The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 17, 2003

Looking back at a life less ordinary
Ram Varma

A Variety Of Absences, The Collected Memoirs Of Dom Moraes
Penguin Books, India, Pages 627. Rs 599.

A Variety Of Absences, The Collected Memoirs Of Dom MoraesDOM Moraes was a sensation when I was a student and was later teaching English at Jodhpur University. His book Gone Away, published by Heinemann, London, in 1960, had reached India and we used to go into peals of laughter reading it. It was witty, provocative, hilarious and brave. Later in 1968, he published a somewhat sombre autobiography, My Son's Father, with a funny, inverted name; and then in 1992, he published the second part of his autobiography, entitled Never at Home. Now Penguin has published these three books in one volume as his collected memoirs. I had browsed his books in bits and pieces, but now had a chance to read them together and get a sense of his extraordinary life.

Dom Moraes was an extremely precocious child, an incredible prodigy. "My inherited mind, combed by a million forests," he sang in one of his poems. By the time he was 10, he had already read all Russian novelists, and was appropriately nicknamed Domski, as he revealed in the travelogue, Gone Away. He was commissioned to write this book when he was barely 21. Before that he was in Oxford, studying for B.A. in English Literature, and had already published a book of poems, which he had written while still in his teens. He was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for it, the first Indian to receive such an honour. The eminent jury was headed by Lord David Cecil.


Dom had a troubled childhood. His mother suffered from a nervous disorder. His father, Frank Moraes, one of the most eminent journalists India has produced, had been sent to cover the World War II in Burma. His father's long absence affected the mental equilibrium of his mother, who was herself a doctor. After his father returned from his assignment, she grew very possessive of her son and could not bear to let him go anywhere. Dom witnessed many hysterical scenes of his mother's growing madness and he started avoiding her, even as she started using violence to ensure his presence. One day she was wildly brandishing a knife and threatening and slapping the servants when Dom caught hold of the knife and struck her. This aggravated her malaise and expedited her passage to a mental asylum in Bangalore. Dom was to carry the guilt of this episode all his life like an "albatross round my neck." He never forgave himself.

Dom's memoirs are in the tradition of Rousseau and Gandhi as they record life's experiences truthfully and faithfully. Like them, he lays his soul bare. Once when in his father's absence his mother was disconsolate and was crying to herself, he intruded on her, overcome by pity, and asked her why was she crying. She slapped him. He was stunned and could not understand her strange behaviour. Many years later when he was young and had lost his innocence lying in the arms of a pretty widow in Belgrade, when he "nailed her to her cross", as he puts it, he was to remember the incident. And, as snow flakes fell lightly in the silent night, he realised what had ailed his mother.

His father had been at Oxford and, therefore, got him admitted to Jesus College. Dom sailed to England when he was 16. He took to English life like fish to takes to water. "The colour of my skin was not English, but my mind was", he says at one place. He led a bohemian life in his early days in London, frequenting the pubs in Soho in the company of other poets, painters and musicians. Dom realised early that his life's mission was to write poetry. He went about life possessed by the Muse. He felt a strange excitement and thrill in his blood, rhythms singing in his head, complete lines descending from nowhere. 'With a huge dry thumb/ He shifts the bowl of ink/ Towards me. 'Master, write', he wrote once. He experienced "the surges of pure power, something beyond me, what Lorca called the Duende, rise in me and take shape on the page." But there were times when he could not write poetry at all, and it made him miserable. At such times, he felt crippled. He came in close contact with leading poets like Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate and many more and made a niche for himself in the world of English poetry. Modesty is not his characteristic trait, but he sums up his poetic career thus, "If I have not written as earthshakingly as I hoped when I was a boy, I have written as well as I could." He had many liaisons and loves, none very enduring. It amazed him to know how many girls wanted to sleep with a poet. 'I put no end to / The life that led me.' He loved to travel. There is hardly any country he has not visited. His writing assignments took him to cover the war in Algiers, where a bomb exploded in a bar he was drinking in, converting it suddenly into an abattoir, or to the jungles of Indonesia off Djayapura to visit the Dani tribe which practiced cannibalism. He went to Santiago to meet President Allende who was assassinated shortly after the brief encounter. The three books have different flavours. Gone Away is sunny and sparkling, bubbling with mirth. My Son's Father has a certain mellowness, an autumnal mood, and Never At Home broods over the "unfinished theatre of patchwork lives that fall apart." Dom seems to sum up his philosophy of life in these two lines: 'A little tired, but in the end, / Not unhappy to have lived'.