“Poets Are the Citizens of Language”

Politics has polluted language and we have to touch and protect its meaning, its sensibility, and its moisture in these ruthless times

LILA: Poetry is born out of intimate and radical experiences with the worlds within and outside oneself. While a poem is the best reflection of the poet’s interactions with the worlds of thought and material, it is crucial to know and note the poet’s reflections on their interaction with the world of poetry itself. Could you share snippets from your life’s story as a poet, or rather, a poem? How did you come to become a part of this world and how did this world become a part of yours?

Mangalesh Dabral: A poet is as much within as outside. Ghalib asked, “kiska dil huñ ki do ālam se lagāya hai mujhe (whose heart am I that beats in both the worlds)?” A poet has to dwell between the two worlds, two times, else it won’t work. Everyone in this world is equally sensible. One who has lived through more struggles perhaps feels more gravely about reality than others. But a poet is able to translate their feelings into experience. And when that experience takes the shape of a thought, then a poem is born.

I was born amidst the serenity of mountains, in the lap of a pristine world, where stars crowded the night sky. But I wouldn’t have become a poet only with these things. The literary and cultural atmosphere at my home supported this. It was crowded with books on Sanskrit literature, astrology, and Ayurveda. Not just that, my grandfather and father, in fact, used to compose poetry in our Garhwali language. My father also used to perform plays in the village — acting, directing, and even singing oftentimes. That atmosphere, I believe, moulded these everyday realities into an experience.

And, in that way, it became a part of my world, and kept expanding its horizons. Eventually I started to read contemporary works of Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ and Jaishankar Prasad. Prasad’s Aansu, an epic of longing, was particularly my favourite. In fact, my first creative piece was copied from Jaishankar Prasad’s short story Aakashdeep. I had merely changed the female protagonist’s name from Champa to Padma. I had started with a focus on lyrics in the beginning. Then I came in contact with modern poetry, with modern idioms. Then I finally came to Delhi and my world perhaps expanded further.

LILA: In the poem ‘Chhuo (Touch)’, you emphasise on ‘going within oneself’ to touch the remnants of a moisture. How has this tactile act—in action and in thought—influenced your cognitive and literary process and practice as a poet?

MD: There’s a given world out there and the poet only attempts to create a counter-world, by asking oneself to touch the moisture that is within, to see if it is there. When people are so much in favour of preventing any and all human contact, the poet asks to not ‘touch’ as one does in the power structure. One is caught up terribly in the hands of a feudal setup, which the poem resists. My process and the goal are simply to attempt to create that counter; then only the objective is authenticated.

Well, a poet cannot really ‘tell’ their creative process, at least I don’t know how to. If I had to look at it rather objectively, I’d say it’s tactile, that things are very sensory for us. All our sense organs work like antennas, catching it all. I feel that there’s a tactile quality embedded in my poems. I often forget the details, but their touch, taste, and feeling never fade away.

LILA: Your poem ‘Samay Nahi Hai (There’s No Time)’ evokes a very sensory image of the changes that ‘these ruthless times’ are synonymous with. You talk about the hatred that has gripped one, the loud mouthful lies that dictatorially silence one, and the handful of ‘lights’ that are getting extinguished, and the painful, parched song of the earth. Do you think we could identify a common ideological thread binding them together?

MD: Yes, of course! The contemporary dispensation is driven by the ideology of utter hatred. It’s there against the people, the fearless voices, and even against nature. The logic of the ruling party and the Sangh Parivar is that they don’t need any public, any people, and even voting is a mere formality for them because no one has the antidote for that poison whose seeds they have sown. It is absolute disrespect of the law of the land, of democracy, of the constitution.

These developments are the fruits of the same tree. They stem from the same structure that promotes enmity towards our own brothers, our own people. We don’t accept the way the “others” are eating and praying anymore. They have also redefined the “other”. Everyone, except them, is the “other”. These new realities are the symptoms of the same melody. The more a poet is able to capture that, the more they will be able to dissect it.

LILA: Literature in India has always tried to show a mirror to the society. Writers and poets have striven to highlight—often becoming and creating—counter-publics and counter-narratives. The society too, in retrospect, has responded actively — whether in support or in dissent. That culture of exchange of and engagement with ideas seems to have vanished in contemporary times. How do you feel about it?

