Marriages might be made in heaven but for Hoshang Merchant’s 101 poems, published under the title My Sunset Marriage, they have a different “swayamvara” altogether arranged for them. Curated by poet Kazim Ali, the poems embody a journey of choice(s). This is a journey where Merchant lets his senses flower over society’s norms — for Merchant is political in the highest lyrical sense: a river that flows naturally in to the sea.
“I’m always flowing, always fluid,” Merchant said at his recent launch of MSM in Hyderabad. That sets the tone for his book, he a poet of the sea like Homer, sharing his lived experience from all waters of humanity. In New Poems, particularly in “My Sister…”, the reader revels in the sad but beautiful vortex of his brilliant water imagery. Also, the reference to bodies — our own, a friend’s, a sibling’s, the universal body — highlights a topography of memories both luscious and lit up.
And now in the brilliance of summer
Of melting light and butterflies
She floats between dark and light
As on a river a swan doubly glides (My sister Takes a Long Long Time to Die, p 220)
A chiaroscuro over the bodies smoothly envelopes within itself all what Merchant has sailed through to present us these 101 poems. The glides and liquids and the dental sounds all flowing into each other. Consider:
This little box, this little chest of secrets
O set it afloat on the flowing water (Partitions of Memory: for Gurdit, p 212)
In the erotic image in the excerpt below, again there’s a proliferation of the dental “t”, but somewhat jagged now. And of course the water reference (birth?), sun temple and sunset marriage have a curious juxtaposition: the Parsi marriage hour. But also, the native’s return. The “return” seems painful, hence witty. What actually is native here and where does Merchant sail from, one wonders.
I was the sea-driven one
Who landing built a sun-temple
Laughed at cunt-king’s milk-teeth
Went about my sunset marriage
Casting my dead skyward (Return to My Native Land, p 26)
Merchant is never sentimental but while he’s the knight in shining armor as “I, poor H.M.”, he is still trying to rise above all mundane-ness to claim his loves — loves that are obliterated by fire, strife, societal dictates, etc. He is a bard, truly of the ballad tradition; and one delights in what still makes him sing and crave in the face of adversities he has faced as a poet and individual:
The world is the stuff of dreams
of martyrs and madmen
Go to the burning ghettos
With kerosene and water
Pour alternately over the fires
to lengthen the funeral drama to the pyre
I, poor H.M.
Burnt to cinder
Come back with a begging bowl! (The Ballad of Poor H.M. p 58)
Most of the world calls Merchant, ‘India’s first openly gay poet’. A broader look at the person and his oeuvre goes beyond just the label of ‘gay’. The poetry, as we tread softly through the collection, is illuminating and tender in its dream of love, in the subtle flame of desire, and its mirth in the merger. Same sex yes, but also very Sufi and exceptionally universal. Being gay and being in love, this is what Merchant tells us:
4. Of what do his dreams consist?
Houris and streams of Paradise?
Flowers opening as soft breasts?
Then how my body’s sight be pressed?
He tells me he loves Him
And His love alone leads to Me. ( Four poems of Illumination, p 124)
And while we stay on the subject of Sufi, ‘men becoming women’ is a thrilling concept he re-introduces us to, drawing from mythology. The Krishna imagery is strong and sexual. Being of Parsi faith, what inspires him to draw from diverse religious metaphors, one may ask. Again, his Sufi self, is the answer.
And we are all brides
The coils of the serpent
are now the coils of Karmic Time
Or the circles of skirt: of dancing Sufis
Men become women in the face of Father Time
Let the threshing floor
be the dance-floor
Let the dance-floor be my grave
I dance on death’s serpent-hood
I lie face down in the street
in the summer heat (Kaliya Mardan: Prologue; p 177, Sufi Tree 2008)
In my association, of a few years, with Merchant, I do not recall having discussed the Northeast much with him. But on reading Shillong Suite, the glimpse of Merchant’s inner conversations with “Father Time” that leads to an effusion about the “Great Mother”, captivates the imagination. No one but he himself is the ‘old bearded poet’ in a different time capsule for one of the poems in this section. The “confused” bit is perhaps familiar to all of us, gay or straight. The gender construct in our society eats into the soul, and it seems Shillong nursed that bite.
Rishi Debendranath took his young son, at 14
confused by all the femininity in the Tagore house
for a walk in the Himalayas to gawk at
all the naked Kali bhaktas:
Men caught and liberated by the Great Mother! (An Old Bearded Poet Walks the City ,p 184, Shillong Suite 2010)
Shillong Suite floats like air from the porous landscape of love and longing. Merchant’s sea/water imagery returns in “In Praise of Limestone”, an exquisite reflection.
In “St. Edmunds”, the Christ/prophet imagery — one that Merchant uses like a special tile in his house of muse — comes back too. To me, both sum up in the phrase “nothing is wrong in love”.
Instead of being pigeonholed as only a gay poet, Merchant is seen as a poet of love and commentary, in the tradition of Ghalib, and also, Agha Shahid Ali. After all, the “Ghats” were all places Merchant has lived in, all kind of groves, cities, and bodies of those that he loved and respected (world-womb).
Hence groves were sacred
So was woman
Only the erect cock
could subdue her
But the earth was the first sea. (In Praise of Limestone, p 185-6)
The toilets are open-air: to keep the Devil out
And the watchdogs are humourously named Lucifer,
On a Sunday the Church is locked; the parched bee
at the window
A priest has drawn his lover’s portrait to pass off as Christ’s.
’Nothing wrong with love’ says Robin, an alumnus
The angel boys’ stops singing abruptly — (Visit to St. Edmund’s, Shillong, p 188)
In “Pound’s Mr. Gandhi”, an intriguing poem, the possessive marker piques interest. And this question will demand an answer for always — are we speaking of a cynicism that the generations have harbored through this scathingly witty writing?
What do Gandhi, Chaplin and Mickey Mouse
have in common? — (Pound’s Mr. Gandhi, p 225)
Scathing is a quality, albeit refined, ever-present in Merchant’s work. He doesn’t care for rhetoric as much he has a flair for bringing down the ‘construct’.
In that spirit, the iteration of “Brahmin Brahmin” and then of “Golkonda / Golconda!” can be seen as a device that traps history: of rulers, powers that were and be, of those that want to be loved and raised high on the social pyramid. The rhyming is akin to his own style of speaking — sarcastic and bright.
Brahmin Brahmin go around
your temple bound
round your shoulder
The thread suspended, sacred
the girdle waist
bound (Brahmin Brahmin, p 77)
Do you get food and money here?
Do you ever get poems here?
Do you enjoy mine?
–We CERTAINLY DO, Sir! (Golkonda / Golconda! P 70)
From Durga to Christ to fire and desire and from Bombay to Hyderabad — Merchant stands out as a poet who can defy all labels. My Sunset Marriage is courtship with the eternal muse, at all diurnal points of the sun, and set in like a gem (see the stunning cover) in the poet’s seeking eyes. Just like his mentor Anaïs Nin, Merchant’s journey from imagination to realism has yielded stirring visions. As Nin said, “…you see their relation to others’ emotions.” That is the unifying and integrating aspect of his work.