Teachers are known to influence young minds and shape characters. Bearing in mind the impact they have on us, this series will delve into the lives and experiences, as well as academic expertise of the professors of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Here, they open up about their specific contribution to their chosen subject and the personal growth they have witnessed over the years. In this interview, Tejas is in conversation with Dr. Srilata Krishnan. Picture Courtesy: Deepthi Govindarajan.
Bionote: Dr. Srilata K is a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She teaches Poetry, Indian Literature, Rise of the Novel and Creative Writing. She is an acclaimed poet, and has to her credit multiple collections of poetry, including Seablue Child, Arriving Shortly, Writing Octopus, and Bookmarking the Oasis. She is also the author of the novel Table for Four, which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. She has also translated poems and fiction, prominent among them being the collection Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, which she translated along with Lakshmi Holmström and Subhashree Krishnaswamy. In this conversation, she talks about her writing, her love of the sea, and other myriad topics.
When did you start writing? One of my favourite poems of yours is Being Seventeen, Being Boys — it seems like one small snapshot, and then there’s an emotion attached to a memory. What are the themes you like to work on?
I started writing when I was very young. Of course it was very sentimental, quite silly. But I always kept a diary or a journal, and then I used to write something or the other. That I remember, over the years I used to buy a diary, write what I felt, some poems, little stories, do my own illustrations. It was just for fun, no one took it seriously. I think over a period of time I realised that that was where for me my idea of home was actually in writing rather than in a physical space. I had a little bit of a difficult childhood — my mother was a divorcee back in the 1970s, so there was the stigma of a single mother. We were very alone. I didn’t really feel like I belonged anywhere, I felt very much like an outsider when I was very young. Maybe it [writing] was my way of dealing with that, as a place where I belonged and nobody would judge me. Initially I would just write and put it away. Those days the Express used to run a column called “You Think”, where you could send in your poetry, your fiction, and they would sometimes publish it. One or two of my things started getting published, and I got a little bit encouraged, and I felt that this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. In those days,we didn’t have creative writing courses in India, and the only thing I could do was do a Bachelors in Literature, and then I did a Masters. I continued to write through them.
In terms of that poem you mentioned, a lot of my poems are indeed little snapshots. This is born from an observation of my son and his friends, who used to play downstairs. They used to come upstairs, and the chaos of that moment was what made the poem.
Your question of specific themes — I think the themes come to me, and for any writer I think that’s how it is. Sometimes it could be a large political event or just a small scale domestic personal event which triggers something in you.
A large part of your poem “Bionote” is about you being from Madras and all that it entails. So how does being here make a difference — how does it impact you? What do you like about it; what do you not?
One thing that I realised is that for a lot of people who grew up here, the fact that it is a coastal city makes a big difference. In Hyderabad, where I lived for a long time, I felt landlocked, and somewhat claustrophobic. I liked the city a lot, but somehow I felt like I wanted to go out to an open space like the sea. I spent a year in the US, but that was in a coastal town, in Santa Cruz. There I didn’t feel so hemmed in, though I didn’t like the US. I felt a little more free, because I was by the sea, and all that.
I think so many things matter. I grew up in a school, Kendriya Vidyalaya where language of teaching was English and I did Hindi as a second language, not Tamil. But because I grew up here, I grew up hearing and reading Tamil. So even though I write in English, somewhere the rhythm of Tamil, or the sensibility of Tamil, does enter my writing.
You’ve also worked with translation. Could you tell us about the process you follow?
I never studied Tamil formally, so even now my reading is laboured, and I don’t write Tamil at all. I got into translation completely by accident. I got into it because Lakshmi Holmström had come down to Chennai and she and another lady were looking to translate Tamil poetry. They asked me to join them not because I was Tamil but because I was a poet. Initially I was worried because Lakshmi is a very good translator and my Tamil is not good at all. She said she was only looking for someone who could make the translations work in English, and make them work as poems. So I’d gotten into it, and I did it over three four years. Lakshmi was very disciplined. Every year she would come twice, then she would come to my office and we would work through the day. She and I did a lot of the contemporary poems, and we ended up meeting a lot of the poets.
That was interesting, led me to a totally different world. I had never read those poems before. We had to read and sift through them. Some poems would be good, but translations would be terrible no matter what we did, so we had to abandon them. I can’t say that I had a methodology as such, but Lakshmi did have one. For instance, she always emphasised that the poem should work in English. So this whole thing about being faithful to the original is true, but you shouldn’t let that overwhelm you because ultimately it is an English reader for whom it has to work — it should sound beautiful in English. Otherwise it’s trial and error, and working with how does it sound to my ear.
