Celebrated poet Keki N. Daruwalla talks about his newest collection “Fire Altar” and his interest in history and myth
Article by B. Bhattacharya | The Hindu
Not all historians are trustworthy. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great and the king of the Persian Empire in the 6th Century B.C., was at the receiving end of the whimsy of one such historian – Herodotus. In his The Histories, Herodotus claimed that Cambyses killed Apis, the bull-deity of Memphis, Egypt, and was seized thereafter by a madness which eventually brought about his downfall.
It has been proved however that not only could Cambyses not have killed Apis, he actually worshipped the bull’s carcass. In Keki Daruwalla’s latest collection Fire Altar (Harper Collins), the poet resurrects Cambyses so he can finally have his say against his chronicler.
“What is there in history? Any schmuck/ Can write it if he has an ear/ for tales of senile palace eunuchs./ I killed Apis? I was halfway through my campaign/ in Ethiopia when the bull died./ Clay tablets now could prove my claim.”
Daruwalla synthesises a great deal of Persian history and myth into verse, perhaps because, as another poem says, “a people’s past is only safe with bards”. There are poems that speak of, or as, Cyrus the Great, Tomyris, King Jamshed, who is said to have ruled for over a 1000 years, Firdausi, the author of “Shahnama”, the Persian book of kings, and Alexander, the Greek conqueror of Persia, the Arab invasion of Persia, the destruction of Zoroastrian fire temples, their persecution and subsequent migration.
While these are all poems “slotted in the past”, and the poet need not have intended them as allegories, their resonance extends into our age. “If you are a practiced, old poet, and you are writing about the past, somewhere or the other what you’re writing will foreshadow the present,” says Daruwalla.
These poems were written over two decades ago, and almost entirely accidentally. Daruwalla had been approached in 1986 by a publishing firm to write a book on the Parsis. The book never took off, but he found himself glued to his copy of Herodotus, and subsequently Plutarch’s “The Malice of Herodotus”. This reading was supplemented by “Shahnama”, whose stories were with him from childhood. A trip to Iran proved the catalyst, and the poems were written between the years 1991-1993.
Although they were published in various journals – Jerusalem Review, The Warwick Review, Southerly, The Bombay Literary Review – a book wasn’t on the poet’s mind until recently. “I thought no one would be interested since it’s on Persian history. Once I had a reading at home. A very fine publisher was also here, and she asked me ‘why did you select this theme?’ That would have been the general response, so I didn’t bother…”
Daruwalla, whose collections include Under Orion, Apparition in April, Winter Poems, The Keeper of the Dead, Crossing of Rivers, Landscapes, A Summer of Tigers, Night River and The Mapmaker, has always had a keen interest in the historic and the mythic. He says, “I debunk myth a lot. Whether it is ‘We the Kauravas’ in the Collected Poems or ‘Dialogues with a Third Voice’ in my first collection Under Orion, I look at myth very rationally. Yet I know myth is very archetypal in the soul of man, in the belief of man. So you can’t fiddle too much with that, but at the same time you can talk about it, write about it an oblique manner, in an elliptical manner.”
In addition to narrative poems about the past, the collection also contains, in what has become a signature style of the poet, ruminations on sites and landscapes. Pasargade and Persepolis, the Capitals, at different times, of the Persian Empire, are the subjects of a sonnet sequence each. “The sonnets are a takeoff on the fact that there is hardly anything there now to aid your imagination as you try and telescope into the past,” he writes in his introduction.
In the first of the sonnets on Pasargade, the poet observes, “It is difficult to conjure up an entrance hall/ from the bull’s severed legs which you cannot find,/ or let two piers dictate a profound perspective,/ a colonnade etched only on the mind; to make a skeleton out of some bone splinter,/ an imperial precinct out of fluting columns,/ an icy age out of one solitary winter.”
Poets might eschew the rigours of rhyme, but for Daruwalla, as these lines demonstrate, the discipline has been rewarding. Although he feels he has no more poetry left in him, he takes forward his interest in sites and landscapes with a book of short stories on islands. It will be published in July.