John P Matthew on Writing, Book Reviews, and the Writing Life!


View video: Why I Wrote "Mr. Bandookwala, M.B.A., Harvard"

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Book Review: I Dreamt a Horse Fell Through the Sky by Adil Jussawala

When I was in college (oh! Those mis-spent days!) I had a free supply of magazines through a friend’s dad who worked in G. Claridge & Co., the press that published “Debonair”. Debonair, with a nude centre spread and an almost nude on the cover, was known as the intelligent man’s magazine in those days. In a manner of speaking it was the poor man’s Playboy.

Indeed it was an intelligent Indian man’s magazine and it had articles by a host of intellectuals like Anil Dharkar, Adil Jussawala, Vinod Mehta, Nissim Ezekiel, Vijay Nambisan, to name a few. Imtiaz Dharkar edited the poetry centre spread, which was something I craved to be featured in but never was. All my cajoling to make her feature me failed and I remember the hand-written manuscripts thumping on the floor inside my room in Tilak Nagar, only to be discovered by my sister, who would go on to deliver a lecture on why poetry was not so palatable, but science and arithmetic were. This is in a household where we took pride in one of our great uncles being a “Mahakavi” (Mahakavi Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan), a great poet. There were interesting articles, poems, book reviews, short stories, and humour pieces. The magazine was well edited and did well considering it had all intellectual and lascivious content a man wanted for a month in those days. The writing was balanced, thoughtful and met with Nissim Ezekiel’s sine qua non for good writing: thought, knowledge, and truth. 

The articles I looked forward to most were Aadil Jussawala’s. His were the most interesting observations and his style was like having an intelligent chat with him in person. The present volume is a compilation of poetry and as-yet unpublished writing of those days, as Vivek Narayanan could put together. The engaging foreword is also written by Narayanan.

Within these covers are impish and intimate observations of a writer who has hobnobbed with the celebrities of the literary world. If one drops names, it would be: VS Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Angus Wilson, et cetera. There is mischief and an omnipresent twinkle in the eye in the writing. When Naipaul had come to India to write An Area of Darkness Adil took him to Marine Drive and other posh areas and he remarked that India is good and progressive and that Bombay is cleaner than Cairo. One supposes Naipaul would have gone on and written “An Emerging India” or “A Shining India.” But, Adil had to spoil it all by taking him to a filthy area of Bombay which made Naipaul change his mind and write India off as an Area of Darkness. How one wishes Adil had stopped at Nariman Point, Colaba, and Malabar Hill. History’s perspective would have changed a great deal from that point onwards. Wouldn’t it?

There is also an excerpt from his abandoned novel, Strays, though the reason for the abandonment is not mentioned. In an article there is reference to the death of John Keats. Keats was so disappointed by the review of his collection Endymion in the Quarterly Review that he went into depression, and Lord Byron mentioned, Keats “was snuffed out by an article.” Keats never got over it and died two years later in Rome, aged twenty-five. (One wonders here whether adverse reviews are the reason for poets dying young.) 

The last days of poet Nissim Ezekiel, who died of Alzhemier’s is also documented herein. Another hilarious article is about a gathering of philosophers in a garden, presumably the sunk garden in the National Centre for Performing Arts. 

All in all, an adorable and venerable compilation of one of India’s leading literary luminaries, who is so unassuming that one would miss him in a crowd. When I met him for the first time, my star, my object of adoration, he seemed much humbler than some of the lesser luminaries of the Indian poetic sphere. Alas! Alack!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

An Analysis of Trump

Now that Trump has become a jaded subject,at least, in the world community, I think an analysis can be made of his styleand life thus far. I write this as a person who has worked in industry, underpeople who have been a disastrously second-generation of business owners, alsocalled second-generation entrepreneur (SGE).

As we all know Trump is a SGE, who has nothad the experience of being out there, in the vanguard, fighting for hisbusiness. On the contrary, he has had everything handed down to him, withoutmuch difficulty, inherited from a rich father. He became complacent as a resultand looked down upon people who worked for a living, to make ends meet.

I had seen him in the reality show TheApprentice a few times. I must say the similarity to some SGEs I worked withwas stark. I said, “Oh, the similarity with my boss is obvious.” This is theboss who in a few years liquidated the business his father had assiduouslybuilt up. He is charismatic, lovable, jokes a lot, laughs but when you areclose to him his flaws are like elephants in the room: he is disdainful of his ownstaff and ridicule and insults them liberally. Therefore he doesn’t get qualitypeople to work with him, with the result that he has to, or, is compelled to doeverything himself. Talented people would come to work for him and would leavein a few weeks, if not days. He is risk averse and quality people need to takerisks to achieve their goals. Thus Trump doesn’t trust anyone to draft hisexecutive orders; he has to do them himself, and signs them with a flourish,seemingly having achieved a lot. See the way he has been shown signing decreeswith his vice-president and cabinet members in attendance. He is holding courtlike a SGE.

