|An Interview by: Dr. T. S. Chandra Mouli|
Aju Mukhopadhyay, the poet, critic and biographer, is a bilingual writer of fictions and essays. He has done some important translations on his way. He has authored 12 books in Bangla and 16 in English. His works have been recognized with awards by such bodies as The Writers Bureau, Manchester, Poets International, Bangalore, International Library of Poetry, USA, International Poets Academy, Chennai, (Excellence in World Poetry Award, 2009), Lucidity Poetry Journal, Sugar Land, USA and others.
His poems topped the list of some e-zines and websites like asianamericanpoetry and poetsindia. Earlier he edited three little magazines in Bengali. He is in the editorial board of some important Indian English Literary magazines. He has edited the American E-zine, twenty20Journal – summer issue 3, 2011. He regularly writes in magazines, e-zines and occasionally in newspapers. Many of his works have been translated in other languages and anthologized.
More than one and half a dozen of books contain his scholarly works on Indian English Literature and other subjects. Five books contain critique on his poetry. Quite some more books on literature and current affairs, books on Indian English Literature are in the press to be released. He is a member of the Research Board of Advisors of the American Biographical Institute who offered him the American Order of Merit. He is a writer of wildlife and Nature including animals. Conservation of Nature and environment is the watchword of his life.
Sai Chandra Mouli: Namaste, Aju da! You are so kind in permitting an interview.
Aju : Dear Friend, Namaskar. I feel that you are kind enough to interview an unknown poet and writer like me. Whatever I might have done, whatever faith I have on my work, I would not be known even to deserving readers unless supported by big media and Government or such public institutions, as it is the position.
Sai: Since you call me Sai, I wish to retain that name for this interview. Thanks for your loving concern for friends. Tell us some thing about your friends, sir.
Aju: Sai is very mellifluous and intimate word so it attracted me long back and I call you so with your support. Certainly I love you. Friends! Childhood friends, school friends, office colleagues- most remain in their world, with most of them I have very little contact for our world has become apart. Now those like you, professors, poets, writers and editors with whom I have regular and newer relationship, whether in India or elsewhere, are my best friends for after all, we live in the same world.
Sai: We all know you are an ardent devotee of Sri Aurobindo. Kindly share your views, sir.
Aju: This is a very delicate question for literary link and spiritual connections are different things though they may be interlinked. My contact with Sri Aurobindo was very spontaneous even when I did not know him much. It was certainly a psychic connection. I am fortunate that after I visited Pondicherry and had more intimate contacts with him, at whatever the level though not physical, I realised that he was a creative giant in poetry and literature besides in other fields. He was one of the very early pioneers of Indian English writing though the quality of his work was akin to or more than an Englishman, as admitted by his teachers when he was studying in England from his childhood. So it is a two way help for me and added inspiration. Not only studying, I have written his biography and other books on him including some translation of his work.
Sai: Why did Sri Aurobindo choose Pondicherry to be his place?
Aju: During a very turbulent time in his revolutionary life, on the point of his fatal arrest even after he was twice discharged he received an inner call to go to Chandernagore, as it was called then, and after living underground for about one and a half months he received a divine Adesh to move to Pondicherry. So he embarked on a ship bound for Ceylon in cognito and reached Pondicherry with another companion on 4 April 1910 to pursue his yogic life. He went so deep into that life that he never again returned to British India even when they left the country. Both Chandernagore and Pondicherry were French territories beyond the jurisdiction of the British.
Sai: How it was then, and now [about the place]?
Aju: At the time when he came to Pondicherry it was a deserted place with some political refugees from neighbouring areas like Madras, including poet Subramaniam Bharati, and some drunkards. Long after Sri Aurobindo came there his Ashram was established mainly by the Mother’s active help. The town is almost a city now, one of the most populated places in India; a busy tourist and commercial centre. This the Mother once predicted.
Sai: Why did you choose to settle in Pondicherry? Is it the place or people that enchanted you most?
Aju: I settled due to my love for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, to follow their ideal path in life. I liked the calm seashore town and got my two daughter admitted in the ashram school. A little before coming to this place I began writing in English besides my mother tongue. I did find better literary connections here through my writing in English. Thus, my bond gradually became concrete.
Sai: What is the impact of Aurobindo’s works on you?
Aju: Firstly I have written on him and the Mother, translated them and have still been studying them. Certainly Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts and ideas, the essence of them are flowing into my consciousness which are being expressed through my works but that is not apparent for I have not tried to imitate or follow, in style or in anything else, any other poet or writer. My works are my own creations.
