Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

by Bharat Iyer

Buy now from Amazon! Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is the author of four books of poetry. He is also the editor of The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (Oxford University Press, 1992), Collected Poems in English by Arun Kolatkar (Bloodaxe, 2010), and A History of Indian Literature in English (Columbia University Press, 2003); and the translator of The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2008) and Songs of Kabir (NYRB Classics, 2011). A volume of his essays, Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History was published by Permanent Black in 2012. He lives in Allahabad and Dehradun.


BI     In your essay "Partial Recall," you have written about your early engagement with literature, particularly poetry, during your student days. When did you realize this was going to be a lifelong involvement? How did your family react to this?

AKM     In 1964 I was an undergraduate at the University of Allahabad, staying with my uncle, my father's elder brother, who was professor of English at the university. I was 17 years old, and like many 17-year-olds who do English, I wrote poems. Luckily for me, my uncle had a book-lined study, where I came across issues of Poetry (Chicago), the same magazine of which Ezra Pound was once foreign editor and where, in June 1915, he got them to publish T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Poetry would arrive regularly, in its single-colored covers, month after month, a gift from the US government, which was then, in the 1960s, trying to promote the teaching of American literature in Indian universities. I suppose it was during this time, sitting in my uncle's study, looking at his books, that the desire stirred in me to write one myself: to see my name, preferably in gold letters, on a spine. When I'd written about 20 odd poems, I typed them up, put on a title page, and took the sheets to the nearest bookbinder, who the following day handed me what vaguely looked like a book. It had no spine, much less gold letters, but I was thrilled all the same. My professor uncle knew nothing of this activity, nor did my parents, who lived in Bhilai, in Madhya Pradesh.

BI     In the Preface to The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, you wrote that "the criticism of Indian poetry in English that has come out of our universities' English Departments is both voluminous and of inferior quality, and is best left alone." It is a sentiment you have echoed elsewhere, too. Why do you think Indian poetry in English suffers from this neglect?

AKM     Indian poetry is not alone in suffering this neglect; the same is true of Indian literature in English as a whole. There is plenty of criticism around, written by dodgy academics and published by equally dodgy publishers operating from Ghaziabad and Meerut or, for all one knows, even from the bylanes of Ansari Road, Delhi. These overpriced, substandard books are written to be shown at selection committees, when the teacher comes up for promotion; they also form the bulk of what is called "library supply." The tragedy is that despite there being hundreds of English departments in Indian colleges and universities and thousands of PhD-armed English teachers, there are very few, if any, whose voices are heard in the wider cultural world, or who are known for some authoritative work they may have done in a specialized field. Look at the English faculty of your own college, or that of other campus colleges, or the current DU English faculty, and you'll see what I mean. Of course faculty members attend what are called "national seminars" and ever so often travel abroad, but our blue passports die with us; it is the work that stays. We are not remembered for our frequent flier miles, nor do all the economy class tickets in the world add up to a book. These are wasted lives, though outwardly they may appear to be always in a hurry, rushing from home to T3 or the other way round. By the way, I also think that Indian academics, considering how little they do, are grossly overpaid.

BI     In the little magazines of the '60s and '70s, the poets of the period appear to have written regularly about each other's work. Was this writing of a better quality? Not much of it appears to have survived.

AKM     I don't know which little magazines you have in mind, but for sure there were more of them around then than what we have today. I am thinking of Jayanta Mahapatra's Chandrabhaga and Vilas Sarang's Bombay Literary Review, though the latter appeared in the 1980s. The long essay I wrote on R. Parathasarathy in Chandrabhaga, "The Emperor Has No Clothes," is now in my collected essays, Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History (2012). But we need similar collections for Adil Jussawalla, Dilip Chitre, and Nissim Ezekiel. This is where the academic comes in, to sift through the material and make it available to a new audience. It means hunting down fugitive magazines, and it is hard work, which no one's willing to do. Fortunately there are now scholars at Rutgers, CNRS Paris, and Essex who are working on Indian poetry of the '60s and '70s, looking at precisely these magazines, but so far no Indian is doing so.

