An Interview with PCK Prem
PCK Prem — a teacher-turned-bureaucrat-turned-writer—a post-graduate in English literature from Panjab University, taught in various colleges of Punjab and Himachal before joining civil services and retired as an IAS, also served as member HP Public Service Commission — is poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, translator and critic. He writes in English and Hindi. He is a prolific writer and has more than fifty-five books to his credit of very high renown. His latest book, History of Contemporary Indian English Poetry - An Appraisal (2019), is being received with great reverence and craze among the Indian English Poetry circles. Here is an interview with him that throws light on his Half Men - men and women, and some other aspects of his creativity writing.
The text of the interview is given below:
Chambial: I know you to be a complete writer - creative and critic. I would like to know what inspired you into poetry and when?
PCK Prem: Poetry is an inspired moment, an instant upsurge of emotions. It is difficult to recall precisely when I began to play with words poetically. A child just jumps and larks about with tiny plants, flowers and small trees and host of living beings and collects images, and when the right moment arrives, he gives definite shape, and a little lyric takes birth.
Chambial: The edifice of each poem is erected on the solid ground of a discrete idea in a poet. Nonetheless, a string of deep philosophy concatenates them all into a single rosary. Can you throw light on this string of your poetry for the benefit of your readers and critics of your poetry alike?
PCK Prem: A distinct identity is the soul of each poem, and when one connects it to other lyrics, a deep philosophic current flows and it tells of an integral reality. A part becomes a whole and the whole appears a part. A poet cannot stand at a distance and think, yes, he has to be a part of the whole and only then, he finds linkages with total reality. Now, it is also experiential, and requires interpretation through metaphors, similes and images in chaotic living amidst violent outbursts and clashes. If understood correctly, it gives not only pleasure but also satisfies philosophic wanderings.
Chambial: Your latest book - Tales of Half Men and Other Poems - gets its title from the very first poem, 'Tales of Half Men', in fourteen parts called 'Chorus lines'. What makes you call each sub part of the poem 'Chorus lines'? Why didn't you prefer to call these sub- parts of the poem by some other titles?
PCK Prem: A group song of half men (Men?) in contemporary settings tells tale of its disjuncture glory and clownish finish. Each "Chorus lines" contains a tragic, redolent and disturbing message to the world of half men. A distinctive correlation among chorus lines would reveal existing psyche in incoherent and disfigured imagery and yet each one writes a testimony of unimagined, inconsistent and patchy, and possibly a statement on future. It is not an imaginary world, and still a man does not want to enter a strange world of half men. Moreover, he does not know that he is part of the strange world and its inhabitants, probably half men. These tales in shadows may appear stressful and fictitious but element of intrinsic truth shocks when one identifies a disquieting rationality.
Chambial: Has it (Chorus lines) any relation to Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, a religious play, because of its choruses?
PCK Prem: When I wrote this long poem, I did not have any idea. It creates a separate paradigm of social, ethical and cultural value system, an intricate mechanism a man may understand or may not and if he knows, he may refuse to accept, for he would continue to celebrate existence in separate inbuilt thought-structures while struggling to find a separate identity. He thinks he lives a wholesome life but he enjoys a disjointed living and still he feels he is civilized and cultured, but he is not a cultured man. I feel man is going beyond something we call humankind, a man in the land of half men. He lives in fallacy and does not want to expose, and agree. Living in little seemingly harmonic flow is the destiny of man (?) nay half man now. Men of the world of half men often disturb intellectual apparatus lying dormant in the subconscious and then, they dream of a new future. In this strange region, men walk into half men and half men rush to seek refuge in men.
Chambial: Why do you prefer to call the contemporary men as Half Men? Are women excluded in this title or part of the humanity descried in the poem?
PCK Prem: I gave partial answer earlier. When I speak of man in the poem, it includes woman also, for she is part of man, contributes to the cultural edifice, strengthens roots of civilization. Poem is a long tale of half men (or men?) in the land of men (or half men?). In a system, each one has a defined role to provide sound basis to the society. When you call 'half,' the inference is obvious. Man still holds ill-conceived notions or well-reasoned arguments that he is the lord notwithstanding assertions to the contrary. Again, it is a false documentation of history of man, and so the debate continues right and left.
