Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

A brief interview with K. Satchidanandan by Michael O hAodha

Can you tell us a little about your background? What drew you to literature initially?

I had no writers before me in the family though my elder brother used to write verses during his school and college days. Whenever I try to think about what really led me to poetry I hear the diverse strains of the incessant rains of my village in Kerala in South India. I recall too the luminous lines of the epic Ramayana that I had read as a school boy where the poet invokes the Goddess of the Word, Saraswati, the Indian Muse, to keep bringing the apt words to his mind without a pause like the endless waves of the sea. My mother taught me to talk to crows and trees; from my pious father I learnt to communicate with gods and spirits. My insane grandmother taught me to create a parallel world to escape the vile ordinariness of the tiresomely humdrum everyday world; the dead taught me to be one with the soil; the wind taught me to move and shake without ever being seen and the rain trained my voice in a thousand modulations. My beautiful village with its poor people too must have hurt me into poetry. With such rare teachers perhaps it was impossible for me not to be a poet, of sorts.

What are your interests/ hobbies outside of literature?

My second love is art. Art galleries are the first places I go to during my travels. I have written too on art. Then there is cinema. I attend film festivals and try to see what is happening there. The visual element that is strong in my poetry according to critics as, also, the narrative element and its use of a kind of montage may have something to do with this fascination for films. I am also interested in psychoanalysis, philosophy and history. I listen to music of all kinds too. The fresh discoveries about the human body, especially the brain, as also the possibilities of life outside the earth and the solar system excite me a lot.

What style or genres of literature do you enjoy as a reader?

Avant-garde writing of all kinds interests me particularly. Besides world poetry I read a lot of fiction from all around. You can imagine the kind of writing I like if I name some of my favourites: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Kazantsakis, Italo Calvino, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J. M. Coetzee, Maria Vergas Llosa, Salman
Rushdie: there are many more, but I have read almost everything these writers have written that is available in English. I do read plays and enjoy good critical/ theoretical writing, say Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Umberto Eco to take some examples. My formal research was in post-Structuralism.

Where you aware of a rich tradition in terms of poetry in the Malayalam language when you first began writing?

When I began writing while I was in school – I must have been 12 when my first poem was published in a small village magazine – I had only a vague idea of our tradition. Indeed I had read some of the classical authors, but the general understanding of tradition was not very strong. But gradually, as I began to take poetry seriously, I began to read our poets slowly and consciously and later also to write about their works. I have my own canon and have written poems about my predecessors whom I consider most significant in terms of poetic experience and form. But I keep reading even the youngest of poets and never cease to learn from others’ practice even while being myself.

Do people in the West get a "false" impression of India from some of the literature that purports to be "Indian" - i.e. Indian "diaspora writing" written by writers who may have grown up outside of India and whose links with their "homeland" are tenuous at best?

Even among Indian writers writing in English there are two categories: those who live in India and write about Indian life and society and those who live abroad and keep visiting India looking for “themes”. Then there are those who have decided to write in the Indian languages, twenty-two of which have been recognised by the Constitution (there are several more). Those who write in these languages are closest to our reality as it is almost impossible to capture its nuances and complexities in English; English is still the language of the elite in India. Of those who write in English for various reasons – for some that is the only language they know well as they have been brought up and educated outside their regions; for some it is a choice as it suddenly makes them pan-Indian and even ‘international’; those who live abroad create a very
unreal India. For most of them India is an ethnic museum and they have a tendency to ‘package’ and sell India. Unfortunately this tendency has also begun to falsify a lot of writing in English done by those who live inside the country. Their works are often read not as literature, but as instances of history, ethnography and even anthropology. Your whole perspective gets falsified when you eye a foreign market. Thank God, poetry is free from this as it has no ‘market’ anyway.

How would you describe yourself in terms of your political leanings?

I have passed through a very political phase in my writing career as a radical Leftist. But my sympathies are now broader. My concerns are very much alive, but they are not confined to class anymore; they are more species-concerns. I believe in the Commons philosophy: that the earth, water and air belong to all, not only human beings, but every being that constitutes the ecosystem. I often try to look at the world from the point of view of animals, insects and plants. So that I may be free of the human hubris.

Why is it that so few present-day Indian poets and writers translated - thereby reaching a bigger audience in other parts of the world, the West in particular?

It has to do partly with the international politics of translation and partly with the sad fact that there are very few in India or abroad who can translate directly from an Indian language into a
foreign language. Even the number of those who can translate well into English is limited, not to speak of French, German, Spanish, Italian, Welsh or Irish. So one has to depend on English as a link language. I was fortunate to have direct translators for my poetry into French and German, but the Italian and Arabic translations were done from my own English versions though I did have them compared with the originals with the help of scholars who knew the languages. Many publishers abroad are not willing to accept such indirect translations. I do not find any easy way out except to have more translations in English so that they travel from there into other languages. With all the losses that such translations may have, something of the original definitely gets through.

