Interviewed by M. Giridhar

 

Introduction

Makarand has three published collections of poetry—The Serene Flame (1991), Playing the Dark God (1992), and Used Book (2001).  Apart from this he has written short stories that have been featured in publications ranging from Femina to Debonair.  These stories have been collected in a volume called This Time I Promise It’ll Be Different (1994).  Makarand even has a novel to his credit, The Narrator (1995) and at least one of his books of criticism, Decolonization and Development:  Hind Svaraj Revisioned (1993) is cast in a dramatic mode. So he is a creative artist  of many shades, to say the least.

Makarand is also well known as a critic, with more than seventy-five papers to his credit, plus hundreds of book reviews and other journalistic pieces.  He has been a columnist in publications as diverse as The Sunday Observer, Femina, Business Standard, Life Positive, and Gentleman magazine. Most of you here, his former students and colleagues, generally know Makarand as a teacher.

MG:  Why Makarand, why are you so many things?  Whence this effluence of creativity?      

MP: Effluence?  I should have called it “efflorescence”!  But seriously, sometimes I know it is a very big disadvantage. You’re pulled in many different directions so that you wonder if you’ve done anything well at all. Worse, you don’t get noticed because no one knows all your work.  People know only bits of it. Sometimes one wonders whether one is spreading oneself out too thin and therefore not gone deep enough.  I have also wondered if my energies are too widely scattered.  But lately, I find a coherence emerging. There is a pattern to this life, this career, which I am sure will emerge with greater clarity in the future. To put it another way, I think one spends a number of years in one’s life just discovering what one’s limits are.  One is, in fact, constantly pushing at these limits.  But once one has a sense of what these limits are, one then sets out to consolidate one’s strengths, sort of to settle down.  And I think I have arrived at some sense of these limits though I’m probably still pushing a little.  So, perhaps the consolidation should begin now or in the next five years.

MG:  We can’t predict the limits yet, but where did it start, where did this exploring start?  How far back do you go when you think of yourself as a creative writer?

MP:  I think the writing goes back at least to the age of 15, if not earlier.  I think that something happens to you at a certain time and you begin to find the magic of words. I wrote a piece on this once, about how you don’t make poetry but poetry makes you. It really happens like that.  A torrent of words comes into your head, which you just must start writing down.

What you’re trying to compose, of course, is not just words, but yourself. You’re feeling your way through a number of things, experiences of growing up, for example, and sometimes you’re thrown upon your own resources. You don’t have much experience, except from books, and this thing starts, and you begin to think of it as one way of surviving and staying connected with yourself, a self that is otherwise sort of outgrowing or getting away from you, you know…. Writing, like making love, is about touching something other than yourself, something larger than yourself.

MS:  But the torrent of words comes from somewhere surely, and in some language surely, and at some point surely.  How do you characterise that for instance?

MP:  Let’s take the language question first.  I was born in Gujarat, though in a Maharashtrian family. So my mother tongue is Marathi, but I am also fluent in Gujarati.  For the first five and a half years of my life, I lived in Baroda.  So I have a bi-lingual background, somewhat like another Baroda poet, Dilip Chitre. Then, when I was five and a half my dad went off to Bangalore.  We lived in an industrial set up, away from town…

MS:  Can we automatically assume that Kannada also happened?

MP:  Kannada didn’t happen.  That’s what I wanted to explain.  In this colony, most of the people, the management especially, were Gujarati, and the company was owned by a Gujarati family.  I studied in Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, where people spoke nothing but English.  So I had little opportunity to learn Kannada.  What happened, though, was that I learned Hindi, or rather Dakhni. So, I had Marathi, Gujarati, some Kannada, and Hindi—and of course, English.  English in fact became the only language I got to learn properly, and when I wanted to say something, English was the only suitable language.

In fact, one might say that my writing started with class compositions, you know, in classes 8th, 9th and 10th.  I discovered, though, that what I wrote always went beyond the assignment.  I sometimes wrote things totally unrelated to the theme. One sympathetic teacher said you are not getting the kind of marks you should, but then you’re probably doing what you really want to. I suppose that’s how this whole business of writing started.