Have you ever attempted writing in Tamil? I get the idea that you grew up speaking it, but not reading or writing, but have you tried it at some point?
For some reason I got stuck with English. However, what I have done is build some Tamil words into my poems. Not just Tamil words, maybe a Tamil way of thinking or whatever you call it. I don’t belong to a family where everyone just talks in English, but unfortunately, I don’t write in Tamil. I would appreciate being a bilingual poet or author. Some experiences and emotions, it’s still very difficult for me to express in English. Some things I can express better in Tamil. Little words and idiomatic expressions that my grandmother used to use, like an azha to measure rice. How do you translate that? It’s not anything like one particular measure, not like the English ounces or anything.
Could you elaborate a little bit more about writing a novel and then tell us about how easily you transition across the poem, short story and novel?
My first attachment continues to be to poetry. At some point I just started writing short fiction, and worked a lot with that. Then I grew a little more ambitious and said let me write a novel. It wasn’t a terribly long novel, but it did take me four years. The challenge was that I had a full time job, then family, children and all that. Then the time you can give your writing is not all that much. I used to wake up really early in the mornings to beat the clock, but that meant that you got really tired by the end of day, you just want to go to bed and crash, but you can’t either at nine o’ clock. From a pragmatic point of view, the novel was challenging. You need uninterrupted stretches of time, more than you would for a poem or short story — on a long weekend you can get a short story draft done, or if you spend half a day you can definitely work on a poem. But a novel is not like that. You need at least six months, minimum, which I never had. This is something I’ve asked myself — it took a toll on my health, I think — I won’t put myself through that again, until maybe, you know, I retire.
You are a poet as well as a professor. How have these two roles informed each other?
I took up a BA thinking that it would kind of feed into the writing, then you find it has nothing to do with it. That was slightly disappointing. The Masters became even more narrow. I got into academia again by accident — the story of my life at this point. I didn’t know what to do with myself after the MA. Initially I wanted to become a journalist after the BA, but my mother was convinced I shouldn’t stop with a BA. After my masters, I’d made so many friends at Hyderabad University, good friends, and everyone was at a crossroads. So we all made the collective decision to stay on, and do the next thing, which was an MPhil. And there was no pressure. I got a fellowship at some point, and so financially I wasn’t in terrible means. Also, what else do you do? I don’t know even now whether there are other avenues. If you come from a middle class family, and you need to make a living, you need to find your own job and your own way — academics became that. I got quite interested, and was quite engaged with my PhD, and very involved. But it took me away, for those three-four years from my writing, and that made me very unhappy. In a sense I’ve learnt to slow down. When I do my writing I don’t switch off teaching, of course, but I try not to write journal papers and things like that. That’s a different enterprise altogether. Some people are able to switch very nicely, but I’m not one of those people. At some level, if you ask me what I would prioritise, I would still say I would prioritise my writing. But it hasn’t exactly worked like that.
Is it possible for an author to write authentically about experiences far removed from their own?[After a pause] No, I don’t think so. Unless of course you’re writing in a particular genre, something like fan-fiction or fantasy, where you’re allowed to. Otherwise I think you never know how the characters feel in certain circumstances — how it feels for instance to be a woman in a certain area. I mean, you can still do it from research, but it sounds a little off.
Taking that point ahead, a lot of Indian writers in English are diasporic, and a lot of that comes from nostalgia. How true is that? In something with a wide scope, say Midnight’s Children, how authentic are the experiences that are being narrated?
Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children via Magic Realism, so I think he saves his skin. I think if you move your narrative away from a realistic style, and you’re smart about how you do it, then you’ll manage.
Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is certainly not magical realism, though it can get fantastical in some sections. That novel is told through some seventy perspectives. So again, is that authentic?
Authentic is not the word to use, but it works. Narratively, that is, it works, and that’s what matters.
In the controversial introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1947-1997), Salman Rushdie makes the claim that the best Indian writing is in English, and that it is better than Indian works in other languages. What’s your stance on that?
I don’t agree at all. He got jumped on by everyone for that, and they were right to, I think. Look at our regional writers, maybe all of them aren’t available in translation, but the range is fantastic when you read them. Sometimes you only want to read them and don’t necessarily want to read the ones who write only in English, you know? So I think that’s not true, whether it’s poetry or fiction.
