In Conversation with Aju Mukhopadhyay
Aju Mukhopadhyay, a bilingual poet, author and critic, writes fictions and essays too. He has authored 30 books and received several poetry awards from India and USA besides other honours. He is a regular contributor to various magazines and e-zines in India and abroad. He is a member of the Research Board of Advisors of the American Biographical Institute, registered in the Who’s Who of Sahitya Akademi, India. He is one of the Vice Presidents of the Guild of Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics. A member of many national literary and environmental institutions, he is also published as writer on animals, wildlife, Nature and Environment. His poetry in English has been published in 14 anthologies and his short stories too have been published in some anthologies besides in "Einfach Menschlich" (Simply Human), published by the German Language Department of the University of Mumbai, where his story has been translated in German and selected as one of the Indian Short stories. He has participated in 30 national and international conferences and festivals on poetry, literature and environment. Seven books contain critique on his poetry besides such critiques on his poetry and fiction scattered in several magazines. Interviews on him have been published in magazines, websites and books. He has travelled across some important countries of Asia, Europe, America and Africa.Two recently published books by him are “The World of Sri Aurobindo’s Creative Literature” (Literary) and “Mother of all Beings” (Biography).
Would you please tell us about your early childhood days and your school life?
AM: I was born in a joint family in north Kolkata and grew up with all my own and cousin brothers and sisters. North Kolkata was still then the hub of Kolkata, with respectable families and traditional houses but already very crowded. Swami Vivekananda’s house was in our neighbourhood, Tagore house too was quite near; Calcutta University and Metropolitan Institution (main), founded by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was also in our neighbourhood where I studied. There were at least 35 to 40 members in our family including the helping hands and dependents. None of us received exclusive treatment from our elders; eating the common food, going to school on slipper, many of us sleeping in the same room, was the usual norm. The whole surrounding was crowded. I was born during the Second World War. I have faint remembrance of a fearful atmosphere prevailing during the communal riot culminating to the horrible Calcutta massacre in 1946. There was stray bombing by the Japanese in our neighbourhood.
I studied in the same school from class four to the end till I passed the School Final (equivalent to Matriculation in the earlier stage). We feared some of the teachers who were of very grave and serious nature, like mathematics teacher Bimal Babu or history teacher Pulin Babu. Indu Babu was of jovial nature but he used to beat us when he felt needed with wooden scale on our palms. Some teachers confined some naughty boys or punished some, compelling them to sit in Kneel down position on the floor or standing on the benches for an hour or so. When Tulsi Lahiri Sir, the superintendent called some student in his chamber and talked or punished, in rare cases with caning, there prevailed an atmosphere of fear and attrition. But teachers loved us too and during Saraswati Puja or some other function of the school they indulged in revelry. Sometimes when a helping hand from our house came with a slip of paper in hand to get us freed for the day with the teacher’s permission on some urgent need, as he pleaded, we got a big blow on our back from the fat darwan who understood the mischievous idea of the person who came to take us home. Coming out, sometimes he took me or the two of us to a cinema. It was a joyous surprise but going home as usual we found none of our guardians knew of it.
Would you define poetry in your own words
Usually some pent-up emotion like love as we understand usually, grievance against the ruler or society or some unknown love for Nature or the divine or some extraordinary feeling about life and surrounding gives birth to poetry. Good poetry must be a synthetic product of thoughts, ideas, dreams and visions grasped intuitively. Imagery, symbolism, subtle ornaments make the poetry enjoyable; pleasant to hear, beautiful to see. Whatever the force that dominates a poem a unique creation gives ananda. I do not think that efforts to write poetry to make propaganda of any sort, to make loud publicity in favour of religious belief or arguing through gross words make any poetry. Any sentiment may be expressed through poetry but that must be free from the crude utterances though sometimes apparently crude ideas about love or anger or other violent feelings too may give birth to poetry if the emotion is properly used for the sublime lies in the lap of the crude physical sheath too. Presently prose poems are the usual norms acceptable but in my view poetry must have some rhythm, even an inner rhythm and there is no wrong in rhyming though it may not be made compulsory. Poems rhymed are the natural products in their usual form. Rhymed or unrhymed, poetry must contain pithy sayings in any form, it must give rise to an idea hidden in the layers of its body. Ideas vague or without carrying any clear meaning are examples of inappropriate poetry
When did you start writing your poems?
