“The activity of writing poetry may be solitary, but it is supported by a community – even a family – of writers and readers,” says Ranjit Hoskote, who received the Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Poetry Award at the Festival. of Jaipur Literature.
Ranjit Hoskote is a literary powerhouse, known for writing finely crafted poetry with a deft hand, and informed by decades of immersion in art, philosophy, music and history. At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, he received all sevenand Mahakavi Kanhaiyalal Sethia Poetry Prize.
Hoskote’s contributions as a poet extend through books such as Assault zones (1991), The Apprentice Cartographer (2000), The Sleepwalker Archives (2001), Vanishing Acts: New and Selected Poems 1985-2005 (2006), central time (2014), Jonah whale (2018), The Atlas lost beliefs (2020), and Hinchprose (2021). Hoskote’s poems have been translated into German, Arabic, Hindi, Swedish and Spanish. He has translated the poetry of Vasant Abaji Dahake from Marathi into English and the poetry of Lal Ded from Kashmir into English.
The award is named after Sethia who was a poet, freedom fighter, social reformer, philanthropist and environmentalist who wrote 42 books in three languages – Hindi, Urdu and Rajasthani. Hoskote was unanimously chosen for this award by a jury consisting of Namita Gokhale, Sanjoy K Roy, Nirupama Dutt, Jaiprakash Sethia and Siddharth Sethia.
We bring you an exclusive interview with Hoskote, who graciously answered our questions about his long and fulfilling journey as a poet nurtured by other poets.
How do you feel about receiving the Mahakavi Kanhaiya Lal Sethia Award?
I feel blessed to have received this award, especially because it continues the legacy of a major poet who contributed to three languages – Rajasthan, Hindi and Urdu. As a writer who values the multilingual experience and its ability to broaden our horizons, I read this as a particularly auspicious sign. It is also wonderful to take my place in a series of laureates which includes poets whose work I admire and respect – Rituraj, Jayanta Mahapatra, Anamika, Surjit Patar, Rajathi Salma and Arvind Mehrotra.
This prize is not for one of your books in particular, but for all of your work as a poet. How do you view your own evolution as a poet from the first book to the most recent, in terms of form and content?
It’s been 31 years since my first collection of poems, Assault zones, has been published. I was 22 at the time. Over these decades, I would like to think that my poetry records a process of engagement with the world in all its dimensions of love and war, turbulence and exaltation, the pulse of animal vitality and the roar of planetary extinction. My poems have always been woven around the figures of the survivor, the pilgrim, the nomad, the castaway, the refugee. My attempt has been to forge a solidarity between the singular vulnerability of the individual and the shared anxieties of the multitudes. How can the fragmentary lyric poem become more porous, more polyphonic, more sensitive to diverse voices and difficulties? This has long been my main formal question. For the rest, my poetry continues to try to balance between bold optimism and dark wisdom, pivoting around the question of heritage – what will survive us, what can we do that will speak of us long after we have returned to air and dust?
When you began your journey as a young poet, who and what gave you courage and inspiration? What spaces, forums and communities have you found most rewarding?
What gave me immense confidence, from my childhood, was the active support of my parents, devoted to the arts. For them, the idea of a life in the arts was not a strange or confusing notion. On the contrary, they were convinced that I should pursue my first aptitude for the visual arts by going to art school. In this case, when I started writing, they were very happy with the direction I had chosen to explore.
I was also fortunate to have the deeply generous poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel as my first guru, my first mentor. Despite the difference in our poetic accents, already evident very early on, Nissim opened doors for me and supported me enormously. My first collection of poems was published under his aegis. The PEN All-India Centre, which he ran, was a hospitable and enduring philosophy, as was Poetry Circle, Bombay, which I joined shortly after its founding in December 1986, and in whose development I was to play a part key during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The bonds that were formed in these forums 35 years ago have turned into lifelong friendships for me, especially with Arundhathi Subramaniam and Jerry Pinto.
What links do you see between your work as a poet and your practice as a critic-theoretician-curator?
Whether in poetry or in curatorial practice, I trust in the miracle of the motif, as it unfolds through the generative interplay between intuition and concept, affect and discourse, the familiar and the unpredictable. In my work as a poet as in my work as a critic and a theoretician, I am fascinated by the way in which art produces the possibility of a world forward, of a world otherwise, of a sumptuous imaginary of hope and vivacity, which opposes the world as it is, a world of boredom, injustice and oppression.
