In Keki N Daruwalla, you instantly identify the makings of a writer — a love for literature, travel, wit and the ability to laugh at himself. At a session to recite his poems, he quickly abandons the mike, restlessness evident in his persona, taking instead to move about freely on the stage and narrate lines from his works of verse and prose.
At the 4th Chandigarh Festival of Letters and 12th International Melow Conference that began at Panjab University on Friday, Keki was the first to hold an interactive session on his writings of almost three decades. The annual programme is organised by the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi and Panjab University. “One doesn’t often get asked over,” he quips, before beginning with Prayer on January 30, a poem in which he expressed hope for love to sustain in a country filled with hatred.
Born in Loni, Burhanpur (Pakistan), the 76-year-old prefers to tell you he is “from nowhere”. With his father being a professor, Keki moved from Junagarh to Rampur and later Lyallpur. “My school education was in a shambles,” he states. Those years were to later inspire a poem titled Childhood.
When in school, Keki was the proverbial jack of all trades — the captain of his school cricket team, a student union leader, an active dramatics participant and of course, a poet in the making. Having come to India later, he completed master’s degree in English Literature from Government College, Ludhiana, and soon joined the IPS (Indian Police Service). However, Keki’s devotion to his two great loves — his job and poetry — saw him through what is purported to be a tough job. He manages to surprise you again when he confesses that his stint in the police was “tough, but enjoyable”.
The 1958-batch IPS officer who retired as additional director in RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) says, “I didn’t face any political pressure.”
As a poet, the self-confessed “old classicist” has over 12 books to his credit, as a result of which he won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984 for his collection of poems, The Keeper of the Dead, and a Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987. The author has turned his attention to fiction in the past seven years, with his book, For Pepper and Christ, published in 2009.
Indeed, he doesn’t think much of modern day poets in India. “You need to have your basics right to pen a poem. In England, anyone could write a sonnet, but not here!” he exclaims. In any case, “it’s tough for poets”, in Keki’s words, what with not many publishers evincing interest in printing poetry.
In a country with an ever-growing number of writers in English, Keki’s observations are hardly sympathetic, and he lays the blame squarely on the reader. “The Indian reader is awful, because there is no intellectual stamina anymore,” he says, adding they are a “fairly rotten bunch” and laughs heartily. The twitter and Facebook-loving generation “is in a wild race to save time,” he says, and remarks with a glint in his eye, “But, I’m in no hurry.”
The writer is reminded of some of his friends’ statements, especially about “an immature public on the lower threshold of intellect”, and one who advised him to “not read Indian writers in English except for two, since they are third-class mindsets.” Of course, Keki wouldn’t name them, for he “doesn’t want to turn into another Ashis Nandy.” He then sighs and asks, his infectious wicked laughter now gone, “Par kijiyega kya?”
In his current position as a member of the National Commission for Minorities, Keki says he is “trying to ensure that the police doesn’t stay anti-minority.”
As for his fiction of the future, the writer has two projects up his sleeves, a book called Islands, which “could be either human (islands) or the real ones, and another on Parsis.
Are roots finally calling? “Well, it’ll have factual details about Junagarh, which I have a lot to write about. The diminishing number of the Parsi community and the fact that our children are not studying as much as they should, will also find mention. But, it’ll be a work of fiction,” promises the Delhi-based writer.