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'I really hope his writing lives on.' Adil Jussawalla on Vilas Sarang

He was a quiet man and sometimes I thought my business was to be the joker who would make him laugh, which I succeeded in doing occasionally.

 |  4-minute read |   18-04-2015
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"You have to be a dead poet before people start taking notice of you."

I am not sure that this is true, but that is the feeling Vilas Sarang shared with Dilip Chitre, another avant-garde poet who used these words to describe the poetry scene in India, in the early 21st century.

In the 1960s, Vilas and his contemporaries like Chitre and Arun Kolatkar were seen as the pioneers of modernism in Marathi literature. A bilingual writer, Vilas wrote brilliantly in English as well as Marathi, and in both he enjoyed a loyal following. The writer in Vilas was, however, never really able to reconcile these two languages in him.

What drew me to his writing was his sense of the "political" in the broadest sense of the term. To quote from his award-winning novel In the Land of Enki, "This is a 'political' novel in a sense, but not in a narrow way, which I had wished to avoid. The political is therefore related to the historical and even the mythological. It is further tied up with the specificities of geography, and the particular social setup is inevitably in the background, I have tried to create a totality."

He sets a totalitarian state in the novel. The protagonist, too, is set in the outsider tradition of some European writing. Vilas had also written perceptively about Albert Camus' The Outsider. A kind of existential writing permeates In the Land of Enki. It's really about the expected and unexpected horrors that happen to people in a totalitarian state.

Vilas was at times ill at ease with the contradiction that bilingualism brings with it, common to many writers. He was very clear that Arun Kolatkar's poetry in Marathi was superior to his work in English. When a bilingual writer says that, I would like to ask, do you feel the same about your own work? I suspect there was no answer to that. This is the unresolved, rather perplexing aspect that is part of our bilingual culture. As for Vilas, he did not take up a nativist position, although he came close to doing so at times.

As a writer dealing with realism, Vilas was at times defensive when some of his literary influences were pointed out. He would not appreciate people pointing out the Kafkaesque elements in his work. He would resist it — he would say yes, but there were South American influences as well, and he said that on record about the puranas. As a writer, Vilas firmly believed in his originality.

It just requires a good mind to explore the multiple regions of his work. I really hope his writing lives on, and that depends on the publishers.

What is most striking to me in Vilas' prose and his poetry, is the element of hard reality. This was best reflected in the poems he wrote, which came out in two collections — A Kind of Silence, published in 1978 and Another Life, published in 2007. Sadly, his poems in English have been unfairly neglected, and I hope the English version of his remarkable novel, In Land of Enki, does not disappear without a trace.

invilas-sarang-india_041715065416.jpg                                                                              Vilas Sarang (1942-2015)

In the '60s, Vilas and Chitre had a niche readership, which responded to the avant-garde at the time — it was the trajectory of their careers. Dilip was a much more social creature than Vilas. On the other hand, Arun Kolatkar, another contemporary, shared Vilas' sense of privacy and keeping the silence, when there was no need to speak or to write. There was always a spectre in terms of the popular perceptions of writers — the spectre of modernism that haunted these writers.

Vilas was a quiet man and sometimes I thought my business was to be the joker who would make him laugh, which I succeeded in doing occasionally.

"In a topsy-turvy world, there is only the deferred moral," Vilas wrote in his poem "Crocodile Tears". Some people would say, "look you give us the situation, but not the solution", to which he would say, "it's not for me to provide the moral or solution". An admirer of Samuel Beckett's writing, Vilas quoted the Irish writer in his A Kind of Silence: "It's all very well to keep silence, but one has also to consider what kind of silence one keeps."

That was really Vilas. What cannot be said, you don't say. You have to read the silences in his poems and stories to indicate what kind of silence there is in his works.

One would hope that at least posthumously, there will be greater attention for Vilas — who, I too believe, was a great writer.

(As told to Charumathi Sankaran)

Writer

Adil Jussawalla Adil Jussawalla

The writer is a poet and critic based in Bombay.

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