SGEs are people who have no achievement totheir name but are applauded everywhere, conferred awards, felicitated, andlionised. Everywhere they go they receive a red carpet with the result theybelieve they are stars and that they were born to this sort of lifestyle.

SGEs also ignore some of the basic factsthat make up the lives of people who slog for them from nine to five. Peoplewho have worked in low-paying jobs and have been promoted know how hard it isto rise in the organisation and how they have to carry their people with them.The second generation, such as Trump, do not see this need. They think hiring andfiring will do the trick and, as an example, see how national security adviser MichaelFlynn was unceremoniously sacked.
Since SGEs survive through the fearpsychosis they create, they neither hear people out, nor do they value theiradvice. They only trust their own decisions and the opinions of the “yes” menwho surround them. Watch any video of Trump and you will see how tense peopleare around him. They are almost afraid of what he will say next. When he speaksyou can see even his closest aides flinch.
There are no black and whites in governanceand management. Everything is coloured by greys. The best men for the job oftencarries his people with him and encourages them to come up with good decisionsbased on their experience and knowledge. There aren’t many people in Trump’steam who can do this.

That’s why the credibility of the Trumpadministration is sorely lacking and there’s the constant fight with the press.The press is an integral part of US governance and if they are ignored,vilified, and humiliated (as Trumps refusal to attend White House Correspondents’dinner shows) then the powerful press lobby will take an adversarial stand.Unlike in India journalists in the US can’t be bought, or, mollycoddled. The pressis indeed powerful in the US they have the knowledge, background, and historyto support their independence and impartiality.

This could prove to be a decider in therealpolitik of that great country.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Today's Morning Walk - Encountering a Writer

 Today’s experience on my morning walk was abit disturbing, in a sense, it affected certain beliefs and assumptions ofmine. Most people think writing is a dream job and that all one needs to do is sitin a room, facing a window, and write. Most people are taken up by thisillusion to be writers. Here’s what Angus Wilson says in Adil Jussawala’s book“I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky” (My present reading):

“Peoplestill come up to me at literary luncheons... and say the most awful things.There was this lady who came to me and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Wilson, I’ve alwayswanted to write, but I just can’t find the time.’ Isn’t that extraordinary?People don’t realise how much I’ve had to give up in order to write.”

This was something such. I was on my usualmorning walk around the Artist Village dam, which had dried up of late. Itprobably portends to the harsh summer that will follow, I guess. Grass wasgrowing on the edges of the little puddles that were still left, making it looklike a group interconnected ponds. There were birds pecking at small fishesand, on the opposite shore, a group of children were fishing with a net.

Then I heard shouting, loud hystericalshouting. It was coming from a few huts that had been built around the dam,where poor daily-wage earners were living. I was in a shock when I went toinvestigate. She was a published writer of repute, who had, lately, fallen intobad times. Was fortune to blame or society, or, the literary establishment, Idon’t know. She was hardworking and spent long hours writing and, somehow, herbrilliance is rumoured to have turned against her. Her latest works weren’tpublished, reason for which I am unaware.

She stops me and asks me how long I havebeen staying in the neighbourhood and how long the huts have been here. I foundthis odd because I know her, her family, and her reputation as a writer. Thoughpresentable, she was in dishevelled state and wore a dirty-looking house coat. Itell her I have been living here for the past thirty years and know herhusband. The huts came up in the last few years, as they always do in vacantspots of land in New Bombay. This is the first time I am talking to thereclusive writer. She was unhappy about the huts and the temples that had comeup a few years earlier, about which we could do nothing. These days, we have a strictmunicipal commissioner who is demolishing these structures only to find themcropping up again. It’s a law of nature that people’s faith can’t be challenged.These things I discuss with her, telling her that she should complain to theauthorities, not deal with them, meaning hut dwellers, directly.

It was a strange encounter. She is past herprime in writing and I am still in search of my identity as a writer. It seemedodd that after having achieved so much, she hadn’t found contentment and selfsatisfaction. I came away very disturbed by the walk.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Meryl Streep's Message at Golden Globe Awards

Meryl Streep's message struck a chord. She mentioned disability and the press. She said a future president mocked a disabled journalist and the audience laughed. No. It's not funny. It gives us the licence to laugh at the disabled, which is not funny.

