One hundred years of no solitude: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ lives on in India

“Prufrock is the name of T. S. Eliot’s fashion label.”

So wrote a postgraduate student in a university examination in Bengal a few years before T. S. Eliot’s best-known poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, turned hundred. First published in June 1915, the poem would become canonised in various ways. Not only has it been cradled into the English Literature university syllabus, from where it generates the most amusing anecdotes, the noun in its title and its striking lines have been turned colloquial by the unlikeliest of people.

There was controversy-craving writer-editor Tarun Tejpal who, in 2012, proposed to set up an exclusive club in Delhi – Prufrock would be its name and members (by invitation only) would move around in it like the men and women in Eliot’s poem, in this “vibrant cultural space, where a highly accomplished, eclectic community of select urban Indians can meet and engage in an atmosphere of great intimacy with eminent people who make and shape the world”. Perhaps it was the air of social conversation in the poem that might have prompted this baptism?

In the rooms women come and go
Talking about Michelangelo
I doubt that this is an “atmosphere of great intimacy”, but there are as many texts as there are readers, and so on.

I have encountered these lines and their parodies in the strangest of places. On the back of a battery run rickshaw named Toto, not far from the main railway station in Bengal’s Siliguri, where I live, the lines had been modified into a road-song:

In this Toto people come and go
Shouting Hello Hello
From the Darjeeling Mail, a train that runs between Calcutta and Siliguri, I spotted a giant-sized banner of an infertility treatment clinic in the suburbs of Calcutta that had a childless couple’s worries condensed into a thought bubble.
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
The lines sounded familiar to me in the early morning, when the train was just about to enter Sealdah station. It was only when I’d managed to locate them later that the laughter came. How might Eliot have reacted at Prufrock’s worries about infertility?

It was after a few such encounters with the poem that I began to grow alert about its career in India. I had first noticed its accommodativeness for easy parody and easier tagging when we began applying portions of it to the professor who taught us this poem at university. The best – and most rewarding – thing about that experience was our professor’s self-mocking application of the lines to explain his circumstances.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Professor Samanta in his rolled up denim pants, deliberately anachronistic jackets and thinning hair, a man with an easy enthusiasm that comes naturally to adults who have not completely severed their connection with adolescence, seemed to have found his life’s echo chamber in this poem. He would quote from it at random to students from his old world bicycle on the university campus.

Two years ago, at a conference in the university, one of those events where bureaucracy murders literature with great ceremony, I heard Professor Samanta recite the poem as part of a valedictory address. He was older now, older than Prufrock in the poem and older, of course, than when he had taught us the poem more than fifteen years ago. It might have been his natural gift for mischief that made him choose three of his female students as a “chorus” to accompany him in the reading of the poem: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."

It is one thing to hear about women talking about Michelangelo, quite another to see and hear three well-dressed women talk about women talking of Michelangelo. I cannot completely recall the words of Professor Samanta’s version of Eliot’s poem except that they had been brilliantly structured to describe the atmosphere of the conference hall.

What delighted the audience was the wicked but honest mischief of aligning the middle aged Prufrock’s inability to articulate his thoughts with the forced jargon filled language of most of the speakers of the conference. There were the delights of the aleatory – just as the three women recited the Michelangelo refrain, two women entered through the creaking door of the hall. They must have been surprised to have been greeted by such full bodied laughter.

After the “Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse” description of the academic and his discourse, my favourite bit of the parody was Professor Samanta’s use of the other refrain to characterise a paper presenter’s response to a questioner.

That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.
There were claps to greet that bit of parody.

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T.S. Eliot Reads: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


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