By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

mustansir-dalvi-pix

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.

by R.K. Biswas

Menka Shivdasani
Menka Shivdasani

Menka Shivdasani’s first book of poems, the critically acclaimed Nirvana at Ten Rupees, was published by Adil Jussawalla for XAL-Praxis in 1990. Her second collection Stet first appeared in 2001, and her third collection, Safe House, was published recently by Paperwall Media & Publishing Pvt Ltd. Menka is also co-translator of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry, published by Sahitya Akademi in 1998 and editor of If the Roof Leaks, Let it Leak, an anthology of women’s writing that forms part of a series being brought out by Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW). She has edited two online anthologies of contemporary Indian poetry for http://www.bigbridge.org, an 18-year-old American e-zine.

Menka’s poems have appeared in several publications, both in India and elsewhere. These include Poetry Review (London), Poetry Wales, Fulcrum (USA), Seminary Ridge Review (Gettysburg), the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, 60 Indian Poets (Penguin Books India), and the Harper Collins Book of English Poetry. She is also represented in Indian Literature in English: An Anthology, a textbook of the University of Mumbai.

Menka is joint coordinator of the Culture Beat initiative at the Press Club in Mumbai and has been a member of Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association since its inception. As Mumbai coordinator for the global movement, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, she organises an annual poetry festival at the Kitab Khana book store. Menka’s career as a journalist includes a stint with South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and the publication of nine books as co-author/ editor, three of which were released by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 1986, she played a key role in setting up the Poetry Circle in Mumbai.

RK Biswas: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you to it? Why not fiction or other forms of prose?

Menka Shivdasani: The earliest verses that I can recall – though they were definitely not poetry! — were when I was seven or eight years old. I wrote something about a puppy named Terry though I had never owned a dog; this was published in a newspaper thanks to the efforts of a freelance journalist called Rajika Kirpalani, who believed children should be encouraged. There was also something about a strange man, who was “beautiful as a bullfrog/ pompous as a pig” – I have no idea where that came from. And as a schoolgirl, I filled many notebooks with verse.

I did write some fiction in the early days, and my first published piece, soon after I left school, was a short story that the Free Press Journal newspaper titled ‘First Love’. Around the same time, I also had a short story published in Femina, the women’s magazine of the Times of India group. During my teens, I wrote several “middles” which were published in The Times of India; these were 400-word creative pieces that appeared on the edit page. The editor told me that nine out of ten middles he received went straight into the bin, so I was delighted that he published most of the articles I sent him.

Later, as a journalist, I did a great deal of prose writing, of the kind that was never meant to last. Somewhere along the way, as I realised how different the two disciplines were even though both had to do with writing, I decided to focus on poetry. Prose was something I did for a living since financial independence was important, but it did not necessarily come from the heart.

My second collection, Stet, did have one short story at the end and I recently wrote a prose piece for the upcoming issue of Muse India, at the editor’s request.