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Shalini S talks to the man who has many a glorious feathers on his literary cap, K Satchidanand


Q) How would you define yourself?

A) I am primarily a poet who writes in Malayalam. I also write critical essays both in Malayalam and in English. I have twenty-one collections of poetry in Malayalam, with several books of translations in English, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Assam ese , Oriya, Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada- all together  24 books of poems in translation.

I have also translated a lot of poetry from Malayalam into English and from and through English and Hindi into Malayalam- there are 18 collections of these translations that include anthologies of Black poetry, Latin American Poetry and individual poets like Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, Octavio Paz, Garcia Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alexander Blok, Mayakovsky, Evtushenko, Zbignew Herbert, Chairil Anwar, Mahmood Darwish, Sreekant Verma , Eugenio Montale, Wislaw Szymborsca and many others. I have also written a full length play on Gandhi’s last days and three one-acts.I have edited several books in Malayalam , Ewnglish and Hindi and have been the editor of many journals in Malayalam and English. At present I am editing   Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi’s English bi-monthly and a poetry quarterly in Malayalam, Kerala Kavita.  I write, but my first love is reading, then poetry, painting  and music.

Q) What got you interested in writing?

A) My elder brother was a writer in his student days, though he gave it up later- he was a kind of model for me. I was also an avid reader and reading Tagore, Kumaran Asan and other great masters from our village library was an exciting experience. I was most inspired by the Malayalam Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana by Ezhuthacchan, especially its charged language.

Q) You have written both poetry and prose. How are the styles different? Which is easier to write?

A) The logic of prose is that of reason, the logic of poetry is that of imagination. I do write lyrical prose when I write something personal or autobiographical, but in my critical writing I try to argue and establish a point of view. The joys of writing both are different. It is not a question of difficulty and ease, but of the difference in the mindset. No doubt I enjoy writing poetry more though that requires greater discipline as it has to be terse and suggestive.

Q) If you have to choose one of your works that you consider your best?

A) I hope I will never have to do it. One of my best loved poems in Kerala is Ivanekkoodi, (Him, too) a poem I wrote on the death of a senior poet, Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon. And one that has been welcomed the world over is Vikku (Stammer) that has been translated into around 20 languages. And my own preference is the long poem, Apoornam (Imperfect) that is available in full in English, Hindi and French translations.

Q) Is the regional literature in India dying? If so what should be done to revive it?

A) The situation differs from language to language. In some languages like Bodo, Santhali, Jhathisgarhi etc written literature is rather new and growing. In languages like Malayalam , Bengali, Marathi  and Hindi I do not find much danger as these languages have large readerships and lakhs of people who love and care for them. The real danger is to languages like Kashmiri, Sindhi and Rajasthani for different reasons: Most writers in Kashmir write in Urdu; there are no literary journals or publishing houses in Kashmiri. Sindhi does not have a state of its own, the people are scattered in different places and are fast moving away from their roots and losing their language as they are forced to adopt the language of the locality where they reside. Most Rajasthanis prefer to read Hindi books and many choose to write in Hindi too. There is a common threat to all our languages that comes from English medium education. I am all for the learning of English that is our window to the world, but that should not be at the expense of the mother tongues. It is the duty of the State Governments to make the study of the mother tongues compulsory at least up to the plus two stage. Much more ought to be done to get the best works in the languages translated well into other Indian languages as well as foreign languages. Ultimately it is in the hands of the users of the language to nourish their language or to let it die.

Q) There is generally a subtle hint of socio-political contexts in your poetry as also irony and philosophical contemplation- any comments?

A) My poetry turned political in the 1970s which was a time of social awakening in India with radical movements of peasants, workers, women, tribals and dalits marking their strong presence on the Indian scene. I have dealt with many other themes like love and nature and death in my poetry, but it remains still alive to what is happening around me in the larger community. The irony comes from the time we live in which is full of paradoxes. And the tradition of poetry, at least in India, cannot be separated entirely from philosophy; we have seldom distinguished between the two, In fact several chapters of Bhagavata and Mahabharata are pure philosophy. I am not employing any ready-made philosophy in my poetry, but yes, it has a tendency to meditate over a situation, event, character or the whole of the human condition as I experience it.

Q) You have edited the works of other Indian poets. Who among them is your favourite, and why?