MS:  But when was that it was something you could share with a dozen others first and publish later?

MP:  You know I always wanted to show it to somebody and to share it but I really had no one.  In the colony where I stayed, nobody was interested in literature.  That amazes me now because we had all sorts of people who had all kinds of talents but literature didn’t seem to be one of them.

MS: What colony was this?

MP:  This was the Alembic Glass colony, if you want to know. Now it is practically in ruins because the factory is shut down, but it figures in many of my poems.  A  whole sequence that is published in Chandrabhaga.(check please) called “Rain,”  has as its protagonist a lonely young boy, watching the rain through his window. But the point is that left as I was to my own devices, I started building up my own library, even though there was no one nearby who shared that passion.  Yes, my mother enjoyed reading, but mostly popular books, not “literature.”

MS:  So you took to reading extensively in English?

MP: Yes, but also in English translation.  By sixteen and seventeen, I was already reading Camus and Sartre, just to give an example, besides of course Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and so on. I also wrote a story then, which I sent to the Illustrated Weekly.  In those days, Nissim Ezekiel edited the poetry page for some time, followed by Shiv K. Kumar and Pritish Nandi.  And for several of my formative years, you know, I read the modern poets like a holy book. I also became something of a book collector.  I wanted to read “great” literature--anything I could lay my hands on -- because I was in the back of beyond, so to speak, in this colony so far from the city.  On Brigade Road I would pick up second hand Penguin Classics, for instance.  There was also a lending library from which my mother borrowed books.  It was called Tareporewalla.  I still remember a funny incident when Mr. Taraporewalla,, in dress shirt and tie, refused to lend me Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins because he thought I was lying when I said that my mother had asked for it.  He told me, “Get a letter from her, or else tomorrow she might accuse me of corrupting her son.” But I must say that much of my reading was undirected.

MS:  How did that change?

MP: The real turning point came when I went to Madras Christian College, leaving Bangalore to do my Pre-University there.  My subjects were Maths, Physics, Chemistry—and for the record, let me say that I had very high marks in these subjects.  In fact I had 95% as an aggregate for my PCM.  I joined a coaching class for the IIT entrance exam, but just then I realised that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this.  I knew that I just wanted to read and write.  Luckily my parents supported me.  Then, for my B.A. (Hons.), I went to St. Stephen’s in Delhi.  That’s where I found a group of people who were also interested in literature.

MS:  Any special things that you did in St. Stephen’s?

MP:  Oh, several, really, but I wonder if I should talk about those here.  Well, one of them perhaps—we started a small magazine.  One of my seniors, Vinay Dharwarkar, was then working in Orient Longman.  In his college days, he had a magazine called Soliloquy, so that was our model.  Our rag of sixteen pages was called Lyric.  I still remember how one of my classmates said that she wanted to work on it with us because it would “build up her credentials” for her application to US universities.  The whole thing sounds so incredible now—but that person is currently a professor at Stanford. 

MS:  What about the famous St. Stephen’s school of writing?

MP:  The phrase has been used for the novelists that St. Stephen’s produced; there’s even a book on it.  As to poets, there were about 6 to 7 of us in St. Stephen’s.  A couple of them are still writing, but none of them has really made it.  It’s a totally different story as far as the novelists are concerned.  Upamanyu was my classmate.  What was remarkable about him was that even as an undergraduate, he was clear that he wanted to be a writer.  His success is entirely deserved.  When I joined college, I found out that he had dropped out of History after one year just to study literature.  What is more he was the only one in our batch who was way better read than I.

MS:  Let’s get back to Lyric for a moment.  What sort of people did you publish in it?

MP:  Well, there were some local poets.  Unfortunately none of them is writing now.  But we also published well-known writers--Jayanta Mahapatra, Meena Alexander, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Soubhagy Mishra, Keshav Malik, Muktibodh (in Harish Trivedi’s translation), and so on.  We “discovered” some new writers:  Anubha Dhar, who died young.  She was a very talented young woman in LSR--Lady Shriram College--who died of cancer.  I obtained a sheaf of her poems.  I went to see her parents to get their permission to publish some of them.  We met lots of writers and critics, including R. Parthasarathy and Meenakshi Mukherjee, for instance.  It was a great experience.  We got involved in literature in that way.

