K Satchidanandan on his raison d'être: 'A poet needs to take sides; I am with those who suffer injustice'
Poetry is like breathing, it is the way in which I respond to myself, to nature and to the world around, says K Satchidanandan. A prolific translator, he is of the opinion that translation, by virtue of being a kind of writing in itself, teaches one about the possibilities and limitations of language.
Poetry is like breathing, it is the way in which I respond to myself, to nature and to the world around, says K Satchidanandan.
He has been writing poetry solely in Malayalam as a conscious decision.
Satchidanandan says he accepted a job at the Sahitya Akademi only after he realised he could institute changes in the journal, and later in the institution.
He is of the opinion that translation, by virtue of being a kind of writing in itself, teaches one about the possibilities and limitations of language.
Asking poets like K Satchidanandan about what their craft means to them yields answers that one expects, and answers that one is surprised by. He recounts a two-year period in his life when painting served as an outlet; it was a time of crisis when he felt he could not express himself in poetry. “Otherwise I have been writing constantly since Class Six. It is like breathing – so natural – and it is the way in which I respond to myself, to nature and to the world around. I don’t think I can live without it; I think it was inside me when I was born – there’s something genetic about it,” he says in an interview to Firstpost.
Though he has won countless awards before, the Poet Laureate honour at Tata LiteratureLive! bestowed upon him at the festival’s 2019 edition is still special for him because it is exclusively for poetry and considers poets from across the country.
“Poet Laureate is too high a title for a poet like me,” he says, matter-of-factly.
He quickly shifts the focus from himself to the subject of how Indian languages are receiving recognition, and why this brings him joy. “Once upon a time, Indian writing implied Indian writing in English. But now, because of translations – especially good translations – of poetry and fiction, a lot of writers have become known. This is a very happy development. Indian literature is not a monolithic entity; it’s so diverse, it encompasses so many languages and so many different cultural backgrounds. To have any sense of Indian literature, one needs to be aware of what is happening in the literature of all these languages,” he says.
Satchidanandan has been writing poetry solely in Malayalam as a conscious decision. He may choose to write prose in English, especially if the subject is relevant to readers outside of Kerala and India, but even when he writes about Kerala’s literature, he writes in his mother tongue. As a student, he dabbled in English poetry, but with time he found that his roots lie in Malayalam. “In order to express the culture, the landscape of my region, its own traditions and the arts which are specific to Kerala, I considered that I perhaps need to write in Malayalam,” he says.
When it comes to translating his own poems, he only picks those pieces which are “translatable”. “There are many poems loved by Malayalam readers which can’t be translated into English because they are marked by cultural elements, there are so many associations which only the Malayalees can understand. There are suggestions, allusions… You can do a mechanical translation and give footnotes, but this means that you lose out on the pleasure of reading,” he says.
His extensive translation work has shaped his creative process. After translating his own poems into English, he has sometimes returned to the original and made revisions and corrections. “English is a very cryptic language, it’s pithy and precise. Our Indian languages sometimes tend to be a little verbose; we say a little more than what needs to necessarily be said. When translating into English you realise perhaps this word, this line was not necessary. If after making these changes and striking out the ‘extra words’ the poem still holds, you know you have made the right choice,” he explains.
He is of the opinion that translation, by virtue of being a kind of writing in itself, teaches one about the possibilities and limitations of language; about the mechanics of writing poetry – constructing lines and creating a new syntax.
Supriya Nair, who was moderating a session featuring Satchidanandan, described his work as possessing "an extraordinary spirit of generosity... Abundant poetry that gives us courage, perhaps even leaves us breathless." Sample a stanza from 'Old Women':
Old women do not fly on magic wands
or make obscure prophecies
from ominous forests.
They just sit on vacant park benches
in the quiet evenings
calling doves by their names
charming them with grains of maize.
Satchidanandan was in the business of writing when modernism had gripped Kerala's literature. He describes it as an energy rather than a movement; an avant-garde period when people were inventing metres. He is said to be among the first poets to experiment with introducing prose into their poetic method, in Malayalam. To this day, he experiments with his style and wants to see it evolve. “When I start writing a new poem, I feel like a beginner. What I am saying in the poem I currently writing, I have never said before. I see it as a new experience that needs a new kind of expression. I’m constantly on the lookout for new structures of language and meaning, which alone will allow me to express the particular emotion I am feeling,” he explains.
It’s impossible to talk about his work without mentioning how he worked with ‘the system’ and dissociated from it when he felt it wasn’t standing up for the right ideals. He says that the moment when he chose to join the Sahitya Akademi was a critical one (he would go on to become its Secretary and quit because the institution 'failed in its duty to stand with writers'). “I was part of many radical movements in Kerala. I wasn’t much of an activist but I was with them [activists], I was writing and reading poetry about them. There came a moment when some of these movements ran into crises – it is then that an invitation came from the Sahitya Akademi to edit their journal. I saw it as a challenge and took a one-year leave from my job at a college to come to Delhi. It was only after I saw that I could institute changes in the journal – and later in the institution – that I decided to take up the job,” he narrates.
Early on he realised that it was a place for “the old – and wise men; an established club” – an environment which he wanted to change, to make it more accessible to women and the marginalised.
Poetry as I conceive it is no mere combinatorial game; it rises up from the ocean of the unsayable, tries to say what it cannot stay, to name the nameless and to give a voice to the voiceless, he once said. I ask him what he thinks a poet’s function should be in society today. “A poet needs to take sides – I’m not a member of a political party or any faction. But in a deeper, broader, human sense, I am with those who suffer injustice, exploitation of any kind, who are impoverished and marginalised in society. That is an inevitable part of a poet’s mission,” he says.
Satchidanandan’s experience and that of others like him seems to challenge the notion of the poet as a solitary individual. On good days – when exchanging notes on their work and sharing in each other’s successes – and on bad days – when they are targeted for their opinions – solidarity can mean everything. For Satchidanandan, support has come from his friends in the country and outside it. “People on the Left, liberals who believe in basic freedoms and also the Constitution. Those who believe in fundamental, democratic rights have supported me as well as other writers in India,” he says.
Young people who interrogate the status quo and are curious represent hope to him. “In spite of the dark things that are happening in the country, I still believe – especially when I speak to young people – there are individuals who dream of a better world and an India which is not confined to a particular language or religion. I derive hope from young people who ask questions, which is important because there are people with ready answers all around us,” he says.
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