“Poetry has survived greater crises”: An Interview with the poet K Satchidanandan

courtesy DSC Prize
15 June, 2016

For K Satchidanandan, poetry was not a choice. After working on his first two poems—the first a meditation on mutability, and the second, a narrative on a bullock cart driver he knew—he tried writing stories. “I found I could not do detailed descriptions. They were all short, never more than a page,” Satchidanandan said. When the stories were published, his readers thought they read like poems. “Then,” he continued, “I knew I was born to write only poetry and never again attempted fiction.”

Born in 1946, Satchidanandan has been writing poetry in Malayalam for 50 years now. Critics have hailed him as one of the pioneers of modern poetry in Malayalam, particularly because he continues to experiment with form and language and renews himself constantly. “Poetry alone gives me that rare joy of imagination and language that I do not find while writing anything else,” he said. The translations of Satchidanandan’s poetry in most Indian languages and several world-languages have earned him admirers from across the globe. 

He has also been vocal on social issues both within and outside the literary community. In October 2015, Satchidanandan, a former secretary of the Sahitya Akademi and a winner of several Sahitya Akademi awards, renounced his membership of all its committees. The poet said that the Akademi had “failed in its duty to stand with writers and uphold freedom of expression.” Satchidanandan was one of two people to withdraw from the recent Jaipur Literary Festival at South Bank in London. Though he withdrew due to an illness, he supported a coinciding call issued to boycott the event since Vedanta—a controversial British mining company whose operations in Zambia, South Africa and India have been widely criticised as being highly unsafe for the residents and the environment—was one of the fest’s main sponsors.

As a child, Satchidanandan read the sixteenth century devotional poet and linguist Thunjath Ezhuthachan’s retelling of the Ramayana in Malayalam. He was especially moved by ‘Sundarakandam,’ a canto on Hanuman’s search for the kidnapped Sita, and ‘Yudhakanda,’ the canto on the war between Rama and Ravana. Following this, he started reading Vayalar Ramavarma, ONV Kurup and P Bhaskaran—prominent leftist poets writing in Malayalam in the sixties—as well as some of the writer NV Krishna Warrier’s political poetry. Satchidanandan’s own poetics was never affiliated to these prototypes. His own more sophisticated political poetry, along with that of Malayalam modernist masters such as Ayyappa Panicker, was still to come. His ideas on political poetry were informed by poets such as Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon and Edasseri Govindan Nair, who he found were “subtle and complex,” and through reading African poetry in college. Internationally renowned poets such as Pablo Neruda came much later. Satchidanandan read “horrible and wrong” Malayalam translations of Neruda that made him think that the latter was “just another propagandist writer from Latin America.” “Only much later, when I read his poetry in English, did I realise he was a cosmic poet—of love, nature, life and politics,” he said.

Over the mid to late 1960s, as a postgraduate student of English literature at the Maharaja’s College in Cochin, Satchidanandan was exposed to the English Romantics and Victorians. He took modern British poetry especially seriously—Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. Around this time, affordable editions of the Penguin Modern Poets and the Penguin European Poets series began to appear in bookshops in Cochin. These brought Satchidanandan closer to major contemporary Europeans such as the Czech poets Vladimir Holan and Miroslav Holub, the Greek poet and Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, and the Hungarian poet Sandor Weorer. He began to explore poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, and Rainer Maria Rilke. During this time, he was also reading contemporary Malayalam poetry and any other Indian poetry he could lay his hands on.

In this interview, Satchidanandan discusses his foray into writing poems, poetry as a political act and the role of poets in society.

Kamalram Sajeev: In his 1926 manifesto of How to Make Verse, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the revolutionary poet of the Russian Futurist movement concluded that a poet should be at the centre of things and events to understand the social order correctly. He put knowledge of economic theory and scientific history far above “scholastic textbooks of idealist professors who worship old junk.” Do you consider poets without social understanding to be ignorant?

Satchidanandan: Mayakovsky, as a believer in the Futurist credo, wanted to disturb the status quo and irritate the inward looking lyricists of his time by proposing a new kind of poetry that would address history and intervene in politics. It was to him, a poetry of urgency, so much so that he said the poet should have an aeroplane to fly his new poem to the press. Russian poets and critics today do not take his flamboyance seriously, and he has come more and more to be associated with the megalomania and false optimism of the Stalinist era, though no one can question the new sinews and nerves that he at one point of time gave to Russian poetry.

