My World and Words

By U Atreya Sarma
Each of us has a complex web of ideas, perceptions and memories within us; but not everyone gets the opportunity of airing them before a larger audience except in the case of celebs.  To bring out the notes musically simmering in them, a magical strummer is required; and here the strummer is Sunil Sharma. He has an uncanny knack of bringing the budding or not-so-well-known writers out of their cocoons or small worlds into a wider one. So first off, my words of gratitude to him for I am spurred into having a relook at my own mini-world and showcasing it. Even the humblest do up their huts on auspicious and festive occasions within their own means.
Dr Sunil Sharma is not only an editor and multifaceted writer. But here is how he – in his essential avatar of a veteran academic – set the exam paper for me:
A reflective piece on your writing journey, along with three of your small poems for the Feb issue, for an inaugural column: My World and Words, at Setu. An intimate look, first person singular, at the interconnections that forge the psyche of a writer. The confessional can be a good resource for scholarship on you in coming years…How a banker – Eliot-like, first a banker and then a poet – chose to travel a terrain few bankers like to cover! The transformations from figures to forms are crucial. Poetry of decent size must be integrated to support the general evolution of the writer within – the eyes that see and document the everyday... Your poetry brings in both the sun and snow - that is life as a metaphor for the reader me.

I don’t claim I would get a first class to my answer, but I would get at least the marks I got in my college studies. And I know I have deviated a bit from the examiner’s stipulation. What penalty could await me!

U Atreya Sarma
Why? Why?

Why, why am I writing poetry?
For the Nobel? Hell with your joke!
The bell hasn’t rung for millions
Who’re a million times greater.

Why, why am I writing poetic fiction?
For the Booker? What! Do I look a sucker?
Don’t ever try to burst my bubble;
Atreya can’t be Aravind Adiga.

Why, why am I writing poetry?
For the Jnanpith? Bullshit!
Don’t mock and throw muck at me;
Delhi is light years away from my gali.

Why, why am I writing poetry?
For the Sahitya Akademi award?
Oh, no! Then will all the earlier recipients
Be scandalised and line up to return it.

If at all everything else is fine
On the poetic craft of mine
They’d be inclined to underline
That I’m over-aged or under-aged.

They give me a black eye, saying I’m not blue eyed
And they say it raggedly, though I’m dogged
And finally opine to decline, leaving me to repine
With not even a local or street-level prize, alas!

Why do I plod on then?         
Why do I rack my brain?
Why do I squeeze my heart?
Why do I waste the power on my laptop?
Why do I splurge my Internet hours?

Yet I go on doing and doing and doing
Why? Why? Why…?

By the time you finish reading this article, you would know the answer, if you haven’t already guessed it.

The soil
Well, it has been a rugged journey of a slightly above-average boy from the backwaters of a small Taluk headquarters town nestled on the fringes of Kolleru Lake in a rather backward corner of a progressive Krishna district.

It is a reel of film, not a colour but a black-and-white one, my pen writing words in black on a piece of white paper, or my fingers typing away words in black on a white screen on my laptop.
It’ all a world of words – reading, speaking, listening, and writing – all through the medium of words.  Word and its meaning are so seminally significant, inseparable and sacrosanct that the greatest Indian bard Kalidasa likens them to Goddess Parvati and Parameshwara.

It is a world of words, words backed by feelings, views, urges and emotions. The world of words is an essay in fulfilling an urge surging from inside for self-expression – both subjectively and objectively – on men and matters, happenings in the society, and churnings within the mind and heart.
As a citizen, as an editor, and as a writer it is my conviction that writers and literature should help ironing out hostile differences and promote overall harmony in sync with the beauty of Creation.

