On Becoming a Writer in India 2

There’s a saying that goes: When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear. I don’t have a Master at whose feet I learnt to write poetry, but I knew, one day, that I was ready to write it. I think it began – fittingly enough, given the nature of my poetry – in the basement of a hospital. I was waiting outside while a doctor performed an endoscopy on my father, the first of what would be several more in the years to come. That morning, the Hindu had a special booklet of essays on spirituality; among them was a series of short poems by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I xeroxed those poems and that was my reading material during the endoscopy.

In the years to come, I always had a book of poems with me when I accompanied my father to hospital. I could breathe (or not, as also happened) between poems, watch people, overhear snatches of conversation; I could copy down a line or record one of my own in numerous tiny notebooks I began to carry everywhere with me.

But before I acquired a library of poetry books, I scavenged for individual poems on the internet. When I found one I wanted to keep, I copied it into a word document and soon acquired a large collection of individual poems by people I hadn’t read since college - Auden, Horace, Rilke, Bishop – and some I was discovering for the first time ever – Lisel Mueller, Anne Carson, Nazim Hikmet, Jayanta Mahapatra, Hafiz.

I didn’t start reading poetry seriously until I was 30, which was also when I thought I started writing it; I was wrong – I discovered a notebook from when I was 28, which had perfectly acceptable poems.

This is a strange admission to make given how often writers claim they always knew they wanted to be writers. I didn’t. At first I wanted to be a lawyer, then a teacher and finally, when I was 15, I wanted to be a film maker. This last ambition I followed fairly single-mindedly, via an undergraduate degree in English Literature, through diplomas in Mass Communication and Film Editing.

All this biographical excess is to show that my literary apprenticeship happened without my knowledge or consent. I started to write shortly before I stopped editing films for good and all. I wrote out of necessity, as a way to deal with very personal stresses my life was handing out to me at the time.
If anything, it was cinema that taught me poetry. I learnt how to write poetry from Resnais and Duras, from Tarkovsky, Bunuel and later Kiarostami. The voice-over in Hiroshima Mon Amour gave me goose pimples. I wrote every word that appeared on the screen lit by shafts of light from the improperly darkened windows of my Mass Comm. classroom. Something about the way my mind put together the voice on screen speaking French, and my understanding it, via subtitles, as being spoken in English, was also a way into the transubstantiation that is poetry – the body of one language being offered up, and turned into the language of poetry.

Nadeem Aslam has said that he learnt to write by transcribing the works of Faulkner and Melville, Toni Morrison and Nabokov. His apprenticeship was what you could call a kind of method writing. Mine was less ‘method’ than Aslam’s, but the principle is the same: learn by listening, reading, imitating; learn from those you admire and envy; learn all the time.

I learnt, living as I do in India, where books of poetry are hard to come by, by choosing my own playlist: at first with singles and only later, through entire albums.

I claimed my gurus in the way that Ekalavya claimed the absent Dronacharya as his. I didn’t know any older poets to show my work to; just to other peers of whose judgement I was often uncertain. I learnt in time to trust my own and wait. In this, I felt I called upon my skills as a film editor, to see with new eyes, and to excise when necessary with dispassion.

An earlier generation of poets did have mentors. The poet Ranjit Hoskote (though he belongs to my generation) started to write poetry when he was 16 and spent a lot of time at the PEN All-India Centre in Bombay, which was then headed by Nissim Ezekiel. Ezekiel mentored not just Hoskote, but a number of other poets living in Bombay. The poet Dom Moraes, who was the youngest poet ever and the only Indian to have won the Hawthornden Prize, went to live in England and counted among his mentors Stephen Spender and Auden. In turn, he mentored Jeet Thayil and Vijay Nambisan.

That was then. Now, it seems to me that Anglophone Indian poets participate in events and activities but rarely have the kind of argumentative but lasting relationship with each other’s’ work that is poetry’s life-blood. There is a sense that opportunities are few that makes us wary of each other.

This is actually an absurd and self-defeating attitude, given that not one of us makes a living by being poets. Recently, the writer Ravi Subramanian wrote an article that responded to the question ‘Is it possible to make a living as a writer in India’. The short answer was, ‘No’ and the long answer had a lot of charts explaining why. Mr. Subramanian, unsurprisingly, makes a living as a banker.

In India, poets have taught Physics, English and Linguistics at Universities; they have been cops and doctors, cultural theorists and copywriters, journalists, filmmakers and even – yes - bankers. Here, I am of course, talking about the Anglophone English poet who is a bird of a different plumage not seen until recently in the 2,000 year old tradition that is poetry in India.

 This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.