Shiv K. Kumar on how he has traversed all major genres of literature.
“Some are born old, while others die young,” quips Prof. Shiv K. Kumar. “I belong to the latter category”. Kumar is perhaps the only Indian-English writer to have covered all major genres: fiction, poetry, drama, translation and literary criticism. He has authored 10 collections of poetry, five novels, two collections of short stories, a play and several books of literary criticism published by Penguin, Harper Collins, Sidgwick Jackson, Oxford, Macmillan, Orient Longman, New York University Press and others. He has also been the recipient of honours like the Sahitya Akademi award, a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature and the Padma Bhushan. His poems have been broadcast on the BBC and published in Poetry Review (London) and Western Humanities Review. Excerpts from an interview:
You are a versatile writer but what is your first love?
Poetry of course. When one of my earliest poems appeared in the New York Times, it was my baptism as a poet. But there are hardly any takers for poetry. This is the age of fiction. I have recently published two collections of poems in Urdu: Intizar and Tum Kaho Mein Sunnu.
Why this switch to Urdu?
Because it's a language of high voltage, intense emotion and vibrant imagination.
Have you ever considered writing in Punjabi, your mother tongue?
No. Punjabi is my mother's tongue; not a medium for my writing.
What is the driving force behind your fast pace as a writer?
Writing is a way of revitalising one's energy. I publish two or three books every year. My version of the Mahabharat will be published by HarperCollins shortly and Penguin is likely to bring out my translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and my Selected Poems later this year. A book a day keeps the doctor away. (laughs)
I can see that behind the light-hearted face there lurks some pain.
Indeed, suffering is the driving force behind every writer. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a poet, did his best writing as a prisoner in Nainital and Bahadur Shah Zafar blossomed into a great poet only when he lived in exile in Rangoon.
What has been your cup of poison?
I have faced countless crises in my life: divorce, deprivation, betrayal and a heavy dose of litigation.
Most writing is autobiographical. Would you say that your writing is also based on your personal experience?
I assume your question is about my fiction because my poetry is not narrative. Well something of each writer inevitably goes into his creation. But I have allowed my imagination to create its own characters and situations far from my personal experience. Take Two Mirrors at the Ashram for instance. The protagonist is a loser, a womaniser and a liar. But I am a vegetarian; I don't have any vices. Just a glass of beer now and then. A River with Three Banks presents something of my own traumatic experience as a refugee from Pakistan. Every Punjabi writer — Khushwant Singh, Mulk Raj Anand, Bhisham Sahni — had to come to terms with this agonising experience. But take my short story “To Nuns with Laughs”, which was broadcast on the BBC; I didn't have to fall in love with a nun to write that. (Laughs)
What is new about your Mahabharat?
It's a modern day version: a poet's presentation of a great classic. Vyasa was a very bold writer who saw characters like Krishna, Yudhishtra, Drona and Bhishma with their feet of clay.
Why don't you try your hand at the Ramayana as well?
May be I should hold something back for my next life.
What are you working on now?
A collection of poems in Urdu in which each poems describes a part of a beautiful woman's body — her hair, eyes, lips, hands... but it's an imaginary character of course.
You have been a distinguished academic too. How do you relate scholarship to creative writing?
Frankly, I don't attach much importance to teaching and research. If I had an opportunity to go back to Cambridge, I could demolish my own doctoral thesis of Bergun and the Stream of Consciousness novel with the same confidence with which I wrote it. (Smiles)
The writer retires as senior professor of English at Osmania University and has published several books of literary criticism.