She mentioned the press, a principled press. The press is given freedoms in our constitution to report the truth, not to hide it, or, subvert it. I know these freedoms because I worked in the press: (1) cheap newsprint, subsidised by the government (2) priority while travelling (3) access to inaccessible areas (4) freedom to be critical of government, and society. (5) concessions in postage and freightage, so on....
Enjoying all these benefits and making huge profits based on the premise that newspapers are products is the latest trend that big private corporations (owners) have been following. The recent sacking at Hindustan Times is an example of how despite making profits the process of newsgathering and reporting have been threatened. So as Streep said "restraining power (of government)" and reporting truth remains a vast grey area, especially with fake and planted news stories. Editors have a duty label a fake/planted story as "Advt." as mandated by the Advertising Standards Council (ASCI), which I headed some while ago.

They say it's not an actor's job to tell what the press should do. It's not mine, too. But, when the press gets a bad name, it's as if a pillar of our democracy is rotting. After all, Tilak, Gandhi, and Nehru have all been journalists and it's through their writing that we gained freedom.

Thursday, January 05, 2017


Just now I went through the process of making an EMI payment through HDFC bank. I am feeling frustrated and violated, my patience wearing thin. Grr! I am computer savvy, I wrote help manuals for some of the computer programs that are still running as a technical writer, I write blogs, I can use the adwords and adsense advertising programs on Google and Facebook, and, yet, I still I find myself frustrated by a simple banking transaction. The problem with online transaction is that most banks’ websites are keen to sell their products than to make it easy for existing customers to log in. So, the idiotic, dumb site points to several ads for car loans and gold loans, and vacation loans before you discover the tiny “Login” in a corner somewhere. After you log in, you are asked an array of confusing questions. Security. These may vary from the authenticity of your password to the expiry of your password and codes which are hardly readable. Then there is the cute little message saying check your mobile for the One Time Password (OTP). Damn. When you finally hunt for your phone and get the OTP the transaction has timed out.

It’s easy for a person who has never done cashless transactions to say “go cashless, it’s easy,” “you just have to log in” and such drivel. It’s once you sit down on a computer that you realise it’s not that easy. I, for instance, am educated in computer language because I put some of those lines of instructions there as a content writer. The instructions on a computer are written in a computerised environment and are an agreement between the programmer and a content writer. So there’s a lot of intuitive understand between these two tribes as to what should happen next after clicking a button. For a lay user to understand this functionality requires some intuitive knowledge of how computers work, in general, if not in particular.Those who don’t have this knowledge are the people who prefer to stand in queue and withdraw cash and update their passbooks. Because it’s their money they are dealing with. The pensioner, the retired, the housewife, all fall into this category. To ask them to do online transactions would be madness because they don’t physically see their money and they are not comfortable with their money disappearing into some machine. Understand this, you people who want to foist cashless on an unsuspecting population. If you don’t, you are being naive, unempathetic and cruel.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


It’s cold. There’s a nip in the air as I tracemy path through the thick foliage of the Artists’ Village. It’s here that I spottedthe king in all his glory, his hood up, his teeth ready to strike, the calmassurance that his poison will work. The birds and dogs make a great hullabalooas the king exits the scene. Not to worry, by now I have whipped out my phoneand captured his image.

I think of the events of the past month asit has unravelled till now. There has been a lot of grief cause due to thewithdrawal of 500 and 1000 Rupee notes, called demonetisation. Middle classpeople like me are running around to get cash. My advantage was that I hadfamiliarity with computers since I worked as a content and technical writer forcomputer start ups and therefore I had converted all my bill payments intotransactions over the internet. Therefore I am not too much affected. In fact, Iam already cashless.

What about the average person? Yesterday myfriend dropped in. We were discussing the withdrawal of notes and I know a fewthings about him as we have been friends for a long time. He is a graduate, hasa post-graduate qualification in management, and has worked in accounts almostall his life. But he still can’t operate a debit card or use the smart phone. Whenhe makes a call to his wife, he used the old way of dialling, i.e., he toucheseach number on his dial pad from memory. Such are the people who are mostaffected by the demonetisation, those who have a phobia for computers, thosewho don’t know what to type in when the computer cursor blinks in the passwordbox.

And, he is a graduate, and a post-graduatein management. What about the people in villages who aren’t educated, who don’thave a bank for miles around, who may not have the money to pay for transport? Tellingthem to go and learn computers is being cruel, insensitive, and apathetic totheir misery. It’s the poor education and infrastructure system that made themilliterate, not themselves. To all those pontificators who defend the policy ofthe government are either people too far removed from the reality in Indian villages– such as NRIs and city-dweller having jobs – and need to be made to live in anIndian village forthwith.

