Manohar Shetty is a senior poet with nine collections of published poems, including Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017). A Guarded Space (1981) and Domestic Creatures (1994) are among his much acclaimed poetry collections. As an editor, he is well known for his books of Goan short stories. Shetty made his mark as a poet in Mumbai writing verses that held up a mirror to society and to urban life.
The poet as a chronicler of society is perhaps best exemplified in the slice-of-life oeuvre of Nissim Ezekiel, who can be said to have started the trend of socially conscious poetry among Indian English poets. Ezekiel’s “Background, Casually”, “Jewish Wedding in Bombay”, “Night of the Scorpion”, or “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa TS” are examples of this, and it is to this tradition that Manohar Shetty belongs.
To get a taste of how other poets look at Shetty, here is a quote from the poem “Deathwish” by Vivek Narayanan, poet and professor at George Mason University: “I don’t mind being called poetically shitty/ in a note from Manohar Shetty.”
I have often wondered about poets who bring out new anthologies after the publication of their collected works because this says something about the continuing development of their poetic voice. Borderlines is interesting in this regard. In a poem titled “Delicacy (Found poem)”, Manohar Shetty says: “We eat everything that breathes,/ Even the armour-plated/ Pangolin”, although “we don’t taste/ The seventy million/ Ants and termites” that the pangolin consumes every year.
Indirectly, those ants and termites “enhance” the human pleasure of eating, and this points to the food chain and suggests that all the ingredients that go into the meat we eat may not be palatable to the human mind. While this poem does not seem like an appeal for vegetarianism, it does bring out the contradictions of being human.
Another poem, “Night Shift”, begins with the lines: “The moon waxes on/ In my cracked rear-view mirror.” The poem, with its reference to different animals, is so subtle that one misses its meaning on the first reading. In the megapolis, whether Mumbai or any other, “Hidden in plain sight/ Are vengeful snakes in the grass.” When the speaker says “A fox at a zebra crossing/ Zeroes in on a rabbit”, it becomes clear that he is commenting on the insensitised city dweller.
“He is not professing any party affiliation, just making “cocktails” and leaving them there for the reader to sip on and ponder over.”
He is leaving his lover behind: he hears “Her parting shot and the mocking/ Hoot of a luxury liner”. For the “armed night watchman”, who was guarding her mansion, the “long night shift is over”, but the speaker’s “night shift” has just begun as the morning sun pierces the darkness. The speaker’s experience of life is akin to a “long night shift”.
- Manohar Shetty made his mark as a poet in Mumbai writing verses that held up a mirror to society and to urban life
- His latest collection brings out the contradictions of being human
- The collection is full of poetic gems one can go back to repeatedly
There is a fascinating poem, “Ctrl Alt”, its title reflective of the technological reality we live in, perhaps unwillingly. The poet is trapped within the confines of computer keys. He says: “I’ve long missed the boat to/ A shore filled with real people,/ People setting out to an/ Undiscovered island.”
“I have no sense of adventure left,” he laments as he reflects on his current existence: the only adventure is “here on this screen”. He obeys the commands of the different characters on the keyboard in “My own kind of braille”.
The poem ends with “I escape back to control and home”, the pun on “home” suggesting the prison house of computing, social media, and technology. The poem, with its ominous undertone, reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, where, in a futuristic world, billboards are a couple of miles long and television screens scream from three walls of the protagonist’s house.
“Cocktails” is about the melting pot that is India. To quote:
I thought his name was Mehta till
Told (meaningfully) it was Mushtaq,
I felt a closer bond with him then,
More so when he introduced me
To his wife Sita whose brother Bharat
Was married to Clara D’Silva
From Goa, her older sister
To Amarjit Singh from Patiala. (p. 39)
Later in the poem, he mentions “her first cousin Agnelo”, who had celebrated “his tenth wedding anniversary” with Meher Pestonji; their sons were “Samuel and Isaac”. By pointing at this mix of different religious communities through relationships and by titling the poem “Cocktails”, Shetty is making a pertinent point ever so gently. He is not professing any party affiliation, just making “cocktails” and leaving them there for the reader to sip on and ponder over.
Borderlines ought to be on your bookshelf so you can dog-ear some pages, so you can underline some poems and read them repeatedly. There are quite a few poetic gems in the book other than the ones I have referred to.
Roomy Naqvy teaches English literature at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. He is also a poet, translator, and recipient of the Katha Translation Award 1996 (Gujarati).