An Old Woman by Arun Kolatkar

About the Poet

Arun Balkrishna Kolatkar (1932–2004) was a Marathi and English poet from India. In 1977, he won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for his debut collection of English poems. Kolatkar was one of a generation of post-independence bilingual poets who fused their mother tongues with international styles to forge new poetry traditions.

Kolatkar was born on 1st November 1932 and died on 25th September 2004. He was born in Maharashtra, India, and lived with his uncle’s family in a traditional patriarchal Hindu extended household. He attended Rajaram High School in Kolhapur, where Marathi was the primary language. He graduated in 1949 and enrolled in a college of arts, graduating in 1957 as a graphic designer with numerous prizes. His poems found humour in many everyday matters.

His poems influenced contemporary Marathi poets. Jejuri, his first collection of English poetry, is a collection of 31 poems inspired by a visit to the same-named holy sanctuary in Maharashtra. That book won the 1977 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His 1950s and 1960s ‘Marathi’ poems are written: “in the Bombay vernacular of the migrant working classes and the underworld, part Hindi, part Marathi.”

His Marathi verse collection Bhijki Vahi won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra compiled his Collected Poems in English, which was released posthumously in the United Kingdom by Bloodaxe Books in 2010.

In Marathi, his poetry epitomises the modernist trend of the 1950s and 1960s. His early Marathi poetry was very experimental and influenced by European avant-garde movements such as surrealism, expressionism, and Beat generation poetry. These poems are ambiguous, quirky, dark, scary, and immensely humorous all at the same time. While some of these elements are evident in his English poetry Jejuri and Kala Ghoda Poems, his early Marathi poems are significantly more radical, dark, and hilarious than his English poems.

His early Marathi poetry is far more audacious and takes greater liberties with language.  However, his later Marathi poetry is more approachable and less radical in tone than his earlier works. Chirimiri, Bhijki Vahi, and Droan are his later works, which are less reclusive and nightmarish.

They demonstrate an increased social awareness, and his mockery becomes blunter. Vilas Sarang, a bilingual poet and anthologist, places a premium on Kolatkar’s contribution to Marathi poetry, citing Chirimiri in particular as “a work  that must serve as an inspiration and guide for all future Marathi poets.”

Summary of An Old Woman

An Old Woman is a graphic depiction of an elderly beggar woman battling for survival on a barren hill near the town of Jejuri. She is asking the poet for fifty paise and requesting to be his guide to the Horse Shoe Shrine. She clings to the poet like an unappreciative burr. The poet depicts two diametrically opposed and paradoxical worlds in which the elderly woman represents her generation’s difficulties and the poet represents the world of academics who remain oblivious to obvious social imbalance. The poem powerfully depicts the desolate hill and the desolate elderly woman struggling to survive in the name of God. She identifies her issue as the fact that she is unable to work other than begging owing to her age. She attempts to guide the poet despite the fact that he has not requested it. The elderly woman understands the poet’s reluctance, but then points out that she can subsist on the desolate hills by acting as guides for pilgrims. Finally, the poet expresses sorrow for her helplessness and offers her what she desires. It conveys the pathos that a modest sum of fifty paise can make an elderly woman joyful, but also makes the poet upset when he understands her plight at such an advanced age. As the speaker confronts her frankly, he becomes aware of the degradation that has taken hold in her person and has spread to the withering heritage depicted by the hills and temples. The poet’s use of concrete imagery, subtly ironic language, and symbolism all serve to underline the underlying issue of isolation and perception. “Humanity is supreme” is the poem’s message.


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