Do you think there is too much of an emphasis on the West understanding the East and vice-versa at the moment? Are there aspects of the East that should always remain "theirs"?

I do not think there is any harm in attempts to understand one another. What I find strange are these very constraining and totalising categories –‘The West’ and ‘the ‘East’. These stereotypes, like ‘the spiritual East’ and the ‘materialist West’ ‘have already done a lot of harm. Again, a closer look will prove that not all Eastern countries, nor all Western countries, share everything: Japan, China, India, Indonesia: if they have some things in common they have as many
differences among them too. This is equally true of the so-called ‘West’. How far is Ireland like France, or Germany like Iceland? At the same time there is also a real standardisation happening in life styles due to the processes of globalisation. Go to a supermarket or a shopping
mall anywhere in the world and you will find similar merchandise, produced probably by the same companies. To some extent this is also happening in modern art and literature. There is so much of exchange and mutual impact that they too tend to be often similar despite the
outcries against the loss of cultural and linguistic identities. Cultures are in a flux, more than at any other phase in human history. There is a lot of ‘West’ in the contemporary ‘East’ and vice versa.

Can you tell us a little bit about the situation for writers in the region of India that you currently inhabit and the development of modern (postmodern) Indian literature and languages generally?

I have written three books in English on this subject. I can only briefly respond here. I am living at present in Delhi, India’s capital city which is a melting pot of cultures, a real cosmopolis.
So I get to know about many literatures. I had also the privilege of heading the national Academy of Literature in India which also helped me understand many literatures somewhat closely. The most exciting things happening today in Indian literatures in different languages – after the hey-day of High Modernism – are the rise of Women’s, if not Feminist, writing, (which has a history of at least 26 centuries, but there has been a clear growth here in quality and quantity in the last 15-20 years), subaltern writing (especially Dalit, former untouchables, the lowest in the caste category, writing: poetry, fiction, autobiography all written in a fresh idiom with a lot of rustic and dialectal elements, recasting the canons and developing a new aesthetics) and minority writing (written by ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual minorities).

Is Indian literature thriving?

I would say yes: One reason is the new vibrancy lent to it by the above forms of oppositional writing, and the other the emergence of many interesting writers who write in English with greater confidence than their predecessors. There are all kinds of writers among them as I mentioned earlier, but there are many good ones too, especially among poets and fiction writers; there is also a lot of good non-fiction being produced in English. Publishers in the
West are also turning more and more to Indian writing, both in English and translations from the Indian languages, having exhausted African and Latin American writing to a great extent.

You have spent some periods undertaking writing workshops in Wales and other western countries. How does western literature or writing differ from that of India? Are many Indian writers actually living outside India and perhpas not as "in touch" with what Indian life and culture is like "on the gorund" now - as compared with before?

The feelings literature expresses are not very dissimilar wherever the works get written. The difference can be seen in the ways life is perceived and in forms that are specific to certain traditions. Even here I would not like to generalise as individual differences also matter a lot. Look at Welsh poets: Tim Morrys would draw from the folksong tradition; Menna Elfyn might like to comment in free or rhymed verse on contemporary experiences; Eurig Salisbury would prefer the traditional classical form of the Cynhanedd even while writing about the present. I have translated not only Welsh poetry but a lot of Swedish poetry too, sitting with the poets. Nature plays a prominent role in Swedish poetry.

Is there any awareness in India of minority languages and literatures in Europe, such as Irish, Welsh, Basque etc.?

I do not think the awareness we have is adequate, now that I know at least Welsh writing better. Ireland is better known in India for its English writers from Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats to Lady Gregory, Sean O’ Casey and of course James Joyce as they are all part of English syllabi in India. Basque is little known.

Do writers get much governmental support in India?

The support writers get is hardly adequate. But it is not proper to complain as India despite all the claims of development is still a poor country where a good majority of people find it hard
to make ends meet. The National Academy of Literature that I headed for more than a decade gives awards to the best books and best translations in 24 languages every year besides encouraging smaller unrecognised languages. It also publishes translations of classics, awards books and brings out anthologies of new writing besides publishing one first book by a young writer in each language every year. It also organises a lot of seminars, workshops and readings. But it is impossible for a single institution to cope with the needs of a vast country with hundreds of mother-tongues.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations also organises writers’ exchanges once in a while. There are also Academies in many of the states which give awards and organise writers’ get-togethers besides private literary organisations. Malayalam, the language in which I write, is very advanced in this respect: it has huge publishing houses, a very large readership and several literary publications. But that is not the case with many languages.

Is there still a respect amongst the reading public in India for writers who take a strong "political" standpoint on social and cultural issues?