It is search for complete human beings (men and women) and perhaps this makes quite clear when I speak of Half Men (human beings?). Myths play a significant role in life. Each creation is an image of God…Man is god? Supreme Brahma gave a shape to man and woman. Is he the Manu? It puzzles. He lives with awful flaws. Imperfections do not constitute a complete man. If man is violent, untruthful, and tells lies, he is inadequate. Everyman lives an incomplete life -a life of half man. In such a situation, man is cynical, skeptical and subversive and I love to call him a half man. I say I live in a world of half men as a half man.
It is not a treatise on the life of half men but if they speak through 'chorus lines,' they tell secret and truth of life with sustained eloquence and persuasiveness and embark upon an uncertain journey from an area of darkness to another region of obscurity but the will to live incomplete life survives. Half Men are not like a 'Kabandh' (headless torso) who lived under a curse from a sage and suffered strikes of Thunderbolt of lord Indra. With a dreadful thrust, Indra pushed head, eyes, nose, ears and neck into his body and so the demon lived…a living torso but still he was a giant and wielder of awesome strength, who got deliverance from Lord Rama.
A wise demon, now a celestial musician (a gandharava), suggested a path to Rama, who later on, befriended a lord of monkeys. However, half men are impotent, selfish, violent, cunning, lying and conceited and so move from uncertainty to dreadful failure. In Kangra, old men often narrate a folktale about jaldheers (headless burning phantoms like human figures). If one is alone at midnight just by chance and takes a path to home, at times, such burning figures chase him. When he looks back, these ghosts retreat and then, they walk ahead. Therefore, chasing or going ahead continues. They create fears but do not harm or hurt, and finally, they disappear. Nevertheless, half men nurse different nature and as such, they cherish negative thoughts and feelings with a mask of goodness. Violence and untruth are signs of weakness and characteristics of half men. To go beyond half men is difficult but not impossible but to go still beyond, is unthinkable (?).
Man in the land of half men, is still growing, evolving and making efforts to become total and perfect and until then, he shall remain a half man. He struggles to grow, expand and perhaps, yes, perhaps he will reach a meaningful destination with concomitant sensibilities and sensitivities. Sufferings, conflicts and imperfections provoke (inspire?) living beings to grow into an unsullied existence. I think everyone struggles, works hard, fights against aberrant forces and tries to purify living and so, another life as a man becomes imminent -a trust to reinvent man, a part of humanity, and an opportunity of a lifetime.
"Chorus lines" does not contain enchanting songs, captivating drama and spectacular choreography but it certainly sends admonitory signals to the man to get up and live life as a gift if he exists, otherwise in a world of half men, peace or deliverance is not easy or maybe unattainable.
Chambial: What does "a wet skin of passions" connote in "I failed to define a wet skin of passions" (Chorus line 1)?
PCK Prem: When a man lives in a region of love and passion, an undercurrent of music - tuneful and rhythmical, fascinates and overwhelms, and takes him away from physical existence temporarily. It is love act in imagination. After a moment, imaginings fail amidst defeat in the act, and so passions freeze and die out leaving a man disillusioned while he feels cold passions still stirring nerves and mutilating a face, and thus, an experience defies correct description.
Chambial: What does charm you to call "politics" an "animal with a man's head"?
PCK Prem: If one analyzes the characteristics of modern man, the above incisive words speak of a truth one hesitates to accept. A man ought to learn to agree to what natural instincts provoke him to say. If 'politics' wants to serve people, it becomes ruthless to anti-social elements in totality and if it serves 'self,' it is callous and as such, behaves like a beast and marches ahead with criminal intents and defeats the definition of a well-meaning political statement that exhorts politicians/leaders to serve people in a fair and just manner.
Chambial: Which do you think superior: creative or critical writing and why?
PCK Prem: It depends how you look at the art of creation and its psychiatry. In creation, a writer enjoys certain freedom but functions under self-imposed restraints if he wishes to be objective. Objectivity in creation is difficult rather I am inclined to say that subjective approach determines a creative work but if certain evaluative process guides a creative artist, work carries authenticity. A creative artist does not work in a vacuum or a void but he lives in a crowd and also experiences loneliness in a crowd.
Loneliness irritates, depresses, and drives to reflection on life and its crudities amid joys perhaps, pains. It is good to create because it satisfies and fulfills inner undefined urge (?) but the creative process is hard, difficult and gives moments of anxieties. End of creative activity is not a real culmination but it is beginning of another period of intense anxiety, ambiguity and indefinite urge to create something else. The period is usually long and wearisome because you want, and still you avoid stress. I do not live in regions of whimsicality but define limits of movement but again, at this moment, I feel restricted and it is an obstacle, a barricade I confront.
