Dr. Mahendra Bhatnagar ' a living literary legend ' a prolific perennial source of creative cascades in his unique style-revered and adored all over the world ' especially across national literatures and scholars especially academia, has been too kind enough to give a detailed interview to reveal the intricacies of the complex journey of life spanning more than Eight decades wherein from his childhood to the youthful days to the evening of life, a spectrum of cherished memorabilia of longings, struggles, suffocations ' all mixed together in the human journey streaked with hurdles, handicaps and hard realism coupled with idealism, realism, lamentations and struggling spirits, ' all inflaming the torch of literature in the inequitable world of ruthless socio-economic disparities ' present a scenario of the past, present and future. The timeless conversation shall prove to be eternal in its ethos for research scholars and lovers of literature as a light house to anchor the shores.
Q. As you hail from a family of an educationist, undoubtedly, your grooming manifests in your writings, would you tell something about your clan of learned people and the environ around you of your infant days?
I saw this beautiful planet 'Earth' first on 26th June 1926 at Jhansi; a historical town of great martyr Queen of Jhansi, Smt. Laxmibai; at my maternal grandfather's residence.
My father late Sh. Raghunandan Lal Bhatnagar (1900-1959) was a renowned educationist of Gwalior State. He was a sportsman, a boy-scout and an Aryasamajist. My mother late Smt. Gopal Devi Bhatnagar (1902-1977) was a religious minded woman. I have three brothers and two sisters. I was married on 12 May 1952 (Sudha Rani Bhatnagar) and have three sons ' a Doctor, a Bank Branch Manager & a famous Artiste (a light-music Singer)
I received my primary education at Jhansi, Morar-Gwalior, and Sabalgarh-Morena. Got higher education in the colleges of Gwalior state viz. Victoria College, Gwalior & Madhav College, Ujjain. Syt. Atalbihari Vajpai (a Hindi poet & later Ex. Prime Minister of India) was my college-fellow in Victoria College, Gwalior. I got bachelor degree in 1945 (Agra University) and post-graduate degree in Hindi Literature in 10948 (Nagpur University) and Doctorate Degree on the novels of Premchand in 1957 (Nagpur University).
Q. Do you still remember the days of your college and the reminiscences of the teacher-taught relationships and bondings? The indelible impact of their teaching and shaping of your persona?
During the span of my education in schools and colleges, my teachers were genuinely devoted to teaching. I was influenced very much by them; especially Mr. F. G. Pearce & Sh. Shivmangal Singh 'Suman'. I remember them even today.
I worked in manifold capacities viz. as Member (in Boards, Councils, Selection Committees. One of the judges in several Award Committees etc.) Chairman, Specialist in Research Institutions, Academic Committees & Literary organizations.
I retired as Professor on 1 July 1984. After retirement I worked on a U.G.C. major research project on The Stories of Premchand & also worked as Professor in 'Indira Gandhi National Open University' (Centre : Jiwaji University).
Q. How did you perceive the odds in the teaching profession; the struggles against the malpractices and corruption all around in academics?
My experience of working in academic institutions is bitter. There is a lot of corruption in universities. Not only clerks but Heads, Officers, Members of Syndicate, Vice-Chancellors, and boy-lecturers (regarding counterfeit research works) also are indulged in malpractices (dishonest use of position for personal gains). In my educational career I was forced to resist them and thus suffered in different ways and in different spheres.
Q. Besides the teaching profession, how did you begin to write ' was it a sort of giving outlet to your pent of sentiments of righteousness?
In childhood, I used to listen to Shreeramcharitmanas (an epic written by a famous Hindi poet Tulsidas) from my mother. My father also used to utter Vedic Hymns daily in morning and evening; which attracted me very much. This environment attracted me towards poetry and music. Afterwards when I joined school, I came in contact with several Hindi poets of curriculum. An urge of writing such poems used to generate in me. Grotesque rhyming of metrical compositions astonished me very much. During this period, I heard Kavi-sammelans and Mushairas (poets' meet / presentation of poetic art) as well. Seeing the applause of the poets by the public, I also felt to earn literary fame likewise. Thus, I also began writing grotesque type poetry and used to relate to my elder sister; who used to laugh loudly while listening them. Now, there is no existence of these co-called elementary poems.
Of course first, I began (1941) poetry writing in Hindi. Poetry writing in English and translating my own poems in English began from 1950. These poems were published in 'Hindi Review' ' a prestigious literary monthly magazine in English, published by 'Nagri Pracharni Sabha', Varanasi. Poems were published in several other magazines also viz. 'Literary Half-Yearly' (Mysore), 'The Contemporary Indian Literature' (New Delhi), 'Macron' (Hubli), 'Dhara' (Delhi) etc. My first poem in Hindi was published in 'Vishal Bharat' ' a literary monthly magazine of repute, published from Calcutta and first collection of poems 'Taron Ke Geet' ( Poems on Stars) in 1949.