It was during my teens in my mother tongue, Bangla. They were written in small exercise book; remained unpublished and finally lost sight of.
Do you remember your first poem in English?
I do not remember exactly but my first poems were written in the nineteen nineties. “Solar Eclipse on a birthday” was written on my birthday in 1995. “February Twenty-first” was one of the early poems, written on the occasion of the Mother’s (of Pondicherry) birth anniversary. So was a poem, titled, ”A River”.
Who have inspired you to write poetry?
Frankly speaking, I have none to mention in particular. Tagore was with us at every step so his indirect influence we cannot deny. And ever since I found myself engaged in studying Sri Aurobindo in my youth I was drawn to his philosophy and poetry, particularly Savitri. But still now as I write, I do not feel any direct influence of his poems though his philosophy and ideas percolate through my veins spontaneously, may be some lines of his poems remain in my subconscious sheath. They may do their work but nothing influences me directly. That way it may be that Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth or even Walter de la Mere touch my heart and mind though it is not that I regularly read them. Nature inspires and incites me to write. Poems on Nature and environment and rants; poems in favour of the fallen adivasi, against social injustices and of late, political debauchery and coquetry certainly inflame my emotion to write but the expressions are my own like my other poems of purely subjective experiences.
What are your volumes of poems?
In English they are: The Witness Tree, In Celebration of Nature, The Paper Boat, Aju Mukhopadhyay’s Poems on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Insect’s Nest and Other Poems, Short Verse Vast Universe and Short Verse Delight. At least three more books of poems are being conceived as poems written and mostly published are awaiting the light of day.
Could you mention a few poems that represent you as a poet?
Though I love all my poems, particularly the poems in the book, In Celebration of Nature, some were better creations to represent me more like, “The days pass by”, “The Burning Lamp” and “The Witness Tree” (The Witness Tree); “What an Age we are passing through”, “From Darkness towards Light” and “The Paper Boat” (The Paper Boat); “Fishes in Water”, “The Grass” and “Solace in Nature” (In Celebration of Nature); “Sri Aurobindo” and “February Twenty-first” (Aju Mukhopadhyay’s Poems on Sri Aurobindo and The Mother); “Insect’s Nest”, “At the River Bank”, “The Profiles of Birds”, “Life and Death Hugs each other”, “The Uncivilised”, “The Adivasi”, “Il Pleut” and “Tenant” (Insect’s Nest and Other Poems).
All these poems were acclaimed or commented on favourly besides some other poems, and I like them. I have refrained from mentioning any of the poems which are not in a book or remain unpublished.
What is the future of Indian English poetry?
With the fast development of English studies in schools and colleges and universities in India it is expected that Indian English will develop and with it the Indian English Poetry though poetry in general is not receiving so much attention now. I hope that with the increase of English speaking population future culture will absorb finer senses to find poetry enjoyable which shall not be confined to crude novels, violence, profiteering or bizarre political activities.
What are the main themes of your poetry?
I find three currents flowing through my poetry: Nature, Social ideas and responsibilities tilting towards rants and spiritual feeling and experiences.
What would be your advice to the budding poets?
Follow your own heart and seek what is the natural inflow and outflow of your being. Never be influenced too much or imitate any poet of the past or present. Your own feelings and imaginations and inherent capacities are the best source of your poetry. But more reading of literature and poetry refines your culture and gives edge to your writing skill.
Why is poetry important to you?
Because poetry is the inner most urge of my heart, poetry is my love and through poetry I can express vaster things in shorter art form.
Tell a bit about your poem anthology, “The Witness Tree”
This is quite nostalgic experience I relish with joy for it was my first book of poems published quite after some years of my permanent settlement here in Pondicherry. My poems in English were being published for some time in some magazines like “Mother India” and some other magazines and I approached P. Lal, the leading supporter of Indian English literature from my native city, Calcutta, under the brand name, Writers Workshop. As usual, he took it up with encouragement and wrote me as the book progressed in his calligraphic handwriting correcting, editing, paper setting and publishing with all care. It was published in 2000. Later once when I listed my works for a book, as soon as it came to “The Witness Tree”, he wrote by its side- WW, as he published it earlier. My relationship through my first book of poems with P. Lal became cordial. I published my debut novel too through him, titled, In Train. I still remember “The Witness Tree” for its fresh smell from a forgotten time.