Creativity is different from critical activity and areas of each are different. If creativity is hard and nerve-racking, to understand and appraise a work of art is equally strenuous because it involves near realization of thoughts and feelings of the creative mind and it is not very easy. A critic may touch regions of emotions and thoughts of a writer but still he cannot boast of full understanding and that is where lacunae stay on to disturb a critic. A critic is not merely to look into the structure and construction of a particular writing. He ought to go deep into the making of a particular piece of writing. He must hold full control or possibly exercise reasonable power of intellect with utmost discipline on period and location, backdrop and influences on writer.
Writer's knowledge, grasp of theme and its ramifications, legitimacy and earnestness towards the subjects and characters, degree of neutrality when he stands at a distance and undergoes pangs of exploring different lands of life's experiences are critic's areas of scrutiny. If he does it, yes, he is good otherwise faulty evaluation disturbs. Work of a critic is sensitive, painful, challenging and gratifying also provided honesty of purpose guides. A critic needs immense knowledge of men and matters from various wings of life, society and the world not only at the level of thought or reading, but even at the experiential level, he needs depth of feeling and understanding not ignoring even for a moment what societal traditions and ethics say and how these act.
Chambial: Any advice to the younger generation of creative writers as well as critics?
P CK Prem: When a piece of writing attracts, you feel inspired. It is good to write but before one writes, he should ensure that he knows the subject well. Writing requires discipline and hard work. A writer before doing so he must think and rethink deep. Creative process worries, it irritates and it challenges intellect and heart. It is a continuous exercise. If a writer sits at leisure and then, thinks over the subject, men and affairs of society it is good but it is incomplete. A writer cannot live in transferred experiences or impressions he gathers from different writings, no, it is not genuine. A writer should experience and gather impressions honestly and sincerely, insulate self from the impact and then, silently work out and translate gathered material into writing where each word matters. If in doubt, he must revise, redraft and redefine what he wants to convey. It does not matter whether a creative artist writes for enjoyment or with a social objective, but what he writes should appear authentic and genuine, and touch life and art together if possible.
However, a critic job is different. A critic must be cautious and unprejudiced, objective and reasonable, as far as possible. It is a great demand but to a certain degree, a critical mind must adhere to basic principles of unbiased appraisal of a piece of writing. He can evaluate a work properly in case, he wields knowledge of different creative works, not many but realistically adequate, so that he can work on at the mental level to reach some definite and disinterested judgment.
Chambial: What is the role of imagination and reality in your writings? How do they support each other?
PCK Prem: Art takes birth in the heart and then travels to the intellect, and it is at the emotional level that a sort of frenzy and passion seizes a creative writer. Imagination is a prop, a shelter and a fertile field where a writer meanders and reflects. Imagination does not work without basis. It has origin in what a sensitive, curious and anxious man looks at, then mulls over, and tries to give it a definite form and at this, moment a nonstop struggle erupts within, disturbs and finally what he imagines or thinks may not be suitable for writing but beneath something churns, crystallizes and then, begins to take a firm shape. This moment is quite significant and if one holds it fast, it ushers into creative activity. Imagination is not in conflict with reality but reality often punctures its flights. Imagination at times, straightens out rough edges of earthly life and enlivens it with indistinctly rosy image that infuses apparent vitality to creative work but fears often lurk that creation may not lead to illusory world and if one avoids the pitfall, it is good and thus, imagination and reality go together, and harmonize creative process.
Chambial: Any other point that you would like to stress?
PCK Prem: To write a few words means a lot. Exposition, expansion and expression what lies dormant within are possible only through a written word and it ornaments vocal chords and verbal communication. One grows and fulfills self even without knowing. Experiences stir, provoke and teach provided one keeps alert. At the conscious, subconscious and beyond at the subterranean level, feelings and emotions reverberate, rouse and goad a man to say and write what one feels and thinks. To have grip on the words is a long struggle, one must fight out to conquer indistinctness secreted in words, and only then, communication of experience will become easy and effective.
Chambial: Thanks for sharing your views with me.
PCK Prem: Thank you Dr.Chambial.