lunch and brought this poem as gift.

Remembering Bimal Roy

He worked silently
So that the birds could be recorded outdoors
It was the same indoors
So that the lightmen talked in whispers...
And if the labourer broke his life at the wheel
There was also the village girl dancing free
So that her voice melted in the mist
And you did not know if she was body or spirit
An entire generation of a new nation
Found itself drinking in this music
Not in order to forget, but just to be able to breathe...

(The last line paraphrases Dilip Kumar's timeless dialogue in the Bimal Roy Devdas -- kaun kambakth hai jo bardashth karne ke liye peeta hai - main to peeta hoon ki bas saans le sakoon...)

In a few lines Hoshang achieves a precise Japanese style impression of my father's social concerns, the elemental human stories he told using nature and music to give intensity to what could easily have been just another boring document of suffering or misery. I discovered that we shared not only love for Hindi cinema but also a childhood in Bombay. He grew up on Pali Hill where all the film stars had their homes (his bungalow was opposite Sadhana's, next to Dilip Kumar and Pran) and I, on Mount Mary Hill, a short crow's flight away. His memories of his home on the hill by the sea call up answering echoes -- I am not a poet or I too would have written an ode to a yellow house near the sea, full of high, old trees. The rhythms of his poem sketch a delightful picture of the potent smells, surprises and high points of childhood.

26, Pali Hill (circa 1992)

It was cooler
around the turn of the hill
where we smelt and felt the sea
And then we went down...
Past jackfruit banana chikoo guava
Gardenia canna laburnum hibiscus beds of laceflowers
Till crotons met us at a green door....
       And so we moved up:
       We had just outbid Nimmi
       The Barsaat star....

(26 Pali Hill is now where Sunil Dutt stays. It was re-numbered and became No. 58 in the 70's.)

Somerset: 58, Pali Hill

Not a tree left and a Rs 50 fine from the Nature society
A wall or a warren of flats
Where the sea was
Not a shard of light
Not a whiff of breath

bats in rafters
from the trees

Someone suggested that there appears to be no attempt on Hoshang's part to "grapple with realities around" him, only a "craving for the past and for the future," Hoshang replied, "Down with reality! But the preceding poem has a dark and graphic broodiness.

Hoshang's irrevocable pain and loss is entangled with the memories of his mother being dragged through the divorce courts of Bombay. Hoshang's father married again, a mere girl, two years older than Hoshang, dispossessing his four children. Childhood's end. The darkening of light. When the walls of Bombay closed round Hoshang he fled to America (the ultimate dream merchant) with money from his mother, believing that the liberal west was the place for his emerging gay identity (nothing could be further from the truth) -- fled Bombay's changing skyline, Bombay's coarsening materialism, a breakdown mirrored by the spectacle of his father abandoning his mother for another woman.

Snakes from Eden
in our garden
Bombay's dying?
Bombay's dead!

Hoshang's mother died soon after, before he could return to India. A recurring guilt haunts Hoshang's poems about her.


You fought and you gave up
Doing naturally what came best to you - dying
as a lark at morning
rising forsakes its nest...

Now I forsake you
Sweet Mother, Forgive me

"Bombay was not the same afterwards," comments Hoshang, and one does not know when exactly paradise was lost -- when Mrs. Merchant and her children were forced to leave the "green house built athwart a hill." Or when Bombay revealed itself to him as the crass and friendless city it has become today, where all is trade, friendship, even love and sex, and everything (starting with Bollywood of course) is in the grip of the mafia. For Hoshang at least, his parents' divorce coloured everything he ever did or thought -- even it must be said, his sexual choices. "My effeminacy antagonised Father. During their fights I stood square between mother and him. Disturbed by my sign of maleness he aimed at my genitals." The breakup seems to have left scars on all four children, not least on an emotionally deprived, gentle woman-boy -- by his own admission, from the beginning, "mamma's boy". "I was the only boy in school," he writes in his autobiography. "Mother had decided I wouldn't swear or be rough. I sang, danced, cooked and sewed. But I could not thread needles... at home I dressed in a sari and sang and danced under a cherry tree with my sister. My parents did not like this." So much for childhood, for many of us the defining patterns of our existences.

Hoshang Merchant has been teaching English at Hyderabad University for fifteen years. In 1999 he was one of the first academics to offer a course on Literature of Sexual Dissidence to MA students as an elective. Hoshang says the great influence in his life has been Anaïs Nin, French poet and writer. He discovered her through her Diaries, when his sister presented one of them to him in America. Forever indebted to Anaïs Nin, it was her courage and brutal honesty in writing about her love life and sexual preferences which inspired him to become a writer and write frankly about himself. He began a correspondence with her that ended only when she died at the age of 73 in Los Angeles in 1977. In Dharamshala, studying Buddhist texts, Hoshang dreamt of her impending death....

