Landfall – Poems – Keki N. Daruwalla

Dante and Virgil in hell



Book Review by Anjana Basu


Heresy of Verse

Keki Daruwalla continues to be prolific with his poetry, with his roots firmly planted in the past. Landfall follows the pathway laid out by Dante for inspiration, down a thin thread of history and illumination. Though yes, the reference is to Canto X which talks about that section of hell reserved for heretics who did not believe in the soul’s existence and searched for happiness

Landfall is what ships do when breasting waves to break on foreign shores. It is also what cyclones do, the voyaging winds that travel from place to place spiralling around a still centre possibly another kind of hell. There is a sense of breaking ground after long voyaging to the title which bears fruit in the poems that follow in Daruwalla’s 11th volume after his first book came out in 1970.

Having explored history in his novels – Pepper and Salt For Christ, for example – Daruwalla continues to explore the past and its bearings on the present. The cover of ‘Landfall’ uses a detail from a Delacroix painting Dante and Virgil in Hell that flags the predominant references in  this book.  Of course, one has to be familiar with the context.

The problem with both history and mythology, is that unless the reader is familiar with Daruwalla’s references, he is forced to pause in his reading, leaf through whatever references he can find and then return to the poetry. However, he is welcome to sit back and enjoy the rhythm and the internal word play that Daruwalla does so effectively.

Though a formal poet, Daruwalla attempts a break with structure in Notes on a Sanctuary which is prose poetry and part of his Alaska section.  

But your good days are over. You are as vulnerable as Parsis, thinning away despite your talons and  those low-flying speed-bursts as you go after songbirds

The reference to Daruwalla’s own community breaks the expected format of the verse though Parsis are as endangered as snow hares.

Predator and prey rise together. How does the lynx know that  this is a good snow-hare year, six hundred per square mile?

Landfall was written over the past five years which included the Covid times. The Sonnets on the Black Death will resonate with a world swept by the apocalypse of a dread virus, citing the summons from the King of Byzantium whose son has been struck down and followed by the parades of deaths and accusations all of which time has not changed.

The summons were from the Byzantium court,
he was wanted there, the king’s son was dead,
the advance guard of buboes had got to him.

The plague is creeping across the known civilised world and the reactions were the same then as they were during Covid

Reports from the sea crowd my dreams, winds seethe with salt and fear; this could have been a jest
in the old days, a threat from rat and flea, but now this line of rodents, themselves fleeing the pest

The Night Attendant series, five poems near  the end of the book more directly call up the pandemic year for the reader.

Daruwalla continues to be political in poems like Hathras and others, linking to the state of the nation as it is today without the cover of mythology. He writes about the hypocritical political-religious falsehood propaganda of the current day, unflinching in his confrontation of what he perceives to be the truth of today’s India.

UP is not the right home for daughter/Whether India is a better place/we can discuss later  

His poems open windows and doors to other spaces and other countries – Cyprus, Alaska and more, calling up a rush of memories. Many of Daruwalla’s poems are set out of India, even though Alaska is largely an admiration of natural life and climate.

Daruwalla is an acute observer of both the human psyche and the natural world, and he does celebrate the times when people and nature come together in quietude. Many of the poems in this collection reflect the poet’s wonder at nature and at how we manage to live such brief lives ignorant of the infinite space that surrounds us.

 How does a fitful glimmer/move into memory through words?

The question is, is there anything called ageism in poetry? Daruwalla is in his mid-eighties but there is no strain or stretch in his poetic voice. Nor should there be – his work remains fresh and lively, using mythology to examine the present while praising the strength of nature, animals, and the importance of history.


(Excerpt from the book)

Night Fishing

The night still, the boat unmoving and a call from a far-off rock as if from another sea; the line drops like the first look of love, not stirring the water, or perhaps stirring it. Is night a hermit, he thinks. Wet breeze and thought trouble the old man, and the catch—fish intricately mottled, belly a sliver of palpitating silver; thought troubles him, coral and molluscs static under a heaving sea, but his sea is not heaving, it is not frothing on the beach but kissing it, it is still, he thinks of the sea-floor, fish moving over shell and sand, and the mangrove forest guarding the coast, and he compares mangrove with the brain, mangrove as memory, sea as life sloshing around it, and slowly the head drops into a dream and the tremor on the line pulses away and he doesn’t notice.


(Landfall : Poems – By Keki N. Daruwalla – Speaking Tiger – INR 499 )

About the Reviewer

Anjana Basu is a noted novelist, poet, reviewer and travel writer.