The Frontlist Show: Beyond the Written Word
Episode 8 - In Conversation with Amit Majmudar
Episode 8 | Western Poetry and Indian English Poetryon Oct 07, 2022
In this enthralling episode, our special guest, author Amit Majmudar underlined the critical differences between Western and Indian English Poetry and shed light on the origin of English Poetry in India.
Frontlist: Hi, everyone. Welcome to "The Frontlist Show: Beyond the written word."
This is Jyotsna, your today's host. So we are back again with another podcast session to catch up on a lot of conversations with your favorite authors.
Today we have a very special guest, who is a novelist as well as a poet, Mr. Amit Majmudar.
Hi, Amit sir.
Amit: Hi, Frontlist. How are you doing?
Frontlist: We're doing well. And we're hoping that you are also doing well today, and we are very much happy to have you for this session.
Amit Majmudar is a five critically acclaimed novels author of a collection of award-winning novels, a translation of the Bhagwat Gita as well as a forthcoming memorial, and a three-volume retelling of the Mahabharata, the former poet laureate of Ohio, as well as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist. He lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children.
He has recently published his new book, The Maps, and Scissors, with HarperCollins India.
Today, we'll be talking about poetry. In today's podcast, he will be talking about Western and Indian English poetry and sharing some nuances of poetry with us.
I believe that he is certainly the right person to address this topic. Thank you so much, Amit sir. Great Looking forward to it.
Without any further ado, let's dive into the conversation.
Since you have written so many poems, you have written very much on Mahabharata, Sita, and mythological stuff, right?
Amit: Yeah, it's one of my favorite topics.
Frontlist: What is the key reference between Western and Indian English poetry since they are both written in the English language?
Amit: The tradition of Indian poetry in English largely began with the British coming to India, and a lot of the educated classes learned English that way from that exposure. Early in the 1800s and 1900s, we had Indian poets who wrote in English, like Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu. They frequently sounded like the British poets of their day. They frequently used Indian references and spoke about Indian subjects, whether that's mythology, politics, or places. And so you have this feeling that it's almost like you're reading Tennyson, or you're reading Keats, only it sounds, only the place references are Indian. And that hasn't actually changed that much in the modern day. So today, contemporary British and American poets don't write in meter and rhyme anymore. They don't write so many. They don't really write very many sonnets or rhymed sonnets anymore. They don't write Keats in stanzaic forms. They write in free verse. And so Indian poets writing in English have sort of followed that lead as well. And I think that at the level of form and how things sound, it follows, probably at this point, the American model of writing, primarily and almost exclusively in free verse. I've recently received an anthology of contemporary Indian writing called Future Library, edited by Anjam Hasan and Sampoorna Chatterjee. I'm in it myself. And I was able to read through the contemporary Indian poets in the volume, and that is very much the unifying theme, which is that they do right in free verse, and that's a very strong similarity with their American counterparts, whom they are taking the lead from in that regard. However, the subject matter place names and references, and cultural references are Indian. I think that's the difference which is that Indian writers in English naturally have a much greater familiarity with that cultural material and that wealth of references that American and British poets inevitably don't have.
Frontlist: Everyone has their own way of writing poetry. If someone is writing in free verses, rhymes, and stanzaic form, which is your favorite one? So what's your writing style?
Amit: I've published several poetry collections at this point. And one thing that tends to set my work apart is that relative to other people, which is very distinctive, is that within the course of one book, I will write in all of those types of styles. And I tend to jump around a lot. Whereas most poets, if they write in meter and rhyme, they tend to primarily just write in meter and rhyme. And most contemporary poets write in free verse, and they generally just stick to that. I think for me; I don't have a single favorite way of writing. And I think that is itself what is my favorite way of writing, which is writing every possible way. Sometimes I write in a bunch of rhyme, in a distinct meter, or sharply defined form. And then I'll kind of tire of it for a moment, and then I'll go write free verse, and then I'll come back and write something else in a sonnet or, or a stanzaic form or something like that. So my favorite form of writing is any form of writing.