Hoshang is the first Indian poet to have publicly acknowledged his gayness, or homosexuality. In India, you are laughed at, abhorred, or ignored if it is known or understood you are gay. Popular Indian cinema is a good indicator of the general attitude. But you are not crucified, as gays were in the universities of the west when Hoshang went there. "India's Hindu culture which is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture, treats homosexual practice with secrecy but not with malice." (But) Islam's strict strictures on any sex outside heterosexual polygamous marriage and the strict segregation of the sexes has spawned homophobic guilt and a vast literature of homosexuality."

"My youth goes like this / Green green glass bangles beside my bed / My blouse is on fire / Who is to tell him, that Aulia Nizamuddin / You try now, I've been trying all the time/ Time goes just like this ..." "Bandish", by Amir Khusro

In India some people assume an innocence about the existence of homosexual love that is at variance with reality, for many Indian texts, including some ancient ones, refer to the practice - termed the "literature of male bonding," which Hoshang talks about in his introduction to Yaraana, an anthology of contemporary gay writing in India (Penguin, ed. Hoshang Merchant). The east has always been more liberal than the west -- there is a place for everything under the sun, as Hindu philosophy claims. "India is divided fourteen times into fourteen languages" bemoans Hoshang elsewhere. Language and faiths jostle each other in India. Both akaar and niraakar coexist, as do the carnal and the divine, Shiva and Shakti, pirs and djinns, Buddha and Dalit and Christ. If this seems ambivalence at its worst, and you long for the clarity of black and white, then the eastern experience -- and poets and their poetry, for that matter, much of the artists' world -- is, I am afraid, not for you. Hoshang is Parsi and he responds to all the varied cultures that an immigrant community would absorb. The ancient mythologies and richly textured wisdom of Hindustan fascinate him, as does the stoic Christian faith. "I, a male homosexual Parsi, Christian by education, Hindu by culture, Sufi by persuasion...." is how he describes himself. So you find a rich and wholesome potpourri of all these influences in his poems -- this blurring of identity/boundaries in someone like Hoshang, with his Iranian past buried inside him (Iran being historically poised on the meeting point of Muslim-Jew-Parsi-Christian) is what makes his poetry so reflective of the juxtaposing of opposites that I have described above. Add to that the gender bend, the mix of female and male. The influence on Hoshang of Sufism is endemic. The poetry of the Sufi mystics which came to India via Arabia and other countries of the Orient, holds God to be the only male. Therefore all men must be female. And of course, all sufi poetry is love poetry, God is the beloved, and the 'devotee' is always, always, female.

Hoshang's poetry is simple and direct (unlike his prose -- his work on Anaïs Nin is a good example -- which is scholarly and full of political and classical references). The Bellagio poems which await publication are really a culmination of Hoshang's many years as teacher and aesthete. "In the summer of 2001 I was offered a writing fellowship at Bellagio. The luxury of the villa, the breathtaking scenery, the service that tended to spoil one, the food and wine were not conducive to work. At the same time their impact on the sensitive mind coupled with friendship with other sharp minds could not but be great." The Little Theatre did a reading of the Bellagio Blues in Hyderabad two months ago. Judging from the many beautiful poems written by Hoshang while in Bellagio, the scenery did have an impact. The following is my favourite. Song like, it captures the place, the beauty, Hoshang's sufi musings, and the pull of Christ in Italy with "breathtaking" ease.

Memories of Bellagio

I sit on a rounded stone on the pier
I hear the bells toll
The wind blow
The littlest pine-needle stir
All in unison
Who stirs the wind the pine the bell in unison?
I breath in and out: one with the pine, the bell, the wind
Remember lake Galilee/where those who believed in the body drowned!
Remember the fish and fisher on the lake
Hauling in a shoal of stars from lake-bottom....

Who am I? An old man on a lake with a promontory behind him still to climb
I begin climbing: The bell, the wind, the pine-needle
              keep me company
I am the gasping fish; I am the low glow of the fire-worm
I am alive; I did not come here to die;
I halt for breath, for pause, for thought --
Who am I? Before this lake --
A shade, a shadow of a shade
A ripple on the water
A cloud upon a river
My own breath upon a mirror
Who will the boatman take?
I hear the cry of the mockingbird
I begin to climb the promontory.

Why do you write poetry, Hoshang Merchant? Poetry is a way of confronting loss, of breaking down walls, he answers. It's my freedom.

*Jalwah: Revelation, a sufi term.

Home | Webmaster