How Writing was not a choice but a Compulsion
Uma Trilok in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty
Dr Uma Trilok is a small vivacious woman, well-dressed and polite… almost more like a retired college professor. She could be a heroine of one of the novels she writes. But as one reads her poetry in both Hindi, Hindustani, Punjabi and English, one is left wondering what goes on behind that serene, calm exterior.
With her writing, Uma draws word pictures which vividly converse with herself as well as the world outside. Through them she asks questions which enquire and eventually appear on her canvas as expressions of love, anguish, loss, hope, smiles and unions. Acclaimed and awarded, she has the rare art of balancing joy with pain which subtly leaves the reader with a profound sense of hope, courage and enterprise. “Her moving and touchy narrative brings out the deeply spiritual aspect of her writing,” writes India Today.
Besides being an acclaimed bilingual poet, her short stories and novels have been staged as plays. “She presents her lines with a unique facility of phrase and depth of feeling. In the play of her words, myriad moods of anguish and ecstasy come to the fore vividly,” writes the Journal of Poetry Society of India.
Uma Trilok has written award winning books including her much acclaimed debut novel, Amrita Imroz: A Love Story. In all, she has penned 16 books. Here, in this exclusive, she talks of how she started writing and what she sees as her future.
Mitali: When did you start writing? Can you tell us what put you on the path of writing? What was your inspiration? Do you have any book, music or art that inspires you?
Uma: At the age of 32, I was the heading a college for women in Mahashri Dayanand University. While sitting in a quiet environment, when students were taking their exams, a poem arrived, and I put it on a paper…That was the beginning.
Prior to that, I taught at Delhi University. Trained in Indian classical Music and Kathak dance, I sang at the All India Radio and gave dance performances at places like Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. I had to conceal this part of myself from the conservative management of the women’s college. My journey as a poet started as a result of this trammel, way back in the 1970s. My creativity needed to flow somehow in some direction. I picked up the pen, a safe medium.
Writing was not a choice, it was a compulsion.
Mitali: You are a bi- lingual writer. A Punjabi by birth, you write in English and Hindi. Which language do you think in while writing your books?
Uma: Yes, I use both Hindi and English with ease. Whatever I want to say, in which ever language it comes, I let it. I do not obstruct the flow, neither do I try and translate it before writing. Likewise whatever comes in English, depending on the context, I write in English. I let it be spontaneous.
I will explain, like if I want to say —
Na ho tasbeeh ka halka
Na ho junnar ka phanda
Na dar kitaabon, rivazon ka
Zindagi bas hawa si aaye jaaye
( May there be no compulsion of the prayer beads,
No noose of the sacred thread,
No fear of the holy books, no threat of old traditions
May life come and go freely like air.)
I cannot think in English to write this couplet. It has to come in Hindustani.
Likewise, whatever comes in English, depending on the context, I write in English.
I let it be spontaneous.
In a book written in English, I have even used Punjabi. I have written:
Ariyo menoo Heer na aakho koyee
Mein Ranjha Ranjha aakh di khud hi Ranjha hoyee
(Friends, don’t call me Heer any more
By constantly calling the name of Ranjha, I have become Ranjha myself )
Mitali: You shot into limelight with Amrita- Imroz: A Love story (2006). What made you take up the pen to write this amazing book which even has the feel of a ghostly romance?
Uma: Amrita was one of the most celebrated poets whom I admired. I sang her Punjabi songs on the All India Radio and on other occasions, on the stage. When I personally met her in 1995, we became friends. I was also her Reiki healer. I visited her house often. I watched her and Imroz interact. They had a unique relationship. A river of love flowed before me. I was highly moved. I have expressed the same feelings in the book, in my own language. That’s all.
unke ghar mein mohabbat ka ek darya beh raha tha. Meine usi ehsaas ko
lafzon mein piroya hai….bas aur kuch nahi
(In their home flowed a river of love. I just translated those sensations
into words… I did not do more.)
Amrit- Imroz: A love story has met with amazing success. Initially, Penguin published this book in three languages. It was a great honour for me.
