Parvathi Nayar catches up with the bilingual writer Thachom Poyil Rajeevan to talk about the pleasures of prose and poetry….
Thachom Poyil Rajeevan is a Kerala-based author who writes in English and Malayalam. His range of published works include two poetry collections in English, Kannaki and He Who was Gone Thus; four poetry collections in Malayalam, Koritharichanal and Vayalkkare Ippolilltha; an essay collection, Athe Akasham Athe Bhoomi; a travelogue, Purappettupokunna Vakku; and a novel, Paleri Manickyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha which was made into a highly acclaimed movie.
Rajeevan has participated in many literary programmes such as the Warsaw Poetry Festival, Poland and the Iowa Writing Programme, US. He was awarded the International Visiting Programme Fellowship by the US Department of States, and has held a Ledig House International Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at Hudson, New York.
Are there influences you can cite that started you off on the perilous journey of life as a writer?
Looking back, I think the writer in me was born somewhere in the dark interior of my ancestral house, about which there had always been a mysterious silence. Being the only male child in a joint family, I grew up lonely in the midst of unbelievable things. What moulded my childhood mind were stories of gods, goddesses and the dead, told at untimely hours, splashing and bathing in the tharavad pond; scenes of country oracles, or komarams; and sorcerers performing poojas and black magic.
Terribly lonely, also obviously scared, I developed a habit of talking to myself. Not just to myself, but also to trees, animals, birds – and, sometimes, to the ghosts and gods too. They were my companions then. It might be that those interior dialogues developed into my writings, be it poetry or prose. My writing still remains an attempt to come to terms with what otherwise appears indefinable in life. It's all about relating what is within and without.
What are the special demands and resultant problems of being a bilingual writer?
In my experience, being bilingual is a process that involves both original writing and translation. Basically, I'm a Malayalam writer. But, sometimes, I fail to express an urban or cosmopolitan experience in Malayalam because such experiences are still foreign to the ambience of the language of poetry in Malayalam. A language that is not updated in a timely way from within its environs becomes insufficient and incompetent to express reality. It is on such occasions that I turn to English.
However, during the process of writing, English works are spontaneously translated into Malayalam – and vice versa - in such a puzzling way, that finally I lose the sense of the original. I think this is the problem of bilingualism: it's a border area where you lose your identity and get hold of a new one.
How did some of these dilemmas become manifest in the creation your novel Paleri Manickyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha?
The novel was originally in English. I began writing it during my stay at the Iowa University in 2004 and completed during my residency at the Leding House, Hudson in 2008. In English, its title is Undying Echoes of Silence. The manuscript is with a publisher now, and I hope it might come out in 2011. Meanwhile, thanks to the encouragement and compulsion of my Malayalam editor Kamal Ram Sajeev, I rewrote it into Malayalam and it got published.
What themes did you want to explore in this novel? What was the experience of seeing it translated into an award-winning film?
Paleri is my native village. I had heard people telling the story of a young woman, Manickyam, who was gang raped and murdered in Paleri in 1957, before I was born. The novel is about an onerous journey into this past undertaken by a crime investigator to uncover the mysteries shrouding Manickyam's murder.
Set in the period of the first Communist Government, the novel portrays the transition of an Indian village from a feudal system to modern democracy, unravels the nefarious nexus between the police, the criminal elements and the political establishment, and how the woman's predicament remains the same despite socio-political changes.
Poetry today is a form where boundaries are pushed to the point where readers are confused about why a particular work is judged to be poetry. For you, what defines a poem?
Primarily, it's a feeling of being incomplete, together with an irresistible discontent, rather, disquiet, always growing within. Poetry, for me, is an attempt at overcoming the depressing human condition and giving a meaning to it. Devoid of this, even if a work of art is technically perfect, it will invariably be soulless.
If you had to deliver a sort of State of the Union address about the world of poetry, what would be some of your thoughts?
There's something in poetry that doesn't allow it to die. There isn't any literary medium that has undergone as much misuse and abuse as poetry; still it survives. The most ancient of all human expressions, it's still as fresh as something just invented. Poetry nowadays has almost become a personal medium. Often, it's not the medium of the winner, but that of the defeated. At least like that, I think, it'll continue.
Who are some of the poets who continually “speak” to you?
Those whom I read to recharge my writer-ly batteries include Kumaranasan, Vyloppillil and Edassery in Malayalam; Vacana poets, William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Wislawa Szymborska in other languages. I read Kumaranasan and the Vacana poets for the way in which they address the metaphysical dilemma; Blake and Yeats for their prophetic but simple articulation; and Szymborska for the dexterity with which she transforms a thought into a poetic experience.
Do you have a daily routine into which you slot in your writing?
I don't have a routine. I can live doing nothing for days, I can work continuously for days without sleep. I enjoy unpredictability and believe that everything in my life is an accident; sometimes I even feel that becoming a writer was an accident.
What can you share of your latest and future projects?
I have just published a poetry collection, Pranayasatakam, a bilingual collection of one hundred poems on love. My next plan is to write a novel on Gandhi and the Gandhian way of life.
If you had a final word of advice to your readers, it would be…?
Read good works.