“Academia in India is not something about which you can have any illusions”: An Interview with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

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13 January, 2016

Born in Lahore in 1947, the poet, translator and literary critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is widely acknowledged as one of the leading voices of Indian English poetry. Mehrotra has published five books of poetry, including Nine Enclosures (1976) and The Transfiguring Places (1998), two of translation, and has edited various anthologies. He has translated over 200 works from the ancient Prakrit language, as well as from Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati.

Mehrotra studied English literature, ancient history, and economics during his BA at Allahabad University. After graduating in 1966, he moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) for his masters. It was here that Mehrotra met the poets Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar and Gieve Patel, all of whom are known for their contribution to shaping Indian poetry in the English language. In 1976, the four poets started the poetry publishing collective Clearing House. Mehrotra joined Allahabad University in 1968 as an English lecturer, and retired in 2012. He now lives in Dehradun.

Ishan Marvel, a web reporter at The Caravan, spoke with Mehrotra on 10 January 2016, a day after Mehrotra had delivered a lecture on Arun Kolatkar, title “The Writer as a Tramp.” The lecture was a part of a symposium on “deprofessionalisation” held at the India International Centre (IIC), Delhi. Mehrotra spoke about the tradition of English poetry in India, his views on academia, and his advice for young poets.

Ishan Marvel: Could you elaborate on the theme of the symposium at IIC—what does the deprofessionalisation of literature imply?

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: People have been constructing the idea of the writer for a long time. But writing novels or writing poetry is seldom anyone’s career. As a matter of fact, people can do very interesting and valuable work in genres they are not identified with. For instance, we don’t think of Arun Kolatkar as an artist, but he did a wonderful book of drawings called The Policeman: A Wordless Play in 13 Scenes that no one talks about. So, the whole idea of the symposium was to explore the notion of being a non-specialist, or a dabbler.

IM: But to hold such a discussion at IIC, where other sessions were loaded with academic language and words such as “hermeneutics,” “mimetic” and “aporia”—did you find that ironic?

AKM: No, there are certain ways of talking about certain things. One of the participants, Peter McDonald, while discussing a [JM] Coetzee novel did make the point that there will be a bit of specialisation in such discussions. There are very many things happening at IIC on any given day, and in some discussions words like the ones you mention will be used. I don’t see the irony.

IM: What are your thoughts on academia in India?

AKM: Academia in India is not something about which you can have any illusions. We resist changing our courses. We don’t have proper libraries—by which I mean libraries that are open for 20 hours out of 24, as is the practice in the United States. Books are not easily accessible. No university in the world functions the way Indian universities do. We shouldn’t even be calling them universities. Allahabad is no exception. The problem is that universities don’t expect you to do very much. They give you a permanent job, and once you have it you cannot be thrown out, even if you never go to class. Students don’t mind this because education is almost free. But they still get a canteen, a classroom to sit in, and maybe some books. And they’ll get their degree at the end of it. It’s not a bad deal.

IM: How did you spend your time working at the university? How do you spend your retirement?

AKM: I hardly went to the university. I mostly stayed at home. I suppose a lot of Delhi colleges must be dysfunctional in the same way, where teachers absent themselves. In fact, they are superfluous to the system. Students mug up answers to expected questions, write their exams, and move on to the next class.

These days, I do what I have always done—read and write, and look out the window. Give interviews. It’s almost as if I had retired at the age of 21. It’s been a long retired life.

IM: What was it like being a Bombay poet in the 1960s?

AKM: We were all different but we were enthusiastic about poetry, and we liked each other’s work. Everyone had been writing for a long time. So a lot of manuscripts had accumulated, and in the absence of a publisher, we started Clearing House. That is how [Arun Kolatkar’s] Jejuri, [Gieve Patel’s] How Do You Withstand, Body, [Adil Jussawalla’s] Missing Person, and my Nine Enclosures were published. We did it together, shared the work, but there was no conscious movement or manifesto, or anything of the sort. Now, the Bombay poets are being studied and some patterns and shared concerns are being seen, but at that time no one set out to be a Bombay poet.

IM: What about the larger tradition of Indian poetry in English?

AKM: We have been writing in English for 200 years, but in the sixties, we were not aware of this tradition. Things are different now because of the Internet. Books published in the nineteenth century, like [the poet] Toru Dutt’s translations from French, can be downloaded for free. So there’s a huge difference in terms of accessibility. Anyone writing now should be far more aware of the tradition, because more of it is available. In the sixties, we created our tradition from other sources, from whatever came to hand. People write poetry all over the world. So the absence of some local tradition didn’t really matter. Besides, if you can write, you write. If you can’t, no amount of tradition is going to help you.

IM: A lot of people write poetry, but many are unable to avoid poetic clichés such as “autumnal dawns.”

AKM: That’s because we are not taught more poetry written by Indians in English in our schools and colleges. We don’t even have a proper autumn season so I don’t see why people should be writing about it, but they feel they should because that is the sort of English poetry they have read in the classroom. It is unfortunate, but it’s not the fault of the young person who is writing. It’s the fault of the educational system.

IM: What do you make of the changing trends in terms of the writer and the market, of elaborate launches, readings, festivals, and social media promotion?

AKM: A book still sells largely by word of mouth. But I have nothing against readings or indeed literary festivals. I wish there were more. A literary festival is only a platform to bring writers and readers together. It can’t be a bad thing. The problem arises when there are too many filmstars and politicians floating around at festivals, pretending to be writers. Anyone can write a book these days, or have it ghost-written.

IM: What would you like to say to young poets?

AKM: In most cases, poetry is like a virus that works its way through the body and dies a natural death, like the common cold. So, the young need not worry about seeking advice.