Would you tell me a few words about your book of poems “Insect’s Nest and Other Poems”
This volume of poetry was published in 2010, the last book of poems published. While I wait for the next volumes this is still fresh as the latest. It contains quite some poems I love and many of the poems in it have been highly acclaimed by the critiques, Indian and foreign. “The Adivasi” in it was read before a large international gathering during the international Chotro-3 conference at Silon Bagh near Shimla.
You wrote books on Sri Aurobindo. Please tell a few words about your views on him.
Here you give me a chance to speak about a man I love most though I never saw him. This is based on my inner choice of a man for all ages.
A revolutionary, a poet and a writer, Sri Aurobindo, beginning with his journalistic days to the last of his poetic era, wrote large number of essays; political, socialistic, analytical and interpretative of scriptures besides translations of classics from different languages. Compared to his non-fiction and other works the volume of his original creative literature is quite less. But he remained a poet from his student days to the last, writing 50000 (approx) lines of poetry. Savitri, the spiritual epic, his lifetime work, is one of the largest in world literature and the largest in English language. He wrote good number of dramas (five complete and five incomplete plus some fragments and translations) and four short stories. He was a thinker and silent yogi. I prefer to see him from different viewpoints through different personalities of history.
Times Literary Supplement, London, wrote in July 1944:
“Of all modern Indian writers Aurobindo- successively poet, critic, scholar, thinker, nationalist, humanist- is the most significant and perhaps the most interesting. . . . .
“As an Indian scholar and critic he is second to none. . . . Like Coleridge and Heine he displays a piercing and almost instantaneous insight into the heart of his subject. . . .
Professor Gabriel Monod-Herzen, the well-known French physicist, once explained that Sri Aurobindo embodied for him the quintessence of the scientific spirit for he rejects none, no ideas, for there is a place for all opinions, even those which he does not accept and he admits that particle of truth exists in everything because without it that opinion itself could not exist. Sri Aurobindo asserted that ignorance is not absence of knowledge but incomplete knowledge.
Poet Rabindranath Tagore after visiting him for the last time in his cave of tapasya in Pondicherry on 29.5.1928 wrote, “I felt that the utterance of the ancient Hindu Rishi spoke from him of that equanimity which gives the human soul its freedom of entrance to the All. I said to him, ‘You have the Word and we are waiting to accept it from you. India will speak through your voice to the world, ‘Hearken to me.’”
Long before Rabindranath C. R. Das, the great Indian leader and barrister who pleaded for Sri Aurobindo in the Alipore conspiracy case in 1909, uttered the following words in his lengthy last speech, “Long after the controversy will be hushed in silence, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed, not only in India, but across distant seas and lands. Therefore, I say that the man in his position is not only standing before the bar of this Court, but before the bar of the High Court of History.”
So far in the history of man no political or social principle or remedy has solved man’s problems. I believe that Sri Aurobindo’s vision of Life Divine only can ultimately lead man to a newer golden age if they properly follow him. Sri Aurobindo belongs to the future.
Why did you choose to settle in Pondicherry
Mainly because I became a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with an urge to settle near their home, the Ashram established by them. And I found that Pondicherry, the erstwhile French town, the biggest French link to India, is a small town with lesser problems of life which offer peace of mind and heart, in spite of many drawbacks.
Do you have any message to the society as a poet?
I strongly feel that poets and writers should be the persons who can give guidance to society, leadership to citizens’ life with real ideas. I strongly wish that people should think with their own mind and heart. Society should never be dependent on political personalities. A progressive society should be dependent on its scientific analysis of the past and futuristic vision free from political influences.
How could you manage your career as a banker and a creative writer?
