Nationality: Indian. Born: Bombay, 5 November 1953. Education: St. Peter's High School, Panchgani; University of Bombay, B.A.1974. Career: Since 1974 a journalist. Sub-editor, For You, Bombay, 1974–75, Indian Express, Bombay, 1977–80; editor, Keynote, Bombay, 1982; chief sub-editor, Sunday Mid-day, Bangalore, 1983–85; editor, Goa Today, Goa, 1987–93. Awards: Homi Bhabha fellow, 1995–97; Fundacao Oriente fellow, 1989–99. Address: Panoramic Apartments, La Marvel Colony, Dona Paula, Goa 403 004, India.
A Guarded Space. Bombay, Newground, 1981.
Borrowed Time. Bombay, Praxis, 1988.
Domestic Creatures: Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Editor, Ferry Crossing—Short Stories from Goa. New Delhi, Penguin India, 1998.*
Critical Studies: "Manohar Shetty: Guarded Spaces" by Bruce King, in SPAN (Murdoch, Australia), 20, April 1985; "The Poet's India II" by Bruce King, in Modern Indian Poetry in English, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1987; "Sudeep Sen, on the New Generation of Indian Poets: Agha Shahid Ali, Manohar Shetty, Meena Alexander, Vijay Nambisan," in Poetry Review, spring 1993.* * *
In Manohar Shetty's poetic world bats sweep "through moon-gilded windows, / Gliding across the walls / Like giant bowties" ("Bats"), a cockroach "tumbles out / Like a family secret" ("Domestic Creatures"), and moored boats "lurch closer, bodies chafe / And whisper, wince at each / Touch of the wind" ("The Boats"). Shetty's distinctive analogical vision elicits the uncanny from the most everyday materials, but his greatest strength is as an innovative formalist. Accomplished rhymes, often internal—"Till one lax season an axe / Convulsed the boughs" ("Familiarities")—and deft syntactic balancing acts—"Unfinished houses resemble / Abandoned ruins, and this one / With stunted columns and jagged / Supports like a child's drawing / Has been left out to soak in / The monsoon" ("Bearings")—make for a disciplined verse whose precise rhythms effortlessly carry a diction that bristles with little surprises.
Shetty's poetic range is carefully restricted to an immediately observable reality. He appears refreshingly secure in his circumscribed subject, declining to agonize over criteria of "Indianness." (Yet his writing is awash with local light and color, especially from the sea of his native Bombay, whose defining presence is registered in some of his strongest poems.) His techniques, too, are strictly limited. He has perfected a semiregular three-to-four-stress line that allows for infinitely extensible semantic units, particularly when conjoined with his signature preference for the participle, as in "Ants":
Livid seethings outnumbering
Harnessed thrashing beasts,
They advance, planned cordons
Dredging the land, multiplying,
The same technique can be seen in "Neighbourhood":
Her consuming eye shifting
To an old man moving
With a brimming tin-can past
A slumped dog, its paws
Cycling slowly in the air,
Jaws grinding wide in a yawn
In the latter poem a routine village scene is transfixed in a single, multiply enjambed sentence of forty-one lines. There can be no doubt that as a craftsman Shetty has found his métier.
Just below the composed surfaces of Shetty's work tugs a deep tension between the pains of sentience and the apparent peace of the nonhuman. "Mannequin" brings to life a department store model in her "transparent cage" who laments that she "cannot go beyond / This fixed fond smile." A related monologue, "Scarecrow," is spoken by a stick figure sentenced by his master to remain immobile amid the flux of nature; at the very end of the poem the all-seeing scarecrow pronounces ambiguously, "But the long night is never over. / Buried in the scorched earth / At my master's foot, the scorpion / Unfolds a heraldic emblem." In "Departures" the speaker, leaving home on a long journey, observes a moth on the windowpane of the bus. The moth's stillness ("Wrapped in peace, its wings / A neat canvas tent, distance / Never came to an end; live / Minuscule mummy in a pyramid / Of sky, trees and fertile air!") gives measure, balance, and ultimately solace to the speaker's lonely displacement: "I felt like a stone / Tensing in the air—hanging fast / To my light exemplar / Still rooted to glass."
For Western readers Shetty's achievement is to have domesticated, through meticulous observation, an unruly and potentially exotic habitat. (Domestic Creatures is the title of a rich 1994 compendium of his poems.) But he is always alive to the deranging possibilities of the commonplace. Thus, in "One Morning" he writes, "I woke to honey / Startled into sunlight / Pouring in from a sky so vivid / It seemed unravelled / From a bolt of blue silk." The poem ends with these lines:
I sat in the bus crushed
Between people, the short trip
Past landmarks so inured to
They looked unreal, as when
Staring in intense fatigue
At a familiar word
It appears an alien script.
So, too, Shetty's poems work to unsettle and realign our perceptions of the familiar. Within his small sphere his originality is striking, his characteristic compression elegant and memorable.