            But, there was something even more important going on, which we as a little magazine were a part of.  You can see that already with the title of the magazine, Lyric. The idiom of Indian English poetry was changing from modernism to something else.  I’ve talked about it in the anthologies that I’ve edited. What happened to the generation that came after the modern poets?  The modern poets to this date refuse to recognise it; they still police and censor Indian English poetry.  But some day the other side of the story will be told.  At that time, Lyric, these counter-modernistic poets and critics, including myself, will be taken more seriously.

MS:  This stint at St. Stephen’s was away from the family presumably?

MP:  Yes.

MS:  Did that contribute to your development as a writer? Did you manage to make a circle of friends or influences outside the family?

MP:  Yes, yes.  That’s what I’ve been trying to say when I spoke of Lyric and St. Stephen’s. As I told you before, there was hardly any direct influence from within the family, but whatever I learned of literature came from the outside.  English became my only language of creative expression. That was the result of the extreme isolation of my schooling.

            For Lyric, I wrote on a contemporary Indian English poet, who was a lecturer at Ramjas College, Rupendra Guha Mazumdar.  Another friend, Astral, wrote on Keshav Malik.  It was the beginning of our critical writing too.

            Lyric died a few issues after I went to the US to do a Masters in English.

MS:  Examining contemporary poems closely, finding that you didn’t like them, could you speak out openly against them?  After all it seems to me that if there is a community of such poets, there is also a sense of solidarity that you are obliged to maintain.  Is there, in that sense, a suspension of critical judgement in talking about the contemporary poets?

MP:  It all depends on whom you are talking to or about.  Indian English poets are notoriously quarrelsome; one book on them is actually called Family Quarrels.  But my experience was slightly different: to say that Delhi in the late 70s did not seem to have a lot of very good Indian English poets wouldn’t necessarily be a very controversial statement.  One had tried to meet most of them.  It was not like Bombay, where they had some really good poets in those days. Of course, there were some good poets in Delhi too—Keki N. Daruwalla, for instance.  I met him when he came to address the Informal Discussion Group at St. Stephen’s.  Another good poet whom we actually published in Lyric was Sunita Jain but she was still not a part of the canon.

Finding good poems is difficult at all times.  I am saying this because when I was editing this anthology of Indian Poetry in English, I practically read everything that was supposed to be good.  Anybody who has done an anthology knows what it’s like; you have to end up displeasing some people. So I don’t know about any general solidarity among poets but, yes, there is a sort of generational solidarity.  For instance, poets of my generation do treat each other kindly—but then that is also changing.  The anthology wars are common to our lot too.  I edited, as you might know, the first anthology of what may be called the New Indian English Poetry, that is people born in the late fifties, sixties or seventies.  It has a number of poets sitting here, it has for example Raj Rao, it has Menka Shivdasani, it has Bibhu Padi, it has Hoshang, so there is a solidarity of sorts, I guess [laughter from audience].  But I believe Ranjit is editing an anthology that is going to exclude most non-Bombay poets…!

So in our group you know one wouldn’t like to simply criticise but then I wrote a book review, sort of ironic it was, on Sudip Sen’s collection, and he hasn’t spoken to me since.

MS: Where have you reviewed him?

MP:  I used to have a column in Business Standard called “Indian Ink.”  It’s amazing how a leading publishing house, which “discovered” Arundhati Roy, changed the name slightly to “India Ink” and used it as their logo!  So “Indian Ink” was my column and I criticised Sudip’s work in it.  I hope I haven’t lost a friend.  I think you have to take such risks if you have to be true to your vocation.  At the same time, I supported, even “discovered” lots of poets/writers in that column, I wrote about people who would have been totally ignored otherwise.

MS:  But your career was prepared quite early, in St. Stephen’s itself?

MP:  Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, if you mean that Lyric was the start of something big.  I wrote editorials in it, even a longish essay on Rupendra Guha Mazumdar’s collection.  On reading it, I remember Rao Sa’ab, one of our teachers, saying I was going to make a good critic.