Frontlist: Would you like to share any poem with the listeners if you have any of your favorites?
Amit: Let me share with you the first poem I ever wrote and ever got published. It's very short. I wrote it when I was about 16 or 17. When I was sitting on the grass with my friend, he was picking up the little blades of grass while we were sitting on the lawn. And then I went home, and I thought of this poem based on that image.
It's called Picnic.
There is much casual, in-depth
Much random at our last
As if God chatting on a lawn,
or picking the grass.
That's the first poem that had gotten published right there, those four lines.
Frontlist: How did the poetry come to you?
Amit: I initially was more interested in spy novels, and writing spy novels and reading espionage thrillers and various mysteries and things like that.
When I was a teenager, around 14 or 15, I started exploring books in the library, and I kind of discovered poetry, ancient Greek stuff, Dante, and Homer, and I just became very interested in it. Then the sky was the limit. I explored those various books of the past, often in translation, always in translation, actually, other than. Then I studied English poets, as well. And over time, I would just relentlessly keep writing and keep trying to do better. And then I started getting some poems published, and now I get a whole lot of poems published. And that's just been progress. It's just been a process since my early teens, actually. I fell in love with it. And I just became really obsessed with it and became convinced that I had a future in it and that I had something to give to that art form.
Frontlist: Well, it's lovely to hear about your experience with poetry. Even if you're an American novelist and poet, you are still connected with your Indian roots. Which poetry influences you most, Western or Indian English poetry?
Amit: You would have to be Western traditional Western poetry just because it's so much larger than Indian poetry in English. Also, I didn't necessarily come to Indian poetry in English until relatively recently. So a lot of my formative reading was in western poetry, but also Indian poetry of antiquity, before the British ever arrived, so I was very much a fan of Kali Das, Tulsi Das. I translated the Geeta at one point, so I was definitely reading that frequently. I read that more than once over the past when I was younger. And so those were a lot of the works from India that influenced me. They were works that were not in English; they were in other languages of India, Sanskrit, and Urdu, all those things, so otherwise, but even then, the bulk of my reading has always been in various Western languages, European languages, and English primarily. And so those have been my primary influences. And I think the history of English and American poetry is just a bit longer and more varied. And so that's primarily what has influenced me.
Frontlist: So you just mentioned some ancient names or even you mentioned Urdu poetry. So have you written any poetry other than in the English language?
Amit: Oh, when I was a little kid, I used to write little rhymes sometimes. It's kind of embarrassing even to recite this, but it was written by an 8-year-old or 9-year-old.
“Tera masoom chehra dekh ke mujhe ye khyaal aata hai, tum mushkarao to foolo ko irsha hoti hai.” I was a little kid when I wrote that.
I've even written in Gujarati, where one time I wrote something related to sambar idli. I don't know if you speak Gujarati, but any listeners who know Gujarati will understand. It was like "Khati Idli Zindabad. Khati Idli Zindabad, Khato The Jeevan No, Suad Hutto Idli Koto Jo, On The Sambar Javigayo".
That's just a ridiculous nonsense verse, which means long-lived sambhar. At least, I kept eating, at least until I became a sambhar. And that's just crazy stuff I used to do in various languages.
Yeah, I don't even speak Gujarati, but it sounds fun.
Frontlist: Which poet has both personally and creatively impacted your literary career?
Amit: It would be Shakespeare, for sure. Even when I've been, I haven't read them in months. But I do periodically reread different plays or poems, and I'm always struck by how good everything is and how right everything is, and every time I go back to plays like King Lear. Most recently, I went back to Romeo and Juliet. And we read them, and I'm just like I could be content, just admiring these passages. I wouldn't really need too much else. It feels like coming home. He inspired me a lot.