Till the age of eight I grew up in a remotevillage in Kerala. The first bank in the village was opened in thenineteen-eighties, which was a mile away. Market days occurred on only two daysin a week when most of the purchases were made. The affluence of the money fromPersian Gulf was yet to flow into Kerala, and money was scarce. Farm labourerswere paid Rupees five, and it seemed to meet their expenses, because a plate ofrice and vegetable cost only eight annas or fifty paise. (For three paise [halfanna, one-twentyfourth of a rupee] we could buy an ice candy.) Now, the newgeneration doesn’t know what an anna is and what is fifty paise. They don’tneed to.

What people – especially leaders – ignore isthat governance is a slow process, that change takes time, and there are notshort cuts, or, as the new generation puts it, quick fixes. A chief executivewho thinks technology can fix everything is harbouring an illusion. Furthermore,if this chief executive is also under-educated and under-informed, there’sgreater danger of his plans failing. There are limitations to technology thatonly those who are intimately involved with technology know about. I worked ina team which was supposedly going to give a company its enterprise resource planning(ERP) software solution and know, at first hand, what can go wrong. Though thecontractor was paid fully and had completed his work (according to him) the ERPsoftware solution didn’t work. Being able to send a few emails, posting a fewwords on Twitter and Facebook doesn’t make one computer literate. It takes alot more than that.

There is also an over-reliance in technologythat I have witnessed of late. Government notifications, announcements,legislations, and rulings are being sent on Twitter and Whatsapp these days. Notonly has it subverted the system of recording sending and receiving, but it isusing a private network which can be hacked and opened by computer experts. (TheUnited States’ [US’] candidate for President Clinton’s email hacking is anexample of this.) Schools are receiving directives from education departmentsthrough Whatsapp, discussions about policies are being done on Twitter insteadof the Parliament. Twitter and Whatsapp are private networks, which are, atbest, informal media of communication. Government departments should have awritten and replicable source of sending and receiving documents, complaints,and redresses. This is often done by maintaining an in-out register ingovernment departments, which acts as proof of delivery and receipt. Ignoring thissystem of delivery and receipt should be seen as a subversion of the proceduresestablished by our democratic institutions.

The 2008 collapse of banks in the UnitedStates following the sub-prime crisis has shown that banks can collapse andfinancial markets are prone to misbehave. To overcome the crisis the US FederalReserves (The Reserve bank in the US) printed and circulated billions ofdollars in the economy. Financial experts such as Bill Bonner (look him up andwatch his video) has predicted an impending and sudden collapse of the USeconomy because of the dependence on credit in the country. He says creditcards won’t work, and debit cards will not ensure dispensing cash at ATMmachines (Something which is happening in India now.). Such printing ofcurrency and manipulating the economy is a dangerous thing. That great countryis still unrepentant and continues to live on credit. This is something, whichthe planners of demonetisation ignored when they printed huge numbers of newcurrency. Since the loss to the nation in terms of lost small businesses, jobs,decreased goods flow has been humungous; it would be advisable to be verycircumspect about printing currency to boost the economy, something whichuninformed tin-pots regimes do.

In conclusion, in order to generate andsustain a vibrant democratic system, which India has been following till now,we need to strengthen the financial arms of the government like the ReserveBank, not weaken their powers. India has so far withstood wild fluctuations incurrency-related upheavals through a strong currency. We need to strengthen itto withstand further shocks and not manipulate it in anyway.

The sun is up over the valley, the birdsare singing, and I must return to my computer to key in these thoughts.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


After the two shocking events I wrote aboutyesterday – election of Trump and demonetisation of 500/1000 rupee notes inIndia – my mind is searching for answers, which are hard to come by. My postabout the latter has invited a lot of comments from friends and trolls,praising the PM for his bold move, overnight transformation of the economy, etal. A lot of people are put to needless harassment and loss and people inwell-paying jobs are saying: it’s for the good, so grin and bear it. So, you, urbanmiddle-class office workers, what do you know about the rural villager who hasto walk a few kilometres to the nearest bank, and, when there, he is handicappedas he doesn’t know how to fill in a form? We are living in frightening timeswhere every day brings some new revelations, or, news of revelations not made. Therefore,here are some rambling thoughts on democracy and development.

