Memories stay fresh as fruits upon time trees. Especially, memories of childhood and youth. One such vivid memory of mine is of that of a sunny Sunday morning when my father took me to the aging, skinny, paan-stained teeth poet professor of English, T.K. Doraiswamy, also known in Tamil as the novelist and poet, Nakulan, at Golf Links road, Thiruvananthapuram. I must have just turned seventeen. It was 1973. The professor must then have been around 55, but easily looked 70, balding, with sparse tousled sunshine white hair in between. His home wear was simple. A sleeved white banian and a lungi. Near his favourite armchair on the verandah was his old steadfast bicycle.
Nakulan got up from his armchair on seeing us. He kept his left palm over his forehead and looked searchingly as we approached him. This was going to be a strange meeting. Sir, my father introduced me. My son seems to be writing poetry. He does nothing else, all day and night. One of my friends told me about you. Kindly see what this fellow is really doing. Help him sir, if you can. Nakulan had just pushed into his mouth a fresh betel quid that he kept chewing. He watched me a moment like a camera lens that focuses from above, and his eyes scanned the blue cover of the 200 page notebook in my hand. Suddenly, he laughed aloud his famous guffaw. I was in.
That was a strange kind of tuition. No fee. Just his guffaws that came whipping every single line I read out from my notebook. His whole body would shake in his laughter as he bent back into the wide mouth of his armchair. Then, he would rise, bend forward, bring his face close to mine and say, 'cut it.'
Every Sunday, I went armed with nearly 50 poems. Short ones, long ones, and medium ones. Nakulan sir mowed them all down as he laughed out his loud paan-mouthed guffaw.
Nakulan took me to that power packed, excitingly dynamic universe of world poetry. From him, I learned that poetry was not just a fairy dream song. It was a world where memories laughed and sang and cried out in pain; it was a world that stretched beyond one's own heart into the core of being, of existence. When does one truly become a poet? When he breathes not just air, but poetry. A true poem takes one by surprise with its tools that emote, evoke, suggest, and arrest its reader. The professor took me to cliffs celestial, from where he challenged me to open my imagination, and let myself fall.
Nakulan had a twelve-foot covered shelf where he kept his treasure - mainly poetry books. It was here that I was introduced to most Indian English and European poets. Among the books, there was the late P. Lal's mammoth Golden Treasury of 'Indo-Anglian Poetry (Indian poetry in English was then labeled Indo-Anglian poetry). The book among others, had in it poems by Nakulan, Pritish Nandy, Anna Sujatha Modayil, Tilottama Rajan, Saleem Peeradina, a host of now-forgotten or hardly remembered faces, and Kamala Das.
Neruda, Yevtushenko, Mandelstam, Holub, Rilke, Baudelaire, Joyce, Popa, the great Heine, they all sprang up like sudden mushrooms in the pouring rain of poetry from Nakulan's poetry shelf that still kindles my mind.
I often heard him say, "When I die, Gopi, who'll ever want them. Who cares for poetry?"Nakulan would fall back into his guffaw again.
The professor took care to select a few of my poems he felt would make it and sent them to Shri Keshav Malik who published them in 'Thought,' New Delhi. Those were my first poems in print.
Before I started writing poetry, poets used to fascinate me. I wondered how one ever wrote poems. I remember the servant boy next door, a poet-heart, who would read to me his Malayalam poems in the dim light of the road lamp. He would then hide his compositions among his clothes, but the lady of the house would anyway find them and throw them into the fire. He was the first poet I had seen in flesh and blood.
For almost twenty years, I was a regular Sunday goer at Nakulan's home. When I surprised sir one evening with the words that I had won the All-India British Council Poetry Competitions in both the general and special categories, he said, "Where is the bottle?" He looked at me smiling, his lens-like face focused on me as only he would. He kept quiet, and suddenly laughed out his sprawling guffaw. "So, Gopi, ha, ha, who said poetry does not rake in money," he said.
Here was our own self effacing Ezra pound, under whose selfless creative tutelage many passed out to greater horizons, who did it all just for the love of poetry and literature. Over the years, I could feel dementia setting in on the professor. Nakulan was, by now, a near-broken man, hurting deep inside, that the literary world, both English and Tamil, were not giving him his due.
Shortly after I won the All-India Poetry Prizes in '97, the local British Library invited me to read out my prize-winning entries at the Trivandrum British Library hall. Around that time, I was toying with the idea of publishing a poetry magazine, and called it 'Poetry Chain.' Poetry Chain was still in its photostat edition. Poet Jayanta Mahapatra who had written to me in advance, being on the AIPC jury, became Poetry Chain's first honorary patron. Ayyappa Paniker, my professor at the Institute of English, seconded the poetry project and pledged his support. It was Prof. Paniker's idea that we should meet under the banner 'Poetry Chain' once a month to promote poetry in English from Trivandrum. Both the journal and the poetry meets continued uninterruptedly for seventeen years, starting 1997.
Poetry Chain continues to meet on the second Sunday of every month at the YMCA Mini Hall, Trivandrum. The recently conducted Poetry Chain School Poetry Competitions, Summer 2017, for schoolchildren, were a runaway success. Many of the poets from Kerala presently in the national poetry scene have had their first publications and readings with the Poetry Chain.
I met Nakulan for the last time, the day I went to tell him that I was leaving for the US to pursue my MFA in poetry. But by then the professor had even forgotten my name. He would shout and rant insensibly, and he had nearly forgotten who he himself was. Some weeks later I came to know that Nakulan had passed away, unsung, uncared for even by his kin. One like him, one in a million, comes but once in a million years.
Two fountains of poetry who stood by Poetry Chain for Indian poetry in English from Trivandrum, Prof. Paniker and Nakulan, are no longer with us. As Thomas Hardy wrote, Ah, no; the years the years down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.But, the flame still burns.
(Gopikrishnan Kottoor is an award-winning poet. He has novels, plays, transcreations, and personality studies to his credit. He was a senior banker with the Reserve Bank of India. He founded the Poetry Chain. He may be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org)