BI     Many of the Clearing House publications—Adil Jussawalla's Missing Person, Dilip Chitre's Travelling in a Cage, Gieve Patel's How Do you Withstand Body, and your own Nine Enclosures, among others—are now out of print and unavailable. What can we as readers and enthusiasts of poetry do about this? Is there any way these books can be procured today?

AKM     The books are indeed out of print and have been for some time. But if we had had even one world class library in India and a library system in place, you would have been able to get hold of the books, on interlibrary loan, without leaving your desk, so to speak. I have just conducted a search on www.worldcat.org and find that the Clearing House titles you mention are available in the New York Public Library. Which means that a reader sitting in a remote college in Montana will be able to call for them, but not you in Delhi. None of this is of any help of course, but that's how it is. It's the price you pay for living in India. And it's not a small price.

BI     How did your involvement in translation begin?

AKM     It began, strangely enough, with Kabir, when I came across his poems in the late '60s, in an anthology of Hindi religious verse in English translation. I don't remember the name of the anthology. It may have been one of the volumes published by Bharati Vidya Bhavan, or the one translated by Ahmad Shah, published by the Baptist Mission Press, Cawnpore. I decided to redo them into contemporary English. I had no idea of the originals, nor did I seek them out; I was too young, too impatient, and my school Hindi too inadequate to read them in any case.

BI     There have been many English translations of Kabir in the past, ranging from the prose translations of Tagore to Vinay Dharwadker's and Robert Bly's more recent verse renditions. Where do you situate your translations within this larger context of Kabir in English?

AKM     There are plenty of other Kabir translations around for sure, but they are all different from each other. Bly, who does not know Hindi, got his Kabir out of Tagore, which is fair enough. Dharwadker and the others—Linda Hess, for instance—are academics, working in the Western academy. They do literal translations, more or less, and try to translate every word. I threw a lot out, lines I found to be repetitive or formulaic. They did not work for me, at least not in English. We should not forget that a lot of bhakti poetry is full of cliches; it's how the oral tradition survives; it's the nature of the beast.

I should also say that I translated the poems in the same spirit in which they were written or, more accurately, sung and transmitted through the centuries. If the Kabir singer, for whatever reason, did not like a particular line he modified it, or replaced it with another, or dropped it altogether. Which is why many Kabir poems come in several versions. I have produced one more version, the only difference is that mine happens to be in English, or in American English, for that's the demotic we speak, often without realizing it.

BI     Tell us a bit about Ezra-Fakir.

AKM     Ezra-Fakir was two cyclostyled magazines, one called Ezra (the name inspired by Ezra Pound) and the other Fakir. I started them in Bombay, where I had moved from Allahabad in 1966 to do my MA. There were five issues of Ezra, which I wanted to be exclusively for translations of bhakti poetry. There was only one issue of Fakir, which carried Dilip Chitre's translations of Tukaram.

BI     Your early poetry, in its construction and deployment of images, often bears echoes of surrealist writing techniques. You have even written a poem titled "The Exquisite Corpse." Was the Surrealist movement a major influence?

AKM     For a while I was influenced by surrealism. It helped me get away from the solidly Eng. Lit. course I was doing, first in Allahabad and later in Bombay. I mean, you cannot write "modern" poetry if you'd been fed only on a steady diet of the English canon, or so I believed. Remember I was only 20 years old at the time. I once said something to Amit Chaudhuri in a personal email, which he quoted in one of his Telegraph columns. It might be of interest to you:

Is it possible Surrealism helped me to resolve the awful contradiction between the world which I wanted to write about, which was the world of dentists and chemist shops, and the language, English, I had to write in? How does one write about an uncle in a wheelchair in the language of skylarks and nightingales? Surrealism... provided the answer, or so it appears in hindsight. It's almost as though I had said to myself that since I can't write about these things in English, let me try doing it in French, so to speak.