I personally consider [the Soviet poet Boris] Pasternak, [Osip] Mandelstam, [Andrei] Voznesensky, [Anna] Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, [Evgeny] Vinokurov and several later poets such as Ilya Kaminsky superior to Mayakovsky as artists. But he was essentially right in insisting that poetry should have organic links with the community; only that this connection needs not always be loud and direct as in his own case. It may sound ironic that Mayakovsky was, in the very different context of revolution and in his own flamboyant way, overstating a proposition made by the twelfth century Indian aesthetician, Kshemendra, who, in his treatise on poetry, Kavikantabharanam, had said that a poet should travel to different lands, go among different people and learn their languages. Poetry, in ancient India was allied to all the other arts and areas of knowledge and the poet was expected to know a lot of things: from the shape of leaves to the secrets of seas and mountains, stars and seasons.

All the great poets I admire from my own language, other Asian languages as well as Western languages, had a profound if complex relationship with history and society. I would point to Kumaran Asan, Vailoppilly and Idassery from Malayalam, Bei Dao from China, Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis from the Arab world, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Nicanor Parra, Nicolas Guillen and Raul Surita from Latin America, Leopold Sedor Senghor, David Diop, Aime Cesaire and Wole Soyinka from Africa, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Cseslaw Milosz, Yannis Ritsos, CP Cavafy, Yehuda Amichai, Garcia Lorca and Wislawa Szymborsca from Europe, among several other poets.

If a poet wants to deal only with her or his subjectivity and ignore the society, they can be good poets too; but perhaps not great poets who combine social vision, prophecy and magic.

Kamalram: Can a poet survive without making ideological observations in his writings in these days, unbothered by the hostilities and conflicts happening around him?

Satchidanandan: I can only answer this personally. I find it hard to keep my poetry aloof from the terrible tidings around me. It is like separating one’s life from one’s writing. My poetry has been responding to events—states more than events—unfolding around me. Shame is a revolutionary feeling, as Karl Marx would say. I am deeply impacted by all that is going on in society and it shames me as a human being: the frequent suppression of basic freedoms, affronts to dignity, depressing inequality, divisive forces that promote hatred, obscene authoritarianism, thoughtless destruction of nature, unscrupulous exploitation for profit, mindless promotion of war, violence on women, children and religious and sexual minorities.

This does not in any way mean that I reduce my poetry to its social content. I know, like all poets, that language is primary in poetry. I have been creating many new languages in my poetry in my search for idioms that would best express myself—my sorrow, anger, happiness, love, loathing, my understanding of the paradox of human existence. I consider poetry organic, like a human being, each organ in its place. And hence nothing has been taboo to my poetry. You will find in it, quest for freedom, contemplation on nature and life and love and even subtle expressions of the erotic. To me these are not isolated things, but interconnected aspects of our existence. That is why you may find politics in a poem of love like ‘Apoornam’ (Imperfect) or ‘Anantam’ (Infinite).

We exist at multiple levels simultaneously and an instant of being is a complex web of several events, thoughts and feelings. It is this organic vision that keeps me alive and aloof from stupid arguments such as “art for art or art for life?” Those who ask such questions have understood neither art nor life, which in reality enrich and complement each other. Such dualisms do not help us understand this organic wholeness. Look at a poet like Yannis Ritsos or Octavio Paz or for that matter, any genuine poet in any language and you will know what I mean. Experience is hard to compartmentalise, and each poem has many voices. When Ernest Fischer counter-posed art against ideology, he meant this: one cannot keep art away from ideology or history but neither can one reduce art to ideology—it is more complex, multidimensional, and polyphonic. Poetry transmutes history. Even in a poem by “committed” poets such as Pablo Neruda or Bertolt Brecht, history does not remain what it was; it gets a new form, a new rhythm, a new texture, new language that makes it an aesthetic object which cannot be reduced to its content. Surface in a poem is as important as its vertical, connotational dimension.

Kamalram: As a poet, you have relentlessly addressed the issue of social commitment. What is the limit of social commitment in poetry? As a writer, where do you think art stops being art and becomes activism?