A) I have many favourites. Let me confine myself to those who are no more among us: Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Urdu, Jibanananda Das from Bengali, Muktibodh from Hindi, Arun Kolatkar from Marathi and Gopal Krishna Adiga from Kannada are very special. If I am forced to choose one, it will be Arun Kolatkar; he was a rare kind of poet both in Marathi and in English.

Q) You have lectured and read your works in countries like the U.S. and Sweden. How did they react to your work?

A) My readings abroad have confirmed my belief that poetry is the mother tongue of man. While poetry is language-specific, poetic experience transcends language. The listeners or readers in Germany, France, US, Russia, Italy, Sweden, Syria, Pakistan, China and India have received my poems with the same warmth and enthusiasm -- it is not my power, but that of poetry which goes beyond the boundaries of language, nation, culture, race and religion. There may be regional variations in the response to a particular poem but generally the poems that touch the deeper core of universal human experience are received well everywhere.

Q) You have been part of international festivals world over. How does it feel to represent India?

A) I am justly proud of our traditions of poetry. Right from the ancient tribal poetry and the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata we have very robust oral as well as written traditions in poetry. I am a small, frail and tender leaf on that deep-rooted giant tree with its many branches. What we call tradition, I realize, is nothing but a series of innovations. Each generation finds its own poetry in our air, earth and water; each redefines poetry in its own manner. Tradition is dead without such renewals. My generation too did that, not to forget the traditions but to enrich them. We were inspired by the poetry of the past in our languages as also by contemporary world poetry as we share many concerns with the poets across the world today, especially concerns regarding the future of mankind as it is facing challenges today from the powers that promote war in the name of national interests and hasten the destruction of the environment in the name of progress. We need to think what kind of world are we leaving for the posterity. So representing India is to represent the larger interests of the whole mankind, for that has been the essential message of India to the world.

Q) You were the Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi. How did you then manage your time so that you may continue writing?

A) It was certainly a challenge. But I have always been a hard worker, now I had to reduce my sleeping time. I would dedicate early morning exclusively to my writing. Looking back I find that my pace was not very different even during those ten years. I had enough poems for a collection almost every two years. Besides I wrote essays, speeches and introductions as usual, while I also brought about a lot of changes in the working style of the Akademi, especially by offering its platforms to the youth, dalits, tribals and women and launching a series of new programmes. The number of publications every year went up from 95 to 300 and the number of programmes from 120 to 340. There was also visible improvement in their quality.

Q) Do you think the youth of today do not read enough and therefore are moving away from culture and tradition which is so much part of being Indian?

A) Careerism has certainly crept in the reading habits of many young people so that they read only those books that will help their career advance. But there are many happy exceptions. Your apprehension seems right about their knowledge of tradition and culture; here the mass media can help a lot. I am not sure they are doing enough, often they provide only cheap entertainment. One can entertain and at the same time illuminate. We need to have more programmes on our folk and classical traditions and our cultural diversity. We have many religions for example, but this rich variety seldom gets reflected on our television or radio. It is as if we have only one religion, say, Hinduism. How much do we know of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism? This ignorance causes communal disharmony; we need to respect our diversity and not create a feeling of ‘otherness’ in people who do not share our beliefs. That is the very essence of democracy. We also need better-equipped libraries, in the cities as well as the villages. Blaming the youth alone may not help. And let me add that there are also many evils in our tradition, wrong customs like child marriage, wrong practices like the caste system. We need to fight them too and not merely worship the tradition as it is.

Q) How does it feel like when people refer to you as one of the pioneers of modern poetry in Malayalam?

A) I feel humble. Yes, some of us did help bring about a change in the idiom of poetry in Malayalam and that change has come to stay and opened up new possibilities of expression to the young. But no change is possible without the support of the readers; I think half the credit should go to them for having recognized the transformation of sensibility.

Q) You have received several awards. Your experience when you received your first award?

A) My worry has always been about the new work that I have in mind. So the awards do not affect me deeply. Of course, I am happy that someone, or a group of people, have recognized the merit of my work; so I never reject awards, nor am I exceedingly excited about them. For the last few years it has been almost two awards an year, and I have leant to take them in their stride.

Q) How do you define success?

A) Material successes are ephemeral. For a writer success often comes after he is no more, when he continues to be read and discussed. I always feel like a beginner before a new poem as I have to deal with something I have never dealt with before. The empty page is what frightens a writer and also tempts him/her. And we need to advance on the blank page.