MD: Literature is a mirror to the society and a mirror of it as well. It is not only a double-mirror but also a door, indicating a way out to an alternate reality, another possible reality. Matthew Arnold said, “literature is a criticism of life”. It is indeed a critique, which is why it has remained here to date. It also points at a more humane reality, which is why the protest element has appeared in the poems, especially in the contemporary times, and in the poems of those who are facing the direct wrath of ideological politics. Walt Whitman voiced that we are a multitude of minority. All subaltern counter-publics belong to this multitude. We have always been against majoritarianism.

Poetry historically has never had the market as that of novel, and it is not a recent phenomenon. Fiction sells like crazy to date, while the poem doesn’t. No poetry books sell in Hindi, in spite of it being the language of 50 crore people, as they say. Only a thousand copies at best. And if it’s a novel, then perhaps two thousand. In the West, however, poets sell millions of copies. And there you can live only on your royalty as a poet or writer. In Hindi, you can’t. If we were to look at other languages, primarily Bangla, Marathi, Punjabi, and Malayalam – in these four languages, to be a poet is to be in a privileged position in the society. People exchange books of poetry and the poet still retains a certain charm there. Here, I’d say, our mass media is not realising their role in the process. They aren’t promoting good art, poetry, theatre, and music and dance in the society.

Speaking of Hindi- there is also no solidarity in Hindi, which is still caught up in a feudal, colonial nostalgia, leading to an inferiority complex. We feel jealous if someone’s work gets translated into English or other European languages. The Hindi belt has not seen any semi-renaissance like the societies in Bengal and Maharashtra. While all epistemological pools pour into English, there are hardly any educational books in Hindi, especially of science. You can’t access scholarly papers or write-ups easily. There are hardly any online archives available to you. The Hindi sphere, we could say, has been really slow—often failing—at using technology to our benefit, largely because people haven’t cared enough about it. What would only a poem and a story do in a situation like that? For solidarity to be there, there needs to be a common struggle within and outside. Today, however, there is no intellectual anxiety, no turmoil, no catalytic forces in the middle class but only the “middle class dream”. Even the communist parties have stopped dreaming of change.

To prevent this epistemic and literary loss, to retrieve this culture of intellectual exchange, and to keep the dream of change alive, perhaps we’d need another little magazine movement by learning from contemporary Bangla and Marathi trends. We’ll need to push for, support, and strengthen small and independent platforms that keep countering majoritarianism. Most of the forces of the world could be against poetry today, but poetry, I firmly believe, still continues to create the counter-narratives and will continue to do so in the times to come.

LILA: These are the most ‘dynamic’ times to be alive in, where socio-political and spatiotemporal transition is perhaps the only ‘reality’. Do you feel that the arts, especially the literary, are frozen in some time in the past, or are they still responding actively and adequately to this change?

MD: I feel that all art forms are responding actively to the changing scenario. There’s a robust overarching transition in the arts. Everyday reality is pacing too fast. If you pick up a newspaper, it’s full of updates of all kind. There is a perpetual change in every field. If not a major change, there are a number of minor changes. When the newspaper reaches my doorstep, I feel that it is dripping blood. And a newspaper, I believe, is the first draft, a crude draft, of our daily history, while poetry can be considered the last draft. If I write a poem on any incident, it will perhaps be the last draft of it.

In music and dance, however, you don’t see changes too soon. Since these two forms of art have historically been dependent on state sponsorship, there has not been a radical reformation as such. But then you have geniuses like T M Krishna, who has completely changed the face and power structure of the Madras music circle. Carnatic music is highly disciplined, highly religious, and doing something radical like that is nothing less than a revolution. And he’s a man with a social vision. And, to reiterate, even poetry is not frozen in some time in the past.

LILA: How would you respond to the allegation of those in power and those supporting them that the arts have become irrelevant and a pursuit of an unaware, disconnected intellectual ‘elite’?

MD: These are actually the attempts to subordinate it. Market forces are working hard to achieve this, to dilute the gravity of the arts., claiming that they have become only a cerebral activity. Newspapers, the first drafts of daily history, are run by a cultural minority but they speak the narratives of the majority, of those in power. The crony capitalism that gave birth to the market has infected the mass media, reducing the newspaper to a “product” and the everyday reader to a “customer”. And in such a capital-driven consumer market, the reader-customer is only allowed to consume without questioning the contents of the product. Consent of the reader-customer is manufactured. With advertorials overpowering editorials, the purpose of the newspaper, which used to contribute immensely to the literary culture, has been ignored. There’s a certain “entertainment world” that has taken over, which is, not to disagree, getting consumed by the audience on a large scale. Half the jokers can be found there and the rest in politics.

