15 May, 2007

Immersed in the world

by Keki Daruwalla

I came to know Shakti obviously through Jeet and I knew Jeet Thayil only through his poems. I reviewed a double-decker he had figured in with Vijay Nambisan and liked his poetry (though he thought, I came to know later, that I had not been laudatory enough—a common enough complaint with most of us poets—mea culpa). When he started editing an anthology of Indian poetry in English for Fulcrum magazine, we corresponded. Then he moved to Delhi and came over with his wife, Shakti. The couple was obviously in love. It was the first time I had met her and I couldn't help being impressed. She was warm, outgoing, and thoroughly immersed in books. She was more aware of what was going on in the literary world than I was. In fact, she was with Random House who had just opened a branch in Delhi.

Shakti told me at our first meeting that one of the projects she was toying with was to ask me to write an autobiography—but an unusual one. Link it up with your writing, she said, concentrate on the external event that triggered off a poem or a story. I wouldn't look at a proposal for an autobiography (it would be pretty boring), but the way she put it, it seemed quite an idea and I kept mulling it over.

When Bruce King and Adele came to Delhi and stayed at Nizamuddin with Jeet and Shakti, who were then with Shakti's mother, Sheela Bhatt, I went across. We had a long evening over pepper vodka.

After that we kept meeting at literary events—and in Delhi they are events. I went to a performance poetry function organized by the British Council at the Habitat Centre, where Jeet was reading. It was quite an evening, with a rap session thrown in. There was a big crowd and I was told it was Shakti who had sent as many as 300 emails to people about the event. In a country which puts a premium on mediocrity, if not downright incompetence, such efficiency was almost baffling.

I thought Shakti was a fine judge of poetry, and when she didn't like a poem or a poet, she didn't mince words. (Frankness was one of her endearing qualities.) She had a feel for language and the texture of the narrative that goes to make good literature. I was told later that she had started work on a novel. I would have loved to read it.

Nothing prepared me, or anyone else for that matter, for the tragedy that overtook her. I went to IIT Kharagpur for a talk and when I returned on April 1st, I saw a disturbing email from critic and friend Bruce King, from Paris, talking about the "horrible news about Shakti". I phoned up fellow poets but no one seemed to know anything. The next day the terrible news was confirmed

I carry Shakti's image in my mind—very slim, confident, beautiful in her own way, always warm, and looking forward to what life had to offer. May her soul rest in peace.

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