Moloy Bhattacharya (MB): I am extremely happy to get an opportunity to talk to you today since I have known you for long through the social media. I would request you to share with me your thoughts on poetry and the literary scenario. Before you respond, I congratulate you on your continual success in literary ventures. Recently, through a national level Short Story Contest organized by Xpress Publications, you have been awarded the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature, 2018. This is wonderful, especially after the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi Award for your English Novel last year. In a way, you have made a name in the field of both short and long fiction.
Anuradha Bhattacharyya (AB): Thank you Moloy, for all your good wishes. And I am happy to be conversing with you who is himself a poet and will soon make it big on the literary scene with his debut collection.
MB: Your story Painting Black and Blue is about a young girl Manasa who encounters two other girls in her neighbourhood who want to paint their ‘vehicles’ white or green and so forth, which Manasa finds similar to fanaticism of a religious type and presumably dangerous in the long run. I was intrigued by the lines ‘learning from others’. Could you please elaborate on it?
AB: Yes, Moloy, the story emphasizes on learning from others. I have read Gandhiji’s biography as well as Swami Vivekananda on Himself and concluded that the only argument for following the religion one is born into is that it was “the only paint I could find in Mummy’s store”. Gandhiji said, he encountered many Christians with a missionary zeal and coaxed Indians to convert. He resisted it, giving the argument that no one needs to change it, as natural things wear their own colour in the long run. If someone was trying to paint it green it was more out of ignorance than wisdom. The nature of zeal is to keep trying to convince others into our ways of thinking. Now we have peace conferences. That was the whole idea of the story where ‘zeal’ even for conferences is discouraged.
MB: It is common for stories on women and on politics to win major prizes and your story does not really fit into any of these two categories. How important do you think it is to speak within the larger domains, if only to keep coming out tops?
AB: Really, when I started out with publications, I did not care if I was winning a prize or not. But a friend encouraged me to submit my book for the Chandigarh prize. Thereafter, my readership increased. Even though I cannot write a single line dictated by the ‘trend’, as you say, I felt the benefits of winning a prize.
Moloy, if you observe carefully, there are sensible people all over the world who can distinguish between seeking fame and communicating ideas and definitely, they go for ideas and new ideas at that. A story does not necessarily function as a moral message. After all, it is narration of a sequence of events that lead up to a climax. Therefore, the reader responds not to the message, but to the emotions it ignites in one’s heart. You can grasp the message only if you reflect further on the story, as intellectuals tend to do. The new idea sometimes doesn’t really match the reader’s views and then the story simply becomes unacceptable for him.
MB: You have been expressing ideas in poetry as well. How do you choose the form of expression before penning down your thoughts? I see everywhere, every month a new poet is born in India and the readers of poetry are on the rise, yet a poetry collection is not sold in great numbers like a romantic or sensuous novel. What is your reaction to it?
AB: Are you worried that the whole earth will be seized by romance and sensuous art? It is wrong to think that art is something for serious study. Remember, literature was not even a discipline till 1920s. If you begin to take a book in hand solely with the view to analyze it, for research purpose, something called ‘culture studies’, you are doing a serious harm to art. Aesthetic forms need not be comprehended or analyzed. They are for entertainment, to give you relief from ‘work’. They may have a spiritual or moral side too but that is secondary. A piece of poem is being read; the sales don’t matter.
I choose a story, not an aesthetic form. I cannot write a poem if the situation or event I want to describe has really happened, like the story Order Order. However, Painting is an imagined situation and it came out in reaction to an incessant flow of essays from a peace activist, who I think is simply vying for a Nobel Peace Prize or the like.
I write poems particularly if I cannot phrase my thoughts coherently. Afterwards, I read and revise to some extent. I also ask friends to read and comment (not on facebook). Each poem is a teaser for me.
MB: I was surprised to read your book of poems Lofty. How did you come up with such a catchy title? Do you decide on the title with the readers’ taste in view? Secondly, what is your opinion on the growing tendency of self publication of poetry that has of late turned out to be a fashion among the contemporary poets?
AB: Self publication is not a recent trend. I read about Blake. He was the owner of a printing press. Swift had a friend who owned a printing press. The English romantic poets circulated their work in pamphlets amongst like-minded people. Dickens had launched his own journal where he serially published his novels. Tagore’s work is all self-published. Gandhiji’s treatises were all published by a press he had set-up for this purpose.