Sai: I once commented that there is a child in you. Do you remember? How could you retain the sweet smile and simple ways of a child even today?
Aju: Thank you. But the child is in every person including you, expressed or suppressed. I feel myself optimistic and try to get the ‘ananda’ in everything, helped by my love and attraction for Nature including the wildlife. But I too have many defects and weaknesses which I always try to overcome, taking myself as a field for research and reform.
Sai: May we presume that your love of nature, birds and animals originated from your keen observation of life and man?
Aju: It was my inherent love for them. I remember that from my childhood I felt attracted towards plants as were being watered by my grandmother. No other child in our joint family was found interested in them. This interest and attraction for plants may be said to be not superficial but ingrained in my vital-mental make up. When I find someone interested in plant life or birds I feel some affinity with them. This work with Nature and writing on it continues. I have just finished writing on flowers for a book, as called for. I have quite some prose works besides poems on Nature. Even my work on Royal Bengal Tiger has been appreciated in a magazine published from Cyprus (Creature Feature) and included in their special collection. I have written on quite a few animals besides on plants and other aspects of Nature.
Sai: Your passion for pictorial presentation of Nature’s splendour is well known in your creative works, photography and poetry. Please, comment.
Aju: Really I feel attracted by pictorial representation of the different aspects of Nature as in photography or haiku. Yes in some magazines my work has been published supported by my photos. I do it as hobby. These are allied subjects, as my doodlings are.
Sai: Is photography your passion? Perhaps, it helps in designing some of the best covers for your books. Kindly elucidate.
Aju: Your guess is right sir. Sometimes I suggest images, sometimes they have done the cover picture as I suggested, as in the cover page of Insect’s Nest and Other Poems (a book of poems).
Sai: Now, please tell us about your childhood, schooldays, college life, sir.
Aju: Those days- from childhood to college days, living in a joint famiy, attending evening classes as I was engaged in office after I passed the School Final - were not very brilliant, were full of struggles. On the whole they were mediocre, but I never “Loath my childhood” as loathed Jean Paul Sartre. Those days, however mediocre and struggling, prepared me on the way to what I have done, what I am.
Sai: How could you manage your career as a banker and a creative writer?
Aju: I would rejoice becoming a professor like you but I had no option than accepting whatever jobs were available. After some jobs of no importance in some private firms I joined a bank and continued till my voluntary retirement, serving it totally for little over 30 years in different positions in various villages and towns of India. Usually I was never addicted to my office. My job was necessary for me and nothing more. As writing you know, one writes because one has to write. So I served literature as much possible even while doing the then strenuous job of a bank manager in different grades. Certainly that time was not quite suited for this purpose but I did write from time to time. After I was freed from my job through voluntary retirement, I devoted more time for literature, I am still doing it with more vigour.
Sai: Please elaborate your experiences as a banker.
Aju: It is a down-to-earth job of deposit and advance; economy and finance. Frankly speaking, I did not find people of my genre there. They were more occupied with money and finance, with career and trade union. Though I tried to do it as best possible, studied and passed some professional examinations on the subject, I did not get much of pleasure therein. But certainly the service and my tour to different villages and towns gave me some good experiences; I enjoyed living at different places, mixing with people. Some of the experiences helped me write stories like “Slavery”.
Sai: How many languages do you know, sir? We are sure it has certainly enabled you expand the horizon of your consciousness.
Aju: It may perhaps be said that I am an adept in Bengali and English but in the other languages that I learnt, I can talk or write, do not live with me in day-to-day life as I do not practise them regularly; like Sanskrit, Hindi or French. May be I can colloquially manage with more Indian languges but that does not arise here. Different languages help me write even when I write in one language.
Sai: In how many languages do you write? Kindly throw ample light on this aspect.