What do you think about poetry becoming mass culture today? Performance poetry, slam poetry and other forms are becoming extremely popular.
It is quite new to me. I think it’s good to have space in the market — it is a market — for all kinds of poets and all kinds of forms. I wouldn’t dismiss any of this outright. I may not necessarily feel comfortable with practicing it myself. But I think it’s good, as a way of keeping poetry alive. We have to allow for diversity in poetry. We can’t just say everything has to be in a book, or everything has to be canonised.
What about issues of quality?
Yeah, having said that, I wouldn’t subject myself to being in the audience. But I’m also thinking that at some level, I react very badly if I see it in print. Slam poetry is alright, if it’s said aloud and it’s bad, it’s still ephemeral. If it’s in print, however, I can’t help but think they shouldn’t have published it. You can’t control readership, though.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
There are two-three ways of looking at it. The first is the very snobbish way, you know, that you get published even if you’re bad, but what is the validation? On the other hand, it’s also true that the for every writer who sort of makes it big, there are maybe fifty others who’ve not made it because of either a lack of connections or lack of exposure — so many people fall through the cracks. It’s quite the horror story, actually. So I think it’s good to have a self-publishing route, because then it’s on the market, and if the readers like your work then it sells. At least there’s a way for you to get in. It’s a democratic way.
About your novel — what was your one takeaway from the process? What would be something you would do differently the next time?
I think I told that story too quickly and told too many things. I would probably slow down a lot more and take my time over it. I would focus a bit more on the details, over one of the stories — there are a set of three-four interlinked stories in the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t cram in so many things. I think I’d think about the prose also differently, now.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get published? What is the process?
In my own case it was unplanned and pretty chaotic. When I talked to other poets who are starting to write now, there’s Duotrope [a resource that lists literary markets for submitting work, and also offers submission tracking and a host of other services]. They also list fiction, if I’m not mistaken. The idea is to send it out, place it in journals. Keep writing, of course, and keep sending it out and have a pipeline of sorts. That seems to be the path. Online avenues are a really good thing. Those days when I was writing and trying to publish, it would be so difficult because you had to affix a stamp, and post it to the UK. Postage! I had to think twice before spending, because that was expensive. You didn’t know whether it would come back, or whether you could afford that journal, whether or not they give you a free copy. If they didn’t, maybe you wouldn’t find out even if your work appeared in it. Now it’s so much nicer, I find it so much easier, in a sense.
Who are your favourite writers, across forms and genres, and who are your most influential ones — if they happen to be different.
I read this novella by David Chariandy recently, called Brother. It’s partly autobiographical, I think. Fascinating story about growing up, about his brother and his mother. Something like Chariandy would definitely be an influence, speaking of very very recent writing, at least. Other than that, in terms of poets, one I really like is Agha Shahid Ali. I just love those bright visual images, that stay with you. I like Ramanujan also, his English poetry. He’s written some Kannada stories too, which I came across in translation. Then, I’m quite fond of Ashokamitran, whatever I have read of his in translation. Sundara Ramaswamy, Marquez, and a few others.
Say, ten years down the line, could you put a name on the poetry happening in India, or even the world right now? Is there a movement taking shape? You look back at the 1920s and you know there’s Modernism, at least in Europe. Is there something of the sort right now?
I don’t know. It’s really difficult to categorize the content when you’re living through it, no? The only thing I can say about it is that in the past decade and in the years to come, what one certainly sees happening is the pace of things — technological changes, of course, but also say how quickly books can reach you. You can just download them, sometimes for free. You can do all kinds of collaborations online, which wasn’t the case before. So many things are happening that it’s difficult to understand what is this moment we’re going through. Somewhere in all that, to keep your humanity alive… What I miss is that there doesn’t seem to be enough quietness sometimes, and I can see the dramatic loss of that quietness from the time when I was young — actually even from when I was in college. All of us have been caught in it. Nobody can step aside, and there’s no opting out either. I don’t know what that is going to do to poetry. I don’t want to say that it’ll harm poetry, that sounds too ominous. Maybe it’ll do good things, or maybe poetry will do good things for our times. On the other hand, I just hope that it doesn’t take away the space for art and poetry, given that you’re running all the time, no? Even for me, sometimes I feel that I must write everyday, or at least think about my writing if I don’t get the time. So the kind of a pattern that emerges from this is going to define the movement.