Discovering the French and the Americans (Pound, William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg) was, for me, a moment of liberation. My subjects did not lie in Europe or the United States, but I had first to make a detour to those places, through their poetry, to realize that my subjects lay nearer home, if not at home. A poem like "The Sale" is an example of what I'm talking about, though its form, the dramatic monologue, I got from Browning. The Eng. Lit. course was useful after all. I suppose it is the same with painters. Someone like Bhupen Khakhar, for instance, picked up his craft where he did, but ultimately he painted the men he knew and the streets he walked.

BI     Your later poetry is more compressed, economical, and detached in style. It is also more localized and rooted in childhood, family, small town life, and history and colonial culture. How do you regard this transition?

AKM     Compression and economy may have been features of my work from the beginning, whether as poet or translator. I got my aesthetic from Pound, especially his early essays like "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste" (which in fact first appeared in Poetry magazine in March 1913), where he said:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to explain their metres.

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.

Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace." It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Don't retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

BI     You have lived in Allahabad for many years now, and the influence of this can be seen in your work. Similarly, Kolatkar's poetry is inextricably bound with the Bombay of his time. How important do you think a writer's spatial moorings are to his writing? Did you perceive a change in your writing when you went to Bombay or Iowa?

AKM     I lived in Bombay from 1966 to 1968 but really never wrote about Bombay. I lived in Iowa City from 1971 to 1973 but never wrote about my American experience. I realized while living in the U.S. that I could only write in and from the places I have known since childhood: Allahabad and Dehra Dun. I still live in these cities, though I have often been asked why I didn't move to the U.S. or even to Delhi. I couldn't. The moorings you mention are important to me, as they surely were to Kolatkar, who never moved out of a few square miles of Bombay. But it works differently for different people. There are writers who can live anywhere and still be able to write.

BI     What do you think about the future of Indian poetry in English? There appears to be a sense of disillusionment among some Indian poets. C. P. Surendran, for instance, in an interview declared, "Poetry is a failure in communication. It is unable to reach across to people... I stopped writing poetry because nobody reads it."

AKM     It is a myth that fiction always sells in huge numbers. How many copies of an average Penguin novel are printed? My guess would be 1500 to 2000. And not all of them are sold. A volume of poems could sell about almost as many. 500 copies of Adil Jussawalla's Trying to Say Goodbye disappeared within weeks and is being reprinted. Arun Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda Poems, despite distribution problems since it's brought out by a small press, has by now sold 2000 copies, maybe more. It is true that readers will pick up fiction more easily than a book of poems, but hasn't it been like this for some time? As for Surendran, am I to believe that An Iron Harvest or Lost and Found were bestsellers? If anything, novels sink faster than books of poems.

BI     You haven't published any new poetry since The Transfiguring Places came out in 1998. Can we expect to see more of your poetry in the near future?

AKM     I write only a few of poems a year, which largely explains why I haven't brought out a new book. I would like though to bring one out—a New and Selected Poems—in the near future, but I've been saying this for a while and still haven't gotten round to it.

BI     Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring poets? How should they go about seeking criticism? Platforms for feedback seem to be shrinking—magazines, for various logistical reasons, do not offer much feedback; university spaces too are not conducive anymore for a serious engagement with poetry. In such a scenario, it becomes very difficult for people who are just starting out to get a sense of what they're doing and where they're heading, and this lack of direction and guidance often ends up silencing many promising voices.

AKM     You learn to learn on your own, as we did. I would say, begin with Pound's essays. They're still the best guide I know. And read the Indian poets in English—Ezekiel, Moraes, Kolatkar, Jussawalla, Kamala Das, Mahapatra, de Souza, Chitre, Ali, Shetty—whose work will give you some idea of where your own is at. There's enough there for you to rebel against or come to grips with. Also, take a look at the 19th century. It's not without its surprises. Toru Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), though a work of translation, is one of the great books of Indian poetry. You can read it for free on the Internet. Naturally, and not surprisingly, it is utterly neglected. The only essay on A Sheaf is by an American academic, Tricia Lootens, at the University of Georgia. My suspicion is that Indian academics don't have the intellectual wherewithal to tackle their own literature.


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