Tribute: Kersy Katrak


December 9, 2008

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Art | Books | Individuals

Poet of the soul


As a poet Kersy Katrak did not get his due, but his poetry had yet to be fully explored and articulated when he died.

Katrak’s poetry blends the serious with the laconic and comic, the spirit with the sexual.

On New Year’s Eve last year, I telephoned Kersy Katrak, friend and poet. His long-time Jeeves told me “sahib tho off thai gaya”, the Gujarati way of saying someone has kicked the bucket.

I knew he was ill. He had even told me once that what he needed was another body. Still I was shocked. The thought of death is tucked away into some remote limbo of the future in our minds. When it actually happens, it is always a jolt.

I first met him and his wife Usha (Nee Patel) in 1966 when they came to Ranikhet along with Shyam and Neera Benegal. I had heard how tremendously well they had acted on the stage, Usha as Medea and Kersy as Jason. My brother told me he had got gooseflesh watching the play by Euripides.

I was living in a wilderness and here were people from Bombay (mercifully not Mumbai then) who were au fait with events on the literary scene. Kersy was a brilliant conversationalist. I was introduced to the intrepid A.D. Gorwala’s magazine, Opinion, as forthright, bold and often anti-government as a journal could be. I started sending poems there, receiving 50 bucks for each poem. (This came in handy for even after eight years service my salary was in three digits.)

Myth and magic

Kersy was into things of the soul, sometimes bordering on the occult. He was into myth and archetypes, wand and pentacle, Gurdjieff and Nostradamus, Robert Graves (The White Goddess), Erich Neumann (The Great Mother), Joseph Campbell (The Mask of God). He was into Lamas and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

When I went to Bombay I visited him in his splendid flat in Bakhtawar (Colaba) , dined at his splendid table, borrowed his books and poured over them. I, always a decent plodder, made notes. Looking them up now I find I borrowed books on Orphic Mysteries, The Eleusian Mysteries, Manichaeism, Mithraism et al. When he went for his initiation at Ashish Da’s Mirtola Ashram he stayed with us. His Guru, Madhav Ashish, meant a lot to him As long as his physique allowed, he stayed at the Ashram. So did Usha.

It was Kersy who brought to my notice Auden’s jingle: “Thou shallt not be on friendly terms/with guys in advertising firms.” He was an icon in the advertising world. He and, strangely enough, Arun Kolatkar collaborated often. He had set up the MCM (Mass Communication and Marketing) when he was just 29.

Anand Halve wrote on an advertising portal: “It was Kersy’s view of advertising as a business of ideas, and that of exhilarating exciting creative expression as the celebration of the idea, that attracted the most extraordinary collection of advertising genius ever found under one roof in India.”

Kersy’s excellent first book, A Journal of the Way (1969) was his best. I have always wondered how in his next three volumes he couldn’t improve upon the Journal. Unknowingly he answers the question himself in his ‘New Year’s Poem’(1961):

“To mimic the simplicity of stone/ And find a metaphor for sky and star,/ To salvage coherence from the sea/ I must seek the hard interior of my bone./ But I am young and cannot find the words/ That are my own.”

He became casual in his writing and told me that unless one had something very profound to say, where was the point in writing verse? The attitude slowed his poetry down.

Katrak’s poetry blends the serious with the laconic and comic, the spirit with the sexual.

Take his “ legy for Jacob Epstein.” He visits the Tate Gallery with ‘a girl in red’ not interested in art, walks ‘among the masterpieces aimlessly/Till one stopped me.—‘The Visitation’ Epstein’s profound/And solitary Virgin, acquiescent to the confronting /angel’s will./The lifted dreaming eyes by extension postulating/The presence of some high invisible hill/ Of spirit, shook for an instant my carnal mind./But someone squeezed my hand. So turning to the girl in red/And fondling casually her left and smaller breast,/My thoughts slipped back from Epstein into bed./Remembering now this slight and tasteless truth,/Remembering the girl and the Virgin’s solitary head,/I mourn the going of my own brief youth/As I mourn Epstein dead.

I had written earlier, “Katrak’s forte is the long reflecting poem, stemming from a personal experience, ending up with an intense scrutiny of personal motives and reactions to the event. … He constantly attempts to sound depths, to get to the bone of the matter.”

Getting to the bone was an obsession. “The bone prevails I have found this./The flesh exists upon it, breeds/Proliferates, turns to itself for love:/Creates its bright arterial jungle and undergrowth of nerve/ Pap, genital and thigh/suffers its own agony and dies./Somewhere beneath/Interior and unlit, the bone remains/ Inexorably white.” (“Malabar Hill”). The bone stood for the core and meaning of life for him.

Ardent quest

It comes through in poem after poem, his ardent quest to seek a centre for his life — between spirit and flesh, Mirtola and Bombay, the outer world of riots and blood (“the visible world of offices and whores”) and the inner world of love. In his poem “Journey to the Winter Solstice” addressed to me, he wrote: “We feel the need for roots, the need to summon/The larger resources of the spirit…”

Katrak was ordained as a proper priest, though he declared that Parsis “don’t have a meaningful religion”. Yet his faith in the central Zoroastrian doctrine of the perpetual fight between good and evil is evident.

He felt “compelled to see even in love the old/Powers that divide the world/Half and half.” In some poems like the one on Nostradamus the lurking fear of something terrible befalling the world is evident.

In “Wedding Night” poem he expresses his fears: “A hard expedient star/Rules our uneasy bed/with missile, lust and war:/Our children will be dead.”

The answer to these fears is to be found in love. In poem after poem he celebrates love in the abstract, and conjugal love in the concrete. He is almost Spenserian in his celebration of love. “Let vigilance and will/Husband love until/within the married grace/We cultivate our days.”

As a poet he did not get his due, but then his poetry had yet to be fully explored and articulated. With age and steady practice he would have arrived at his centre.

But he abandoned poetry rather early for the spirit (the ashram) and his bread (advertising). Along with Dom and Nissim and Arun, he will be missed. Alone, with no girl in red beside me, I can still claim to mourn his absence.