When you dig deeper, you find that themalady lies buried down in several layers of a deep gorge of misdeeds in thisunipolar world. Is there a disregard for democratic norms? Is there a lack ofproper understanding of how democracy works? Was democratic institutionscompromised? Is the one who is better at compromising democratic norms thewinner in an election? If so, what have we done to safeguard democracy? Is communismthe better alternative, in a world where the world’s leading communistcountries have turned capitalists with a vengeance?

It’s a fearful world we inhabit. First letme deal with the election of Trump to the highest office of the world. Therewere allegations of Russians having hacked into Clinton’s emails. It’s quitepossible. Maybe, even Clinton had rigged the Democratic nomination to be thenominee. As I said it’s a fearful and distressful world we inhabit. The winner couldbe the one who knows how to subvert the democratic process. As the Wikileaksrevelations reveal the world is not a safe place for governments andcorporations anymore. However, the Wikileaks revelations came too late, didn’tit? By the time it came out everything was over. Anything could happen today.We are probably experiencing the first shocks of this horrid future asdemonstrated by recent incidents.

There’s no doubt that the America (ByAmerica I mean the U.S.A.) that stands for truth and democracy may be trulycompromising its democratic ideals. To get ahead it is willing to sacrifice anything,as Obama’s support for fracking and the Keystone pipe line shows. Around theworld also, America says it has interests, meaning private business interests,not interest of a free and democratic world. The point is, America is no longerinterested in propagating its democratic ideology, nor is the leadership herein India, as seen by the oppression of minorities in recent times.

In its quest to be a world economic leader,China has created one of the biggest commercial-industrial complexes in theworld, leading to pollution of its air, water, and cities. We have to askourselves if this is the development we want and aspire for. Our presentdispensation wants to follow the path shown by China, i.e., development at allcosts: smart cities, superfast trains, industrial corridors, exploitation ofearth for minerals, etc. There are some pitfalls here, which we aren’t awareof.
After plundering its countryside for coal, iron,copper, gold, and bauxite, China is aggressively seeking mining licences inAfrica and less developed economies. At the forefront of development, China istoday the world’s largest economy and is increasingly being belligerent militarilyalso. And, discreetly, America and Russia are partners in China’s growth.

Meanwhile, the vast military-industrialcomplex in America keeps wars going on in Asia and other parts because it’s intheir interest to do so. There used to be a sacrosanct rule that militarieswill not attack civilian targets and places where people lived. These days,wars are going on in city neighbourhoods putting the women and children thereto unnecessary trauma as the wars in Homs, Aleppo, and Mosul in Syria show. Soldiersand militia-men are pictured blasting whole towns and neighbourhoods.

America is perhaps one of the few countrieswhere arms can be manufactured and exported to foreign countries freely. There isthe Arms Export Control Act (AECA) by which the President can stop export ofarms, but it’s rarely enforced, because, as often seen, the President himself actsas the salesman for American arms. There are curbs on exporting arms to groupswho are of an extremist ideology, but these rules are conveniently overlooked. Themilitary-industrial complex and its lobbyists see that the flow of arms to evenextreme groups is maintained.

In India, when we have development as theforemost ideal to generate jobs, we tend to overlook the pitfalls into whichAmerica and China fell. We are following them in the mad scramble fordevelopment, giving mining rights in our pristine lands to Chinesecorporations, buying arms from America, and generally revelling in our new friendshipwith America. But, do not forget, America only has interests, meaning business interests.Once this is kept aside America will consider India on par with Pakistan, evenfavour the latter.

America is a big user of biotechnology. Manybelieve that biotechnology is an advancement of science and its use can alleviateworld hunger. In fact, this fallacy has no basis in truth. Genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs) may give marginally increased production for a few years, buttake a heavy toll on the soil on which cultivation is done. The pesticides thatform a part of GMO-based cultivation have been proved to cause cancer and birthdefects. American corporations have used biotechnology with disastrous resultsin the developing world, spreading poisonous pesticides, giving birth tomentally-challenged children, and increasing the number of sick people in theworld.

The powerful GMO lobby in the US can bendlaws to their advantage, and appoint chairmen to the Federal DrugAdministration (FDA) which regulates biotechnology. Over the years, it has beenfound that top executives of GMO companies are appointed as chairmen of FDA because,ironically, they are experts and have the knowledge. They, in turn, turn ablind eye to the doings of GMO corporations with the result that today harmfulcarcinogens like Glyphosate are widely used in America. Obama assumed officewith the promise of labelling GMO products on their covers, but, as he remitsoffice, he has signed into law, a proposal that precludes the labelling of GMOproducts.