In commercial films, we see two roles: producer and director. There are others like script-writer and so on. But think of all those Bollywood actors who have become producers of their own films!
Publishing is a business. The only way you can make a publisher invest in your work is by giving him the impression that he can make money out of your book. That is why we usually have ‘vintage’ publications.
When you give your book to a literary agent, it is he who keeps in mind the taste of the public and decides on a catchy title. The agent is likely to have no personal involvement with the book at the emotional level. You can take his advice, if that smells of success. However, in the long run, you are found out. If the book’s title is not justified by the contents, people reject the whole book, even if they have bought it with their hard earned money.
I decide on the title spontaneously. Lofty was the first word and the poem was the first one that I wrote in that collection of poems. You’ll notice that it is somewhere in the middle of the book. It is the heart of the collection. I can give you the example of Dostoevsky’s literary career, which affected his health as well. His critics acclaimed him for his first novel Poor Folk. Soon after, he came up with The Double. He was very excited about his new idea and shared it enthusiastically. But the same critics now discouraged him. He developed epilepsy due to stress. Now Poor Folk is not even available and everybody in the academic circle reads The Double as the first instance of the depiction of a schizophrenic.
MB: That was in Dostoevsky’s period. Now many people would prefer to write on poor folk, the marginalized and refugees. In fact, many organizations have come up with theme based poetry contests focusing on these issues. There may be a charitable aim behind these. What is your take on this?
AB: This is a good question. It affects the career of many aspirants. These are like badminton tournaments. One wins and the others lose the trophy. But remember ‘the sporting spirit’. In the case of poetry, more than the sporting spirit, there should be camaraderie. Everyone is quite good.
If the money raised by the sale of a book on peace goes for charitable purposes, there is no dispute about the utility of such efforts.
MB: Do you think there is a possibility of such contests being fake? Maybe, there isn’t a charitable institute behind it at all. Or maybe the organizer is making money and not forwarding it for charity. It is also the case with some publishers, who do not have copy editors and who do not work in the least bit towards distribution of the book. The author is left in the lurch in these cases and one’s ambitions are thwarted.
AB: You are right about the possibility for an author to succumb to temptations by fake publishers and organizers. One has to keep one’s ‘ambition’ in check. One has to seek advice from senior authors, like you and I do (smiles).
MB: Do you think that you get undue attention for being a female writer? There is yet another question that troubles my mind: it’s about influencing the judges. You have won prizes, so perhaps you would not like to comment negatively on this. But still I am asking: how far does lobbying affect the selection of winners?
AB: During the award ceremony last year, the Vice-President of the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi Mr. Madhav Kaushik told the audience – in reply to a lady’s question on lobbying – that as a rule their 3 ‘evaluators’ are selected from among the most senior literary figures from all over India. They are given the text after removing all signs of identity of the author and publisher. Therefore, these prizes are solely text based.
Hearing this, apart from feeling proud to be the winner in the English novel category, I started wondering if the evaluators thought I was a man because the narrator of ONE WORD is a man.
Lobbying does not go without the least pint of merit. The debutant has no chance for lobbying, in my view. However, some prolific authors do get more attention. Publicity too draws a lot of attention. Then we find these names shortlisted, nominated, but the winner might be simply the best in merit.
As for being a woman, I do get a lot of attention. But as a woman-writer, there is hardly any difference; both men and women are read.
MB: Do you digest negative criticism? Have you ever received any?
AB: I have received ‘suggestions’ for improvement. You will see one comment below the story If you marry, your father will die. I received that sort of advice from a couple of editors. Nobody has criticized me outright. I did find a few of my friends puzzled about my novel The Road Taken. They were more like, ‘o why such a destiny?!’ thing, I observed in their long discourse on the novel over the phone or at a coffee table.
MB: Every year many national and international poetry meets take place in India. Do you think, these are mere ‘get-together’ of the poets from various regions, or do these meets really play a crucial role towards the contribution and making of Indian Literature?
AB: I think at least once in a year, such a get-together is a must for every writer. One must meet like-minded people. It is like Paolo Coelho calls in his book Brida, meeting ‘soul-mates’. He says there can be more than one soul-mate. And to me other poets are my soul-mates. So, it’s important to meet old friends, buddies, comrades, like family.
There isn’t anything so very bookish about these Meets or Festivals. Even the nomenclature does not indicate any ‘crucial role’. You must also join these meets and feel for yourself how it enlivens you.
MB: Thanks a lot once again, it is a unique privilege talking to you.