Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Leonard Cohen came looking in Mumbai...and found some answers amidst the garbage and the flowers


In the beautiful waste land that Leonard Cohen inhabits it is “permanently winter without Christmas”, to borrow a phrase from CS Lewis’ Narnia series. In his below-the-belt baritone that can barely hold a tune, the Canadian singer has taken continents of worshipful listeners on brooding tours of the tundra of the soul. Death, betrayal and unrequited love are the pit stops, often even requited love. The 71-year-old musician’s legion fans make for a broad church indeed: from hyper teenage girls eager to lose themselves in lyrical pain, to political toughs like Sanjay Gandhi whose taste apparently ran to Bird On A Wire and Suzanne, to toffs like Prince Charles who said “Len Cohen” on a television show when asked to name his favourite singer, only to have young Prince William, also on the show, pipe up with “Is he a jazz player?”

No, but the blues are certainly the colour of Cohen’s mein, mostly a dark navy but frequently leavened with a robin blue whenever his arctic wit mocks forth. After all, policing the porous borders between pain and pleasure is an exacting business and suddenly in the middle of a lament on human frailty, old Len will allow spring to burst in like a clown and ruin the funeral. This in fact is the best part about his songs and poems — the ice-light zone where the requiem and the risque, the sad and the funny leak into each other just as they do in real life:

drinking cognac
with the old man
his exquisite hospitality
in the shack by the river —
that is, no hospitality
just emptying the bottle into my glass
and filling my plate
and falling asleep
when it was time to go

It is this grizzled, Jewish wit that his latest offering twinkles with. Cohen has just published his second collection of verse, Book of Longing, which, he said dryly in a radio interview, should have been called Book of Prolonging, given the twenty years it has taken to hatch. A handsome edition that any Cohenhead would love to own, the volume is studded with teasing sketches and doodles from the singer’s pen. Many of the poems have already been set to music and form part of his previous albums. But of special interest to his Indian fans is the scattering of poems set in Mumbai, an unlikely Mecca for a man searching for the larger answers to life, but to which Cohen turned after being somewhat disillusioned by his sabbatical in a Zen monastery. Ten years of austerity at Mt Baldy in Los Angeles in the service of his master Kyozan Joshu Roshi came to an end when the troubled troubadour found that the base desires he had sought to escape only thrived on the rare mountain air.

I shaved my head
I put on robes
I sleep in the corner of a cabin
sixty-five hundred feet up a mountain
It’s dismal here
The only thing I don't need
is a comb

Only Cohen could compress a world of irony into that one bald line “The only thing I don’t need is a comb”. Solace of sorts, even an entry point into understanding the contradictions of life, arrived through an unexpected route — at an up scale Breach Candy apartment, at the feet of the venerable Ramesh Balsekar, a retired banker turned philosopher-guru who didn’t even know who the old man in his morning audience was until his grand daughter hysterically informed him that this was the Prince of Darkness himself. The guru’s robust optimism was more than a match for Cohen’s mournfulness and the two became friends. “Ramesh has saved my life. I was dying in that monastery,” Cohen later told a friend, after many expoundings on Balsekar’s central theory which, like all complex thought, comes disguised in beguiling simplicity — that happiness, which is the human aim, can be achieved if one does not blame oneself or others for any happening, good or bad.

“I heard many interesting and precise ideas, which later I blurred into verse, while in the precious company of Kyozan Joshu Roshi, and Ramesh S. Balsekar. Their compelling concepts were so imperfectly grasped that I cannot be accused either of stealing or absorbing them,” wrote Cohen in the acknowledgments.

In Mumbai, he divided his time between Balsekar, the Breach Candy Club (from whose waterfront he watched the “perverse repetitions of the Arabian Sea”), walking the streets and visiting the old blue synagogue at Kala Ghoda. One of the recurring themes in this collection is his coming to terms with old age and its many humiliations. Nowhere are the intimations of mortality more poignantly felt than in this poem written in the prosaic digs of the Kemp’s Corner Hotel, a pokey, over priced lodging, where Cohen put up and on whose stationery he drew some sketches which he later presented to Balsekar:

My time is running out
and still
I have not sung
the true song
the great song

I admit
that I seem
to have lost my courage

a glance at the mirror
a glimpse into my heart
makes me want
to shut up forever

so why do you lean me here
Lord of my life
lean me at this table
in the middle of the night
how to be beautiful

This sunset angst is at a variance with the passion that pulses through the other poems in the book, dense with the tug of a young man’s longing (the singer has found love again with his singer-partner Anjani Thomas). And for the hyper young Indian female fan, here’s the ultimate tribute:

India is filled
with many
exceptionally beautiful women
who don’t desire me
I verify this
every single day
as I walk around
the city of Bombay
I look into face after face
and never once
have I been wrong


The Times Of India, Mumbai, Bookmark, 20 Aug, 2006.

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