Q. Who inspired you the most amongst the icons of Indian culture and literature ' because one cannot exist in isolation, what have you to say?
Like others, a few poets and thinkers also inspired me. In the beginning, I was impressed and inspired by Ravindra Nath Tagore and Premchand. Compassion of Gautam Buddha, progressive thoughts and moral values of Mahatma Gandhi and Vivekanand, and economic aspect of Karl Marx influenced me very much. These thinkers shaped my mental horizon and practical life. My actions and writings are still governed by them. Kabir, Tulsidas, Biharilal, Pant, Nirala, Bachchan, Dinkar, Milind Suman etc are my favourite Hindi poets.
Q. You must have seen turbulent times during your student life as the freedom struggle was at its climax, did you participate in one way or the other, was there some sort of impression left on your mental screen?
During my student's life I was very active in all spheres. It was pre-independence time. The countrymen were fighting for their independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose. My father was a government servant; hence even family members were not allowed to join the National Independence movement. But hiding myself from my father I used to take part in students' processions; against British rule in 1942 ('Quit India Movement'). But I escaped every time from the eyes of police and CID.
I took part in 'Prabhat Pherees' and in anti-gamesters processions also (1944-45)
I wrote fiery poems against exploitations by foreign rulers and Raja-Maharajas of Indian States. I wrote poems on Gandhi Ji and 'Jai Hind' militants.
Q. Please tell us something about your literary activities as a social activist.
Yes, my main field was literary. I organized literary societies and associations in each and every town in which I lived. My working area remained Bundelkhand, Chambal region and specially Malwa (Ujjain, Dewas, Dhar, Indore, Mhow, Mandsaur). At present I am residing in my home town Gwalior.
I took part in several literary seminars organized either in my town or nearby. I participated as a representative member of Madhya-Bharat region in the seminar organized by 'Sahitya Akademi', New Delhi, in Indore on 'Lenin Centenary Celebrations' (1970).
Q. Why did you choose the teaching profession? Was there something special about the profession or you had a passion for teaching and writing?
After my graduation (1945) I was forced to do service; because the economic condition of my family was very weak. I became a Geography-Hindi teacher in Model High School, Ujjain (1945-46). Afterwards I joined the Gwalior State Government Service (continued in Madhya-Bharat & Madhya-Pradesh States) and served in several educational institutions. In every school and college I had to work hard regarding extra-curricular activities and other administrative assignments given by the Principals or by the Universities. Writing was never my occupation. I wrote only when I was strongly inspired at personal emotional level or due to inevitable social-economic-political circumstances.
Q. Do you have some classics in your mind which influenced you and guided the course of your writings?
As far as the classical literature and writers are concerned, this is my weakness. I have no background of Sanskrit and my English is not so strong; so that I may read and understand their eminent classics in their right context. Several times I tried to read classic works but never engrossed in them. They did not inspire me. Thus, I never completely and thoroughly read them in my life. I do not say that all classics are irrelevant today. Of course, I used to read their translated versions in Hindi; whenever I got an opportunity. Really, I am interested in new current literary works; rather than in intellectual exercise or in reading mythological epics. I never inspired to become a literary intellectual giant. It is not in my nature and against my temperament. I always wanted to remain natural, easy going and simple.
Q. You seem to be a rationale in approach, but do you express your ardent feelings in your writings?
I do not believe in any sort of ritual and style. They all are testimony of human backwardness. Ritual ceremonies are the creation of a particular class of the society only to obtain its selfish ends. This class deceives people having trust in God. This class has its very deep roots in each community. Priests, bishops, maulwi-mulla etc are befooling innocent people daily in the name f worship or so called emancipation. They discarded religion. In fact humanism is the only religion of human beings. Every person primarily is a human being; afterwards a Christian or Hindu or Muslim. But fanatics do not think like this. They are full of violent and unreasoning enthusiasm. The mental make up of modern world is scientific. Modernists believe in reason. Things which have no existence, should not be accepted. Spirituality is the purity of heart and mind or soul (thinnest matter invisible by human eyes). Spirituality is not a material thing. But, it is not supernaturalism also. As long as man does not solve the mystery of death and search the other / next world; uncertainty will naturally prevail. I expressed these thoughts in my several poems.
Q. Your writings are the epitome of humanism, but seldom preach the path of religiosity, do you have any notional purpose?
I also do not believe in literature having any sort of bigotry, fanatic and blunt didactic expressions. Literature is neither propaganda nor canvassing any point of view. Giving instructions or preaching is not the field of literature. Writers should try to put their independent views in an artistic way in their creative works. Only then their writings have a meaning.
