Between stillness and movement
Remembering Gieve Patel (18 August 1940—3 November 2023), the poet and the person
|Poet Laureate Gieve Patel reads from his Collected Poems at NCPA, 12 November 2022, photo courtesy: Tata Literature Live Festival|
It is 2008. I am en route to the Mussoorie Writers Festival organised by Stephen Alter. What is making me slightly dizzy with disbelief is not the excitement of reading from my first ever poetry book in the company of stalwarts—it’s the fact that I am to travel from Dehradun airport to Mussoorie with Gieve Patel. I am nervous. I know his work. I have studied it. My father has taught it. I have heard and met him at poetry readings in Bombay. But to travel together by car? What if he finds me insufferable? What if I find him aloof? I am nervous.
I am stupid with nervousness. When we get off the airplane and find each other near the baggage carousel, the infectious grin sets me at ease, right away. The car is waiting. Gieve tells the driver to take it easy up the slopes. “I have restless legs syndrome,” he says to me. “We’ll have to stop often, so I can get out and walk around a bit. It will slow us down; I hope you don’t mind. But first, we need to get ourselves a good breakfast!”
And so begins my first real interaction with Gieve, on that memorable ride to Mussoorie, conducted at a leisurely, companionable pace that disarms me entirely. I relax. There is no pressure. No pretentiousness, no pose. We speak, we share silences, we nap. We stop, often. Sometimes I get out and walk with him. We eat, we drink coffee. By the time we pull into Mussoorie, darkness has fallen, the hills are ablaze with jewels of light. We park our bags, and a person with a flashlight leads the way to Stephen’s house, where all the other writers are already gathered for a welcome dinner. We take a steepish shortcut through the darkness between the trees. Gieve follows the circle of light as nimbly as I do. He shows no signs of fatigue, chipper and dandy as ever, in a thick grey sweater that I will begin to recognise over the years. We ring the bell and enter a house full of laughter and warmth. Stephen welcomes me graciously (we are meeting for the first time) and embraces Gieve. They are old friends. As I cup my cold hands around a glass of hot toddy, I wonder how one car-ride can make me feel like we are old friends too.
|With Gieve at the Mussoorie Writers Festival 2008|
That was Gieve. The one who made the youngest, shyest person feel like a friend in a matter of hours. The one who saw and heard you with the same attention he brought to his practice as a doctor, an artist, a poet, a playwright and a teacher.
It grieves me to have to use the past tense. On the 3rd of November 2023 he passed away, at a palliative care centre in Pune. In the run-up to this day, his daughter Avaan had kept me updated, sending reassuring messages, strong and serene in the knowledge that her father was supported, loved, at peace, without (too much) pain. When the news came, a bunch of us poets and translators had just emerged from a festival at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts) in Bombay. I had been expecting it any day now, but how could ‘any day now’ be that soon? He was gone.
Later, the cold clutch of grief melting within the warm circle of people who lived by what they believed in—the power of the word, the arts—I looked up at the sky and thought, he would have approved. That this is where my mourning began, at the site of celebration, where almost exactly a year ago, he received the Tata Literature Live! Poet Laureate Award for 2022—23.
When Amy Fernandes, the festival director, had asked me if I would write the citation and be in conversation with Gieve at the award ceremony, it was as if I had received a prize myself. In the run-up to the event, we met, spoke, planned over email and breakfast.
|5 November 2022, prepping at The Knead Café, Kala Ghoda|
I had a lifetime of questions. Gieve had a lifetime of patience. We sifted and sorted, shaping the event so that the audience would get a glimpse of his oeuvre in the short span of 30 minutes allotted to us. And of course, there would have to be poems! I had a mile-long list of favourites, from which we picked and planted, we finetuned, until the choreography was down to Gieve’s approval: ‘As we used to say in the old days: “tip-top”!’
I remember that evening, the 12th of November 2022, as if it were yesterday. The backstage bonhomie, Gieve immaculately formal, and gleamingly impish; the waves of applause and laughter from the audience as Gieve read and spoke; how he was able to turn the stage into a drawing room, both intimate and expansive. I remember reading the citation with only slightly trembling hands and heart:
For five decades, Gieve Patel has been looking for the ‘possible light’ beyond the century’s punctured and bruised skin. He has embraced the people ‘with needle, knife and tongue’; he has observed the city (almost always Bombay) with humour and horror; he has listened to the ‘subterranean splinterings’ between pain and pleasure; he has distilled and absorbed meaning and matter into ‘mind and heart’.
