Experiments with words

Suresh Kohli is a prolific writer who was something of a prodigy in the early years. Today he is ready to bring Indian writings in English to the small screen. A man who wrote poetry when quite young, he is trying to give some of our literary giants their due now...

HE INTRODUCED Tinu Anand, Alok Nath and Pallavi Joshi to the world of cinema, founded a couple of literary journals, was associated with more than a couple of leading newspapers and magazines with his writings on literary subjects getting him rave reviews before he ``quit with arrogance'', and then ``hobnobbed with film stars, developed fine relationships''.

In between, he found time to attend a seminar in Cambridge and ``did not come back in a hurry'' besides being the ``roving editor'' for Virginia Woolf quarterly. Now he has just come up with a few smart clippings about book-reading and is busy giving finishing touches to a TV series on Indian writings in English since 1930. Move over Shobha De. Time to forget Arundhati Roy. Adieu Rushdie. And hello Mulk Raj Anand. Not to forget R. K. Narayan.

But who is this man working on milestones in Indian English writing? The man who is attempting to encapsulate the best of the literary field in seven episodes likely to be shown on Doordarshan soon? Who is this man ``bringing life to more and more people''? No messiah. No messenger. Just an erudite man next door who experiments with words and in his latest work promises to ``bring the writers themselves on the air''. And wherever ``it was not possible due to the death of the writer concerned, we have an expert airing his views on the author''.

Meet Suresh Kohli, one-time film personality, many-layered journalist who has freelanced for practically every publication across the country and many outside, and has to his credit an assortment of spots and films for the National Book Trust. The clippings, needless to add, are all about book-reading.

``I have earlier done a series on the freedom struggle and Indian poetry in 1997. And another on vernacular poetry with particular attention to Kashmiri and Manipuri poetry. The new series will be only a documentation of what has come to stay in Indian literature,'' says Kohli who makes no bones about his ``disillusionment with the way authors are treated''.

``I started as a poet with `a lot of promise' or so many thought in literary circles,'' he says, adding: ``Simultaneously, I was able to get benefactors in journalism, who advised me to read a lot. Literary journalism started in the late 1960s. It came on the scene like a tornado of sorts. I was interested in arts, cinema, music, literature. The editors saw my point of view.''

This consonance in viewpoint led to sustained freelancing from 1967 when he began with Hindustan Times in Delhi before diversifying to The Statesman . ``Those days when one wrote for the literary pages, people noticed immediately. It set off a chain reaction. And I am grateful to Sham Lal - the then Editor of The Times of India - for encouraging and providing me the scope to do the things I wanted. It gave me the freedom to experiment,'' reveals Kohli, who later in his career was offered the editorship of a leading film magazine which he declined as ``I needed more time to give a facelift to the publication'' than was practically feasible for the market-oriented management. He also did a stint with the National Book Trust besides working for Dinesh Singh's Weekly Roundtable.

Though a job offer with Sterling Publications attracted him, he soon realised that he was ``getting weaned away from creative writing'' until India Today happened in the 1970s. This stint was followed by authorship of Indian Literary Review which ``found no takers and could not recover money''.

The failure drove him to the land of dreams, Mumbai where in 1985 he produced ``Rishte Naate'' for Doordarshan and also wrote the serial. For close to a decade he was in Mumbai before coming back to Delhi to find that ``the TV scenes had changed drastically. And commercial Hindi cinema was beyond redemption. They liked my scripts but rejected them because there was no rape, no cheap comedy.''

All this while his tryst with literature continued apace. Beginning with ``Death's Epicure'' in 1969 and ``An Anthology of Indian Short Poems'' in 1974, he authored ``Tangled Wires'' in 1991 besides translating from Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi. And, of course, writing for various dailies, including a few regular columns, some of which were syndicated.

After a three-decade-long association with the world of words and reels, Kohli is now poised for what is possibly the most important venture he has undertaken. And as and when his series on Indian Writings in English makes it to the small screen, we will know if the man who ``got disillusioned quickly'' and ``refused to come up with marketable poetry'' can actually bring ``literature to the common man''.