Sharmila Ray teaches history at City College, Kolkata, India.She has authored four books of poems. She is the current editor of the journal, Poetry Society of India.She has experimented her poems with sarod (Avijit Ghosh) and the result is a CD-Journey through Poetry and Music. Her poems, short stories, have appeared in various national and international journals and magazines. She has conducted poetry workshops with children organized by British Council and Poetry Society India. She has been reading her poems in various parts of the country.
Jaydeep Sarangi: Would you please tell us about your early childhood days and parentage?
Sharmila Roy: I was born in Calcutta, a city of sepia colour, a city which tugs at my heart strings so that I can’t be separated from her for a long time. Infact, Calcutta (I like to call it that way not Kolkata because Calcutta is history and I grew up with it) is a shadow city, chiaroscuro, a city I never left in an age defined by diaspora,exile and opportunities.
I had a liberal atmosphere at home. My mother taught at a college and my father was a principal of an engineering college. Being an only child, I was left to to find ways and means to amuse myself. Our house was full of books and in the shadow of bookshelves, sofas and cofee tables I started to dream of a different world.
My parents were not a no nonsense kind of people and home was freedom. They created a cozy world for me and every night I went to bed taking this feeling like a hot water bottle, creating a comfort zone and drifting into sleep.
J.S: Your schooling? J.S: Please tell us about your college life? Your friends…
S.R: I went to Pratt Memorial School and English was my first language. But at home we spoke Bengali. Looking back I realise that Pratt Memorial was a good choice. It was one of those schools which aimed at holistic development.Ofcourse exams and grades were important but there was fun and fiesta too. We had creative writing classes and each one of us were trying to write our best whether be it poetry or essay so that it could be pinned on the wall magazine.School was not only syllabus but something beyond.
Then came Presidency College, still one of the best in the state. I took history as my major.Dr Rajat Kanta Ray was simply faboulous. His lectures on French Revolution and Indian Freedom Struggle, I will never forget. He showed us history was not about entry and exit but about departures. And there was Ajoy Banerjee, a gem of a person. Any problem we had, any unanswered question, we would rush to him knowing that it would be solved. At Presidency the friends’circle was different. We were half baked but then our intense conversation led to defining moments that’s hard to forget.
J.S: When did you feel that you have a talent for poetry?
S.R: Well Jaideep, I really don’t know whether I’ve a talent for poetry but this much I can say that from childhood written words attracted me. The smell of paper, the ink, all created a secondary world, a world that was distant and at the same time inviting. I felt in order to enter this world I had to scribble something personal whose existence was not the cause for embarassment. Perhaps, that was my entry to poetry. The journey was painfully alone. Here there was no society or club where you could share, critique or discuss. Even now, those who write in English and made some name are snooty.
J.S: Are you bi-lingual? Do you write poems in Bengali?
S.R: I am not bi-lingual. I write poetry in English only, though, sometimes, I do write essays in Bengali. Look, I can’t answer your question because in a literal sense I am not bi-lingual. English is the language I am comfortable with, the language I write. But like most Indians I am multilingual, I have a working knowledge of two languages and these reshape my poetry.
J.S: Do you think that a strong first language can be a help or hindrance for a bi-lingual poet?
S.R: Not at all. Jaideep don’t you think that it’s time we dropped this question? Whatever I will voice has been voiced before.I feel no obligation to prove my Indianness because it is something deep and spontaneous and language (which ever it is) is the tool of expression. Indianness is not a fashion you consciously try to achieve.
J.S: Do you view writing in English as an obstacle to the ex-pression of Indianness?
S.R: If one talks of ‘Indianness’ in this way I feel it is a straightjacket that we must throw it away, the sooner the better.
English is my language of creative expression,the one I want to share, inhabit.
J.S: Do you remember your first poem in English?
S.R: Well, I remember my first poem when I was eight years old. My father bought me a hard bound scholar notebook and I was thrilled to write in it. Then it went on. Nothing great, mostly rhymes. But I took poetry seriously when I was twenty. A particular poem called Carte Blanche is still my favourite. I can’t recall exactly when I wrote it but it was included in my first collection of poems.
