Here’s looking at you, Gieve

From his many iconic poems to his annual poetry workshops at Rishi Valley School, Gieve Patel influenced and inspired generations of students, teachers and practitioners of Indian poetry in English

Poet Laureate Gieve Patel, NCPA, 12 November 2022 (photo courtesy: Tata Literature Live Festival)
Poet Laureate Gieve Patel, NCPA, 12 November 2022 (photo courtesy: Tata Literature Live Festival)

Sampurna Chattarji

In Memoriam: Gieve Patel (18 August 1940-3 November 2023)

It is 2008. I am on my way to the Mussoorie Writers Festival organised by Stephen Alter. What is making me slightly dizzy with disbelief is not the excitement of reading from my first ever poetry book in the company of stalwarts — it’s the fact that I am to travel from Dehradun airport to Mussoorie with Gieve Patel. I am nervous. I know his work. I have studied it. My father has taught it. I have heard and met him at poetry readings in Bombay. But to travel together? What if he finds me insufferable? What if I find him aloof? I am nervous.

I feel stupid with nervousness. When we get off the airplane and find each other near the baggage carousel, the warm grin sets me at ease, right away. The car is waiting. Gieve tells the driver to take it easy up the slopes. “I have restless legs syndrome,” he says to me. “We’ll have to stop often, so I can get out and walk around a bit. It will slow us down… I hope you don’t mind. But first, we need to get ourselves a good breakfast!” And so begins my journey with Gieve, on that memorable ride to Mussoorie. I relax.

We speak between silences en route. We nap. We stop. Often. There is no pressure. No pretence, no pose. By the time we pull into Mussoorie, darkness has fallen, the hills are ablaze with jewels of light. We park our bags, and a person with a flashlight leads the way to Stephen’s house, where all the other writers are already gathered for a welcome dinner.

We take a steepish shortcut, up and then down through the darkness between the trees. Gieve follows the circle of light nimbly, showing no sign of fatigue. He looks chipper in a thick grey sweater that I will begin to recognise over the years. We ring the bell and enter a house full of laughter and warmth. Stephen says hello and embraces Gieve. They are old friends. As I cup my cold hands around a glass of hot toddy, I wonder how one car-ride can make me feel like we too are old friends. 

That was Gieve. Someone who made a shy, young person feel like a friend in a matter of hours. Who heard you with the same attention he brought to his practice as a doctor, a poet, an artist, a teacher.

It hurts to have to use the past tense.

Gieve was at a palliative care centre in Pune on 3 November when he passed away. When the news came, a bunch of us fellow poets had just emerged from a festival at the NCPA in Mumbai. I had been expecting it any day now, but how could it be so soon?

It was oddly apt that the first stab of grief should come in the company of people who, like Gieve, live by the power of the word — he would have approved. It was here that he’d received, almost exactly a year ago, the Tata Literature Live! Poet Laureate Award for 2022-23.

When festival director Amy Fernandes had asked if I’d write the citation and be in conversation with Gieve at the award ceremony, it felt like I’d received a prize myself. What a privilege, what a delight. In the run-up to the event, we met, spoke, made plans over email and breakfast. I had a lifetime of questions; Gieve a lifetime of patience.

I remember that evening, 12 November 2022, as if it were yesterday. The backstage bonhomie, Gieve looking immaculately formal yet impish, the waves of laughter and applause from the audience as he spoke and read from his works, my amazement at how he could turn the stage into a drawing room, both intimate and expansive. I remember reading the citation with slightly trembling hands and heart:

For five decades, Gieve Patel has been looking for the ‘possible light’ beyond the century’s punctured and bruised skin. He has embraced the people ‘with needle, knife and tongue’; he has observed the city (almost always Bombay) with humour and horror; he has listened to the ‘subterranean splinterings’ between pain and pleasure; he has distilled and absorbed meaning and matter into ‘mind and heart’.
All of this Gieve Patel has done with a poetry of profound sympathy for the underdog; a healthy suspicion of ‘fluent victories’. His moments of truth come to us in hard-hitting flashes of hard-won insight, cutting us to the quick, teaching us how to relearn tenderness, how to acknowledge our carnality, corporeality, and chaos. He enables us to continue asking that despairing question—“How do you withstand, body?” He shows us our inconvenient, irreverent relationships with a ‘Mirrored, Mirroring’ God who merits unsolemn prayers and (un)scheduled appointments!
In recognition of the mind that has reflected on ‘The Ambiguous Fate of… Being Neither Hindu nor Muslim in India’; the heart that has stayed alert to the ‘thin continuous cry that hounds the universe’; the poet who sees himself as a ‘profane monk’ on a wayward pilgrimage with words — we are delighted and honoured to announce Gieve Patel as the Tata Lit Live! Poet Laureate, 2022-23.
Citation, Tata Literature Live! Poet Laureate Award for 2022-23

I remember hoping I had encapsulated everything he meant, not just to me and so many younger poets, but to the world of Anglophone poetry. Today, I know it was not nearly enough.

Sampurna Chattarji’s latest poetry book is Unmappable Moves. She can be found on Instagram as @ShampooChats

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