Q. Should the writers be activists in literature ' expressing their considered convictions of humanity, equality, peace amongst the casteless and classless society?
Yes, writers do support social reforms in there own way. Our society is now disorganized. Capitalism has deconstructed the whole scenario of socialism and people have assumed coldness to other's pains and sufferings. Even the government has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the poor and the downtrodden. What other results will we expect from such situation except social conflict? We, the poets have to raise the scepter of judgment to arouse feelings and emotions which have been dead in modern society.
Social conflicts should get expression in poetry, novels, stories etc. only to uplift the society. Struggle is the sign of progress Writers must remain vigilant and strengthen the voice of progressive forces. Casteism is a curse for the society. We are marching in building a classless, casteless and race less social structure. That will take shape only if economic ditch is lessened. Reformation comes through literature in a much more effective form due to its richness in artistic and beautiful expression. Aimless writing is nothing but only a luxurious enjoyment ' cheap and worthless.
Q. Do you favor the economic independence of women for emancipation of the subjugated gender called fair sex?
My poetry favors independence, because I believe that each and every nation can progress when citizens are economically strong and independent. Economic independence does not mean that people should be strong economically by way of capitalistic measures but it should be an equality based on socialism. So my plea in the poetry remains the economic equality which people may say ' Economic independence, predominant.
Q. Wide spread exploitation of ignorance and innocence is seen everywhere; how do you react to the sad plight of vulnerable segments of society?
Being essentially as realist, I have always tried to voice the feelings of the persons who have been the victims of destiny, life and time. My focus remains to eradicate the pillars of exploiters of humanity by the medium of poetry and create a candid and enlightened vision in the minds of my readers so that they may rise and fight the devils of injustice and liberate the humankind from the shackles of slavery of ignorance.
Q. Would you elaborate the progressive humanism which has been reflected in your poems and your critics do make point out of your complete works?
My utmost effort in the humanism is that I have tried to re-establish the broken pillars of progressive humanism. I have tried to widen the frontiers of my imagination in the field of human sympathies as well as to cover all feelings and pains of common men, women and children of modern society within the orbit of my poetry.
Besides, my special focus on the modern middle and lower classes and the national and humanistic approach towards the decadence of human civilization and its values has made me more courageous and cosmopolitan in this regard.
Some of my best works of humanism are ' 'Poems : For A Better World', 'Passion and Compassion', 'A Handful of Light'.
Q. You are known as a great humanist in literature; a crusader of a cause of mankind, how do you bridge the two streams of 'art for arts' sake and realism in literature?
In literature, realism is a special way of thinking. According to realistic thinkers one should depict a real / true picture of life in one's creative works. This thought is not against any practical idealism. However, unfortunately most of the writers in the name of realism describe only the backwardness or ugly picture of the society or man / woman. This is one-sided picture or realism. The beautiful and graceful side of human life should not be neglected. Because the main aim of realist writings is to increase the anger and feelings of revolt in the people against the corrupted set-up of the society and administration; hence the dark side only gets prominence. I believe in the expression of realistic social environment of the times; in which an ideal hinted or sounded itself.
Actually, it denotes vigorous revolt against immorality. Thus the progressive forces of the society should accept it. We must defend each movement of advancement of an idea or cause.
Q. Your absence in the award ceremonies is conspicuous, do you dislike the award ceremonies or the hidden sycophant agenda of the organizers of such programs?
I never cared for awards. I do not write poetry for the sake of awards. We see now-a-days writers are trying their level best to get anyhow awards from different institutions. Sycophancy to rise is the worst thing for writers. No genuine writer will prefer sycophancy for his success. Award publicity has no meaning. Main thing is the worth of your writings. We should think, how much time our writings will sustain.
But I feel no enthusiasm for such awards and honors rather I dislike going and receiving awards or honors in arranged programmes by organizers. I prefer to remain absent in such arrangements.
Q. Are you satisfied after playing your innings in the field of teaching and writing? Do you expect from the reading public, activists and writers of your clan busy in proliferation of humanism?
As far as my achievements in creative writings are concerned, I am well satisfied. Eleven volumes of my poems ' ten in English & one in French ' are published till date. Two books on the criticism of my poetry in English are also published. On Internet, several websites are displaying my poems (in English, French, Hindi, Nepali). I have several independent BLOGS of mine on Internet also. Research work on my writings is also in progress in many universities of India.
My poems and articles / book-reviews on my works are being published from time to time in several standard literary magazines of India and abroad. In Hindi (my mother tongue) my complete literary writings are published in seven volumes. What more do I expect!!
Q. Do you have any message to the budding writers and poets, so that the goals set by your writings become milestones?
I have only one message to the new generation of writers and poets : Try to establish your own identity; do not follow any 'ism'. Have a clear vision; but not a static viewpoint.