When, in 2015, many Indian writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the rising intolerance and killings of intellectuals, I was one of them; there were 40 of us and there were many celebrated filmmakers as well. This incident soon echoed at the international level and garnered support from others, including Salman Rushdie. In response to this, “Award Wapsi Gang” got coined, which has now been reframed as “Khan Market Gang”. Their continuous invoking of these coined terms only shows that the deep wounds caused to them are still fresh. It was not only an “elite” section certainly. Economists, you could say, are all “elites”, be it Amartya Sen or Abhijit Banerjee. But, what are they saying? What is their content? When that is in the favour of the common man, of poor people, they are definitely relevant.

LILA: In spite of the rhetorical allegations, do you feel that there has come at least a spatial drift—or rather, divide—between the poet and the public? What, in your opinion, are the reasons behind it?

MD: I certainly agree! It is very ironical and quite unfortunate. Meer Taqi Meer wrote, “sher mere haiñ go havās-pasand, par mujhe guftugū avaam se hai.” No matter who likes my couplets, my words, but my dialogue is only with the people. Unfortunately, what we write is not read by the common man. Why could not a connection get established ever? Is only the poet responsible for this? Or the people? Or are there some intermediary forces?

The publisher is not interested in reaching out to the individual reader, and only wants to keep the price high, give a certain discount, and be able to send some 300 books to libraries. The publisher is not a book lover but a merchant. The mass media is not concerned with the poem anymore either. I had been involved with print media for the longest time. As the editor, I even published half-page-long poems, against the norm. There used to be at least one page dedicated to discourse on art and culture everyday. Today, the situation is so that no newspaper publishes poetry. Shockingly, the Hindi newspapers, even those claiming that they are the most circulated papers in India, have no writers. They don’t want any writers to write for them. In English newspapers, on the contrary, everyone writes. In Hindi, however, there has been no attempt to promote indigenous writing. They’d rather publish four poems on Mother’s Day, four on Father’s Day, and four on Valentine’s Day. There are no opportunities, no columns for Hindi writers. There’s no one to support the poet — neither the socio-political milieu nor the publisher.

And this, fortunately, hasn’t happened in other literary societies, like that of Bengal. The Bengali poets know that they have an audience willing to forgive them. Hindi was actually developed as an “Urban language”, by incorporating all the “dialects”. With identity politics becoming mainstream, linguistic discourses too have increased, and the “minor” languages are trying to reclaim their identity. Hindi is no one’s mother tongue, but an earned language. It has no society, no social paradigm of its own. This has also been a major reason.

Having said this, I’d emphasise that the poets too should reach out and look for opportunities. They should make use of independent platforms and technology. The ‘multitudes of minority’ are quite radical and can counter the canon of the majoritarian power with the might of the pen. Poetry—or rather, literature—will never cease to exist. And as long as one keeps writing, one will not only keep offering resistance to the powerful forces but also keep the light of hope, of change alive. And while the general public could access and support the literary culture on social media platforms, or through magazines, the writers’ and media organisations like PTI should come forward to take stands and be ready to support the writers’ voices at any time — something which we didn’t see when thousands of people—which includes journalists and reporters—were laid off in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

LILA: What, if at all, are the responsibilities of the poet as a public intellectual in ‘these ruthless times’?

MD: The general perception of people is to advise you to do nothing but write, just as a college student shouldn’t engage in politics but only study. But you cannot escape politics when it is influencing and eventually deciding your life. In the end, even if you don’t want to, you do start to see your time from a political lens. And it is a poet’s responsibility as a public intellectual to keep the politics of their time in check. I am certainly not the only or first writer-poet to say so. Many have been voicing it for long that we cannot leave our politics only to these scoundrels, else they will completely destroy our politics and society.

When we had retuned our awards, the then cultural minister had said, “let the writers not write”. This was a suggestion and a threat, and only reminded me of something that was triumphed in Nazi Germany as well, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”.

It is our responsibility to check, inquire, and critique. The poet is a citizen of language. The poet’s only weapon is language. One becomes a poet only when the wrongs in the society become so unbearable that the poet has to step into the fire of that burning struggle, bearing also the responsibility to save language that is being corrupted and distorted. Politics has polluted language and we have to protect its meaning, its sensibility, and its moisture.

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