This article is a review/short analysis of the award-winning poem Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar. Jejuri is a small sleepy temple town in the state of Maharashtra and the location/subject of this poem.
As the farmer’s plough cuts through the earth, leaving behind zig-zag furrows in preparation for a new life, it becomes a ritual—-a celebration of life itself. Similarly, the poet’s pen in moving across the barren paper leaves behind lines that become another ritual and celebration of life—-Poetry. Such is the connection of poetry to life that the Poet celebrates as he sings ‘Of life immense in passion, pulse and power/Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine’
Arun Kolatkar (1932 – 2004)
Arun Balakrishna Kolatkar celebrates such a timeless spirit of immense and eternal life in Jejuri(1976), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977 is a poem describing a visit to a temple town of the same name. Kolatkar, with his acute powers of observation leaves behind a series of impressions through swift, powerful and colourful strokes of his pen. In spite of his half mocking tone, he is sensitive to the nuances of life that a temple-town like Jejuri has to offer. His satire humours, but rarely bites.
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Divided further into 31 shorter sections, the poem reads like a fragmented guidebook in verse. It begins with a description of the bus on the way to Jejuri. That Jejuri is not a much sought after place is apparent from the tarpaulin covered state bus and the ordinary rural folk who travel in it. Kolatkar’s visitor is presented as a romantic city-dwelling adventurer who yearns for a view of the real country life and gets bored as all he gets to see is his own divided reflection in the spectacles worn by an old man sitting opposite him. The bus becomes a representative of the two different Indias as nowhere the urban visitor is seen with his senior country bred co-passenger.
In the second section, the scene shifts to a priest in the temple town eagerly awaiting the arrival of the bus. His businesslike urgency which betrays his religious airs probably stems back to the awareness that this bus is his only source of livelihood. The unusual feline imagery at the end of this section is indicative both of the animal joy that the priest experiences at the sight of his prey as well as a reflection of his daily struggle for existence.
The third section ‘Heart of Ruin’ is an unflattering of a dilapidated temple once dedicated to Hanuman (Maruti), but now serving as the home of a mongrel bitch and her puppies. In Kolatkar’s version of events, every object, including a broken collection box, becomes animated. Every trivial event assumes cosmic significance. Stories are created where there were none. The final couplet in the section:
No more a place of worship this place
Is nothing less than the house of god.
is indicative of the idea that dominates the rest of the poem. Nowhere in the poem is Kolatkar’s sympathies and sensitivity obscured by his mock irreverence and questioning spirit. The picture of ruin and neglect yet without a tinge of grief or haunting nostalgia, is typical of Kolatkar’s attitude throughout the poem.
In the following sections, objects like a broken pipe, an unhinged door acquire lives of their own, as though in anticipation of the next section ‘Chaitanya’:
sweet as grapes
are the stones of jejuri
he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods
‘Chaitanya’ may stand for universal consciousness or allude to the 15th century Bhakti preacher who saw life even in the inanimate and could communicate even with stones. This fragment is typical of the entire poem where we stumble upon several stories and legends which stand on their own as independent poems as well as integrate smoothly with the main flow. In this first of the many legends that Kolatkar introduces, he rebels against institutionalised religion and celebrates the spirit of a primitive animistic pre-Brahminical Hinduism—where every animate being and inanimate object is regarded with reverence and becomes an object of worship—a spirit, that forms the backbone of every religion but slowly erodes away as institutionalisation seeps in.
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The next section ‘A Low Temple’ takes the visitor into the darkness of a temple where faith and belief, and doubt and scepticism battle each other as the priest insists that the eighteen-armed goddess actually has eight arms. The reader wonders if it is the foolish obstinacy of the priest or the unshakeable faith of the believer that Kolatkar is highlighting. Finally the rational sceptic comes out to smoke and watches the traces of a checker-board (used for gambling) drawn on the back of a twenty feet tortoise being erased under the feet of playing children.
The following section introduces another legend centred around a horse-shoe shaped depression in a rock about Khandoba, the presiding deity at Jejuri, who leaped from that rock on his horse as he carried his wife with him. This is a legend that the true believer reveres and the sceptic doubts. The narrator, however, betrays no allegiance to either party.
In the next section the casual pleasure-seeking city-bred tourist becomes a character in Manohar, the Marathi equivalent of a commoner. Manohar is at the most pleasantly surprised and fails to grasp the essence and meaning of life in this temple town. It is also a reminder of the fact that that the dividing line between a temple and cow-shed is very thin at Jejuri. The following section finds the visitor face to face with an old woman haggling for a fifty paise coin. After a few attempts of his attempts at escaping, it becomes impossible to ignore her when she asks:
What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?
This question throws up a new world before the visitor; he feels the hills crack and the sky fall around him as he ends up parting with the change, unable to confront the starkness of the question posed by a the wily beggar-woman.
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Several other legends follow like ‘Chaitanya’, ‘Anjamil and the Tigers’ etc, along with songs, rituals, trivia and anecdotes. The penultimate section, ‘Between Jejuri and the Railway Station’ presents a scene different in mood from the rest of the poem— ‘A dozen cocks and hens in a field of Jawar/ In a kind of harvest dance’. This primeval vigour and joy of life is absent in the rest of the poem. The last section of the poem ‘The Railway Station’ finally gives vent to an expression of despair and remorse which is otherwise not to be found in the poem. The poem is thus a closely patterned on the motif of a quest with the arrival, exploration and finally impending departure.