Satchidanandan: I do not think any poet today can completely avoid an engagement with issues outside the purely subjective: even the personal is political, as feminists would say. Politics is more than a matter of the subject the poem apparently deals with. It is there in its choice of words, its implied readers, its attitude towards life, morality, gender, religion, nature, knowledge. There is no escape from politics, and not even the ivory tower is left unshaken by the winds outside. I will be the last to say that a poet, even a committed one, should primarily or necessarily be an activist as I consider the poem itself to be a self-sufficient action or event.

However, there are certain periods of turbulence or certain momentous historical events that persuade the poet to raise his or her voice in the public realm and intervene in practical action. He or she seems to be caught in a whirlpool. But it will be foolish of the poet to leave poetry and becomes a full-time activist, as his or her voice is important precisely because he or she is a poet. There is no separating the poet and the activist at such moments. They flow into each other and often enrich each other as the experiences of many poets in our own time reveal—so much so that one can hardly say whether they are activists because they are poets or vice versa.

Kamalram: You came of age as a radical poet during an era that witnessed the Naxalite movement, the Emergency and literary activities organised in Kerala by revolutionary cultural groups such as the Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi, the cultural front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). How would you evaluate the reader-writer relationship of that time? 

Satchidanandan: It was a turbulent time. Looking back, I find it as exciting as constraining. The excitement was in discovering and even creating a new readership, through little magazines and publishing houses and open readings and performances on diverse platforms. The relationship with the reader was deep and intimate. But that readership, at least a good part of it, had not been exposed to other kinds of poetry. It had a limited idea about poetry and also specific expectations from it. We were supposed to write only poetry that was openly political. Subtlety was a major casualty. They wanted poetry that would be understood at the very first reading. They could not understand why, for example, poetry should be written about love, nature or death, which were also my themes. They were, in short, looking for a new and easy brand of political poetry that came to be known as the poetry of the seventies. I do not think we could always satisfy them.  And neither do I believe that some of the poets who were very popular at that time would be so popular now. The slogan was “politics in command,” and aesthetics took a back seat.

Kamalram: You are the first poet to use prose in Malayalam poetry as an ideological weapon during the seventies. Was this technique a conscious idea?

Satchidanandan: Malayalam had something called gadyakavita [prose poems] before the advent of modernism. It was a kind of mongrel form which was neither good prose nor good poetry. It was [the modernist poet] Ayyappa Panicker who first used prose for poetry in poems such as ‘Pakshi’ (The Bird), ‘Urumbu’ (The Ant) and ‘Charamakkurippu’ (Obituary). However, this form acquired prominence in the 1970s, when some of us began to use it, bringing into our prose varied styles, tones and timbres.

One can create a whole new poetics based on the new use of prose—rhymed and unrhymed, recalling some old periods or using professional jargon, meditative and ironic, narrative and lyrical, monologic and dialogic. We were attacked by conservatives who thought of metre and rhyme as essential to poetry, but we thought poetry should distinguish itself by the sheer quality of its imagination and not by the repeated use of certain set patterns and forms. And it worked wonderfully, creating a generation of readers who have had no training in traditional poetry and metrics. It was part influence, part intellection, part innovation, dictated by our themes and outlook. The inevitability of prose in some poems will be clear to anyone who tries to imagine my ‘Satyavangmoolam (Testament) or ‘Pani’ (Fever) in verse.

Kamalram: The poetry of the day is about marginalised communities, or sidelined issues. For instance, Black and Dalit poetry is surpassing the appeal of the Neruda-Lorca brand. Do you think this kind of poetry is overtaking the poetry of Marxism?

Satchidanandan: No, on the other hand I find them complementary to one another. It depends a lot on real history as to what kind of identities and issues gain prominence at a particular time, and the new avant-garde is not a replication of the old avant-garde. The edge of the struggle at one point of time is not necessarily the same at another point. The grand vision of revolution that poets like Neruda, Mayakovsky or Brecht had seems passé today, even though their poetry often addressed some of the issues that have come up with greater force after them. I do not think a poem such as [Neruda’s] ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’ is outdated because new issues have come up today—as if the issue the poem addressed has been already resolved!

First of all, a poem stays not only because its apparent content is still valid—if that were the case we ought to have forgotten Divine Comedy or Mahabharata—but because it is a monument built in language. Secondly, even the content of a poem is much more than its theme: it is the way it looks at relationships, values, life and language itself. The questions of slavery and exploitation that a poem such as ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’ so intensely raises continue to be relevant today, and it is also a great work of art.

