The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Mustansir Dalvi

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé


Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I wish there was a straight answer for this. I write, variously. In my columns, I want my voice to be heard, as I address urban concerns, particularly about my city – Mumbai. As a poet, I both reflect and construct, iteratively, as an architect, which I am. My muse is lower-case, infrequent. But when I do write, I write to be read/heard.

Tell us about your most recent book/film or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I have a couple of ongoing projects.

I am translating Arun Kolatkar’s wonderful book of poems, Chirimiri, which I call “Palm Grease” (or a small bribe) which is in Marathi. I revel in his words, raucous and bawdy. I revel in his ability to look at the everyday, but with a slant. And I revel in the deep sense of Bhakti (devotion) that emerges from underneath the vulgate nature of his narratives. I look at Chirimiri as a reflection of his seminal Jejuri which is about the individual, a sacred place and ambivalence of belief. But it is the words, mostly. I revel in the way they turn out in English, which is deeply satisfying. I am about halfway through this book of around fifty poems.

I am also working on another book of translations of Muhammad Iqbal from the Urdu, which has a working title of Muhammad Iqbal’s India. I am in the process of translating several of Iqbal’s earliest published poetry, from his first collection Baang-e-Daraa. These poems speak about his country mostly and the love for it through its geography, its natural beauty, its syncretic culture and its sages and thinkers. This brings out an essential character of an Indian poet, largely relegated and appropriated to various agendas of identity. Iqbal wrote poems on Ram, Guru Nanak, Swami Ram Tirath, the Buddha and Ghalib. He even translated the Gayatri Mantra from the Sanskrit, intoned by millions every day in India as ‘Aftaab’ – the Sun. I hope this collection can be read as a companion piece to my earlier translation of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-shikwa, published by Penguin Classics in 2012.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

As a translator, the aesthetic emerges from the spirit of the text giving voice. This varies widely depending on whom I am translating – there is the formal but angry Iqbal, the rebellious but deeply lyrical Faiz, the bawdiness and intellectual depth of Kolatkar, the quotidian and experiential angst of Hemant Divate, or Rahim, infused in his Bhakti of Ram and Krishna. Languages bring their own aesthetic to bear, and I usually work with it.

As a poet I write only in English. In English as an Indian language. My aesthetic, if I should describe it, would be related to the sound of words, the authenticity of the sounds, the comfort of knowing that such words could be enjoined in poetry to be enjoyed.

Who are your favorite authors/screenwriters?

Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Vishal Bhardwaj, Francis Ford Coppola, Gulzar, Anurag Kashyap, Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Satyajit Ray.

Isaac Asimov, Arthur C  Clarke, Sampurna Chattarji, Richard Dawkins (his early books), Hemant Divate, T S Eliot, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Amitav Ghosh, Ranjit Hoskote, John Irving, Arun Kolatkar, Stephen King, Ogden Nash, Jerry Pinto, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Subramaniam, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

It would be the translation of Chirimiri by Arun Kolatkar that I am currently wrestling with. His language is delightful but challenging, he often shifts idioms in Marathi, moving from the academically correct to the rural colloquial. His narratives are laugh out loud, but written so succinctly, that in translation explode into a cacophony of words that I need to contain like horses with their tails on fire.

What’s your idea of bliss?


Translating Faiz.

An evening with books.

Movies at home.

A cuddle with the wife.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Not much. I am at peace with randomness.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Shakespeare (My Graphic Novel Collection), Asimov on Shakespeare, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and On Writing and possibly It, David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, all of Joe Sacco’s work, most of P G Wodehouse’s, and the poetry of my poet friends – familiar, insightful, deeply comforting that I read and re-read.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My wife. She’s not ‘a thing’, though.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

“The more you know, the less you need.”

– Old Aborigine saying


Mustansir Dalvi was born in Bombay. He teaches architecture in Mumbai. His poems (and translations) are anthologized in These My Words: The Penguin Book of Indian Poetry, The Bigbridge Online Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry and Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. His translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s Shikwa from the Urdu has been described as “insolent and heretical”. His translations of Hemant Divate’s poems from the Marathi are published as Struggles with imagined gods. Brouhahas of Cocks is his first book of poems in English.