I am here today as both a friend and admirer of Keki Daruwalla. I have known Keki for many years and what I have most admired about him, over all these years, is the calm yet vibrant curiosity, the incisive humour and the detached sense of observation that he brings to all that he does, be it his poetry, his prose-fiction or his literary criticism.
My first encounter with Keki came about with the review of my debut novel Paro that he wrote, sometime in 1984. In those days, I was facing a strange situation in that Paro was getting excellent reviews in London and around the world, but being subjected to a personal scrutiny of my own character here in India. Keki’s review was the first sane one I encountered, sometimes appreciative, sometimes critical but not getting hysterical about an Indian woman writing ‘that sort of book’.
His poetry has been described as evoking “real, imagined and mythic landscapes”. His latest collection Fire Altar treads between myth, history and the highest philosophy and is personally my favourite in his body of work.
Keki was born in Lahore. After the partition he lived in Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh and Rampur in Uttar Pradesh. In his short stories too, he is especially adept at bringing alive the landscape of various places in India. I especially remember some set in Ranikhet and other places in Kumaon and the Himalayas.
His novel For Pepper and Christ has been descried as “an atlas of shifting geography and looming history”. It impacted my imagination powerfully and I can still recall so many episodes visuallyfrom it which I have only read in print.
I had the privilege of reading Ancestral Affairs in an early draft. It was the immense span of this family saga that moved me. The novel is a narrative about India as a nation told with Keki’s landmark humour and perceptive understanding of human motivation. I would like to say here that Keki writes the most perfect Indian English possible—it is written in mastery in its grammar, metaphors and consonants by being written as an Indian, but does not carry the vestiges of any other Indian literature in the way, for example that many acclaimed Bangla writers carry the language and literature as a whispered undertone, as do many Malayalam writers and others. Vikram Seth is the other great Indian writer, who writes an unaccented Indian English, owing allegiance to no other literary culture. Having said that, one will still have to context Keki’s writing in the genre and milieu of Parsi literature—which is a long and fascinating subject in itself, but we do have to see Keki’s work in the context of say Bapsi Sidhwa, Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga and so many others.
It is the distilled essence of this Parsi sense of life that emerges in today’s book launch and I congratulate Keki and HarperCollins on a truly magnificent novel.
To end on a note of fond memory and anecdote, I go back on a train journey with the late Nirmal Verma and Keki for a reading in Amritsar University, almost 20 years ago. I have been with Keki at many lectures, seminars and festivals but that trip stands out in memory for the conversations we had in the train and for the surreal encounter with some angry Sardars who accused me of writing ‘dirty books’, at which stage I deftly passed the blame for such transgressions to Nirmal and Keki.
So, today, let us salute friendship and the literary community and standing up for the things we believe in and being always open to new experiences— as we await Keki’s next book, even while celebrating this one.