All of this Gieve Patel has done with a poetry of profound sympathy for the underdog; a healthy suspicion of ‘fluent victories’. His moments of truth come to us in hard-hitting flashes of hard-won insight, cutting us to the quick, teaching us how to relearn tenderness, how to acknowledge our carnality, corporeality, and chaos. He enables us to continue asking that despairing question— “How do you withstand, body?” He shows us our inconvenient, irreverent relationships with a ‘Mirrored, Mirroring’ God who merits unsolemn prayers and (un)scheduled appointments!
In recognition of the mind that has reflected on ‘The Ambiguous Fate of … Being Neither Muslim nor Hindu in India’; the heart that has stayed alert to the ‘thin continuous cry that hounds the universe’; the poet who sees himself as a ‘profane monk’ on a wayward pilgrimage with words—we are delighted and honoured to announce Gieve Patel as the 13th Tata Literature Live! Poet Laureate, 2022-’23.
I remember hoping I had encapsulated everything he meant, not just to me and so many younger poets, but to the world of Anglophone poetry. Today, I know it was not nearly enough. Neither the citation (which Gieve told me was the ‘most spectacular Dassera gift’ I could have ever given him) nor that ‘tip-top’ conversation. We had meant to continue it, deepen it, I had so many things that I wanted to know more about.
In January-February this year, Gieve mailed to say he would love to take our plan forward, to have that in-depth discussion and get that long-deferred long interview down, whenever I could make the time. The fact that I could not make the time is a regret that I will not get over. His kind words in the last email (in May) saying he absolutely understood if I had too much to handle already should console me. But they don’t. Not yet. Maybe never. And so, I return to the poems. To the things we did speak about.
MOVEMENT // STILLNESS.
Gieve’s way of knowing the world through poetry was never static. As his lines moved, the mind moved. And yet, how calm, how calming the words, ‘be still long enough and it may trace us to a level’. Between stillness and movement, I marvelled at the way he gauged the distance needed in order to translate ‘reality’ into poetry. He never simply reported it—he balanced the centripetal/centrifugal movements of his mind while maintaining its centre of gravity firmly in the real. Through an immersion in chaotic outer movements, he was able to bring those ‘finely shaded’, finely organised ‘inner movements’ to the light. I’m thinking here of a poem like ‘From Bombay Central’ where the jostle of riding cheek-by-jowl with humanity is accompanied by an inner silence:
I sink back into my hard wooden
Third-class seat, buffered by
This odour, as by a divine cushion.
And do not suspect that this ride
Will be for me the beginning of a meditation
On the nature of truth and beauty.
For me, Gieve’s was a particular poetics of empathy as a function of looking. A.K. Ramanujan, with whom he had such a special friendship wrote ‘Watch your step, sight may strike you blind in unexpected places’. Gieve looked closely, tenderly and unflinchingly at the brutalities and tortures of the world—and refused to go blind. How did he sustain the act of looking?
COMMUNITY // COLLABORATION
In his poems, the flesh was often where the poem was born. The poem called ‘Cord-cutting’ is about birthing a child. Equally it is about looking keenly even as you ‘divide your eyes and try to capture an altered feature’.
That dividing of the eyes—a kind of singular two-fold attention—was at the heart of his two-fold commitment as a lifelong practitioner of poetry: the poet as individual artist, the poet as part of a community.
|Gieve Patel (fourth from right) after the Hope Street Poets reading, 2014.|
In Bombay, that participation was not limited to the poetry community. Apart from very vivid memories of Gieve reading, listening and engaging thoughtfully and wittily, at numerous poetry gatherings over the years, I have very fond memories of Gieve travelling all the way to Juhu to see the films my husband was screening at Prithvi theatre—Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, Derek Jarman’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and The Tempest, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.
He was always receptive, endlessly absorbent. While trawling through old emails as a way of shoring up grief, I found an exchange on Russian translators that dates back to July 2016. We had been talking of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and while he admitted to being a ‘creature of habit’ who might prefer to re-read Constance Garnett, perhaps it was time to be ‘adventurous’ and try out the zip and zing of the Richard Pevear-Larissa Volokhonsky duo that I had told him about.
