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Review

Tales of conflict along the MacMahon Line

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Gone Away — An Indian Journal

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

When a travelogue resurfaces sixty years after it was first printed, that ought to be meaningful. “Gone Away – An Indian Journal” by Dom Moraes was originally published in the UK by William Heinemann. Republished as a paperback edition by Speaking Tiger Books (New Delhi) in 2020, the travelogue carries the same magic for the reader as it was then.

Dom Moraes, a poet, novelist and columnist, is perceived to be a foundational figure in Indian English Literature who published thirty books in his lifetime. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994, Moraes passed away in 2004.

Son of the Editor of the Times of India, Dom had grown up in well-off and generous circumstances. After traveling with his father through Australia to New Zealand and Malaya to the borders of Red China, he watched and wrote poetry. Moraes met Stephen Spender in India, showed him his poems and had some published in “Encounter.” The combined efforts of Spender and his father had gained him admission to Jesus College, Oxford.

Reads the blurb: “One of the most unconventional travelogues ever written, Gone Away covers three months of Dom Moraes’ life spent in the subcontinent at the time of the Chinese incursions on the Tibetan border in 1959. In that short time, a remarkable number of memorable things happened to him, some of them the sort of fantastic situations that could only enmesh a poet, perhaps only a young poet – a visit to a speak-easy in Bombay; an interview with Nehru and an hour spent closeted with the Dalai Lama in Delhi; and a meeting with the great Nepalese poet, Devkota, whom he found already laid out to die by the side of the holy river Basumati.”

After a short stay in Calcutta, where he tried, with limited success, to investigate the lives of prostitutes, he went up to Sikkim, the north-eastern border state into which no visiting writer had been allowed for almost a year. Having made his way by jeep right up to the frontier, he ran into a Chinese detachment and was shot at, but escaped to safety.


Full of comicality, felicity of phrase and oddity of behavior, Gone Away communicates the special excitement of the traveler on every page. Example: Unforgettably funny is the account of the Sikkimese soccer match played in an impenetrable mist and involving the loss of several footballs kicked over an adjoining cliff. Though wit and impertinence prevail through the pages, this is a book which catches and holds the mood of modern India and illuminates as much as it amuses.

This is both a political and a personal voyage of discovery, told simply. Moraes’ travelogue is also significant because it gives us the poet’s eye view: providing details from the Indian cityscape and draws our attention to the zeitgeist of the early decades after Independence.

This memoir is a delightful read and is both modest and polished. Moraes’ account of India’s friction with China and India’s relationship with Nepal at the end of 1950s is convincing, especially in the context of the new tensions on the borders. Recording public disquiet over China’s infractions in 1959, Moraes mentions that General Thimayya had asked that the Indian troops on the NEFA border should be supplied with automatic weapons, as they were inadequately armed in case of Chinese attacks. Krishna Menon is said to have refused the request. Then came Longju, when inadequately equipped and outnumbered Indians were put to flight by the Chinese. Indian foot soldiers, caught in the cross locks of war, continue to be ill equipped, even to date.

There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy and many more. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of the subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to exude. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but reading this firsthand experience is something exceptional.

Moraes travels continue to Calcutta, Gangtok and Sikkim, where the Chinese army’s presence is strongly indicated and the Indian state does not provide enough information. Reporting a readable narrative about independent India’s first decade, Moraes’ love for India anticipates his eventual homecoming.

He captures the occasion with candour, his narrative provides a perspective that tells the whole truth, with little sentimentality or precision, and is peppered with humor that is situational and occasionally self-deprecatory.

With an introduction by Jerry Pinto, “Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Moraes. It is a fabulous testimony to India and many of its rarities.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Review

“I am waiting to be at home; where, I don’t know yet”– Dom Moraes

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Never at Home

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Never at Home is the third memoir in the trilogy of memoirs written by Dom Moraes. The others being Gone Away (1960) and My Son’s Father (1968). This volume was first published by Penguin India in 1992. Here the author writes about his life from 1960 onwards.

The first chapter is a brief account of the phase of his life after winning the prestigious Hawthornden prize at the age of twenty. By the time he turned twenty two, Moraes already had two poetry collections and a memoir to his name. In order to earn a livelihood, he then started writing features and reviews for newspapers. In 1965, he brought out his third poetry collection John Nobody. After James Cameron impelled him to take up journalism, Moraes started travelling and for the next seventeen years he couldn’t write poetry. For someone, who from his childhood knew that he wanted to be a poet and to live in England, he spent a considerable period of his life in transit without writing any substantial poetry. Never at Home chronicles those years he was engaged in navigating the world to collect stories and interviews.