Even if the grand narrative of Marxism looks obsolete to some people—I am not one of them and think that we will keep going back to Marx as long as capitalism exists in the world even if in disguised forms, and I know [the economist] Thomas Piketty or [the linguist] Noam Chomsky will not disagree with me—the poem remains. The history of poetry is not a fashion parade as some critics seem to think. There is continuous innovation, but each innovation also becomes part of a sustained tradition and a new avant-garde does not render the creations of an old avant-garde obsolete even if forms and techniques get replaced.

When we critique identity politics and its poetry, we need to know that these groups emerged out of the failures and silences of the existing Left. We need to redefine the Left to include these new movements around caste, gender, sexuality, environment etc. However, at the level of poetry, all of them want to change the society. These little narratives have a sure place in the grand narrative of resistance.

Kamalram: The public sphere in India is hesitantly beginning to accept the political representation of different classes and identities. However, mainstream writing tends to be conformist and does not take dissent into account. As an Indian writer, on which side do you stand?

Satchidanandan: I think Indian poetry has been alive to the fact of the emergence of new classes, groups and identities in our society. Look for example at Dalit poetry, Adivasi poetry, women’s poetry or gay poetry, which are some of the most dynamic movements keeping Indian poetry vibrant today. These poets are inventing new languages, bringing in new words and usages from marginalised lives and regions. Of course, there is a purely populist and calculated commercial writing that trivialises life and literature alike, and careerism is on the rise among writers seduced by the greed of capitalism. There is also a kind of writing that I call “club writing”—meant only for the admiration of a few fans and for temporary recognition in elite social circles. New social media have given a fillip to this kind of writing. But I do not consider either of these to be the mainstream in a literary sense, though such writing may have more readers than serious literature. I am a non-conformist and will never write for the market. That is also one of the advantages of being essentially a poet: poetry does not any way have a huge market and hence is relatively free from its pressures.

Kamalram: In Indian writing, there is no unified culture akin to the Caribbean, the Latin American or the African cultures, which have successfully produced literary booms in past decades. The pluralism of this country prevents—or saves—Indian writing from attaining a monolithic structure. Could deliberate and massive intercultural negotiations solve the division between international literature and Indian writing?

Satchidanandan: While a small group of Indian writers, mostly those who write in English, are known outside India, the majority are still strangers to readers there. One reason is that they write in the Indian languages and their work takes time to be translated into English, let alone other languages, Eastern and Western. There is a dearth of good translators from these languages even into English. There are even fewer translators who can work both in an Indian language and in a European language. The government-level attempts to promote translation—such as Indian Literature Abroad [an initiative by the Ministry of Culture and the Sahitya Akademi to translate Indian writing into foreign languages]—never really took off for want of interest, money and expertise. Yet, if some writers sometimes get translated, it is thanks to the individual efforts of the translators or the initiative of some publishers abroad who have a genuine interest in Indian writing. After the African and Latin American boom of the 60s, I had thought the next would be an Indian boom, which never happened. Our institutions of higher learning seem to be taking no interest in promoting the literatures in the languages of their region and the public institutions are mostly run by people who have little knowledge in the area.

Kamalram: A reader who started reading your poems 50 years ago would now be in his sixties or older. For the older reader, what would you be?

Satchidanandan: My sincere hope is that my reader has also grown up along with me. My first collection came out in 1971, though I began to take my poetry seriously from at least 1965, having already started writing poetry since my school days. The poems in the first collection, Anchusooryan (Five Suns) mostly followed traditional Dravidian metres; some were in blank verse.

I was then deeply impacted by modern Malayalam poets who were just emerging, such as Ayyappa Panicker. What I liked was the freshness of their style, imagery, use of metre, mode of imagination which was sometimes surreal, use of irony and humour. While I did like the earlier poets such as Vyloppilly [Sreedhara Menon] and Edassery [Govindan Nair] who were alive at that time, these poems spoke to me in a different way. Along with exposure to modern European poetry and the American Beats, I also had my first meeting with Ayyappa Panicker when I was a student, a relationship that became crucial to my life as a poet in later years, as I became part of the Kerala Kavita fraternity [Kerala Kavita was a quarterly journal launched in the 1960s under Panicker’s leadership and has since become a yearly publication].

