Menka Shivdasani opens up about her need to write…

Menka Shivdasani is a founder member of Poetry Circle, which began in Mumbai in 1986. Her first book of poems, “Nirvana at Ten Rupees”, described as “one of the best first books of poetry to appear during the 1990s”, was followed by her second collection “Stet” in 2001. She is also the co-translator of Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry (Sahitya Akademi, 1998). She has recently edited an anthology of women's writing (a SPARROW series).

Shivdasani's poems, which appear in several publications both in India and abroad, have also been translated into Marathi, Malayalam and Gujarati. In Chennai recently for “Poetry with Prakriti” (December 15-30), she spoke about the importance of encouraging children to write poetry, partly because of a throwback to her formative years when a family friend, (late) Rajika Kripalani spotted young Menka's talent. “This is a debt that I owe her … that I will never be able to repay.” Excerpts from an exclusive interview.

How do you juggle the demands of journalism and creative writing?

It is very difficult ... because I have an extremely demanding schedule. There is a fundamental dichotomy between journalism and poetry, which I was too young to realise when I decided to become a journalist. I was 10 when my first poems were published so I thought that the right career for me would be journalism. It took me a very long time to realise that they are completely divergent in the way they perceive life and experience. As a poet you are constantly isolating yourself, moving inwards. As a journalist you need to be social and get into somebody else's experience. As a result I have never been a very prolific poet. I take a long time. I am also aware that as a journalist the words can come and go very quickly, so as poet I am very cautious because I hope it will not just disappear ... into the next day's raddiwallah's bundle.

Would you agree that the “voices of poets are totally silenced in English?”

I don't think so. This is an argument that has always been asked about writing in English as opposed to writing in your mother tongue. I think Indian writers in English have made English their own. They have added a vibrancy and depth to it that is very Indian. You read a Jayanta Mahapatra, a Kamala Das ... it is very, very Indian poetry. I am very comfortable with English. I would love to be able to write in Sindhi, but I can't. So yes, my voice is in English but I hope it is Indian in some way that goes beyond language. I was asked this at one of the colleges in Chennai where I read: ‘Do you feel that you have missed something because you are not writing in your mother tongue?' … I think that we are very comfortable in our own skin as Indian writers in English and there is nothing to be embarrassed about or defensive about.

You have looked at trauma; Partition poetry, for instance, in your anthology “Freedom and Fissures”. Also not much is known about Sindhi writing.

Sindhi has never been something we were taught. What happened is that, because of the Partition, there was a break. For example, I grew up in Bombay but I did not go into my own literature, Sindhi literature. A friend Anju Makhija, a Sindhi poet writing in English, told me “we should do this project.”

For Freedom and Fissures Sindhi poet Anju Makhija and I worked with Dr. Arjan Mirchandani “Shad”, Sindhi writer/poet who had been through Partition. When we asked writers for poems about Partition, some said they didn't have any. But, in his personal collection, Dr. Mirchandani actually found such poems. We realised that they did not want to remember that poetry, that trauma. They wanted to just move on.

We also discovered that a lot of younger Sindhi writers felt deprived because the older generation had, in a way, deprived them of their heritage. Popati Hiranandani, the great Sindhi writer, told me that the trouble was that the land and the language were interlinked. If you don't have your land, at some level your language will suffer because you are not living in that ethos. In his poem “Andho Doonhon (Blind Smoke”), Dr. Mirchandani talks about this ... you put on a mask because you have lost your face. You lost so much at the time of Partition that you put on this mask and you laugh... all the bright colours because you need to let the world know that everything is okay and that you have survived.

This was not poetry I had written, but what was done by a whole lot of writers. We found poets, in their thirties, who had talked about this whole sense of being deprived, we found older poets who were nostalgic for the country that they had left behind. We found poets who were very angry with the politicians for what they had done ... they promised one thing and they were given something totally different. And I think this was a very vital piece of work for me personally. Because I learned so much about my own culture. It was certainly not the last word ... and Anju went on to do Sufi poetry.

Could you tell us about the Poetry Circle? And how “the Internet has transformed even our literary spaces”.

It started in 1986 when the perception was — I think it is still there in some way — that nobody is interested in poetry. I used to attend poetry meets. I knew Nissim Ezekiel, he did a lot for me in terms of my poetry, he taught a great deal about the craft of poetry. Poetry Circle was an attempt to find an audience to begin with.

A friend, Nitin Mukadam, said there is this young writer called Akil Contractor. It is important that these names come through because I did not start it alone. It was the three of us. We discussed the concept of actually starting an organisation to promote poetry. Frankly I was a little sceptical in the beginning because I wasn't sure there would be any kind of interest. But I was astounded by the people who came over. Today they have acknowledged that Poetry Circle has made a huge difference to them.

There is a lot of interest and it just has to be nurtured … Somebody was telling me that there is a Poetry Circle in Chennai, with sometimes just three people. It doesn't matter. Keep at it long enough, it will make an impact.

The Internet can actually bring poets together from across the world. A British novelist whom I have never met read my work and ended up writing a letter to a writer's retreat recommending me. That would have been unthinkable at one time.

The downside is that everybody thinks they can put their work out there; there is no one to actually mentor you. You have to be very careful about what you put out in public because it will be there for a lifetime. But it needs to be balanced with a face-to-face interaction because there will always be something missing in the e-mail interaction but which will come through in your meeting and talking.

Your comments on the appeal of poetry. And what about poetry in public spaces?

I think there should be as many attempts as possible to reach out to the public but I think a lack of interest doesn't matter. You will continue to write whether people read it or not because you need to write. It's a very deep personal need and you can't go around trying to please everybody. If you reach out, there will be one anonymous person in that crowd who has been looking for this kind of thing and will come forward.

We should use our public spaces to promote art and culture. A lot of public spaces are silence zones, which is a real pity. Reading in such spaces is finding a new way to reach out because you need to share the work and you need not necessarily be looking for personal glory.… You don't write poetry because you are going a make a packet out of it. You write because it grabs you by the throat. So if there is a space that allows you to make it public because you want to share those feelings, what's wrong with that?

More In: Books