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Biograph by Arun Kolatkar summary & analysis

Read the poem

About the poet

Arun Balkrishna Kolatkar was an Indian poet who wrote both in Marathi and English. His poems are known for expressing the humour in everyday life. His first collection of English poetry, Jejuri won commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1977.

The poem ‘biograph’’ is the poet’s representation of society and how people often take dominance of others’ lives. The very title of the poem gives us the idea on how the life of a person is written by other people in a society and a man can seldom enjoy his life on his own terms. The poet demonstrates how he has no control of his own life since his birth. Just like in a biography, the writer controls the narrative of the life of another man, similarly in the life of the speaker, the decisions are often made by other people rather than the speaker himself.

Line by line Analysis

Knotting the cord, the midwife said,
It’s a boy, it’s a boy, it’s a boy.
Piercing an earlobe, the goldsmith said,
Two bucks, just two bucks.
Syringe in hand, the nurse said,
It’s not gonna hurt, not a bit.
Measuring my dick, Baban said, 
Mine’s bigger, bigger than yours.

These lines demonstrate how from the very moment of the birth of the poetic person, his life is controlled by other people. Since the moment of his birth, when the midwife announced his gender, as a boy, it has been decided that his ears should be pierced according to some traditional myths. The basic idea transferred here is that nobody asked for the speaker’s consent and decided to pierce a body part of him on their own. Again, for vaccination, the nurse carried a syringe in her hand and announced that it would be painless when in actually it was not. Even here also the infant speaker had no say over his own body. Then the speaker tells that one of his friend named Baban made fun of the size of his genitalia and compared it with his own. His friend judged the speaker’s masculinity on the basis of the size of his dick. Here we see the idea of toxic masculinity and the symbol of phallus being used by the poet to represent his idea of dominance and submissive dichotomy in the society. The bigger the size of the phallus, the greater level of masculinity one would possess.

Punching my back, Baban said,
My dad can lick your dad.
Kicking my shin, Baban said,
Sissy, a sissy, what a sissy you are. 
Pressing her toes against mine, Bunny said,
Bicycle, bicycle, let’s play bicycle
Rubbing spittle on my tummy, Bunny said,
Doctor, doctor, let’s play doctor 

As the poem moves forward, we see that the speaker also grows throughout the poem. Now probably the speaker is a child and plays with his friend named Baban. His friend seems to be a bully who constantly criticise the size of the speaker previously his genitalia and now attacks his father. Baban bullies, the speaker by saying that even his father is stronger than the speakers father and he make several derogatory remarks against his father. This shows us how the speaker is in a much weaker position in the society that he is being bullied by each and everyone and he has no power to speak up against the wrong. the society makes fun of him because he does not conform to the masculinity of the society.The society makes fun of him because he does not conform to the masculinity of the society. Another friend named Bunny who is a female had made some sexual advances towards the speaker. When both the children were playing together games like bicycle-bicycle or doctor-doctor Bunny takes advantage of the speaker who seems to be a weak boy. Through such lines, we are getting an idea of the inferiority suffered by the speaker, maybe because of his weaker physical appearance.

Tickling my ribs, Bunny said,
Come on in, between the sheets
Boxing my ears, a teacher said,
How much is thirty three times thirty eight?

Rapping my knuckles, a teacher said,
And where’s Sheffield then? Where’s Sheffield?
Squeezing my thigh, a teacher said,
Let’s go to the mango grove.

Continuing the previous sexual tone of the poem, the poet tells us how Bunny tries to fulfil her desires through the speaker. She calls him under the sheets which implies that maybe the speaker was molested in innocence of childhood while playing. And because the speaker was inferior and had no control over his own life, he could not speak a word against this incident. The poet also shows us how the speaker was also mentally dull as the teacher punishes him for not being able to answer a sum of mathematics. The speaker was probably also weak in geography as the teacher again, punished him for being unable to locate a place called Sheffield. Here, a very serious connotation is made when the poet mentions that squeezing the thigh, the teacher called the speaker to the mango grave. We might look this as an incident of sexual assault or exploitation of a student by a teacher. We might also find the presence of homoerotic sentiments if we believe the teacher to be a male just like the speaker. Again through these paragraphs the poet shows us how the speaker had silently tolerated each and every injustice since childhood because he was not in a position to revert back or retaliate against those in power.

Twisting my neck, the barber said,
Don’t move now, don’t move.
Measuring my chest, the tailor said, '
Thirty one inches, just thirty one.
Forcing my foot into the shoe, the cobbler said,
Use it, and it won’t be so tight
Jumping on my back, junior said,
Giddyup, giddyup.

Now the poet mentions about a phase when the speaker has slightly grown up. The barber twists his neck when he goes for a haircut and a tailor measured his chest and noted down the measurements. The poet here actually tries to say how constantly the life of the speaker is being controlled by random people who make decisions on his behalf and the speaker quietly has to follow everything as he has no power to revert back. The cobbler forced a tight shoe into his foot demanding that it would become lose over time. A junior probably the son of the speaker jumped over his back in his playful energy. Through all this incidents, we understand how the speaker is constantly being operated by other people without even thinking about his own self.

Giving me the boot, my boss said,
I can’t help it Mr. Nene, I just can’t.
Grabbing my cock, my wife said,
I’ll chop it off one day, just chop it off.
Feeling my balls, a doctor said, Hydrocele, I’m sure it’s hydrocele.
Sticking a pin in my toe, another said,
Leprosy, you can take it from me, it’s leprosy.
Tapping my stomach, a third one said, Ulcer, ulcer, no doubt about it.

Even in his work life, he is controlled by his boss. Here we come to know that the speakers name is Mr. Nene. Even his married life is not happy as his wife threatens to chop off his genitalia which might connote their unhappy sexual life. Just like his physical, intellectual dullness, he is also sexually dull. For this very reason, his wife is unhappy with him and thus threatens him. When the speaker goes to consult a doctor for this sexual problem one of the doctor diagnoses it as Hydrocele. Again, a second doctor calls it leprosy and the third one diagnosis it as ulcer. This shows us how doctors often don’t pay attention and do wrong treatment which ultimately destroys the life of the patient. Again, the speaker has no power to go against the doctor and therefore keeps on changing the doctor, and with every doctor, the diagnosis of his disease also changes. The speaker is actually helpless because everyone seems to be playing with his life and he has no power to live his life with a certain dominance as he is physically, intellectually and also sexually inferior to others.

Stepping on my toes, a guy said,
Sorry man, I’m sorry.
Sticking an umbrella in my eye, another said, I hope you aren’t hurt.
Bearing down on me, full tilt, a trucker said,
Can’t you see where you going you motherfucker?

In the last stanza, the poet shows the helplessness of the speaker. A guy stepped on his toe and another one sticks his umbrella into the eye. After hurting, everyone just mumbles a sorry and simply moves on. While walking on the road in tension, a truck was about to hit him and the driver abuses him verbally. We can see that the speaker was so absent minded thinking about all the issues surrounding his life where he has no control over that he could not even notice a giant truck coming through his way. The power dynamics is very much evident in this poem as the stronger and bigger someone or something is the more power, they have to rule over the weaker section.

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