presenting Poets, Poetry, and more…
THIS-WORLDLINESS, THE EVERYDAY SENSATIONS AND SENSORY IMPRESSIONS
CONSTITUTE MY POETIC UNIVERSE
An interview with Sunil Sharma
How do you define your homeland?
A wonderful country of one billion plus souls; vibrant; pluralistic, multiple-faith; tolerant and deeply democratic. A 5000-year-old civilization with continuities, despite bad historic disjunctions and a bad memory of ruthless colonial exploitation. India, as a post-colonial nation, is an emerging powerhouse of ideas and talents and an open stomping ground for the advocates of neo-liberalism in the name of globalization. The alluring huge market for the multinational corporations. Still in transition, this culture and civilization called India is variously represented in the Western media, as a land of snake charmers, holy cows, burning ghats and wandering sadhus—deliberate distortions to discredit a giant. The synergies, the IT and Bollywood, the writing talent; its engineers and doctors—well, they never get acknowledgement in this kind of neo-colonial discourses. The images are manipulated to lie and project an exotic, oriental, mystic version of a modern and progressive India through such clever strategies of hegemonic control by the West.
Say a few words about your roots, your family.
Typically liberal middle-class family. Parents-teachers, who taught me the lovely aesthetics of everyday existence in a developing nation, despite monumental odds. A loving and very nurturing family; highly-educated and caring. My parents and I were rooted in Indianness, still open to the best of every culture. Father was a writer, mother painted. I was exposed to the benign influence of the arts from childhood.
Speak about your first contacts with literature, especially poetry. When and how did they occur? In which language?
Poetry was all around. I was made aware of its daily existence through conversations with father and his literary friends on long evening walks and readings done in Hindi and English. A smattering of the spoken Urdu made me relish Urdu poetry as well. So, it was a multi-lingual Indian setting. Masters in English revealed the beauty of the English and American literatures. Later on, through English, I read translations of classics of the Russian, German and French languages.
How many languages did you use as a child? How did you balance between them?
Language is a living ecosystem; it is meant primarily for communication. You interact with different linguistic communities and through live interactions with them, come to acquire a working knowledge of the different languages. I speak Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. All spoken languages are meant for social intercourse and I could manage them easily in different linguistic contexts. As most come from Indo-Aryan source, you can do the balancing act, although I will not prefer to call it that. Being middle-class and urban Indian, I assert those values only through these languages, used in various communication contexts.
In which way have the languages you speak contributed to your sense of identity (or identities)? Was there a tension between those languages/identities?
Languages constitute our identities but in a limited way. It is the class that largely determines our social standing and overall identity. In post-colonial India, Indian languages are getting marginalized in practical terms and English getting privileged as a centre of power and prestige. It leads to a strange dichotomy—being bilingual or polyglot Indian, you wish to be seen as English-speaking elite, away from the working masses. This neo-colonialism of mind and consumer culture by a colonial legacy, is deeply regretful. It is ridiculous—the aping of the manners of the former colonial masters through English and the entire cultural baggage/ values embedded in the language of power and control. By preferring to write/speak in global English, you become—as a freak—brown-skinned Englishman. This can be both hilarious and tragic. You are the court jester. The advantage of knowing good English is landing good jobs and quick transitions in a borderless world. But across modern India, I find English being employed as a means of hegemonic control and power and as an assertion of one’s elitism. English further alienates me from a large chunk of working and mono-lingual sections of population. Somehow, there is a big disconnect with rural realities. The entire thing is largely urban.
Please, briefly describe your professional pursuits.
I teach English. That is all. My fundamental concern is to enable my undergrads to speak in correct English. A hard task, though. As a college principal, I do my job sincerely and as a research guide, help PhD scholars with their projects. Otherwise, I happen to be just a plain writer. I have done a few critical pieces on literary theory but I do not write tomes—lost interest much early in life.
How has your multi-lingualism shaped your creative persona?
I am afraid it has not. Some post-colonial writers mix up the languages, I generally avoid this kind of blending. But knowing languages less dominant and hegemonic certainly helps in appreciating the world around you in a better way. They are tiny windows on your daily universe.
Tell about your first creative pieces—how did they come into existence? Why? In which language?
I began at an early age. At 13, I wrote my first short fiction, in Hindi. It just burst out like a sapling from under a soft soil. Later on, doing PG in English, I switched over to English for expressing my inner vision. Self expression to expression is a long and tough artistic journey.
As a poet, you have published three poetry collections, Golden Cacti, Mundane, My Muse, and Poems on Highway. Please, say a few words about each book.
Golden cacti is an endangered species found in Mexico. The title suggests the vulnerabilities of the liberal arts in a commercial culture. They are facing threats and might become extinct. Mundane—everyday—is my muse. It deals with the daily life in the suburbs of Mumbai. Poetry found on highway—going/coming back from office by commuting in a car along a busy highway—provide scenes/ milieu and inspiration for these poems. The here, this-worldliness, the everyday sensations and sensory impressions constitute my poetic universe. Ordinary is extraordinary in my poetic eyes!
Can you depict your fiction writing?
Fiction is bigger and challenging. Contradictions, ironies, absurdities and disconnects of everyday life in India—with special reference to urban middle class—get explored through fiction by me. Some of it is intellectual; some, experimental, and some, traditional. It tries to give a sense of time and place and exposes the lies of the system—the major task of serious art everywhere.
Can you discuss the relationship between language and politics/history?
