Rituparna Mahapatra in conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam in the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature

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The brochure at the prestigious Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature held in Dubai from 4th -9th february described Arundhathi Subramaniam as one of the finest poets writing in India today. She was one amongst many internationally acclaimed authors invited to the festival such as Mitch Albom, Jo Nesbo, Markus Zusak, Jokha Alharthi (Man International Booker winner 2019).

Widely translated and anthologized, Subramaniam’s collection When God is a traveller was shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize. Popularly known as the biographer of the mystic Sadhguru, her book on him,  Sadhguru: More than a life, went on to be a bestseller. Her other bestselling books include The Book of Buddha and Adiyogi: The Source of Yoga (co-authored with Sadhguru).

She recently edited the acclaimed Penguin anthology of sacred poetry, Eating God. Recipient of many awards and fellowships, she has donned many creative roles as poet, critic, editor, and curator.

In an exclusive interview, the very eloquent Subramaniam spoke about her personal spiritual quest, her passion for literature around the sacred; her love for poetry, performing arts, God and what does Bhakti* poetry explore.

 

You are one of India’s finest poets. When did you start writing poetry?

I have been writing poetry if we may call it that, from a very young age, maybe since I was six or seven years. As a child, I loved the music, the rhythm in poetry. My earliest encounters being nursery rhymes and I got hooked to it. I grew up in Bombay where I did my BA in English Literature at St Xavier’s college, and subsequently my MA at the University of Mumbai. Those years were important learning years for me since I learnt about the craft from gifted teachers. After that came my years of association with the Poetry Circle of Bombay, which gave me an opportunity to be with people who were equally smitten with poetry and learn from them. It was there I understood that writing poetry as a craft required rigorous discipline. It was here that I met fellow poets like Menka Shivdasani, Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Hoskote and many others, who kept my inquisitiveness alive and nurtured it. The first poem which may be called a poem was titled ‘Amoeba’, which I wrote when I was around 19. It went into my first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves (2001).

51WNPe-6mpL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Though poetry is your forte, it’s your prose, the book on Sadhguru, More than a Life, published by Penguin, which was widely acclaimed, and it went on to be a bestseller. Jerry Pinto said of that book, “Nothing less than a thriller. After the first page, I couldn’t put it down“. Tell us, what made you choose to write this book? How did it happen, Did it come naturally to you or was it a conscious effort?

Thank you for asking this question. It was in 2004 May, that I first heard Sadhguru speak in a Mumbai auditorium. I had gone there with many misgivings. I had many years of active spiritual quest and one part of me was actively seeking guidance and another part of me was resisting it, all the time. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with the notion of a ‘Guide’, I have a problem with hierarchies. So, I went to it with curiosity and resistance, but the talk itself was the turning point.

Anuradha Kumar, the author of Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

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Anuradha Kumar has been writing for two decades and in that span of time has authored eight novels, including Letters for Paul (2006), It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.inEconomic and Political Weeklythewire.intheaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in. Recently, she has brought out a novel, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories. In this exclusive, she tells us more about her journey as a writer.

You have written eight novels and children’s stories/books. How many years of your journey as a writer does that span?

About two decades. I’d my first collection of short stories out from Writers’ Workshop in 2002. What I remember is the lovely handwritten note Prof. Lal (who set up the workshop) sent me in acceptance of my manuscript; that, and a translated copy of his Avyakta Upanishad. I sort of remember what he wrote in that note. For a long time, those words encouraged me. I forgot them at times, but early words of encouragement and support stand by you, especially in not so good times. 

Can you tell us about your latest book, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories? How did it come about? You have been living overseas, did you return to Mumbai and then write it?

While countrywide protests wrack India over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and writer Shireen Dalvi  and Yakoob Yawar returned their state level Sahitya Akademi awards, a Hong Kong poet empathetic of the student protest caused distress within the family, one of who also happens to be a high profile government official.

IMG_2454.jpgDalvi was given an award in 2011 by the state of Maharashtra. From the media, she tweeted, “I am saddened and shocked by the news that the BJP led government has passed CAB ( Citizen amendment Bill), an attack on our constitution and secularism and in protest against this inhuman law I am announcing that I would return my State Sahitya Akademi Award…”

Yawar, 67, returned the Uttar Pradesh award state for translation saying in a report, “I have been scared watching the parliamentary debate. As an old man what else can I do about this Bill that is creating such unrest? I decided to return this award and do my duty.” 

A nostalgic journey with writer and Sahitya Akademi Award Winner, Ather Farooqui…

To those who can’t get entry into the regular postgraduate degree courses at JNU, even nondescript courses like the part-time Diploma in Urdu journalism or the full-time course in mass communication run in the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting present a window of opportunity to be a part of this great institute. It is great with regard both to work ethic and ideology. To those who wished to work hard, these courses were/are a boon, as their mere presence in JNU campus would motivate them, irrespective of whether classes were conducted regularly or whether the course had any utility.