J.S: Was there any mentor/idol for your poetry writing?
S.R: As you know Calcutta didn’t have stalwarts in poetry, I mean in English. So in that sense I didn’t have a mentor. But Jayanto Mahapatra, Bibhu Padhi have been very constructive influences as far as my poetry is concerned. Then there was Dr Kaul of Poetry Society of India who had been very supportive.
J.S: Who were the poets you read in your formative years?
S.R.: It’s difficult to answer because I have no clue. I read widely. From Elliot to Pessoa, from Ezekiel to C.P.Surendran, the list can go on. Moreover Jibananando Das, Sakti Chattopadhyay are my favourites.
J.S: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, W.H. Auden once said famously. How do you read this axiom?
S.R: Can you tell me Jaideep why should poetry make something happen? What do you mean by happening? If it is the limelight or the economics then one should try ones hand at other things not poetry. Poetry is a journey, there is no destination, no goal. You might stumble, you might fall and then again get up and resume the journey. There may be times when you want to get out of it. But at the end of the day if a single line makes your being sing then think you are blessed. You have got the energy to go on again. Poetry is something so internal, so subtle that it brings change without the headlines.
J.S: Your poems seem to me as poems of commitment. How do you react to this observation?
S.R: Interesting! Basically I think each and every poem no matter what is the theme is a poem of committment. Of course I am political not in terms of party affiliation but somone who is aware of the crisis ridden world, of violence, repression, domination of global economy and the struggle of marginalised classes and castes, gender and religion. In my fifth book ‘It’s Fantasy It’s Reality’ there is a section which I have called ‘Snow in my Heart’, there the poems voices,questions our present position vis a vis the unequal power struggle.
Commitment is for me what Tocqueville had said ‘…poets require strong and rapid emotions,startling passages,truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence into the midst of the subject.’
J.S:What are your volumes of poems?
S.R: Till now I have five volumes of poetry, Earth Me and You, A Day with Rini, Down Salt Water, Living Other Lives and It’s Fantasy It’s Reality.
J.S: Could you mention a few poems that represent you as a poet?
S.R: Do you mean to say that barring ‘few poems’ others are not poetry? (HA HAHA). Jokes apart, I believe all my poems represent me in some way or the other, otherwise I wouldn’t have written. Moreover, I write because I want to and I don’t think whether a poem of mine represents me as a poet or not.
J.S: Could you tell me about your latest volume?
S.R: Well, my latest volume is a collection of new and selected poems. Most of the poems are deeply rooted in the ordinary day to day living but reaches out to that which is subterraneous, which lies beyond the obvious. Here each emotion is important. My search has been to trace these vibrating emotions the borderline of which is beyond reflections and where life appears sun-bathed and sun-bleached.
J.S: How do you motivate yourself into writing?
S.R: I would rather not use the word ‘motivate’ because to me it brings in a feeling of ‘I have to’ even if I don’t want. I would put it this way - poetry for me is reinventing time, place, event relationships to capture the moment I’m trying to define, creating a personal archive which sometimes, transcends.
J.S: Do you see any subjective growth in you (as a poet)?
S.R: This is for the critics to say.
J.S: Did you ever write short story in English?
S.R: Sometimes, I do, especially when I can’t write poetry.
J.S: What is the future of Indian English poetry?
S.R: I feel the future is bright.But the mindset of Indian Publishers have to change. Writing poems is not all, it has to be published and distributed. Here the role of publishers are important. Poetry shouldn’t be treated as a step daughter or son. Even novels by renowned contemporary writers in Indian English won’t sell that much if there is no publicity.
J.S: Some of your poems attract us for the genuine sketch of the feminine psyche. What do you say about your inclination for this?
S.R: Don’t you think it’s very natural? But I don’t want to be categorized as feminist, humanist, ecologist etc.
J.S: What is your immediate wish?
S.R: To write poems, poems and poems.
J.S: Thank you, didi.