It's definitely something that motivated me early on, which is that I want to be as good as that guy I want to write as well as that guy. I definitely would be Shakespeare, and in fact, some of my earliest works that I wrote when I was 17. I have these blank verse plays that I wrote because Shakespeare wrote blank verse plays, and I wanted to do that as well in competition with them.
Frontlist: Will Indian Poetry ever reach the standard of Western Poetry, or is this Indian poetry itself enough that it doesn't require any comparison?
Amit: It's the idea of the nature of cultural interchange. The dominant literary tradition in English is located in the sort of Anglo-American world. The body of Indian writing in English, specifically, can really compete with the body of English writing, meaning British writing in English, simply because they've been doing it for 1000 years.
Indians have been doing it for significantly less than that. It needs time to develop its own device and has to undergo its own development over time, and that will take time. You have to check back with me in 800 years. In another life, you can ask me that question, and we can discuss it. But by then, of course, British writing is 2000 years old. We'll have to see what it looks like if anyone is writing in English at that point, either. Maybe things were significantly changed by that. But again, you bring up an excellent point. Is it even necessary to compare? Probably not. I think that the dynamic is so different. English, of course, is the dominant language and the national language in both the United States and Britain, as opposed to that not being the case in India. Although India has a tremendous number of English speakers and English readers. Just because of the numbers, it is not necessarily the language of the masses in India, whereas English is the language of the masses in America and Britain. So it's not really apples to apple comparison. It's best not to do that. But right now, definitely, Indian poetry in English has a lot of evolving to do, and it has time. It needs more time.
Frontlist: It doesn't matter if a poem is written in English or Western Style. According to you, how would you describe good poetry?
Amit: Good poetry is very difficult to pin down what makes it good or what makes it better than another poem. The truth of the matter is that everyone has their own criteria.
And a lot of times, people don't even know their own criteria. For me, I tend to look for language that is used in patterned ways to express emotions and ideas. I like finding patterns in how the language is structured. I like knowing that the poet is really thinking about those types of phonetic and musical qualities of the language simply because I read a lot of prose, and I need poetry to distinguish itself from prose in a way that makes me feel like I'm reading poetry. I like some complexity, often religious themes. But even then, poems that don't necessarily have any of those characteristics can impress me as well. So I try and stay open to different ways that poems can be good. I try and stay open-minded, and I try not to limit my tastes too much.
Frontlist: Poetry recitation has immense power because it causes you to experience all the feelings that the poet experienced while in society. So why is it essential that poetry be recited in a specific manner?
Amit: Reciting poetry in a specific style or in a specific way is again helpful to distinguish it from simple spoken speech or prose or anything like that.
If you notice that when poets recite poetry, they frequently take on a certain voice, even when they're reciting free verse, whether it's spoken word or just free verse, they make their voices sound a little different.
I think it's an order to set poetry apart into its own world, its own standard, and its own nature. And that is frequently effective at sync signaling to an audience that something special is going on with the language. It is important to recite poetry and read poetry, like read your poems, or recite your poems in some magnetic and charismatic, and powerful way. It's not just that you're mumbling or reading words off a piece of paper.
Frontlist: The best Indian English poetry has always had to negotiate its distinctive relationship with English, other Indian languages, and the world. Do you think it has changed now?
Amit: I think it will always be doing that. And I think that just the very nature of the cultural and linguistic space that it lives in makes sure that that is the case. So it is originally, it's an imperial language today, and it is the language of the educated and the language of the elites. And it is also the language that connects India to the English-speaking world and the international community. So all those things are still going to pertain, they still do pertain, and they will pertain going into the future.
Frontlist: Okay. Thank you, Amit sir, for coming today and joining us, sparing your time, and telling us about the poetry and your love for the poetry to the listeners. Thank you.
And we're hoping people will listen to this podcast and will surely start loving poetry.
Amit: Great. Thank you so much for having me, Jyotsna. Very kind of you to invite me.