The GMO lobby sees India as a big marketand is waiting to introduce their products through legislation in India. The dangerto India is that GMOs may be seen as bringing about development and, therefore,adopted, as a part of the development agenda. So also is the condoning of thedemonetisation of 500/1000 rupee notes. It’s a part of development, isn’t it? It’sbecause of the stiff fight put up by activists such as Vandana Shiva and othersthat, so far, India hasn’t become a GMO-cultivating nation like Argentina. Argentinahas discovered, albeit late, that GMOs are harmful because of the increasingcases of birth defects in its child population. Venezuela has totally banned GMOproducts from the country, after its bitter experience with its usage. In India,BT cotton is the only GMO product that has been approved for cultivation, andhas caused untold sufferings to farmers in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

More in the next instalment of “RandomMusings of a Solitary Walker.”

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

TWO BIZZARE SCENARIOS (Written on 9th November 2016)

The day dawned polluted and grey. Sinister,I may add. It was a day like no other. The pall of pollution hung in the air,obscuring the heat from the sun. I am feeling cold. Two things were at acrucial juncture for which people were anxious to get through. Say, “Fu*k it”and “go away.”
When I went for a walk there was an eeriesilence around me. Yeah, it’s all those people with stashes of black moneycounting them and keeping them ready, not knowing it will be waste paper theycouldn’t even wipe their behinds with. Remember those photographs where you hadthese stacks of 500 rupee notes and 1000 rupee notes in a room, of which theowner was a guy who ran a medical school. He had collected all these bribes foradmissions and was storing in a granary, those traditional ones in Kerala, asif it were rice or tapioca right after harvesting. There were people committingsuicide in the rest of the country and this man was accepting bribes for givingadmissions to future doctors. Well, it’s these future doctors who would treatyou and me, when we are sick, peoples. What will he do with that money which ispaper now? Make a bonefire of it and cry?
On this same day, at another end of theworld, a long and vicious fight had come to a close. Two candidates accusedeach other of being monsters on public platforms. Yes, monsters! A man who is aracist, a misogynist, a rapist facing a rape charge (what else?), a man whothreatens to jail his competitor, a man who is known as a sexual predator, win,becomes the president of the most powerful country in the world. What? You ask?Who elected him? Ask yourself?

9th November 2016, I will neverforget you! What's about these 9/11s?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Interview to Dhauli Review


John P. Matthew

Why did you want to be a poet?

The decision was spontaneous, not one made as planned, or foreseen. I have a Mahakavi (Mahakavi Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan) in my family who wrote in Malayalam and naturally I ended up reading poetry. The real trigger was an English teacher in Secondary School who romanticised poetry and poets. This teacher inspired me to experiment with the poetic form. This led to more reading and contributing to a slew of magazines that featured poetry in those days: Illustrated Weekly of India, Youth Times, Mirror, Debonair, Imprint, Onlooker, Caravan, et cetera. Most of these magazines are extinct except Caravan. Today, when I think of those days, there was great interest in Indian poetry in English and there were many talented poets. I don’t know where they have disappeared.

Who is your model for your style?

My style is eclectic and I draw inspiration from a lot of poets. I write both rhyming and free-form poetry, and also classic poetic forms like Odes, Sonnets, and Villanelle. Recently I wrote a Villanelle in the style of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that night.” My poem is called, “If Death Comes Calling Tonight.” I am inspired by the romantic poets and also poetry of Whitman, Keats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and closer home Tagore, Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Jeet Thayil, etc. This is not by any means exhaustive.

What is the usual process you adopt before writing a poem?

To be honest, there is no process. I don’t plan to write a poem on this or that subject. I always carry a notebook and pen with me. Some of my best poems have come to me as whole stanzas on my morning walk and, I seize the opportunity and write it down immediately. Then the process of developing the rest of the poem comes, and it evolves into what I post on online social media and on my poetry blog.

How do you distinguish between poetry and non-poetry?

I agree that the internet has generated a lot of interest in poetry, I must also state that most of what you read online is not poetry. Many of them are expressing their internal angst and their obsession with the self by creating violent and disturbing images. I think poetry should move away from the self into neutral territory to be of true aesthetic value. Personally I think poetry – and all literature – should move out of self-obsession, subsume the self, and reflect the state of existence we live in. Our lives have become so complicated that trying to capture its intricacies has become very difficult. A novel, a short story, a poem has the potential to do that. However, interest in the novel, the poem, and short stories – three of my favourite artistic expressions – has been waning. When a writer makes a sincere attempt to reflect society, we should admire it, not denigrate it. However, we live in a standardised society which worships success and makes celebrities out of successful people. By successful people I mean actors, sportsmen, and politicians. The days when writers and poets were admired and revered are gone.