When he had his solo show at Gallerie Mirchandani-Steinerucke in January 2017, he invited not just my husband and I, but my parents as well, not forgetting to add: ‘alas, there is no lift, and it is a steep climb’. A tiny detail that made all the difference: the climb would be impossible for my father with his heart condition, and knowing just how long the schlep into town is for us from Thane, Gieve wouldn’t have wanted my dad to make that trip for nothing. Thoughtful and considerate, ever the gentleman, he equally relished ‘shenanigans’ (a favourite word) and revelled in a playful wickedness.
MISCHIEF // IRREVERENCE
The poet as mischief-maker is not often appreciated. Evident in poems like ‘Carrying bras and panties to the NCPA’, I love the way his poems can also play tricks on those of us who would rather both poet and reader be seen as perpetually sober and solemn human beings! Never a ‘believer’ in the conventional sense, who but Gieve could have written:
A Variation on St. Teresa
Whenever You withdraw
only a little way from me I
fall to the ground.
I wait upon
the strings You hold. In
this equation whatever
to make of love? And
of any independent
performance of a glorious
kind? My limbs
at best may be infused
by an outer force; and so
I await Your storms: screaming
seas, ripping gales, clouds
tumbled across the mouths of valleys
spewing lightning, with trees
shaken like rattles
in a child’s fist!
These then, at last, do move me.
Yes, I am moved,
indeed I am, I am.
As are we, with him. There is a turning point in the poem—as there may well be in life—which is not amplified into epiphany, but simply acknowledged as mystery. In a poem like the one below, which broaches the question of ‘God’, there is his trademark humour:
In the beginning
it is difficult
even to say,
one is so out of practice.
Like lisping in public
Gieve’s relationship with the sacred and the profane hinged on that turning point, creating a door we could swivel ourselves through. In his translations of the seventeenth-century Gujarati mystic Akho (or Akha Mahadev) his irreverence makes a case for a different kind of faith—one that is scathing in its exposure of hypocrisies:
His acquaintance with Hari—nil.
But he sits decked in ochre,
guru’s garb pulled from a bag of tricks.
As snake goes visiting fellow reptile’s den,
disciples saunter in
to exchange a lick on the mouth with him,
then slither homeward again.
Too many such gurus in the world!
Small chance, says Akha,
they could give you a hand,
reach you across.
Turban tilted rakishly
to hide the bald spot,
but how will that mask
the godlessness in your heart?
Such dandy twirled whiskers!
Such fancy tripping speech!
Fool! Death tomorrow
thumps on a slackened drum.
Your charade goes poof,
a miserable fart.
Akha says: Rotted doors
Bhakti without Knowledge:
a dog barks when he hears
each howling after the other
in a rhapsody of belief.
Has someone cared to ask
who’s seen the thief?
So claim what you will
to have known or learned.
Akha says: You will go wrong
With scalpel gaze and palpable touch, with a single phrase like ‘the skin is soul-deep’, Gieve could subvert our notions of depth and surface and bring the body back into our contemplation of the spirit.
I last met him on the 15th of September, a precious appointment at Hinduja Hospital made possible by his daughter whose phone the call came from. Expecting Avaan’s voice, I was blown away by Gieve’s voice instead, chipper as ever, piping “Guess who?” It was he who said, you can come today, any time, a visitor’s pass would be left for me at reception. I went. Rather I flew. There he was, small and bundled under the covers. I dared not breathe. He sat up, coughing, and slightly shivery. He asked for a sweater. And there it was, the grey sweater, being tenderly draped around his shoulders by Avaan. “I know that sweater!” I found myself saying, and suddenly all three of us were laughing. I had been tense as a trip-wire, wary of wearing him out, conscious that my need to see him was far greater than any help I might extend. In minutes, Gieve had defused that tension, turning that hospital room into a drawing room, intimate and expansive, introducing me to his doctor as a friend and a poet, a gracious host who made me feel at home.
He asks about my husband. He speaks of how he can see the sky from his bed. His hospital clothes are spotless white. Before I leave, I do something I never do, not even with my parents. I touch his feet. Outside, I look at the sky, up at the building, across the waves to Worli Sealink. It is, I know, the first and last pranam. Pain lifts, sorrow descends. A profound trickster, a profane monk, Gieve’s time may be up on this earth. But not in the minds and hearts of each one of us who loved him and his work.
When it’s time then
to pack up,
to say goodbye,
I would like
to the Thither .. ha!—
Indian Railways: a
with open windows
on a day
All poems reproduced from the Collected Poems of Gieve Patel (Poetrywala, 2017)
A short version of this tribute first appeared in The National Herald