Aju: Usually two as I said. Being a Bengali I used to write in Bangla, my mother tongue but gradually and more as I moved out of Bengal I began writing in English. I find larger scope to publish in this language, get wider audience scattered not only in all corners of India but throughout the English speaking world. Instead of concentrating on little magazines and on rare occasions on commercial papers to get published where the scope is rather narrow, I find that writing in English gives more variety and diversity among congenial colleagues and papers. English is an Indian language now and its spread is not only welcome but almost essential for the unity among Indians in so far as the language is concerned. The only alternative was Sanskrit, the mother of all Indian languages; even where it is not directly the mother, it can easily be called the foster mother; if one searches, Sanskrit words, tales, legends, not only religious but secular, are available aplenty in all Indian languages. Sanskrit is the greatest influence in the evolution of all Indian languages. It is one of the best languages of the world, if not the best and is still living. India was cultured through Sanskrit language. There is no scope to go beyond it. The chance of Hindi becoming the only integrating or link language of India seems no more to be there. Without going into any dispute it can easily be said that English has stayed with the Indians and it is going to stay put, considering its spread in every educated corner of India. Even Hindi remaining as it is, English has every right to remain here as it is automatically accepted by Indians. English is no longer a foreign language though it might have been born in Britain. It is international language. Language depends on its acceptability and adaptability. By all considerations English is our language though it is not a language particular to any part of India; the original mother tongue of none in this country. It has become more Indian than other countries for the largest numbers of books in English are published here. We call it Indian English language. Its spread is inevitable. Let Sanskrit too spread taking all our love but English has stayed.
Sai: Your views about poetry in general and your own poetry, please.
Aju: My view of poetry as expressed in a book yet to see the light of day is- poetry must contain pithy sayings in any form. Ideas vague or without carrying any clear meaning are examples of inappropriate poetry. Good poetry must be a synthetic product of thoughts, ideas, dreams and visions grasped intuitively. Imagery, symbolism, subtle ornaments make the poetry enjoyable; pleasant to hear beautiful to see. Whatever the force that dominates a poem a unique creation gives ‘ananda’. I have three trends in general as I find in my poetry: poems on Nature, poems based on some spiritual feelings and satirical poetry; poetry criticising the society but all the three trends might have intermingled in some poetries making them composite creations. I have a usual tendency of rhyming and creating rhythm. The process of writing involving emotions, feelings, verve and auto suggestions, pouring in of required words and other elements are different matters.
Sai: How about your fiction, sir?
Aju: I bagan writing with short stories. I have three books of short stories in Bangla and two in English. My short stories have been anthologized. Some years of ago one of my short stories got second prize in a competition conducted by Bizz-Buzz, a small press publication. Recently one of my short stories (The Pride of a Woman) has been included in a book of Indian stories translated in German language, published by the University of Mumbai in 2011. I have been writing short stories for magazines and books which have been highly acclaimed by the critics. I have written one novel and intend to write another in near future.
Sai: Your literary essays are erudite and brilliant. When you are a creative writer, why this love for literary criticism?
Aju: Thank you sir but not all my essays are literary criticism though many are. Besides literature I have written essays on Nature, Environment, Wildlife, Travels, Social, Political and on other subjects. Writing literary criticism too is my wont as it was with many and still with some writers. I try to evaluate the works of bygone poets and writers as well as contemporary ones with a clear thrust to focus on the strength and weakness of each writer, particularly the contemporary ones. I try to focus on the heart of the creator. Though more of the positive sides I focus sometimes I mention which I feel the weaker side too. This gives an edge to my literary practice though I do not claim that my comments or views are infallible always. Literature is a field of subjective study.
Sai: Does the process help you in introspection? Is there a sort of cathartic effect?
Aju: It gives edge to my writing and a bigger perspective to compare. The conflict that ensues sometimes gives scope for introspection but they are not very pronounced always.
Sai: You are a translator of repute. May we know your views on translation as a process as well as a product?
Aju: True that I have translated fiction, non-fiction and poetry too in reputed journals but it is not known if I have reputation though such translated works have been acclaimed by some critics. I feel like many others that translation has helped and has yet to help the process of integration in the sense that Indian works of one corner are known to the other corner through translation. It is equally applicable to translation from foreign languages and translation of Indian works into foreign languages. One thing I feel necessary to mention is that to be a translator one needs to be an adept in both the languages one is working with.
Sai: Your personal experiences as a translator, please.
Aju: I have not faced any problem in translating works of other writers. Only one thing I remember is that each such translation takes more time than original writing as I try to be more faithful to the writer’s ethos and his exposition in a work than translating his words though I never skip words in the original to avoid.
Sai: Which book you wish to translate and why?
Aju: Now you have put a question which I wished not to mention while referring to works of my criticism. Though a book on contemporary Indian English poets by me is in the press I wish to avoid writing criticism and translation of more works for paucity of time than for any other reason. I do not wish to avoid not because they may give rise to controversy or there may be misunderstanding in writing criticism, I wish to face them if required; but really I am so pressed to write essays (criticism too may be an essay but that is not necessarily on a contemporary writer) in response to calls for papers, for an intense urge to write fiction, poetry or other non-fiction subjects that I want to avoid writing reviews in particular. I have my essays published in some 20 voluminous books on Indian English Literature. Quite some more are in the press.