MS:  Did you go to the US to do your post-graduate studies?

MP: Yes.

MS:  But your area of study there took you far afield, took you to a variety of other genres.

MP: Correct.

MS:  Also there was a teaching stint there.

MP:  Right.

MS: You’ve even taught things like film there?

MP: Right.  I must say that sometimes one learns so much how to write by teaching.  I cut my teaching teeth, if you like, instructing Engineers on how to write.  It was, in some sense, the pits--you went in there to face a bunch of bored or hostile undergrads who were being forced to take your course.  It was called Rhet 105; Rhet was short for Rhetoric.  They wrote one essay, one theme as they called it, every week.  You had to grade them week after week.  It was a huge amount of work.  You graded the papers over the weekend and brought them back to school on Mondays.  In a sixteen-week semester, they did at least ten or twelve such essays, plus a term paper.  Reading all those papers week after week makes you realise how much flab there is in people’s writing, how much confusion in their thoughts.  There were these Prentice Hall Handbooks, with codes for various grammatical errors, which I had by heart!  8a:  subject-verb agreement, for instance.  Comma splices, mixed metaphors, diction problems, all these had codes that we wrote in the margins to identify them.  Plus you wrote end comments too.  All this was a great training for my own writing, I guess.

Then I took creative writing courses, sometimes for credit, sometimes not for credit. I had very mixed experiences.  One course I liked was with the leading poet at the University, Mr. Lawrence Lieberman.  Another one was an individual study with George Scouffas.  He died a few years back.  He read all my poems and commented on them.  What is more, he gave me an “A.”

This was also the time I started reading Indian English writing very seriously, as a part of my research work.  This was way before postcolonial literature or theory became fashionable.  Throughout that period, those five and a half years in the States I was writing constantly.  In fact, my first poem was published there.

MS:  How would you classify the different kinds of poems you wrote in those days?  How do they compare with what you write now?

MP:  Yeah, there are two or three kinds of poems one can write—that’s it.  After that one usually repeats oneself.  Of course, a few poets do grow, do branch out.  But still they’ve mastered the art of writing two or three kinds of things.  Beyond that, I feel one is pushing one’s frontiers. But what I was trying to say to you was that many interesting things happen when you’re in graduate school.  You tend to be extremely critical, viewing everything very critically, and start getting into debates very early, you know.  Now Indian English literature was also my special field.  So I was trying to see how Indian English poetry was getting constructed and I could see that there was this tremendous divide between poets from Nissim onwards and the poets before.  You remember how P. Lal said that he divided readers of Indian English poetry into two groups: those who like Sri Aurobindo and those who can’t stand him.  After reading that kind of statement, I actually began to read Sri Aurobindo, even liking him.  Now what sort of reader was I?  Or was P. Lal’s division facetious?  Of course, liking Sri Aurobindo didn’t mean that I wanted to write like him!  I wanted to write like a modern poet. But there was no contradiction because I also liked Nissim Ezekiel, for example.  It’s a bit like being the child of divorced parents.  The parents can’t stand each other but the child is comfortable with both.

P. Lal, incidentally, came to Illinois; his son studied theatre arts there.  I was part of the Indian cultural society; it fell upon me to pick him up at the airport and to bring him home.  I had a very old car and was praying that it  wouldn’t break down on the way.  It didn’t.  So I brought him home, but I also quickly began to see that I didn’t want to publish with Writers’ Workshop.  You see, I actually had a manuscript then.  P. Lal said, of course you send it in, but in passing he also said, make sure you buy 250 copies!  That’s when I began to understand how this poetry scene actually functions.

Then some years later Professor Shiv Kumar also came to read his poetry.  My advisor Professor Giri Tikoo was a close friend of Prof. Kumar.  There was a seminar, but more than the seminar, I remember Professor Kumar sang ghazals, accompanied by a harmonium, all evening.  He said, please allow Rima (Mrs. Tikoo), to sit in front of me so that I feel inspired!  His voice was slightly hoarse, but he sang very well, very movingly, sipping from his glass of whisky every now and then.