This volume is the third and final in his collective memoirs – A Variety of Absences, which take its name from the poem Absences written by him after a long hiatus from poetic fervour. The book focuses more on Moraes’ professional life as compared to his personal life taken up in his second memoir so that its prose is not as poetic or intense as in My Son’s Father but nevertheless, it is a notable piece of literary writing. It may also be deemed as a historical archive because it records some very important and interesting snippets and observations from the political world he traversed and eminent leaders he met.

The critical success of Gone Away, his first memoir, brought him writing assignments which included scriptwriting for a documentary on India. As a journalist, he covered Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and wars in Algeria and Israel. In his mind he had always been an English poet in England and had no idea of the tribulations other immigrants faced. A BBC documentary commissioned to him made him look at the living conditions of Asian immigrants, specifically from India and Pakistan. This documentary brought him closer to the reality of being an outsider in a foreign country.

While writing articles for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Daily Telegraph, Nova and many others magazines, he met and interviewed many distinguished personalities and important world leaders but perhaps none left as deep an impression upon him as Indira Gandhi, whose biography he was later to write. The liberation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, had made her a star in the eyes of its natives who were till then hostile to Indians. Moraes writes at length about his meetings with her, about her charismatic personality, political astuteness and her almost invincible demeanor.

His descriptions of the journalistic assignments, which took him across many countries and gave him the opportunity to bring out stories to the world, are finely detailed. His keen eye presents a balanced perspective on the stories he covered, never going too far and never delivering too less. His most important works included a story on political prisoners in Buru and on the tribal people in Dani in Indonesia, the titles of the articles being ‘The Prisoners of Buru,’ and ‘The People Time Forgot’. His Buru piece evoked a violent response in Indonesia. Moraes was banned from entering the country again. But this piece was the first one to come out from the place and the issue was picked up by some human rights organisations leading to a release of seven thousand from the imprisoned ten thousand people. This, if anything, is a proof of the important voice he had become in journalism.

Although, Moraes’ work kept him busy in the world but he could somehow never get rid of the images of his traumatised childhood. As in the case of his second memoir,here also he writes considerably about his fear of confronting his mother. The accounts of his meetings with her are laced with the anguish and anxiety he had experienced in her presence always. Except his mother, all the other women in his life are only addressed in passing. He never dwells much upon his relationship with either his second wife, Judith, mother of their son Francis, or with his third wife, Leela Naidu. In comparison, his association with his friends and work colleagues occupy more space in this memoir. His regret for not becoming the father he thought he was when he wrote My Son’s Father comes perhaps due to his inability to express what he felt before others, including his family.  

Moraes picked up journalism as a vocation to earn a living but it brought him closer to real life. His punctuated visits to India, whether to write on Naxalbari movement, to meet Indira Gandhi, King of Sikkim or to explore Rajasthan, led to an increased understanding of the country of his birth. Nonetheless, he was never at home in India or in the country he had adopted as a youngster.

The disquiet that marked his life is perhaps most poignantly conveyed in this line towards the end:

“I am waiting to be at home; where, I don’t know yet.”

As he settled in the country of his birth, after all the travelling, his muse did eventually return to him. The various absences – of a mother, a father, his friends from the youth or his son — at different times in his life and their memories, continued to haunt him. Yet this memoir ends with a hopeful note. In author’s words, “the best thing to do is to preserve some form of balance on the constantly moving ground tectonic plates of this planet.”

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Review

Dom Moraes: ‘A piece of childhood thrown away’

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: My Son’s Father

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

Dom Moraes (1938–2004), poet, novelist, and columnist, is seen as a foundational figure in Indian English Literature. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for his first volume of verse, A Beginning, going on to publish more than thirty books of prose and poetry. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994. He has won awards for journalism and poetry in England, America, and India. He also wrote a large number of film scripts for BBC and ITV, covering various countries such as India, Israel, Cuba, and Africa.

“Between his Englishness and Indianness, the scales tipped to English.”

Wrote Stephen Spender in the Sunday issue of The New York Times on August 10, 1969 while reviewing My Son’s Father by Dominic Frances Moraes, an autobiography which was first published in 1968 when the author was only thirty years old. Spender’s observation came in view of the situation faced by writers of Indian origin writing in English in those times. He considered it fortunate that Moraes was brought up speaking English and not Hindi.

