Patel, Gieve

views updated

PATEL, Gieve

Nationality: Indian. Born: Bombay, 18 August 1940. Education: St. Xavier's High School, Bombay; St. Xavier's College, Bombay, B.Sc.; Grant Medical College, Bombay, M.B.B.S. Family: Married Toni Diniz in 1969; one daughter. Career: Medical officer, Primary Health Centre, Sanjan, Gujarat, 1969–71. Currently runs a private general medical practice, Bombay Central hospital. Also a painter: individual shows—Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, 1966–84; Sridharani Gallery, New Delhi, 1966; Pundole Art Gallery, Bombay, 1972; Chemould Gallery, Bombay, 1975; Art Heritage Gallery, New Delhi, 1979. Awards: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1984; Rockefeller fellowship, 1992. Address: SE Malabar Apartments, Nepean Road, Bombay 400 036, India.



Poems. Bombay, Ezekiel, 1966.

How Do You Withstand, Body. Bombay, Clearing House, 1976.

Mirrored, Mirroring. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991.


Princes (produced Bombay, 1971).

Savaksa (produced Bombay, 1982). Published in Bombay Literary Review (Bombay), no. 2, 1989.

Mister Behram (produced Bombay, 1987). Bombay, Praxis, 1988.


Critical Studies: "The Ambiguous Fate of Being Human: The Poetry of Gieve Patel" by M.N. Sarma, in Osmania Journal of English Studies (Hyderabad), 13(1), 1977; "Gieve Patel: Poet As Clinician of Feelings" by Vrinda Nabar, in Indian Literary Review (New Delhi), 3(3), October 1985; "The Poetry of Gieve Patel: A Critical Scrutiny" by Vineypal Kaur Kirpal, in An Anthology of Critical Essays, edited by M. Prasad, New Delhi, Sterling, 1989; "Post-Colonial India As Portrayed by Two Parsi Playwrights" by Karen Smith, in New Literatures Review (Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia), 19, summer 1990.

Gieve Patel comments:

My first book of poems deals with a young person's confrontation with death and disease in hospital, on the streets; moral and emotional issues pertaining to living in an economically constrained country; and the attempt to stand firmly on one's feet, without despair, in this situation.

The second book goes a step further into these concerns. The human body is viewed as a target of violence; the violence is seen to emanate from the state as well as from the psyche of each individual. Hence, there are political and psychological resonances to these poems. Marginally, if I may say so, the concern is also metaphysical. In the end the attempt is to see how it is that the body survives the violence perpetrated against it.

The third book addresses God, with irony and some passion. Imagery from nature is more pronounced here than in the earlier books.

I write in free verse, the rhythm controlled strictly and varied to serve the thematic needs of the poem. I favor a lucid line of writing, not denying the occasional need for ambiguity and on rare occasions even obscurity.

The poems usually move from puzzlement and confusion to knowledge of a kind.

*  *  *

Over three decades and three volumes of poetry, Gieve Patel has acquired a distinctive voice, ranging across a scale from detached but sharp observation through tolerant skepticism to controlled vehemence. His poems are generally spare and lean of shape, gesture, and movement, their originality a matter of quick, unexpected figurative turns and complex attitudes ("the odour of genitals … a hair's breath from decay"!). His steady-eyed appraisal of the disorienting and the disquieting confronts experience without evasion or overinvolvement: "I am not kissing leper sores. / Merely working my way to suggest / It might have been better / Not to look away" ("In the Open"). His poems abjure facile resolutions, being generally concerned to note an honest ambivalence in their responses to people and situations. His first volume, Poems, is characterized by a concern expressed with an economy of restraint. Accosted on each annual return to his home village by the begging persistence of an old woman, he remarks in "Nargol,"

I am friendly, I smile, I am
No snob. Lepers don't disgust me. But also
Tough resistance: I have no money.

To give in to her importunity would be a form of entrapment in the guilt she banks on, but not giving her money is another kind of giving in. As the poet walks away, he shrugs aside insouciance for a sober recognition:

I have lost to a power too careless
And sprawling to admit battle,
And meanness no defence.
Walking to the sea I carry
A village, a city, the country,
For the moment
On my back.

"To a Coming Love" reveals an engaging disengagement from the clichéd expression and stock motif:

This silence is not
That we have nothing to say
But is an assessment
Of loss: Watch it unwind...;

The very title of Patel's second volume, How Do You Withstand, Body, indicates the direction his poetry took in a decade. (The title can be read with a question mark or exclamation mark or with both). That Patel is a doctor by profession is evident from his clinical eye for detail and also from the kind of clinical detail his poems handle with familiarity and a tonic freedom from squeamishness. The metaphysical, after all, can be reached only through the physical. In this second volume the poetic self is less willing to remain a meditative or analytic voice, although much of the poetry is still written from the viewpoint of an onlooker rather than a participant. (This is clearly a choice and predilection, for he has always spared us a Patel Agonistes, never doubting, as he says in "Confessional Poet," our capacity to believe that "I too could flaunt my vices, / not being short of those.") The new passion and rhetoric are exemplified most effectively in "University," Patel's refusal to mourn the death by massacre of students and professors in Dacca. In "What's In and Out" the look at the body and the bodily is intent and intensive:

Before I die I should like
To have known me each way
All over. I know the stomach affords
A pleasure different from
The prick. And a different ache.

The same thing is expressed in "O My Very Own Cadaver":

...Now who would suspect
The inch to square
Inch cuticular ecstasies
Of this shameless carnal?

A steady engagement with violence finds consistently forceful expression throughout the volume. In "The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He Being neither Muslim nor Hindu in India" (he is in fact a Parsi) the communalism that has characterized a modern secular country is placed in laconic perspective with a neat energy that does not sacrifice any of its balance: "To be no part of this hate is deprivation." The sparse, wry personal encounters have a sour relish, as, for instance, in "Just Stretch Your Neck":

The sexual odour of rejected women overpowers me.
I am called grotesquely to account
For ecstasies they may have missed.
I am a chameleon about to swallow a nauseous butterfly.
Look, I'm turning green.

The poems from Patel's third collection, Mirrored, Mirroring, mark an interesting shift. His first two volumes had an urban (Bombay) orientation, but now the poet has time to move out and to look around. Patel has always preferred to write in free verse. His later poems tend to be longer, more relaxed, with room for images and characters (including some memorable animals and odious humans) to interact in expansive anecdotes. The syntax and idiom are less clenched and tense, and the rhythm and flow are more like conversation or a voice overheard. Where the poet had once questioned the need for a God, preferring "to pare / My fingernails and weep profoundly / Before the crescents" ("To Make a Contract"), the need is now acknowledged and accommodated, although it is done in a typically questioning way, as in "Simpleton"—

Honest cloud
concealing nothing but the body of God,
Restore my lost assurance!...
What's in store now for numbskull touch?
What for simpleton sound?
—or in "Speeding"—
...The fate of God
Is to see His universe so,
In overview...
Rooting into the intoxication of His Dump

The poetry "cannot believe there could be / Living without quarry and burden" but everywhere regards the spectacle with an irony leavened by compassion. It is this sober combination that makes Patel's lively watchfulness so attractive and medicinal in the enervated hothouse of Indian poetry in English.

—Rajeev S. Patke