Later, the book was published in eight other Indian languages and excerpts were published in foreign languages. On various occasions, I was invited to speak about it, in India and abroad. The story has been staged as a play many a times during the past few years. I have recently sold its rights for a web series. This was my first book in prose.
Mitali: Amrita Pritam was an avant-garde writer of her times. Her times were that of the Partition. Would that have had an impact on your choice? Did the Partition of India impact your writing or life in any way?
Uma: I did not witness the Partition but I heard and read about it. To that extent, it did affect my psyche but not like Amrita, who lived through those dark days of atrocities. She felt very deeply and wrote intensely about it. I read it all, especially her much talked about novel, Pinjar (1950), which was later made into a film.
Mitali: How many languages have you been translated into? Your latest book speaks of the romance between an Muslim boy and a Hindu girl. Would you like to tell us about it?
Uma: My books have been published in eleven Indian languages and my poems in some foreign languages too.
Yes, my latest book is called Penumbra, a love story in English. It is the story of Muslim boy and Hindu girl, who put their lives on stake to remove the hatred between the two communities. It is under print, in both Hindi and English.
Mitali: Do you write only romances when it comes to novels? Why?
Uma: You have rightly pointed out that I predominantly write romances. I see love scattered all over. My eye discovers love and romance in every situation.
I will tell you what an author friend said to me when I returned from Odisha after making a short film on poverty. He said, ” Now when you have seen poverty from such a close distance, you will surely write on poverty.”
But, on the contrary, I found a very intense love story in the hutments, which I penned down as Tere Bina (Without You). The story was a hit! Readers loved it. National School of Drama staged it.
I feel, that there is already so much violence, hatred, deceit and vengeance in the society that we don’t have to reiterate them in our writing. Why not dig out romance, love, sacrifice and compassion, which also exist in the same society?
Sometimes, I also write other things — whatever touches my heart, whatever I can relate to, be it domestic violence, neglected girl-child, loveless marriages or childless motherhood.
Mitali: You write short stories and amazing poetry. What was the first genre you were published in and in which language?
Uma: I started writing poems, published three collections and then came ‘Amrita Imroz’, which was a phenomenal success. This book was followed by novels, short stories, plays and poetry collections. I even won an award for one of my plays, Tukron mein Zindgi (Life in Pieces).
Mitali: You mentor many young writers or new writers. This is unusual in today’s world. What led you to start doing that? And in what genres do you do that?
Uma: I was loved and mentored by names like Padam Shri Keshav Mallik, Padam Vibhusan Amrita Pritam , Padam Shri Sunita Jain, Kamleshwar, Rakshat Puri and Khushwant Singh. Whatever little I can do for any one, is only a gesture of thanks to them.
Fortunately, I was published in both Indian and foreign anthologies by established poets much before I published my own books, So, as a thanks-giving gesture to them, I include new authors in the anthologies which I edit.
Mitali: What are the issues you address in your poetry and short stories? Do you believe in making them socially relevant?
Uma: When I write, I do not have any agenda. I don’t purposefully make any piece of writing socially relevant …I only write candidly about the society in which I live, it becomes socially relevant on its own.
Mitali: Is your writing, especially poetry, aimed at giving vent to your feelings or does it address a larger purpose?
Uma: I don’t know whether I write poems to give vent to my feelings or for a larger purpose… I write because I cannot help but write. I only know that I strongly feel for the issues I write upon.
Mitali: Is there a reason you gave up dancing and moved into writing and sometimes painting beautiful pictures?
Uma: While teaching at the university, I was singing as well as dancing which I had to forgo.
At that time I thought, I committed a mistake by leaving performing arts but slowly I realized that by helping my not-so-privileged students chisel out their future, my sensibilities were being sensitized to issues that concerned them directly and in which I believed very passionately.
What I was expressing through performing arts then, I was now writing, through which, perhaps I was also transforming my own self.
Mitali: What are your current plans? Are you writing more books? Are you bringing out another anthology of poems?
Uma: My current plans include exhibitions of my paintings to raise funds for the poverty-stricken girl child and to write more books. Three of my books are under publication.
I want to continue writing till my dying day.
Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and editor and blogs at 432m.wordpress.com.
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