This is really a weighty question for earlier a bank manager used to be engaged in his office from morning till late in the evening so to engage him from morning to night until he came back home. While engaged in different positions of a bank I used to write but the volume of production was much less. And surely that was a strained time, disturbed by transfers from place to place throughout the country. The writer and poet in me live beyond that time, in the heart of literature.
How do you rate yourself as a poet?
Can I rate myself? But this may be said that different reviewers and scholars writing on my poetry have highly acclaimed quite some of my poems. My poetry topped some websites. I have received four poetry awards besides certificate of merit. My poetry has been published in fourteen anthologies and quite more are in the press. There are critiques on my poetry in seven books published by reputed publishers in India and abroad.
Will you share with us your visit to America?
Oh, this is a hidden treasure of my heart, something which I wished to share with others as I have shared many of my trips in travel features with my readers, mostly in dailies. A result of my visit to Europe was more than a couple of travel writings but my visit to America has not been honoured with any publication so far. Shortage of time and lack of encouragement from publishers may be the cause. However, I wonder how you have come to know of this to put such a surprising question. My warm regards to you for giving me chance to write few lines on the subject.
In October-November 2010 I visited United States and Canada at the invitation from my two daughters living in opposite directions in that country. Well in advance of my visit we chalked out our programs so I could visit some remarkable Nature spots of the United States spreading from North-East to the South-West of America within the calculated time span. While I stayed in New York and Foster City in San Francisco, I visited some great places like 1000 Islands, Niagara Falls in Toronto, Canada, Grand Canyon in Arizona and Yosemite in California after visiting and staying at Las Vegas. I visited Cornwall in Canada being invited by the renowned poet Dr. Stephen Gills and stayed as his guest for a day. Besides these I visited many great places in between them. I have an earnest wish to write on all such splendid places of the earth though many great writers must have written on them before me.
Tell a bit about your short stories
I began writing with short stories. I have three books of short stories in Bangla and two in English. I edited two short story magazines in Bangla. My short stories have been anthologized. Some years ago one of my short stories got second prize in a competition conducted by Bizz-Buzz, a small press publication. Recently one of my short stories (The Pride of a Woman) has been included in a book of Indian stories translated in German language, published by the University of Mumbai in 2011titled, "Einfach Menschlich" (Simply Human). I have been writing short stories for magazines and books, some of which have been highly acclaimed by the critics. I have two books of short stories in English, White Bird and its Black Shadow and The Moments of Life. In this respect I may add that though my other books about or on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have been sold, even second editions published, my creative works in Bangla have received little media attention. Little magazines and self-publications cannot go far. With regard to recent Bengali literature I may say that they are recorded, prized and praised writers who are blessed by the big media and they have all connectivity with establishments and others. There are few outside this circle who are known. While my poems and stories in English are known to good numbers of deserving readers, my works in Bengali are not though I have faint satisfaction that writers like Nolini kanto Gupta and Jyotirindrandra Nandi appreciated some of my stories besides few discussions in small press journals. I aspire that deserving readers and scholars at least in the generations to come would look into them to see if they are inferior to all those who have been copiously adulated and prized. I have confidence over my creations though I cannot evaluate.
How many books in Bengali have you written...please tell their names
12 books. Their names follow-
Chasma O Tinti Galpo (Four short stories); Tinjan (a collection of short stories) Divya Janani (biography-running in second edition); Manus Putul O Bahiragata (Bahiragata is a one Act play by me. The book was Coauthored with another Bengali poet); Sakaler Nolini-da (Biography); Sri Aurobindo: Ekti Divya Jiban (biography-running in second edition); Amanusher Bhalobasa (a collection of short stories); Sri Aurobindo Sri Mayer Siksa Bhavna (Essays on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s ideas on education); Dinguli Jaye (a collection of poems); SriAurobinder Aloksadharan Galpo (translation of short stories by Sri Aurobindo with some highlights on his short stories); SriAurobinder Kabita ( translation of some selected poems by Sri Aurobindo); Apratyashita Atithi (a collection of poems)
What is your immediate wish?
To publish some books as have been conceived for long to reach the deserving readers through unbiased media.
Thank you so much sir
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Thanks Santanu for your good efforts to present me- your movements are quite appreciable