What fundamental misconceptions about poetry irritate you and how would you correct or refute them?

It is said that unlike prose – for which you have to work very hard – poetry should come naturally, like a star falling from the skies. And, I will vouch for this, when you are mature in your writing, whole lines, and stanzas will form in your mind without much effort. The problem is when a writer sits down saying; I am going to write a poem. Then the effect is laboured and full of artifice. And some of these efforts are un-editable and irredeemable. So instead of getting irritated it is best to let it pass and hope the poet realises where he/she is going wrong.

How does a poem come into being?

As I have mentioned, it can be triggered by a thought, something I pass when I am walking, or something I watch from my terrace. I know poetry, and its accomplice music, which I believe is an attempt to capture what is beautiful about this life, are eternal, and everyone has these fleeting inspirations to capture what is beautiful.  So for me poetry exists all around me. In scientific terms, there is a point when the magma transforms into rocks inside the earth. That’s the point at which I make a note and, at home, I go through the note and decide if there is a poem in there.

How does the timeless appeal come to poetry?

Poetry of a time and age has a timeless appeal. No longer. At least, in India. Today, when I want to buy an epic poem written by my great uncle Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan, there’s nowhere I can get it. I have hunted it in bookshops and online, but they appear nowhere. I want to buy Nissim Ezekiel’s poems, Dom Moraes’ poems, I can’t get them anywhere, except, maybe, a few poems in some anthology. Like I said before, from the seventies to now, a whole generation of talented poets have come and gone. Today we don’t remember any of them except a few. Therefore, in the present context, in India, poetry has no timeless appeal.

What is the fundamental as well as essential nature of poetry? Does it change over time?

Wordsworth said poetry is, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." I would go to say that everybody is a poet. Yes. Everybody has poetry and a poet in them. I have seen people humming tunes, people drumming tunes, people looking and exclaiming, “how beautiful.” The trained poet gives shape and form to this spontaneous overflow of feelings through skills in language and by long exposure to poetic forms. Rhyme is an essential part of poetry everywhere. Poetry in Kerala is rhymed on the first word, a word in the middle, or, the end word. For example here’s a verse from poet Kunchen Nambiar:

Nabi arennu chodichu,
Nambiarennu chollinen,
Nabi kettathu kopuchu,
Thamburaney kshamikkaney!

Now coming to the question of has poetry changed, yes, poetry has changed over the years. What was strictly iambic pentameter has become a loosely connected tapestry of vivid images these days. Punctuation canons are flouted, as poets see no point in wasting thought over it. The result is an amorphous collation of images, somewhat, personal and shocking in nature. Fixed form poems like odes, villanelles, and sonnets aren’t written these days, because they are rather difficult to write and takes weeks to perfect. The idea these days is to be spontaneous and never mind the form.

What is most important in poetry? What makes a genuinely great Poem?

Take for example Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Frost’s The Road not Taken, and Dylan Thomas’  villanelle Do Not Go Gentle into the Good Night, Keats’ Ode upon a Grecian Urn. These are great poems that have withstood the test of time. A poet these days need to experiment with form. There are a few poets in India who are experimenting with form, and I love to read them. I must admit they are quite few in number.

What is the relationship between poetry and truth?

Well, to me poetry must be the truth, because if you write something false the insincerity would be quite obvious. Poetry is not something you fabricate as you do fiction. It has to occur naturally, through a vision of truth and beauty, delicately woven by the poet into words.

What is the relation between tradition and innovation in poetry?

There have been many traditionalists in poetry and many innovators. Among traditionalists I include the romantic poets, sonneteers, ode, and villanelle writers. Innovators are e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Allan Ginsberg, Shel Silverstein and others who showed us that poetry can be written in a different format.

In India, in my mother tongue Malayalam, poetry is still sung and is not recited. Malayalam poets almost all have great deliveries and singing voices. They don’t mumble like some Indian-English-language poets. Poetry reading is an art and poets must cultivate this art.

Can poetry counter the paralyzing effect of globalization?

I don’t know. Poetry may have been the agent of change many years ago, but its role has diminished in the use-and-throw world. People are no longer drawn towards poetry the way they were used to. We have globalised very fast, but poetry hasn’t kept up. We have these literary festivals in which hardly any poets are featured. Of course, there are poetry slams and poetry readings, but the audience has been dwindling. Maybe, poets should reinvent themselves for their art to survive to the next century.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Will Chicklit and Dudelit Destroy Indian Writing in English?