It depends. There are highly regarded committed writers like Mahasvetadevi of Bengal who have raised people’s issues consistently. I have also been responding to issues in my own way.
But such writers are a minority. The new movements like Dalit, Feminist, gay and Lesbian literatures have their own politics that goes beyond the traditional class approach. A lot of Indian English writing is political too, Amitav Ghosh who has been tracing the evolution of Colonialism in India and Gita Hariharan who has taken a strong anti-communal stand, for example. Salman Rushdie too has been engaging with recent Indian history.

What is it about the writing of poetry that you cherish?

To me poetry is complete expression. It also gives me opportunities to play with language even while expressing my human concerns. I enjoy the act of writing itself more than anything that follows it – publication, recognition and earthly rewards. It is with me all the time, even when I am not actually writing. I have not only been writing poetry, but translating poetry, editing a poetry journal and writing about poets and poetry.

You have translated English poets such as Auden and Spender and the Irish poet Yeats into Malayalam. Are there some English poets who do not "translate" well into Malayalam or who do not "translate" well full-stop in your opinion?

I have found that after Indian poets writing in other languages and other Asian poets it is African, Latin American and some kinds of European poetry that translate well into Malayalam.
They seem to share more with our poetry at the level of concerns as well as form. English poets are comparatively more resistant. So I have done very few English poets. Even T. S. Eliot is difficult though a senior poet has done a translation of ‘The Wasteland’. The rhythms are the first casualty. The syntactic structures of Malayalam that is a Dravidian language are different too.

What future projects are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about them?

I have two long poems in mind: one, an autobiographical one, of which I had written a part –about my infancy – some years back. The second is a series of poems based on the characters
and situations in the great Indian epic, Mahabharata. It will be a sequence on the contemporary human condition. I also am planning to write a book in English on the evolution of post-
Independence poetry in India.

How do you find the writing process? Does it come easily to you or do you spend many hours reworking poems?

There are poems that I have written at a stretch, making revisions in the process itself and others which I have re-worked many times and have yet to be fully happy about. Mostly, especially if it is a short poem, I write at one stretch with corrections and revisions while writing and then do one or two copies where, too, I make minor, at times major, changes.

Your poetry has been translated into many other languages. Does this give you satisfaction? Does the process of translation give your work a new lease of life? Why is translation important?

I think of translation as a way of reaching out to people who might otherwise not have read my poetry. Indeed there are bound to be transmission losses, but there are gains too as the poem gets the flesh of another language and in Indian parlance it is a kind of ‘re-incarnation’. I have also been reading my poetry at many festivals and individual readings in many parts of the world, along with translations being read by the translator mostly, or a professional reader/actor. This experience has helped reaffirm my faith in poetry as a universal language: the shared mother-tongue of humankind before Babel. Translation is important as a cultural
act of exploration and exchange, as a search for commonalities and even as a political act that empowers a minority language or a less known culture.

The function of poetry in modern-day society?

Poetry sensitises its readers. It upturns the virgin soil, makes us see what we might not otherwise have seen, hear what we might not have heard. It refreshes our perceptions and re-energises language. It invests an increasingly technological and materialist society with the wonder and magic it has lost.

As I have a good few small children myself - one of whom suffers from autism - I really liked this poem of yours (below) for Palash. A famous Irish Nationalist and writer - Padraig Pearse, who was strongly influenced by Indian writers as it happens - said that when the poet or artist sees the world form the perspective of a child this is often when the greatest creativity results. Would you agree with this perspective on poetry?


I have very often tried to look at the world through a child’s eyes so that the familiar world become unfamiliar and full of surprise. I have recently also begun to write for children, but even
otherwise I try not to lose the child in me. Yes, it is important for a poet to keep alive the child in him/her. I have also written many poems on/for my two daughters. This poem was written for a poet-friend’s son who has now grown up into a writer himself!

Other Indian (minority) language (or Malayalam) writers or poets whom we in Ireland ought to know more about?

There are many in my own language as also in others. Let us work on an anthology of Malayalam poetry in Irish! I am preparing one in English for the Oxford University Press; may be that can
serve as the basic text. Later we can think of an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry too: I already have one in English, of a hundred modern Indian poets titled Signatures brought out
by the National Book Trust of India.

What is poetry?

All my life I have been trying to understand this. I don’t have any final answer as poetry is ever changing in its attempt to catch the changing reality and the evolving perceptions of life. Let us not define it for all time nor for all human beings.



The interview in English with Satchidanandan was conducted by Dr Mícheál Ó hAodha, University of Limerick. It appeared in Gabriel Rosenstock's Irish-language versions of Satchidanandan's poems.



K. Satchidanandan and Gabriel Rosenstock at the 2011 Kritya festival in India.


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