…The idealism inculcated in JNU stays with you, it seeps into your every pore and translates into action. This is why, even now, whenever there is public outrage over unjust government policies or an act of violence, JNU students and faculty are often seen leading protests, facing police tear gas and browbeating, and generally expressing their outrage in diverse fora and on social media. However, when they leave the familiar and venture out through JNU’s gates into the wide world outside, they realize that even the train ticket back home comes at the cost of greasing someone’s palms and that corruption is omnipresent, and also that the world doesn’t set much store by JNU idealism. It is this shock that most JNUites experience when they leave their beloved campus and which is why, whenever I meet a non-JNUite, I don’t tell them that they were unfortunate to miss out on the JNU experience, but rather that they are fortunate they didn’t go to JNU—because JNU spoils you for life.

…But life has also taken its toll on JNU. Its pride in its tolerance of diversity of every kind among its faculty, administrative staff or students, whether regional, linguistic, religious or of dress, is dented every time an attempt at uniformity occurs and every time dissent is pitted against one’s loyalty to the nation. The continent in which JNU was an island is catching up with it. Luckily, JNU still has the strength to resist and retain its pride.

I joined JNU in 1986 to pursue a part-time diploma in mass media in Urdu. I hail from the sleepy town of Sikandrabad in district Buland Shahr, located some 60 km from Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT). I don’t think that in 1986 my one-horse hometown was any different from what it had been in 1947. The privileged lifestyle now enjoyed by the elite and some sections of the middle class was then the prerogative of just a handful of families. The Delhi of 1986 was not as claustrophobically or catastrophically crowded as it is today; it was quite unorganised and dirty nonetheless, despite the fact that existing roads had been widened and some new ones built, leading up to Asiad 1982.

This year, in the Singapore Writer’s festival, one of the books  launched is a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, a novel which was created with two more in 2002 — Intercession and The Tower. While these novels focus on spiritual evolution by evolving religious lore, in two of them at least the protagonist is an architect.

So, what does architecture have in common with literature? 

Russian author Ayn Rand  found some answers in The Fountainhead (1943), where the protagonist, architect Howard Roarke moves towards her theory of Objectivism,  a theory which the author herself defined as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” 

Do Kamari’s books, though studied in a religious light by Henry Aveling of Monash University, also subscribe to Objectivism?

By Tan Kaiyi

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Marc Nair… courtesy Marc Nair

Poet. Photographer. Singer. Bearded botak (bald man). As an artiste, Marc can be best described as a living kaleidoscope. His creative work can be hard to pin down. So far, he has written and edited twelve books of poetry, the latest being Sightlines, a collection of poems and travel photography co-created with photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. He plays with a band, Neon and Wonder, and set numerous poems to music with his band mates. He is also active in Singapore’s poetry slam scene, and participates in regular sessions at Blu Jaz Cafe.

If that’s not all, he is passionate about photography and the principal photographer of Mackerel, an online culture magazine he founded. He also collaborated with well-known Singaporean satirical personality Mr Brown in an online video that made fun of a MasterChef judge who misunderstood the nature of chicken rendang. Responding to his criticism that the chicken was not crispy enough, the song playfully (shown in the video below) corrects the judge with an appropriate understanding of the Malay delicacy:

The lines sing out:

Hello, this is not KFC,

Rendang not supposed to be crispy.

If you don’t know what is Asian food,

Don’t tekan auntie on the TV.

 

Kamila Shamsie is a British Pakistani writer who was given the German Nelly Sachs Prize.This award, named after the 1966 Nobel laureate, is given to a writer whose work shows “tolerance, respect and reconciliation”.

However, this month the award was withdrawn by the award committee for Kamila Shamsie’s support of BDS ( Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), which opposes the long- term occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel peacefully. Hundreds of writers have protested this move.

Kamila Shamsie herself expressed regret over the committee’s recent decision:

“In the just-concluded Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex up to one third of the West Bank, in contravention of international law, and his political opponent Benny Gantz’s objection to this was that Netanyahu had stolen his idea; this closely followed the killing of two Palestinian teenagers  by Israeli forces – which was condemned as ‘appalling’ by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process,” she said.

Last year after the Nobel Prize was cancelled and an alternative Nobel Prize in Literature, also known as Academy Prize, was given to Marys Conde, a Guadeloupean ( a region of France in the Carribbean), this year the Nobel committee is announcing two awards as if to make up for lost time.

The award was first given in 1901, by the will of Alfred Nobel, to  “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”, judged to be French poet, Sully Prudhomme, that year. Tagore, VS Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburō Ōe,  Toni Morrison have been among the luminaries of this award. This year the winners will be announced on Thursday 10 October, 2019.

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Money, money, money!

How much is a writer paid?

In an article in The Guardian, we are told : “Based on a standard 35-hour week, the average full-time writer earns only £5.73 per hour, £2 less than the UK minimum wage for those over 25. As a result, the number of professional writers whose income comes solely from writing has plummeted to just 13%, down from 40% in 2005.”

So, writing does not pay. Then why do writers write?

In a blog  at The Writing Cooperative, money or fame is not listed as a reason for writers to write. And yet, in a real world, writers cannot survive without money. 

But contradictions exist.