Where do you look for validation and criticism when you write today? Who are the peers – in India and elsewhere – with whom you share early drafts and seek feedback?
I never share early drafts with anyone. My method is to work quietly, sometimes for years or even decades, on notes and fragments – episodic bursts of statements or observations that I gradually shape. Once I feel confident enough and have arranged my poems in a sequence, usually in a pre-handwritten constellation, I share selections from them with a small circle of friends and readers, fellow writers from various genres. This circle includes my wife, the theorist and curator Nancy Adajania, and my close friends the novelist Ilija Trojanow in Vienna, the essayist Sukhada Tatke in Edinburgh and the poet and translator Jürgen Brôcan in Dortmund. For the book that has become The Atlas of Lost Beliefsthe response and advice of James Byrne, poet and anthologist in Liverpool, was invaluable.
My writing process is also deeply supported by ongoing conversations (not limited to poetry) with other poets in whom I have deep trust, and reading of their work in poetry and other fields – among them, Ruth Padel, Forrest Gander, Steven J Fowler, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Jeet Thayil, Sudeep Sen, Sampurna Chattarji, Mustansir Dalvi, Tishani Doshi, Nikola Madzirov, Anjali Purohit, Meena Kandasamy, Vinita Agarwal, Suhit Kelkar, Sarabjeet Garcha, Subhro Bandopadhyay , Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Alvin Pang.
The business of writing poetry may be solitary, but it is supported by a community – even a family – of fellow writers and readers.
One of your greatest contributions to world literature is your translation of the poems of Kashmiri poet Lal Ded, also known as Lalleshwari. You worked there for several years. What did the translation process do to you viscerally? I ask because it is not the easiest to translate and because of your personal connection to Kashmir.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. During the two decades that I devoted to translating Lal Ded vaakhs, I found myself transformed by the process. I became deeply sensitive to the mystical quest, to the possibility of combining such an individual quest with more collective questions of solidarity, justice and freedom. I have become more sensitive to the texture and gradient of the many individual voices that speak to and through us. And as my consciousness has expanded to accommodate such differences, my poetry has also changed, becoming more accommodating of the polyphonic diversity with which the world speaks to us.
As I wrote in the introduction to Me, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, the project began in my individual quest as a 22 year old to reclaim an ethnic past across the Gulf from the Diaspora. But in a short time, this purely personal emotional investment gave way to a much broader empathy with Kashmir’s long history of anguish and euphoria and the suffering of its people in the present, whether at home or in the multiple waves of the diaspora.
What other poets do you want to translate? What attracts you to their poetry?
For some years I have been working on the poems of the great Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810). In his work, I find myself drawn to an intimate sense of contemporaneity – he struggles with the effects of political turbulence, finds himself navigating conditions of displacement, tries to make sense of a chaotic world. I revel in his sumptuous linguistic richness – the language in which he writes, which we call Urdu, and he himself called “Hindi”, celebrates the dynamic continuum of Khadi Boli, Farsi, Braj and Arabic.
The glory of Mir’s robust and inventive language challenges and resists communal fanatics who seek to lock Urdu into a religious identity or stigmatize it as being of foreign origin. Mir’s poetry reminds us of the complexity of the human adventure, through its phases of despair, passion, ecstasy and epiphany. Mir’s poetry also reminds us of what is really about being “Indian” – the only true way to be Indian is to be kaleidoscopically diverse and confidently open to a plurality of cultural energies.
How would you describe your political engagements as a poet writing at a time when ideological lines are sharply drawn and there are few attempts at dialogue or even listening in the first place?
I am committed to a liberal and constitutional political framework based on inclusiveness, equity and solidarity. I am pluralist in culture and in matters of belief, happy to practice my own spiritual quest and happy that others practice theirs, without calling for the primacy of one over the other. I am totally opposed to any form of bigotry and denounce the militarization of cultural differences and the politicization of religion into belligerent and annihilating religiosity. Every culture is confluent and feeds on the meeting of dissimilar impulses. All religions have been supported by contributions from multiple sources and lineages. The quest for a singular origin, doctrinal purity and dogmatic practice is a murderous quest.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist, commentator and book reviewer.
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