I began translating poetry for that journal and also got introduced to several major Indian and international poets during poetry festivals. They were exciting years as my interest was not confined to literature alone. I found myself part of a larger group of writers, painters, sculptors, theatre people, and filmmakers whose common credo, to recall [Ezra] Pound, was “make it new.” I have gone on renewing myself since then and the readers who have followed me have also followed these transformations. Sometimes, I lost some readers, as for example when my poetry turned more political in the late 1970s and 1980s. But the loss was more than compensated for by the new readership that I won and some who had turned away also came back.

I will be the last to say I am full-grown; there is a lot to come, a lot more to lean and write. One is dead when one stops growing. That is why several Malayalam poets who are biologically alive are aesthetically and spiritually dead for me.

Kamalram: Along with the freedom struggle against the colonial state, patriotic poetry was evolving. Religious chants were transforming into patriotic poetry (as was the case with vande mataram). This was also happening in music and paintings, and later in movies. Has the modern state of India ever been free from emotional quasi-religious patriotic judgments?Satchidanandan: In his talks on nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore had foreseen the dangers of jingoism in the garb of religion. So had Jawaharlal Nehru, who said, “Minority communalism may at the most lead to separatism, but majority communalism is the sure foundation for fascism”. During the freedom struggle, a lot of leaders thought of the nation as a mother goddess. In pictorial and poetic representations, the goddess took the form of Durga, which continues to be a pet theme for popular murals and calendars even today. This also happened at the level of patriotic symbols and practices. Religion and ritual played a prominent role in making the Independence struggle look like a religious uprising. [The freedom fighter Sri] Aurobindo had identified patriotism with Kali puja and for [the freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar] Tilak, Ganesh Chaturthi became an occasion for the expression of patriotism. Even Gandhi, in his eagerness to find a language that would appeal to the majority, had to call the ideal nation of his imagination Ramarajya [the land of Rama] though his Rama had nothing to do with the warrior Rama that the Hindutva forces have made their icon.

All this paved the way for the pioneers of the Hindutva movement in India such as [MS] Golwalkar, VD Savarkar, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, KB Hedgewar and Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, whose violent legacy has been continued by the likes of [the RSS leader] Mohan Bhagwat and [the VHP leader] Pravin Togadia, to project their intolerant brand of Hinduism as true nationalism and to keep out Indians of all other religions as “others”, “foreigners”, “aggressors” and “traitors”. The result was that secular India, which believes in the equal status of all religions and equal justice to people of all faiths, including the non-believers, remains a dream even now and “secularist” has become a term of abuse hurled at eminent historians from DD Kosambi and RS Sharma to Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, as well as the writers, artists, scientists and intellectuals who have dared to stand up against the present culture of intolerance in various ways.

Kamalram: What do you think of the recent call to boycott the JLF at South Bank because it was sponsored by Vedanta?

Satchidanandan: I did not know when I agreed to take part in JLF @South Bank that Vedanta is its main sponsor. I had asked them whether Zee is involved, as I had declared that I will not take part in JLF as long as Zee is the sponsor after their bad treatment of Gauhar Raza, the Urdu writer, and was promptly told that Zee is not involved. Then I developed an illness and informed the organisers I may not be able to take part. This also coincided with the boycott call after it came out that the festival in London was sponsored by Vedanta. I do support the boycott call, though I know that the writers, when they agreed, had not known about the involvement of Vedanta. The boycott call has certainly helped raise a lot of ethical issues about the sponsorship of cultural events by infamous corporates and has also brought to light Vedanata’s anti-people activities, though many of us were already aware of the Niyamgiri mining issues.

Kamalram: Rightist intellectuals have often placed the charge that certain Indian universities are closed independent units or hiding places for leftists and ultras. Universities such as JNU, just like its Western counterparts, aim to promote free thought. Do you believe that our universities are institutions for leftists?

Satchidanandan: This is a baseless accusation. JNU ranks first even in the recent government survey and the University of Hyderabad follows very close, with the fourth place. This shows that the more open a university is to fresh and even radical ideas, the greater its chances of attracting talent and maintaining a liberal atmosphere.

