When Dom Moraes died earlier this year, most obituaries justly focused on the quality of his verse. With his fellow Mumbaikar Nissim Ezekiel, he made Indo-Anglian poetry respectable. He was a Goan Christian, Ezekiel a Bene Israel; both could only have been products of what—despite the endeavours of Bal Thackeray and his followers—remains a stubbornly cosmopolitan city. And both had travelled in the West, and had a curiosity about life in other parts of India; a catholicity of interests and experiences that was so richly reflected in their verse.
Moraes shall be remembered as a poet and, one hopes, as a writer of elegant prose too. His autobiography, My Son’s Father, is a masterpiece. This is a remembrance of a complicated childhood, where pained memories of a mother gone mad are interspersed with romantic recollections of the older men who befriended him, such as the maverick Gandhian scholar D. G. Tendulkar and the anthropologist (and poet manque) Verrier Elwin. The sequel, Never at Home, is less inspired, although it does have some fine passages dealing with his travels in the central Indian forest and in South-east Asia. A third volume of memoirs, least known now but actually published before the other two, is Gone Away, which describes a visit he made back to India with his Oxford friend Ved Mehta (Mehta’s own account was published as Walking the Indian Streets). There is an affecting description here of a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru. When Nehru asks when he is returning home, Moraes answers that he intends to stay on in England and make his name as a writer. ‘I could have become a writer in England, too’, says Nehru, pointedly. (He could have, indeed—instead of which he chose to live in India and serve his people.)
I am myself more conversant with Dom Moraes’ prose than his poetry. I have read his three memoirs, and his two travel books, Answered by Flutes and The Open Eyes. Both were commissioned works, done on behalf of the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka respectively. Answered by Flutes has an extraordinarily moving account of a chance encounter, in the depths of the Gond country, with Verrier Elwin’s son Kumar. Dom had known him as a fellow student at St. Mary’s School in Bandra; now, twenty years later, he lived in poverty with a tribal mother whom his father had abandoned and whom he had himself been estranged from for years. The Open Eyes described the Karnataka countryside and the temples and tombs in it. It also found space for three living writers: D. R. Bendre, Shivram Karanth, and K. V. Puttappa. The fact that they wrote in Kannada, and he in English, did not prevent Moraes from treating their work, and personalities, with an affectionate respect.
Poets are unusually sensitive to language, and their prose often has a distilled clarity absent in the works of more humdrum writers. Other Indian versifiers have also been fine prose stylists. (I cannot say I really know their poetry, yet I have greatly enjoyed the essays of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, A. K. Ramanujam, and Nissim Ezekiel.) Dom Moraes wrote more prose than do most poets; perhaps too much more, at least in his later years. There was a biography of Indira Gandhi which sank without a trace—as it probably deserved to. Some readers of his recent columns felt that he was recycling too much—how many times would we have to hear those stories of drunken binges in Soho with the painter Francis Bacon? But he still wrote exceedingly well. Sometimes the content matched the style, as in one of the last things he published, an obituary of Ezekiel where he recalled with warmth their early friendship, while discreetly omiting any mention of their later rift.
I like to think of Dom Moraes as a desi counterpart of Alan Ross, whom he resembled in the range of his writing, and in the subjects he liked to write about. Ross would have wanted to be remembered above all as a poet. But he also wrote some remarkable travel books, these set in and around Italy—in Corsica, in Sicily, in the Gulf of Naples. And he published two moving volumes of autobiography as well.
The Ross/Moraes comparison comes to mind because of common aspects of biography and personality. Both liked women and whisky—the latter to excess. Ross had a long connection with India—he grew up in Calcutta—while for Moraes England was a second, and occasionally first, home. And both loved the game of cricket. Ross won a wartime Blue at Oxford, and was for many years cricket correspondent of The Observer. He wrote six books on the game—these include a biography of the Indian prince turned England cricketer K. S. Ranjitsinhji—and also edited a classic anthology of cricket literature. And Moraes’ first published book was actually on cricket. Written when he was thirteen, it is called Green is the Grass, and parts of it are as fresh as the title, not least the match report of the thrilling Bombay Test between India and West Indies in February 1949. Moraes also wrote a biography of Gavaskar—though ‘wrote’ is probably an exaggeration. Thus he submitted numerous scraps of paper to the publisher, each scrap immaculately worded, but not really connected to any other. The whole was stitched together into a coherent whole by the critic T. G. Vaidyanathan, who is named as ‘Guest Editor’ in the printed book.
I don’t know if Dom Moraes and Alan Ross ever met. They must certainly have known of the other person’s work. I met Moraes only twice, and Ross but once, but an extended familiarity with their writings prompts me to set one beside the other. They also shared an essentially liberal sensibility. Isaiah Berlin once described the political tradition to which he belonged as being composed of a ‘small, hesitant, self-critical, not always brave, band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of centre, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left…This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times, agonising, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition.’
Moraes and Ross were heirs to that tradition, too. Theirs is a style (and temperament) that is understated, seeking to understand and learn, rather than hector or preach. This is the mark of the liberal, but also perhaps of the poet. The liberal is attentive to the messiness of social life; the poet, to the ambiguities of personal emotions and relationships. There is an appealing hesitancy to the work of Moraes and Ross; which comes from the shyness of their personalities, but also from a desire to interpret rather than judge.
The Ross/Moraes comparison is an attractive one, but one cannot sustain it beyond a point. For there were things that the Englishman did which were quite beyond this indisciplined Indian. Ross saw all his books through the press himself, and for close to forty years also edited a first rate literary quarterly, London Magazine. Moraes was, at various times, editor of Imprint and of The Indian Express Sunday Magazine, but neither job lasted for more than a few months. Those failures, happily, are forgotten. His poems and memoirs endure.