Sai: A personal question, sir. What is your typical daily routine?
Aju: My childhood routines were different, mostly spontaneous without much of control or regulation. After adulthood my routines have changed in the course of time for change in place of stay or change in the routine of service time, etc. But certain things I always manage to do since long; doing yogasana, bit of gardening and meditating. Now for so many years I usually live at home. While at home in Pondicherry I do some pranayama and meditation in the early morning before my visit to the Ashram for pranam. Back home I do sort of Bhuta Yagna- giving morning foods to cats, dog, fishes and crows. Sometimes the dog is fed later. Then I do some eye exercise with Surya after breakfast. The day goes on with literary works, reading and writing, but now-a-days my pens have become redundant (keeping some half a dozen pens ready to use as writing aid was my hobby until a few years ago) as the writing is mostly done on the computer screen. Pens are used to write some registers or such things, poems mostly, but their use has been minimised as a matter of course. I regret that the object of my love has no longer to give me company regularly. I go out sometimes for work at bank or Government or some other offices when needed. In the evening I do Yogasana, service to plants and brisk walking before dinner in the evening. The other things are personal and do not attract attention.
Sai: I know that it helps us know better about you as a person too.
Aju: Thanks much for putting this question. But I do not think I have much to say other than what I am replying. After all, I am and shall be known by the works I do, literary and others. Other things are otiose. The rest about my self is known to the Divine only.
Sai: How about your concerns at the moment?
Aju: Yes sir, this is very important. More and more I am feeling that man’s basic character has remained the same. Ordinary men and women were at succeeding times under the rules of the despots; kings, feudal lords, sultans, nawabs, zamindars, dictators and the Governments (represented by the ministers) and still they remain so under differing situations in different countries. Whoever gets a chance rides over others’ backs and rules in different degrees, over their own people, over the other countries. All else are shows. All struggles lead to insignificant changes. Money, power, sex and ego (personal gratification) are still the guiding force. Man has remained the same; only the roles with appropriate dress codes have changed, masks are different. Instead of zamindars, nawabs and dictators we now see the legislators and parliamentarians ruling. It is more difficult to rule them than voting them to power. I do not say that nothing has changed, for many things have changed in spite of apparent sameness due to evolution of consciousness, in how much time as it has taken, as Sri Aurobindo has said. By will and yogic action man’s consciousness may so change that he may feel others as he. If it happens no one will have the urge to shine at the cost of others. The essential competition which mostly drags man down than pushes up will change into a scope for collective and individual progress. Sri Aurobindo never suggested any social or political method to change man’s fate but to rely on the divine and reach a stage through transformation to be one with the divine essence, when to man the world becomes one, all are relatives- the whole world, “Vasudha”, will become “Kutumba”. That is what Sri Aurobindo has dreamed for man of the soil; to live “The Life Divine”. He said that it is quite possible by will and effort.
Sai: How about your feeling about your own creative work and life, sir?
Aju: More and more I feel that creativity only sustains my life. How and to what degree it is, may be seen and judged by others who may know.
Sai: Some time back you returned from America. How did you spend time there?
Aju: Oh great! My two daughters live in two corners of America; New York and San Francisco. They know what I want and love as they too, like me. They made all arrangements for our travel to mainly the Nature and Wildlife areas of America and of course some other remarkable cities and places we sojourned. The whole will make grand travel documents. Yes, I travelled to US and Canada this time and took many remarkable snaps to record the events. Apart from this I have observed American life to some extent and have studied a bit of their history. Together they may make a good write up on America. Let me hope, let time fix the programme, helped by the real.
Sai: Is it beneficial to participate in literary meets here or in other countries? Your own experiences, please.
Aju: I have the experience of so participating at different parts of India and mostly I liked and enjoyed them. Not only meeting each others, exchanging ideas, reading poetry or joining literary discourses, usually such meetings help understanding between men and women, they help progress of life and literature towards formation of better culture.
Sai: Awards are said to be tokens of recognition. Your opinion, sir.
