Bombay and the Beats: Bridging Two Cities Through Their Poets
Saranya Subramanian on the Links Between Two Movements
Stepping outside my home, whether in Bombay or San Francisco, is like falling down a rabbit hole; there is always so much happening, so much movement and music. The two cities are so similar: both are surrounded by water, both boast cosmopolitan cultures, and both have been nurturing poetry for centuries.
While they may be plagued by corporatization at present, they were once moulded by poets who added color and perspective to the drudgery of concrete life. An MFA took me from India’s financial capital to the USA’s tech one; in searching for poetry, I reached San Francisco.
The 20th-century “Bombay Poets,” a contentious yet convenient term, created an Indian language that I felt, for the first time, was mine. Nissim Ezekiel’s explorations of mundane life, Eunice de Souza’s sharp lyricism, Arun Kolatkar’s irreverent verses, Adil Jussawalla’s contemplative and witty poems, Gieve Patel’s visceral lines, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s subversive style and form––among others––handed me an entire poetic vocabulary. India the “nation state” was being formed, and local literature grew popular. Kamala Das held soirees in her Marine Drive apartment. Jayanta Mahapatra was published by Clearing House. Anjali Nerlekar quotes Anjum Hasan in her book, Bombay Modern, who said there was an “assumption of thinking about Bombay when thinking about English Indian poetry.” In so many ways, poetry in Bombay was a magnetic force nobody could resist.
The 20th-century Beat poets created a language that broke all norms; what grammar, proper English, and even poetry, meant was entirely rewritten. During the latter half of the 20th century, the USA was at its hegemonic height—preoccupied with the Cold War and nationalist campaigns—and San Francisco became the centre for all things anti-war and anti-establishment. While many of the poets weren’t necessarily from San Francisco, they returned to the city in physical and literary forms, crystallizing their connection with what Lawrence Ferlinghetti called the “far out city on the left-side of the world” with their poetics: Allen Ginsberg’s dissidence, Dianne di Prima’s experimental form, Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Gary Snyder’s flexible verse, and Joanne Kyger’s expansive language, among others.
These two anti-establishment literary movements thrived at a time when both cities faced political conflict and oppression. Anjali Nerlekar’s “satthotari” is the perfect term to describe the post-1960s period of world literature: global, but irreducibly local. She writes that “satthotari” is what “connects the multiple rebellions of [the Bombay Poets] in English and Marathi to the worldwide agitations in the 1950s and 60s (the Beats in the United States).” In Maharashtra, the satthotari era was ridden with sectarian violence. As the Samyukta Maharashtra movement was gaining power, Shiv Sena strived to establish a monolingual state that was increasingly hostile to outsiders. Yet simultaneously, the Sahitya Akademi was promoting multilingualism by translating progressive, anti-brahminical, anti-communal writers, thus increasing their accessibility. Bombay may have become Mumbai, but the best literature from this time, I believe, belongs to the former.I fight nostalgia by living two lives, reading poets from both my homes, time travelling to a previous century.
During the 50s, meanwhile, San Francisco’s mayor George Christopher hired Justin Herman to redevelop the city and county. Herman aggressively spearheaded racist and classist campaigns that tore down working class, non-white neighbourhoods, essentially enacting eminent domain wherever necessary. Black residents were forced to move to the outskirts of the city—even Oakland—thus becoming victims of 20th-century segregation and displacement. But San Francisco also became the birthplace of the hippie movement.
In 1953, Ferlinghetti founded City Lights, the iconic paperback bookstore which became a lighthouse for marginalised voices and political poets. Beat Poetry was frank about sexual liberation, queer rights, anti-war rhetoric and racial equality.
Two years after the paperback store was established, Ferlinghetti began the esteemed City Lights Publishers with the Pocket Poets series, which has published more than 200 titles in print. Having published Howl by Allen Ginsberg, City Lights soon acquired a global readership. In India, Clearing House found a name as a reputed publishing collective, joining others in the field such as the Writer’s Workshop in Calcutta. Founded in 1975 by Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and Arun Kolatkar, it was a one-of-a-kind poets’ collective.
Clearing House later gave rise to Newground Press, spearheaded by the next generation of Bombay Poets: Melanie Silgardo, Rahul de Gama Rose, and Santan Rodrigues. And so thrived an era of independent publishing houses, as poets set out to create what publishers had previously deemed unworthy. In their respective cities, Clearing House and City Lights offered sanctuaries of freedom as well as more chances for poets to meet.
On reading the Hungryalists published in the City Lights journal Kulchur, Carl Weissner invited Indian poets to submit to his little magazine, Klacto. Little magazines in India were, of course, propelled by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (ezra, damn you), whose readers followed Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, and Kulchur was widely circulated amongst them. AK Mehrotra told me in an email exchange: “Re the Beats, I never met any of them but surely some of my own poems would not have been written at all were it not for Ginsberg. The one that comes to mind immediately is ‘Bharatmata: A Prayer’ written around 1966 and first published by ezra-fakir press, which is the small press I ran from Mulund, Bombay, for two years.”
The Beats were everywhere, and everyone was reading them. Adil Jussawalla said to me in an email, “I tried to write as freely as the Beats did during the early 60s but found what I wrote weren’t poems. But you may find traces of them in my poem ‘Song of a Hired Man.’”
And by the 1960s, a portal had been established between the Bombay and Beat poets. Arun Kolatkar translated Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” into Marathi for Ashok Shahane’s magazine, Aso. Kolatkar’s Bhijaki Vahi reads as a poetic philippic that draws from Ginsberg, as Nerlekar points out. Apart from also publishing Orlovsky in English, Shahane also wrote a poem for the magazine Timba, which mocked overzealous religious personalities by comparing the Beats and Hollywood: “the world is a dream / the Shankaracharya has said / as Allen reported / Arjun was the last man / and maybe also Burt Lancaster.’” Ginsberg acknowledged Ashok Shahane in The Fall of America, published by City Lights.