Languages are living organisms and like every social construct, reflect the world around. The dominant cultures betray a bias for their systems of domination and values that tend to naturalize those systems of domination. For example, the Queen’s English conveys an imperialist view of the colony and the colonized; its politics and history. Nazi forces constructed their own politics and version of history and mobilized Nietzsche and his concept of the superman (Übermensch) for their own purpose. The same way, English in England was used to tame the working class and mould them into their image, and incorporated into their value-orientation by the likes of Matthew Arnold.
What is the relationship between social roles and language?
Language is social product and the way you speak defines your status, especially in UK. Class and language get intertwined in the use of a social product and becomes a mode of either superiority or inferiority. Ruling elites use the roles and languages for internal domination and promote a worldview of artificial cohesion via cultural and educational texts and artifacts in every unequal social and political system of the world.
Please, discuss language as a means to social and personal liberation.
It can be explained by making a claim about poetic language with its capacity to liberate the recipient/creator from the implicit ideology of that language. Women’s writings; gay and queer literatures, Dalit Lit and the minority writing globally celebrate the emancipatory potential of languages, both as a mode of control and resistance.
According to the myth of Babel, humanity once spoke one language, until a jealous deity altered that state of matters. From then on, allegedly, human communities speak different languages—which in turn carry distinct communal memories. Systems of power politicize languages further. Do you believe in language’s primordial innocence, as the myth suggests? If so, can that innocence be restored? How? Or does language always have to be political?
Does this myth not suggest an harmonious view of the universe? The oneness of humanity? The mythical vision is inclusive; post-modern view is exclusive, despite political rhetoric of inclusion and harmony and multiculturalism. Regarding the so-called innocence, I doubt it. Mythic imagination was/is inclusive, as a totality. It is universal and community-based. Modern languages tend to lose that sense of community and promote individualism and social fragmentation, especially after the full growth of capitalism as a political system of control. Myths tell of the harsh realities of their worlds and cruelties but communities remain embedded in them as frame of larger references. Historically, any evolving language carries the burden of the past and present and articulates that through serious—not mass—arts. In a political world, language has to be political. Feminist discourse and dissident—counter-cultural—writings expose the fault lines of a dominating system and try to usher in changes required for correcting the imbalances.
What does poetry do to language?
In the hands of an accomplished poet, it liberates the language and renders it refreshed and new. The Symbolists; the Imagists; the Beat Generation; the Modernists and the Post-modernists have done that only.
Adopting the dominant language of a colonizer conveys to me an attempt to speak to power—often in the only language those in power can grasp. You write in English. What is gained by this choice? What is lost?
I write to convey my sense of Indian reality through this global language. A certain audience is anticipated and a global dialogue might be achieved. The loss is your own audience that does not read in English and a kind of sensibility that is native to those that write in their first language; a kind of spontaneity you can say. However, masters like Conrad can easily acquire that kind of lyricism and fluidity with English, and can make us see things vividly and in a new fashion. For lesser mortals like me, it is a difficult challenge—capturing the essence of a foreign language in order to describe a so-called nativist experience or writing in English about things non-English!
The topoi of the “evil present time” (older generations disapproving of the younger ones) and “the end of the world” (the apocalyptic sense of time) recur throughout history. In fact, they seem as old as humanity. Considering this, how would you describe the times in which we live, globally and at home?
Apocalypse has become a mini industry and a paying one—like horror genre or vampire serial writing. For me, history is logical and impersonal and driven by certain laws. Globalization is not a very happy experience; another name for consumerism and neo-colonialism by the MNCs of the rest of the non-Western world, and turning it into a gigantic market. If in doubt, please check with Noam Chomsky—the last dissident standing!
There is the polarity between the need to be heard on the one hand, and the desire to preserve one’s unique identity and culture, on the other. What role can a vernacular language play in fostering or combating globalism?
Not much, except imitating what the dominant discourse does, through advertising and marketing forces in their subtle syntax and adspeak. Globalism is a threat to indigenous cultures and languages, as it tends to turn everybody into a ceaseless consumer of foreign brands and by creating artificial desires in the sense of Chomsky. It ultimately destroys the local cultures or simply eroticizes them.
Is writing a job or a vocation? If “job,” what does it entail? Likewise, if “vocation,” what does it entail?
As a full-time job, it is for the privileged few across the world. Most successful writers in the West are largely from the fields of journalism or teaching. Very few writers are able to afford the luxury of writing full time as a career, as there is no money in it unless you are writing best-sellers or for Hollywood. But then you are churning out copies for an ad campaign rather than writing subversively, like a Beckett.
What is the role of poetry in modern India?
Poetry is never a geo-specific phenomenon; it is an expression of intensely-felt thought or idea. It can happen anywhere—during a visit abroad or outside the limits of your home or town. These days, in India—and elsewhere—we see a new kind of writing the FB Writing. Happy that in the cyberspace, you come to see so many people going lyrical. It is good sign in societies open in cyberspace but closed at individual, person-to-person level. Tech is destructive and creative; close and distant. One thing is sure—it is mostly narcissistic and conservative. Few Nerudas around these days.
Who is your favorite poet, and why?
Many. The Romantics and Baudelaire—for showing the underbelly of industrial progress and its hypocrasies.
Describe the process of writing a poem.
It is quick transition, from board to execution; idea to execution. Normally done in a single setting and later on, revised.
What are your current projects and future creative plans?
Short fiction and few anthologies, no scholarly works being contemplated on the immediate future. A few novels, half-finished. Intend to complete them before the Grim Reaper calls.
Where can the readers find you?
December 1, 2014
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