The question here is not of ideology, but of academic excellence. It is no one's fault that a lot of our best historians and social scientists share the vision of a just, secular and egalitarian society. The right-wing labels even liberals with a Nehruvian vision “leftist.” In fact most of those academics have little to do with the Left political parties. The interest in Marxism that some of them have, is confined to its theoretical aspect and its continuing relevance as a tool of analysis in societies dominated by capitalism in its various incarnations, from corporate to crony capitalism. Even in countries such as the United States, academics are respected for their scholarship, whatever their ideological persuasion. The universities continue to be liberal spaces that promote free discussion, debate and exchange of ideas. This ultimately benefits the society’s self-understanding. Suppression of dissent is detrimental to any kind of society as has been proved by fascist as well as totalitarian communist societies. In the absence of any critical mechanism that helps the rulers know the people’s minds, those governments fell and at times, the country even went to pieces.

Kamalram: Human existence—from religious extremism, to questions of identity, to social movements—is in a state of flux, and cultural spheres are shaped by the struggle. Though the world is not officially at war, mankind is experiencing extreme hardship. What is the future of poetry in such times?Satchidanandan: It was [the Irish poet] James Joyce who said of writers, “Squeeze us, we are olives.” No doubt we are in times of trauma. The old heroes seem to have lost out to the new villains. Religious fanaticism is on the rise and that is the sure foundation for fascism. There was a time when we thought only semitic religions could be fanatic as they propose a single god and have rigid frameworks and inflexible rituals, taboos and observances. But now we know that even a religion like Hinduism, which used to be somewhat amorphous, ill-defined and flexible— involving diverse gods, belief systems, customs and practices—can become rigid and dogmatic. This is also true of Buddhism which was once a philosophical system that questioned the foundations of religion itself and was firmly based on non-violence, compassion and brotherhood or sisterhood of all human beings.

Religious hatred is on the rise and the beast that [the Irish poet] William Butler Yeats had seen in his poem ‘Second Coming’ who “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” is already born in various shapes in different places and is having a field day. It is becoming harder and harder to keep up hope. And yet, writers and artists are the only ones who can refuse co-option and keep fighting. They can maintain the “optimism of the will” even against the “pessimism of the intellect”—to recall [the Marxist theorist and politician] Antonio Gramsci’s phrase. So, one needs to look at those ill-lit corners of hope: the battles being waged by women, Dalits, tribal people, unorganised workers, ecology warriors, secularists, anti-war activists, students and young people who have been fighting against patriarchy, caste oppression, evictions in the name of development, destruction of environment, religious fanaticism, dictatorship of all hues and manufactured wars. It is here that the poetry of resistance pitches its tent today.

Kamalram: In his new book Post Capitalism: A Guide To Our Future, Paul Mason discusses the emergence of a new leadership group—the t-shirted techno-bourgeoisie, whose information is stored in the cloud, and which has a liberal attitude towards sexuality, ecology and philanthropy. This group is seen as the new normal. But Mason says that the problem with them is that “they show no interest at all in overthrowing the old Capitalism, and have scant interest in politics at all.” Where would you place poetry in this new society?

Satchidanandan: The info-tech generation in India has, of course, been epicurean. The victory of the proto-fascist forces in the last election had something to do with their selfishness and careerism as they were easily lured by the promise of “development” whose real meaning is slowly being revealed to them. I hope that the economic failure of the present government that has vowed to promote corporatism at any cost—which includes the dreams of the young—will slowly open their eyes. I see the fact that the technical team that worked for Modi in the last general elections is working for Nitish Kumar in the recent Bihar assembly election as a pointer in that direction. The apathy of this class towards politics is mainly due to the failure of the political parties and if they find a force that can really deliver—as in the case of Nitish—they may come round and stop supporting Modi. Disillusionment has already begun and it can only grow, looking at the policy-failure and excesses of the government at the centre. The technocrats did not vote for the communal agenda of the RSS, but for a promised development that would benefit their class. But neither their class nor the poor are benefited from the blatantly Adani-Ambani economics of Modi and his ilk.

Poetry has survived greater crises like the narrow, sectarian and anti-intellectual attitudes to culture promoted by all forms of totalitarianism—left or right, though it had to pay a price—and it will always find its perch as long as human beings suffer, dream and struggle for a better world.  When we think its space is shrinking, it suddenly finds a new readership and begins to flourish in the unexplored corners of the world as it is doing today in smaller countries and cultures from Iceland to Catalonia.

This interview has been edited and condensed.