These parallels do not end on paper. In 1962, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, and Allen Ginsberg travelled across India. In Bombay, with Kolatkar, Shahane, and Ezekiel, they ended up on Ebrahim Alkazi’s terrace on April 14, where Ginsberg read “Kaddish” for the first time. Adil Jussawalla published his account of this in Time Out Mumbai in 2008: “I was deeply affected by the reading and others in the audience were too. It’s a lacerating, painfully honest piece of writing and reading it again, now, it’s hard to believe that Ginsberg could have read it through that evening without stumbling, without choking.”
Later that evening, when they gathered at Nissim Ezekiel’s, Jussawalla remembered how after they read their poems, “Orlovsky leaned over to [him] and said ‘If we were gangster poets we’d shoot you. Not too aggressively but not light-heartedly either.’ The Beats were global proselytisers, their message: Stop writing formal verse. Be like us.”
On another occasion, the poets unexpectedly found themselves at Times of India editor Sham Lal’s party. Laetitia Zecchini sheds light on this in her book Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India:
Orlovsky, Ginsberg, Shahane and Kolatkar had apparently started the evening at Bombelli’s, a popular Swiss cafe in Churchgate. Shahane and Kolatkar decided to gate-crash Sham Lal’s party, where a recitation of Urdu poetry was scheduled. After Urdu poets had recited their verse, Ginsberg suddenly shot up, claiming that he also had a ghazal and wanted to know what they thought of the following line. Pulling up his shirt and showing his stomach, he declaimed: ‘whenever I go out, I put my belt on / because I know I own everything under it.’ Part of the audience was offended. Ginsberg, Kolatkar and Shahane walked out, presumably delighted with themselves and with the performance!
The meetings did not end here. In 1986, Arun Kolatkar read his Marathi and English poems at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics’ Festival of India celebrations, where some Beat poets were in the audience. Of course, this wasn’t their final interaction; Zecchini writes how an unpublished text on the 1989 World Poetry Festival in Bhopal describes Allen Ginsberg’s foundational importance to Kolatkar’s writing.Is it possible to walk a city into its past? I feel like that’s what I’m constantly trying to do: walk my cities back into being the poetic centers of anti-establishment they once were.
Although the Beats had international influence, I resist the notion that poetry travelled from the USA to India. If anything, all these parallels between the Bombay and Beat poets prove the consistent return to South Asian writers. “The Beats, important and influential as they still are, need a fresh look,” Adil Jussawalla pointed out to me. This essay is not an attempt to map a unidirectional movement of poetics; it is an analysis of two cities and two groups of writers who happened to coexist during the latter half of the twentieth century. And, in classic millennial fashion, it is done through a self-centered lens. Lest you forget, this is about me.
Is it possible to walk a city into its past? I feel like that’s what I’m constantly trying to do: walk my cities back into being the poetic centers of anti-establishment they once were. Of course, they also struggled with urban poverty, homelessness, mass industrialization, international wars, and overbearing governments. Not much has changed.
Today, it’s hard to ignore the absolute filth piled up on Bombay’s streets, blistering and melting in the island’s humidity—as much as developers building tall glass buildings might like us to. San Francisco is colorful and technologically advanced, but just as exclusionary, as though the rise of IT towers and sleek cafes is directly proportional to increasing homelessness. In both cities, the ghoulish incursion of wealth through capital and industry has caused unimaginable gentrification, thus answering Ferlinghetti’s urgent question, “What destroys the poetry of a city?”
Still, I glamourize a past I never knew: In Kala Ghoda, I recreate a long-gone Samovar Cafe in the Jehangir Art Gallery’s new wing and Wayside Inn where a Punjab Grill now stands. In San Francisco, I walk between City Lights and Vesuvio; I begin my Saturday mornings with a coffee at Cafe Trieste. These brief moments distract me from modern urban life.
Meanwhile, I am addicted to walking around, avidly searching for the poet’s city. The poet’s city is alive to every single living being, mourning tragedies and acknowledging realities that are otherwise tuned out amid urban noise. It celebrates the people who have remained despite institutional efforts to drive them out. The poet’s city is an inclusive one; watermelon carts, pinwheels, stray animals, giant Chinese dragons and older populations are given the space they deserve, almost as though the poet is nodding at them, saying, “I see you.” And don’t we all just want to be seen?
I am at Clay Street & Grant Avenue waiting for the 1; I am at Century Bazaar waiting for the 28; I am somewhere in the Arabian sea, somewhere in the Pacific ocean, waiting to reach some sort of land, some kind of destination. I have become a professional teleporter splintered between two time zones. Forever walking two homes, nursing my dysplasia-ridden knees, I fight nostalgia by living two lives, reading poets from both my homes, time traveling to a previous century.
I fight the notion of “leaving” by instead bridging two ports. I am constantly walking this bridge, recreating absent cities, interacting with absent people. On this bridge, Bombay and San Francisco have collided, merged, crashed, layered over each other, pancaked into an island that is mine alone. Here, Ferlinghetti’s idea of a poet’s city thrives, a “last frontier” where poets are found “dancing on the edge of the world.” Here, in this space of in-betweenness, Bombay’s humid air and San Francisco’s ubiquitous fog cover the land in a constant sea breeze. Here, I have become Arun Kolatkar’s Pi-dog from Kala Ghoda Poems, and I orchestrate this urbanity to my liking. “As I play, / the city slowly reconstructs itself, / stone by numbered stone.”