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In Conversation with Prof Dr. Sunil Sharma
|by Rob Harle|
About Prof. Dr. Sunil Sharma
Sunil Sharma is Principal at Bharat College – affiliated to University of Mumbai, Mumbai India. He is a bilingual critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. Some of his short stories and poems have already appeared, among others, in prestigious journals like: Hudson View (South Africa), Munyori, The Plebian Rag and the Bicycle Review (all three USA e-zines), Asia Writes; New Woman (Mumbai); Creative Saplings, Brown Critique, Muse India, Thanali and Kritya (Indian e-zines); the Seva Bharati Journal of English Studies (West Bengal), Indian Literature (of Sahitya Akademy, New Delhi), Labyrinth (Gwalior), Poets International (Bangalore), Contemporary Vibes (Chandigarh), Indian Journal of Post-colonial Literatures (Kerala), Prosopisia (Ajmer), and Seven Sisters, a daily from Assam. Some of his poems and shorts have been anthologized in national and international collections, published from India, Canada and USA. Besides that, he is a freelance journalist and blogger. His areas of strength are Marxism, Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.
Q Hi Sunil thanks for talking. This interview will have a worldwide audience, not only India, so could we start by you telling us a little about your childhood, schooling and tertiary education?
—Thanks Rob for the opportunity. My parents were both teachers. It was a small house with big ideas. Liberal, tolerant and full of love, poetry and philosophy. My father was a writer who could not pursue his writing due to work pressures and family commitments but he remained a poet by heart; mother was a teacher of drawing and painting and full of joie-de-vivre. It was a simple, honest and caring household where values and refined tastes were promoted. I was exposed to Schopenhauer and Goethe along with Kalidasa by my father and Picasso by my mother. Being youngest of three children, I came to monopolize them after my elder brother and eldest sister left for other shores.
Q Do you prefer writing poetry or fiction stories?
— Both. Poetry happens faster, is quicker, takes one sitting; fiction is slower, more demanding and takes many sittings, even months to complete. Images are fast in poetry; in fiction, they take longer to mature. So, for me, fiction is very challenging and complex. But I prefer both the forms, depending on the nature of ideas to be communicated aesthetically to your audience.
— For me, poetry is about giving voice to the mute. It is a celebration of life of those denied a share in the social development by design or apathy of the ruling elites for decades. Every Indian city is a paradox of wealth and poverty. Our job as a writer is to articulate artistically the social condition of the deprived and the marginalized. Victor Hugo did that earlier in France. Dickens did that in industrial England and Turgenev did that in Tsarist Russia.
Q If you had to mention just a couple of writers only who had a major influence on your own writing, who would those, be?
— Dickens, Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Sartre, Camus, Mann, Marquez and Kafka. In India, it is Prem Chand.
Q Indian literary scholars and academics such as you have a deep knowledge of all the great British writers such as Keats, Eliot, Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickens and Shelley. I don't hear much about the French masters such as Baudelaire or Rimbaud. How much do you attribute this to British colonialism in India?
— It was their project to justify and glorify their civilization and culture. Lord Macaulay famously wanted us to be Anglicized servants of the Raj, hating our heritage and colonial project did that successfully. Post-independent, shamefully, we are as a nation still their servile clones only, still hating our 5,000-year-old ancient civilization and culture and our basic pantheism. We are neither here nor there people. We have lost our soul and become poor caricatures: Neither pure white nor black or brown. A harlequin figure drifting, ridiculed. We are inauthentic beings now living the global nightmare of globalization that even otherwise kills any residue or trace of originality and subjectivity and turns you into a gross standardized consumer of global brands only.
Q I've noticed what I can only describe as a “gentle tone” in much contemporary Indian poetry, much more so than in say American or Australian poetry. I find this especially so in your poetry. Would you care to comment about this?
— Poet invariably cares for the muted and the voiceless people and becomes a mother and a mother’s touch is always very gentle.
Q In a recent review of the anthology Poetry Connections: Poems From Australia & India Rushdie was quoted, “A poet's work … to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start argument, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” Do you agree with Rushdie's statement?
— There are many writers embedded in the system who resist the narrative of the tyranny. Rushdie has also done that but from a distance. Writers are subversives, at least serious writers. Solzhenitsyn did that more courageously in Russia under a totalitarian system. Earlier Lorca did that in Spain. Hemingway did that in Nazi Paris. Brecht did that in Germany. Resistance and underground literature always question the status quo and official lies. Some radical writers, embedded in the system, take up the oppositional role most seriously and heroically. Take the example of the martyred Safdar Hashmi, a theatre activist and communist, who was brutally assaulted near Delhi, on a public street on January 1, 1989, by the political thugs. This bright post-graduate in English literature from Delhi University, a barely 34-year-old fire-breathing Marxist-poet and director of the street play, Halla Bole (Attack), died next day, on January 2. His legacy still inspires youth. Such commitment is rare these days. Most of the writers prefer to criticism establishment from a safe distance. Another inspiring poet from India is Gaddar, a Telegu balladeer who worked with the poor, the dalits and the landless and roamed the forests for his belief system. Compared with such artistes, we are nothing but self-serving writers promoting our own personal agenda and flirting with the West for dollars, prizes, canonization and, if possible, a permanent residency as well. Most of such writing is not genuine.