During the seminar too, something very interesting happened.  Kumar criticised mysticism and Sri Aurobindo.  Karine Schomer, the translator of Mahadevi Verma, was present.  She got up and said, “I totally disagree with all your remarks on mysticism! I quite enjoy the writings of the mystics.”  Kumar was utterly nonplussed.  He couldn’t imagine how anyone in this day and age could “enjoy” such writers.

So the point is that one was interacting with some of these poets of course and one was reading everything very carefully.

MS:  And coming back to teaching, what has been your experience of teaching in India?  How does that feed into, how does that form your poetry?

MP:  Well it’s quite different, frankly.  In India, we lack that professionalism, that attention to basics.  Everything is sort of ad hoc, non-standard.  But, on the other hand, we have lots of freedom here.  It’s not quite “the publish or perish” dictum.  I guess I could never even have attempted the variety of things I’ve written here, had I been in the US.  The system would have ensured that for my survival, for tenure and so on, I would be restricted to one kind of writing, mostly academic.  Here I’ve rotated my crops pretty much as I’ve pleased.

The American system may not ensure brilliance but it does encourage a certain kind of basic competence in whatever you do.  You are taught how to write a term paper, how to take notes, how to cite sources, and so on.  When I came back I found that people didn’t know how to do footnoting, they didn’t know how to do citations, they didn’t know how to take notes, and so on.  In any case 60% of the marks—or more--depended on final exams.

But it was only after I came back to India that my work began to be published. And there are some amazing coincidences in these matters. For example my first visit to Rupa & Company, which R. K. Mehra may not even remember.  Rupa used to have an office in Pataudi Road, you know, near Red Fort, inside a lane just before Jama Masjid.   Mr. Mehra wasn’t doing any original publishing at that time.  I just drifted into the showroom, bought some books and all that.  He started chatting me up and then he said why don’t you give me one of your own books, I’ll publish it.  Just like that!  I was so scared, you know.  I said sorry I have nothing.  This must have been 1986, after I’d just come back and joined the University of Hyderabad.  But in 1989 or 1990 there was an ad in Times of India. A publisher was asking for manuscripts of poetry!  By then I had one manuscript, a rather unique sort of work, which was later published as The Serene Flame.  Nissim was the reader, he approved of my book, mine was the first or second to be approved; there were three other books, Tabish Khair’s, Tara Patel’s, and Anna Sujata Mathai’s, in that first lot.  The Rupa series started in 1991. 

MS: Was that your first collection?

MP:  Yes, but it’s got only one or two early poems, like this Hauz Khas poem, which is an early poem, from my student days in Delhi.  It was written much before the Haus Khas village became the village it is supposed to be today, that is, a fashionable area.  In those days, it was just that monument and really a village, with jats and buffaloes.  But The Serene Flame, though I probably shouldn’t say so myself, is pretty unique in the history of Indian English poetry!

MS:  How?

MP:  Well, for one, it is a series of poems on a single theme; it is, moreover, designed as a birthday present that the speaker gives to his wife.  Sort of like a bouquet of thirty poems when she turns thirty!  I don’t think you find such a sustained treatment of marital love in Indian English poetry, not at least in one collection.

MS:  So how did you conceive this book?  As a series of poems from its very conception or is it cobbled together over a diverse period?

MP:  Well, it is a series in which there are, as I said one or two earlier, older poems.  But much of it was written and designed as a series. 

MS:  So can we call it one long poem?

MP:  Well, that’s an interesting way of looking at it.  In the whole history of Indian English poetry, from Derozio onwards, you do have some long poems—The Fakeer of Jungheera, for instance.  Then, in more recent times, Savitri is an enormously long poem.  But you don’t have a whole collection designed in a sequential way to have a certain shape.

You know, of course, that there’s a double pun in the title: “serene” is a pun on someone’s name, and flame, of course, refers to a lover, as in she was my old flame.  Also though the Gita uses the image of the unmoving flame, flames are usually not serene at all.  The collection has thirty poems, plus an Invocation, a Prologue, and an epilogue.  But in the body of the text, one poem is (deliberately) missing; so it has actually 32 poems in all.