Aju: Yes they ought to be so. But by now it is known how the bigger sorts of awards and prizes depend on recommendation, push and pull, personal favour and in many cases on political compulsion. I pray that all such things melt into one consideration; the merit of creation. Not an excuse but in my case, whatever the awards and honours I have so far received have come from less known and distant quarters without any link or consideration before. Up to this that is my satisfaction. But leaving aside the defect in the system it is true that awards are tokens of recognition which helps the struggling poet, writer or artist by encouragement.
Sai: How could you manage creative work in several genres? Is there a season for any one in particular? Hahaha!
Aju: Inspiration for poetry may visit you any time, inspiration for other works too may goad one for some time but usually they depend on the call, mostly external like call for papers, for poetry submission or asking for a story. Yes I feel urge to write on many such forms of literature inwardly though they are more activated when someone invites submission. Usually when I work on serious paper or story they engage me entirely except attending to other essentials like correspondences, etc. When I do one type of work, more inspirations from the same fount press for their expression.
Sai: The word ‘season’ reminds us of your love for conserving nature and her pristine beauty. How active are you in this regard?
Aju: Yes sir, I have the urge to be active. Besides maintaining my rooftop garden and helping nature and animal welfare in my vicinity, I try to be in it by donating to organizations humbly, by renewing membership with such organizations as BNHS and Society for Science and Environment (Down-To-Earth) for support of their activities. I am in touch with quite some organizations which conserve nature and help animal welfare. I help by adding my voice of grievances, in writing messages or signing letters through some NGOs. Not an activist as earlier by taking part personally, I help through literature. On the whole everything depends on the people you vote. I had a garden with my residential home in a nearby place. I must say that the commercial minded people and their helpers with the support of petty vote seekers so planned to pressurize me that I was compelled to sell that plot with garden, witnessing its destruction. Now an apartment building hides man’s shame there with caves for living. Modern world lives in such caves but when it is over the graves of living nature they hide the shame of man.
Sai: Pondicherry is invariably connected with Auroville and the Mother. Kindly tell us about the Ashram, Auroville and the divine role of the Mother, sir.
Aju: Pondicherry is a seaside town surrounded by Tamil Nadu but is independent; an Union Territory. Sri Aurobindo Ashram is in the heart of the town. The Ashram grew up under the auspices of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother but Mother was the de facto founder of the Ashram. While Sri Aurobindo entirely plunged into yogic life from 1926, not even coming out of his room area even once but doing the only other work of writing and guiding disciples through written words, Mother, other than being the active collaborator of Sri Aurobindo in spiritual life and sadhana, was active too in the outer life. The whole of the ashram grew up under her guidance and work and expanded until her last day. She did it. Auroville, an international township, belonging to no country, no nation, race, religion or creed; approved by the UNESCO was founded in 1968 by the Mother as per the ideals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, taking the name from Sri Aurobindo or Auro and Ville meaning town. Auroville is some 10 km away from Pondicherry town, mostly in Tamil Nadu. People from various countries of the world have settled and work there. It is another spiritual endeavour. While Mother guided its formation and directed the activities and advised her children about the life in Auroville, she never even for once visited it physically, telling that Sri Aurobindo’s Samadhi was there in the ashram, below her room and she was there. . .
Sai: Your message for emerging writers, please!
Aju: I too am an emerging writer going from step to step. I do not know where I am exactly . . . But if you talk about the younger writers I shall tell them to improve creatively with all efforts so their work may be of some classic nature and to create a situation so that creativity is judged in its intrinsic value. All sorts of deception or show lower the creativity. I believe that creativity is something inborn, developed by further culture. Each man or woman has some genius hidden inside, the Mother hinted, but it is to be found out with all sincerity. Family, country, relationship with the powerful and every other external influence do not help genius to bloom. Any show with such aids lowers the atmosphere, whether understood during the writer’s lifetime or after.
Sai : What is your prognosis about Indian Literature in English?
Aju: I have already said that the situation as it is, English remaining the most popular and chosen international language, remaining the real link language in India, its growth and development forecasts that it shall grow to a greater height in India and Indian English Literature will be a treasure of all Indians.
Sai: Thanks for sharing your views and sparing your invaluable time for us. We seek your blessings, sir.
Aju: Oh, feeling shy of your last remark. I appreciate that your questionnaire covers the large canvas of our life and literature. I have for all poets, writers, editors and others in the field, hearty wish for better and greater success in the times to come.
[Parts of this interview published in Studies In Multicultural Literature, edited by T.Sai Chandra Mouli, published by Aavishkar Publishers & distributors, Jaipur recently]