Q Poets can now publish their work on the Internet (websites, blogs, online journals and so on). Do you think this ease of publication, often without peer or editorial review, encourages a lowering in the quality of poetry?
— It is an age of further democratization. With the arrival of social media and FB, a large chunk of middle-class netizens have discovered the writer in them and FB has proved to be a liberating social site.
Q Thinking about this above internet-communication phenomenon, do you think some good poets/writers who would not have been heard twenty years ago at least now can have an audience?
— Sure. It is very democratic and liberating. We both discovered each other online only. With print dying and literary space shrinking, cyber- world is the best place for literary tête-à-tête across differing time zones and dividing spaces. Many voices have been empowered by this powerful and instant media. Writers are getting visible and heard regularly. It is truly revolutionary.
Q Training may be beneficial to honing a poet's skills but it is my belief that without passion (or deep serious commitment) no amount of training will produce a really good poet, do you agree with this?
— Good actors are born, not made. Similarly, good poets become good on the basis of their felt immediacies, sincerity of conviction, red-hot passion and a life-long apprenticeship to masters. Writing courses might hone up your skills and help in networking but cannot produce talent for feeling words and textures. It is always in born only. If MBA courses are good, why their faculties do not become successful entrepreneurs? Such courses have got limitations. For a good writer, literary imagination and a love for words are important.
Q I think anthologies are a wonderful way to bring poets to the reader’s attention, ones which they may not be familiar with. You are represented in numerous anthologies, The Dance of the Peacock; Poetic Connections: Poems >From Australia & India; Indo-Australian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry being the most recent ones. Would you agree with this statement?
— Sure. It is a literary service where poet-editors try to highlight others of their tribe for a world looking for diversity in content. It is a selfless service against many odds and must be publicly appreciated—promoting others.
Q Basho said, "A poet doesn't make a poem, something in him naturally becomes a poem." Do you think is correct?
— In a recent chat with you, I have said the same thing: A writer is a work in progress. A writer becomes a text; a text becomes a writer. Both are twins and inseparable. Your work is your extension. Hegel has said that work actualizes you. An artist gets realized in their works.
Q It is my personal belief that being authentic to oneself, in an Existential sense is far more important than winning say a Pulitzer Prize. “Better to have no public, than to have no self.” Would you care to discuss this somewhat, anti-literary establishment view?
— For me being authentic is more crucial in an age that deliberately denies originality and promotes pastiche. Winning awards has its own rules. Both of us do not have that kind of temperament — self-promotion and narcissism are alien virtues for us as writers. An authentic writer does not belong to lobbies, does not go to Lit Fests, does not get the reviews done and tom-tom them on FB. Serious writing is reserved and solo. It is not for mass market. It is anti-establishment.
Q Charles Simic, one of my favorite poets said, “Like our ancient ancestors who inhabited an animistic universe, the poet claims the interconnectedness and sentience of all things. This is what haunts: a world where magic is possible, where chance reigns, where metaphors have their supreme logic, where imagination is free and truthful.” Would you care to comment on this powerful insight of Simic's?
—You introduced me to this wonderful writer who talks of the whole universe. He is not a resident of a fractured world. Simic is a seer among poets who can see a pattern in inanimate objects, stones, etc. Basho does that in an earlier age. Dreamtime or any other mythic imagination feels the same way. Our epics do that only Simic rises above the fractured realities and embraces a holistic, almost epic vision. He must be emulated by others.
Q Poetry and to a slightly lesser extent short stories seem to be experiencing a resurgence in this era of high speed living, hedonism, consumerism and excessive input of images and media-driven messages. Why do you think this might be the case?
— Poetic and fictional images are not mass-driven, ad-agency produced sterile images seen and forgotten in the clutter of prime time TV. They are singular fresh voices articulating individual encounters with a standardized world controlled by mass media for profits. These images are fresh breath of air and revive tired minds suffering from surfeit.
Q Contrary to this apparent resurgence it seems there are not many young poets (under 20 years) writing. As an educator do you find this the situation in India? If I am correct do you think it is because academic programs are now being tailored more and more to “buck making” instantly after graduation, not as in the past where knowledge and cultural improvement was seen as a desirable end in itself?
— Education is more about developing skills for emerging markets. It is about big bucks. Poetry is doomed. Only those with stable incomes indulge; others fighting for survival do not have any time left. It is sad but true. Poets are in minority. Redeeming thing is that many women are finding their inner voice through online poetry groups. It is a good omen.
Q One final question, When can we look forward to your next personal volume of poetry or fiction?
— In next few months, other things being equal.
Q Sunil thank you so much for your time and could you leave us with one of your recent poems?
— Pleasure is totally mine. Thanks for choosing an obscure writer from India for this interesting conversation. I feel immensely benefited by some of your own insights as a writer.
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