It is true that being born in an English-speaking Roman Catholic family of Goan extraction, the language came naturally to him and his affinity for literature sprung from his spending much time on reading books borrowed from his father’s library. Once he knew that he would be a poet, the decision to make England his home came logically to him. At one place in the book he writes:

“England, for me, was where the poets were. The poets were my people. I had no real consciousness of a nationality, for I did not speak the languages of my countrymen, and therefore, had no soil for roots. Such Indian society as I had seen seemed to me narrow and provincial, and I wanted to escape it.”

In this autobiographical account, a prominent role is given to the tussle in his mind, that kept him connected to his roots. This struggle, emanating from the memories of his early childhood years spent with his family and his relationship with his parents, is also the subject of this book. Interestingly, after this book was published in 1968, Moraes returned to India after spending nearly fourteen years of his life in England.

The book covers the period from his early childhood to when he became a father himself. The autobiography is divided into two parts with six chapters each. The first part titled ‘A Piece of Childhood’ covers the first sixteen years of his life with his parents. The second titled ‘After So Many Deaths’, deals with his own life, from leaving the house for London for further studies until he finds his place in the World. The thirteenth chapter is the Epilogue.

The name for first part is taken from these lines by David Gray, quoted on the title page:

Poor meagre life is mine, meagre and poor:

Only a piece of childhood thrown away.

In the first part, the choice of title reflects the content. For, it essentially deals with his troubled childhood years with a mother suffering from mental illness. He writes about witnessing the first signs of illness in his mother, about how his love for her first turned into indifference, then into anger and then cruelty with the passing years which were marked with increased incidents because of her illness which sometimes also posed danger to him and everybody around. Later when his mother was institutionalized, he blamed himself for it. However, it was the time spent with his father, reading, travelling and journaling, that made him turn to writing verses and to opt for living in London.

The narrative is enlivened by the keen and observant eye of a poet which missed nothing, whether it was the unsettling feeling of missing his father when he was a war correspondent in Burma or the joy of witnessing the beauty of nature. At such places, his poetic sensibility charms the reader and turns the reading experience into a joyful ride. His prose is lucid, interspersed with vivid imagery but with such a restrain that not a single word ever seems out of place.

Behind our flat was the Arabian Sea, an ache and blur of blue at noon, purpling to shadow towards nightfall: then the sun spun down through a clash of colours like a thrown orange, and was sucked into it: sank, and the sea was black shot silk, stippled and lisping, and it was time for bed.

The second part deals with his life at Oxford. His associations with poets like Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden and Allen Tate. He vividly portrays the English Literary scene of 50s London, bohemian life at Soho, his meetings with the likes of David Gascoyne, T.S.Eliot, Beat poets and Francis Bacon. He writes about his love affairs, about the kindness of Dean Nevill Coghill who always saved him from troubles at Oxford and about David Archer of the Parton Press who published his first poetry collection, A Beginning, which won him the prestigious Hawthornden Prize at the age of nineteen. But despite all this, he felt divided in his mind. Once while visiting parents of his friend Julian, he felt nostalgic.

It was a long while since I had been in contact with family life: it seemed familiar but distant, but snuffing at it as warily as the dachshunds sniffed at me, I felt a deep nostalgia for it. I thought for the first time in weeks of my mother and father and remembered the exact smell and texture of an Indian day. Driving back with my friend through the green and familiar landscape of my adopted country, I felt suddenly, and to my own surprise, a stranger.

Though he had put down his roots of work and friendship in London, where he knew he wanted to stay but there were moments, according to him, when some invisible roots pulled him to country of his birth. It was only around his twenty first birthday, while visiting his parents, he realised what it was. In a conversation with his mother, both of them wept in close embrace and suddenly he felt his troubles vanishing away.

I left India at peace with myself. Something very important to me had happened: I had explained myself to my mother, there was love between us, the closed window that had darkened my mind for years had been opened, and I was free in a way I had never been before.

The last chapter, ‘The Epilogue’, shows a thirty years old Moraes, a father to a newborn, finalising the manuscript of this book. For some reasons it doesn’t include his life events from the age of twenty one to thirty. As the ‘Epilogue’ closes, we see a father, pleased with his life, binding together the pages so that if his son reads them one day, he understands his father as the person he was.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.