MS:   Isn’t the whole collection a meditation on the difficulty of writing a love poem, a kind of tight rope walk between sentimentality and self-conscious formalism?

MP:  Exactly, exactly.  In fact when the collection Playing the Dark God, which is a sort of sequel to The Serene Flame, came out, Adil Jussawalla wrote a review, a very nice review, a kind review, but one which raised a similar point.  What, he asked, happens to Krishna in the modern age, that is in the age of mechanical reproduction (pace Walter Benjamin).  The miniature paintings, the thumris, and other traditions of the loves of Krishna, were all written in more innocent times, before the invention of the press or the phonograph.  So what happens to the whole tradition of love poetry today? 

This is precisely the question I tackled with, poetically.  How to write a love poem is actually an issue in these collections.  My tentative answer is that one has to try to salvage love without yielding to sentimentality or nostalgia.  It has to be a tough, skeptical, questioning, and vibrant kind of love, a love for our times, if you will.

To put it differently, I think it is impossible to write love poems of a certain kind because you know the event, the act, the feeling itself is degraded or trivialised.  So what do you do? In my case, I think one is self- conscious; and one is reading a lot of theory, which one finds more exciting than poetry!

When I came back to India I was still reading the latest Indian English poems but they didn’t move me the way they did earlier, or even the way I was moved by reading Roland Barthes, for example.

So this self-consciousness, this element of play and even this collection playing the “Dark God” calls into question this whole business of fabrication or construction.

MS:  The second collection is ridden with metaphors of theatre…

MP:  Exactly. It has three acts and a Prologue, an Intermission and an Epilogue.  Through all this one is getting at and into notions of writing, textuality, and performativity.  The speaker, for instance, is quite aware that he is dramatising himself.  One is also exploring the interconnections between sexuality and textuality.  The text is erotic, sexy; but sex, eroticism, is also very write-able/read-able, or very textual.

MS:  In that sense who is your constituency? Who do you think is your reader? Someone who knows all this or someone who can look it up?

MP:  Raja Rao was asked this kind of question and he said, I write for myself.  But I don’t want to repeat that kind of thing.  That’s why I was anxious to ask if you have read these poems before this interview because one never knows who’s read them.  If you take yourself seriously—well, somewhere you have to do that—you will consider yourself worth being read, whether you actually have many readers or not. Then you find that you need an “answerable style” for this “fit audience though few.” I think all poets should have that arrogance.  They must be able to write as if the whole world, as if eternity were their readers.  Never mind if you die heart-broken in alcoholic obscurity.  One must have the arrogance to believe that what one does is worthwhile.  But, speaking more practically, I suppose my poetry is erudite, if not recondite.  I am an academic poet, not a people’s poet.  Unfortunately there’s no way out of that just now because English itself isn’t a people’s language in India.

MS: I started by asking whence this creativity?  I shall end by asking whither this creativity.  What are your other projects at hand?

MP:  There is another collection ready, tentatively called “Used Book.”  I also want to do a third book to complete the trilogy of love poems that was started with The Serene Flame.  Let’s see what happens.  It’s very hard to find publishers these days.  One of my books has been lying with a publisher for three and a half years.  Whenever I ring up to find out he says we are at the proof stage or the cover’s just been sent to the designer.  That puts you off for a while. At last you begin to realise that they don’t want to publish poetry.

MS:  Are you writing regularly?

MP:  Alas, not regularly.  It’s a small trickle right now.  That’s partly because I’ve been so incredibly busy with other things, in critical writings, for instance, which draws from the same source of inspiration as the poems….  But I’m glad that I haven’t left poetry, or rather, that poetry hasn’t left me.  Perhaps, I’d like to try my hand at fiction again….

MS:  You do have one novel, don’t you?

MP:  Yes, The Narrator, and a collection of short stories.  But I have always felt dissatisfied with my fiction.  There is not enough attention to language.  In my next novel, I want the style to be well done , with the kind of attention one pays to the language of poetry, and yet doing the things that only prose fiction can. 

 
  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape