An epoch has ended with Dom

By Hoshang Merchant
Deccan Chronicle, Sunday 27 June 2004

Dom Moraes is the enthusiasm of my own boyhood days and it is hard to be critical of a cherished past. Though he was a Bombayite I did not know him personally as I did say, Nissim Ezekiel and much later A R Ramanujan. These three are the elder triumvirate of Indian English Poetry and with their passing an epoch has ended. But Dom was by far the youngest of the lot.

He is actually the exact contemporary of Keki Daruwalla, who is of the generation of poets after Nissim and with Dom’s passing Keki Daruwalla is now not arguably but indisputably the best Indian English poet writing today. I catch a chill every time an elder poet sneezes because I do not wish the peak of my poetic Parnassus to be untenanted.

I remember Dom’s image from the Illustrated Weekly (1947 issue), a Brown teddy-boy of 50’s London Bohemia having won the Hawthornden at 19. Jussawalla, Chitre, Mehrotra were our Bombay Irani chai-house poets of the 60’s for us collegians to gawk at. With Dom’s passing these enfants terribles will here to be dragged kicking and screaming into the ranks of the eminences grises. But there was no Bombay ‘bombil’ (Bombay Duck) smell around Dom.

He was a Brown Sahib in London shepherded by the likes of Spender.  And much like the painter F N Souza his Goan Portuguese ancestry consolidated that myth of their being Western rather than Indian artists of some worth.

When I returned from the west myself there was the new edition of Dom’s collected verse with Babur on the cover. The analogy is clear: Dom like Babur was a boy who left one kingdom (his father not only edited The Express but was the CIA’s link to Nehru through Nehru wouldn’t bite the bait) and established quite another empire of the senses; of poetry.

I remember chafing at reading the earlier publication of Dom in the Three Penguin Poets series because he had been totally anglicised and colonised; a rare honour to an Indian, those days. I can only compare his youthful poems to those of the youthful Lawrence Durrell, the same exotic locales, the same rejune amours foux, the same peripatetic restlessness, the same boyish zest from words: “I greet my poems dancing down the street” as if words were snowflakes, raindrops, autumn leaves or lost lovers.

Then came his Sindbad collection after a long-hiatus. It wouldn’t sell. They were imitating Icelandic runes Dom saw on one of his UN-sponsored journeys. No one would decipher them. I remember telling Nissim Sindbad was a disappointment after ‘Babur’ and Nissim agreed. I even bought a discounted, autographed and numbered copy at our now Padma Shree-ed Shetty’s Strand Bookstore on Phirozeshah Mehta Road, Fort Bombay. Neither was his book on Mrs G as chatty as Ved Mehta’s.

I had read his My Son’s Father, the title detailing his joy at coming out of his father’s shadow. His mother, like mine, I learnt, was mad. So I had one more thing in common with this Indian Giradoux. And then the shock: Dom had come home, fat, white-haired, gouty (actually an incipient cancer). He was divorced and so was his childhood sweetheart Leela Naidu.

The same Leela who lived two doors down from me at Pali Hill as a Bengali director’s 18-year-old protégée whom I didn’t have the gumption to gawk at. They soon married and shared his father’s spacious Electric House flat at Colaba. Makarand Paranjape who visited him tells me the couple had separate sets of friends. This was Leela of the Trikaal period of the ‘Agni, vayu, dharti, paani, akaash’ incantation and the long, silver hair ‘Dom doesn’t want me to dye.’

Then he was living with the companion of his last years, Saryu Srivatsa retracing long journeys of an eccentric Englishman (Coryate) from London to Surat to Delhi and back during John Company’s Raj. And Dom hobbled most of the way, quite cancerous. The last thing of his to appear in print was a review in Outlook of Shangvi’s debut novel, “The latest kid on the Indian English writing block.” He cautioned the gay kid to be careful. He should’ve known. Then by the next week he was gone!