  The problem with IIT-ians writing thesedays is that there are too many of them, and mostly they are men. If theywanted to write novels why didn’t they do BA literature and an MFA? No. Theywould rather go to IIT where all the smart people can be found doing smartthings, and then they will see what they want to do. In the meantime, they wantto try writing a novel. So, they write a kind of DUDELIT – of and by dudes –akin to CHICKLIT, the genre about girls facing growing up pangs. There’sheartbreak in between terms, there are those mischievous episodes, laboratoryshenanigans, wild parties where alcohol is consumed, and dread of coming exams,which all of them pass. They drift to their management jobs, family businessesor go to IIM (Indian Institute of Management) to learn management. Then they willbe called the “Double Aiis”. Basically, they are very confused about theircareer choices.

Do Dudelit writers know that the governmentis subsidising Rupees two to three hundred thousand for their education everyyear? What has the Indian government gained by making Chetan Bhagat amechanical engineer when he went on to become a banker and then a writer ofpulp novels? Yes, he pays taxes, but didn’t he deprive a poor deservingcandidate of a seat in the prestigious IIT, who would have gone on to pay taxesand invented better railway coaches, or, better toilets?
The United States has a system by whichmeritorious students get scholarships and grants for studying in prestigiousinstitutions. Therefore they realise the benefits of hard work and progress inlife using the lessons they have learnt using these scholarships. They do notabandon their engineering degrees, but work in them for years as dedicatedengineers. Here our government – not universities – provides the subsidies, thehostel accommodation, purportedly to create excellent engineers, but ends upgetting an individual who writes pulp novels.

So what does it all say to those beholdenreaders who approach the dude’s Dudelit book with a reverent look, and afeeling of trepidation? “Look we are cool. Dude, we made it. And, believe us,it’s no big deal. Most of all, we had fun.” An IIT-ian enters his career withan advantage. Irrespective of whether he has done mechanical, civil, or,chemical engineering, he is directly recruited into a management positionwithout having to go through the grind. Yes, life is unfair. From my personalexperience, I rotted in middle management jobs all my life where I did all thework and had to report to such IIM managers who didn’t know an “artwork” from a“work of art.” And when it came to promotions and increments I wasn’t given anyand they became vice-presidents overnight.

There have been many novels in this genreincluding ones by India’s most successful indigenous Dudelit writer, ChetanBhagat. In the US literature about the growing up pains of girls is calledChicklit, Dudelit is something similar. There is growing up pains, problemswith teachers, problems with girlfriends, a bit of allusion to books and famouswriters, a lot of technical stuff which a lay reader won’t understand, theheavenly tea at the nearby kiosk, and, ultimately, heartbreak.
Dudelit and its sister Chicklit have donemuch damage to Indian literature. They have rather successfully closed thedoors for a few emerging literary writers, translators, occupying their spacewith titles such as “Half Girlfriend,” and “An Indian Girl.” Love andheartbreak occupies a major chunk of the narrative, though a sanitised kind oflove. Now you can find novels with titles such as “Why I will always love you,”“Endlessly in Love,” and “I can’t but love you.” In other words, it’s the deliberatepandering to a low taste by publishers and their agents who deal in pure tripe.Sometimes, the dumbing down is deliberate, a lowly attempt to titillate thereader to browse through the book and then buy, as it is priced cheaply. Thesenovels are empty of any intellectual content because they are written in ahurry and are badly edited. The authors of these books regularly appear ontelevision shows and in literary festivals and even endorse corporate entities.Eager news channels give them that opportunity.

Reading these novels one would almost thinkIndia is a land of well-heeled middle-class people who address each other as“dude,” and “guy.” [Some also address each other as “laudey” meaning, phallus.]There would be no mention of the raging problems which can be seen in IITs likesuicide and casteism. Their worlds are sequestered and the huge gorilla in theliving room of poverty and environmental changes are never mentioned. Readingthem you will believe love is the panacea to all ills of society. Publishersare making the mistake that Indian film industry made years ago, i.e., give theaudience what they want and forget about the art of film-making and scripting.

It’s painful to see the slow decline ofwhat authors such as Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, Kiran Nagarkar, ShashiDeshpande, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Amit Chaudhari, CPSurendran, et al have tried to build up, i.e., a tentative fledgling identityfor Indian writing in English. I am not including Salman Rushdie, or, VikramSeth because they are expatriate writers and their points of view are unique andextraneous. It was a small beginning which should have led to something biggerand better. One almost thought that there would be a lot of translations ofprolific regional language writers and poets. But this dream remains a dream.Today, regional writers would consider themselves lucky to be published bySahitya Akademi, if at all. Even those authors published by the Akademi havenot been successful in establishing a readership because of Chicklit andDudelit novels.
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