Dom Moraes

Poet and writer who rejected a narrow cultural identity

Saturday 05 June 2004 00:00

When the poet Dom Moraes was a child, his parents - Frank, who became a great editor of the Times of India, and Beryl, daughter of the first Indian woman doctor and herself a successful pathologist - were committed nationalists.

Dominic Francis Moraes, poet, writer and journalist: born Bombay 19 July 1938; married 1961 Henrietta Bowler (née Abbott; marriage dissolved), 1963 Judith St John (deceased; one son); 1970 Leela Naidu (marriage dissolved); died Bombay 2 June 2004.

When the poet Dom Moraes was a child, his parents - Frank, who became a great editor of the Times of India, and Beryl, daughter of the first Indian woman doctor and herself a successful pathologist - were committed nationalists.

Their house in Bombay was frequented by people of every faith and class, all serving a single end: political and cultural independence. Dom Moraes remembered the odd assortment of persons, some recently released from prison, some hiding from the police, whom he encountered in the tall, cool passages of his childhood home. This was the inclusive culture he was heir to, and he remained alive to the ideal of an India independent in itself and to the cultural and spiritual freedom he experienced as a child.

Moraes became a writer of abiding importance, and also one of India's most enigmatic literary phenomena. He was a child prodigy who did not quite fulfil what well-wishers imagined his promise to have been. He became something significantly different. As poet and memoirist he rejected the ready, available categories which have propelled others of his countrymen into prominence abroad. Moraes evaded the domestic pressures of a narrowed nationalism and the temptations of fashionable ideological role-play. In the end he and his work answer to no one but himself. If his themes are sex, love and death, they are not as we find them among other poets.

He did write a readable life of Indira Gandhi ( Mrs Gandhi, 1980). But for the most part he pursued other subjects, some relating to or drawing upon his wide and various travels or his work for the United Nations, and some revisiting the early years, their traumas and epiphanies.

To some readers this seems an admirable achievement, against the cultural odds. He is not limited in subject-matter or theme to India or to the nowadays compulsory-seeming issues of "cultural identity". The facts of his nationality and ethnicity did not delimit or circumscribe his poetic world, and he never had the effrontery to "speak for" a constituency or to pretend to be an everyman. He was cured - by travel, by reading, and by some of the cruelties of his childhood experience - from the sentimentality of an easy, constrictive "belonging". His example itself has proved emancipating to a new generation of Indian writers.

He grew up unapologetically monoglot. "English is quite enough," he said to me when we first met to discuss his New and Selected Poems, eventually titled In Cinnamon Shade (2001). How quietly, yet how clearly he spoke, with a patrician correctness that bore lightly his serious learning. Even when he had imbibed rather a lot of his favourite tipple, whisky, and when he used the coarse diction he picked up in the Soho pubs where he supplemented his Oxford education, he retained a reassuring clarity of delivery and a kind of elaborate courtesy; only the volume and volubility seemed to increase.

Dom Moraes started writing verse in his earliest teens. One source of the hurt that leads to his kind of poetry was the decline of his mother into mental illness, a subject he touches on in his finest prose book, the early memoir My Son's Father (1968), the first of a trilogy which traces his growth. A doctor who could not cure herself, his mother was beautiful and lively, and then intensely depressed, demanding, possessive. Dom had played a part in her committal to an asylum and was pursued by a sense of guilt and of loss. He survived in the benign shadow of his father, who nurtured and encouraged him even if, at times, he seemed intimidating.

Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden visited Bombay when Dom Moraes was in his mid-teens and he heard them in performance. They were not the young poets he admired, but old, bent, lined. They were also generous to him. Auden looked, not unappreciatively, at his poems. Spender assured him he was a real poet, and when Moraes took up his studies at Jesus College, Oxford, he renewed acquaintance with Spender and with Henry Moore, becoming part, too, of the rich, irregular Soho culture of the time. It was there that he met Henrietta Bowler, a woman of remarkable beauty who sat for Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and later Maggi Hambling, and with whom he spent his undergraduate years, abandoning her suddenly and absolutely one day with the simple announcement that he was going out to buy a pack of cigarettes.

He was a serious smoker.

In 1970 he married thirdly the legendary Indian beauty, his childhood sweetheart who herself became Miss India, Leela Naidu. Her beauty was, he said, "a vocation".

His first book of poems appeared in 1957 and was dedicated to Henrietta. It was entitled A Beginning and the following year was awarded the Hawthornden Prize. Traditional in form and lush in its rhetoric, was this the work of a grandson of the Apocalypse? The marks of W.S. Graham, George Barker and Dylan Thomas were upon it. His development was a paced movement away from early excesses of diction and gesture, and then away from the dreamy romanticism that made him a seductive figure in his second book, Poems (1960). The ambiguously received John Nobody (1965) preceded a 17-year poetic silence.

The earliest poems he preserved in his New and Selected are wonderfully turned, with a technical proficiency which irked some English critics (notably Ian Hamilton) and some Indians who thought Moraes had sold out to English culture. The poems that followed the mute years are, if anything, technically even more proficient, but technique is masked, the invention bolder, the themes more of a challenge.

In the end he wrote over 20 books of prose, the most distinctive among them being his memoirs, and eight books of poems.

Two weeks ago I received from him a new suite of poems for P.N. Review. He was still at work, and how well he was writing. He had had cancer for three years. Indeed, when he came to the Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival in Manchester last year, he told me it would be his last visit to his beloved England. He travelled with his partner and collaborator Sarayu Srivatsa and his tumour, nicknamed "Gorgi".

The day before his death, Dom Moraes went out shopping for a fish tank, some Japanese fighting fish and terrapins. He loved to watch: this is an aspect of his poems and of their prosody, a close attention, a gaze into human and inhuman occasions. His poems convey at once a passion and a patience.

Those critics who believe he is in some way "untrue" to his informing culture need to re-read him. His name has been associated with those of Nizim Ezekiel and R.K. Ramanujan, but In Cinnamon Shade reveals a poet more complex than either of them, who worked himself free of an eloquent formal aesthetic of effect towards something more exploratory and wholly his own, a language able to deal with an intense awareness of cultural and psychological isolation, with libidinal and spiritual passions, and with landscapes in which synaesthesia is built in to the very words for colour, taste and scent. He has a secure and distinctive place in Indian, as in English-language, poetry.

Michael Schmidt

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