The root
I joined 1st Form (Sixth Standard) in a small Oriental High School when I was seven and passed my OSSLC when thirteen, all the while being in the top three positions and with a greater flair for languages, especially English. In addition to reading the text books thoroughly, I used to study some three guides for each text to make my understanding clearer and more comprehensive. I began to write on my own; and grammar was fun. Mine was the first mark in English in both the high schools of my place together. When I next joined the Pre University Course at Machilipatnam, a district headquarters town, my section had about 70 students; and I came in with the highest score in English. Before that, I was put on a one-year bridge-course to be acquainted with sciences, because the last three years of my high school curriculum did not include maths and sciences. Father had a high and different aspiration for me – to see me as a medical doctor. It was during this transition period that I developed a kind of inertia for the science tuitions. I played truant, and I reaped a rich harvest of gruelling punishment at the sharp hands of a father who prided himself on being a strict martinet. Endearments were few and far between. The transitional period right through the college days was one of no clarity or no definable aspiration for the future.

The college life was a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. I received both punishment and prizes from the principal – a freedom fighter because of whom I was sent to that college. I was a borderline boy shaking one hand with the good and another with the bullies.  In college too, my interest in languages took the better of my putative interest in sciences. I used to study sciences, not from the angle of their essential principles as such, but from the angle of language; the scientific terminology with its Greek and Latin inflexions fascinated me. Running away from the classes I would sit in a cosy library and read film news and articles in English newspapers and magazines. Not infrequently, I would bunk classes and practise chess all alone by following the notations from the newspaper columns.  Or indulged in mischievous pranks. I even turned an atheistic rebel under the influence of my charismatic roommate. But I couldn’t cross a line beyond a particular limit for father had kept a line of contact with a few of my lecturers. Much later I would rue that I had not striven to come up to the expectations of father who, despite his then financial hardships and a large brood, spent on my studies, even selling away some jewellery. The tender side of my life was mother’s proverbial patience and shelter. I managed to pass my BSc with an unimpressive score, barring the languages where I got good enough marks. Thus father’s longing for a son to be a medical doctor got shattered and it was only decades later it came to be fulfilled thanks to a couple of his grandsons – sons of my brothers. But the varied subjects I studied during the four years of college studies – logic, history, economics and politics, besides the usual language and science subjects – helped enlarge my ken of knowledge and diction, though in a desultory fashion.

The stem
After graduation, I joined the typewriting and shorthand courses – which also helped me to hone a few of my language skills. During this time, I taught my siblings a bit of English, and also helped them write for their college magazines. I had set up a small tutorial outfit and taught English and social studies. Out of that modest income, I bought lots of books and read them. Though I was keen to join some PG course, father’s pecuniary circumstances wouldn’t permit that luxury. Hence I decided to try for a nearest job so as to lessen the burden on father, and if possible be of some help to the family. I stood first in the APSRTC clerical recruitment test and was taken to the Director of Personnel who showed me my answer script wherein they had added even 4 bonus marks. The gap between the topper and the next one was 6 marks. And they very generously gave me the choice of place for the posting. I preferred Vijayawada, the present capital region of the neo Andhra Pradesh, where out of my undercurrent of literary interest, I started a literary club in the department where we would speak and discuss in English. In the club there was a renowned Telugu writer – Arige Rama Rao in addition to a couple of senior officers. Beginning with my pre-job interregnum, I created or entered into English speaking groups. While interacting with some of the active and senior colleagues here, I also realised some of the gaps in my language savvy. The job however was drab, not to my taste at all. Despite it, within six months I cleared both the probation and the office manual tests, the latter considered a bit tough even for the relatively senior colleagues. It entitles you to the first annual increment. Well before getting that gain, I had appeared for the SBI clerical recruitment test and got selected. The differences in the salary and job satisfaction were tangible. The approval coming forth from my bank bosses for my drafting and communication skills gave me further impetus. I began writing letters and small articles to newspapers and magazines where I got a few cash prizes. But at the back of my mind, a deficiency was nagging… that I should make up for my unimpressive performance in BSc. So I studied BA literature as a private candidate and secured the only first-class in the university in that batch. And I did receive a word of compliment from father. In order to supplement the income so as to be of some help to the family, I undertook private tuitions for the Intermediate students whom I taught English and social studies. It was the Emergency time. I also did the CAIIB (Part I) that would entitle one to a special increment and a promotion test. The promotion as an officer took me to another plane and the Hyderabad city. The job was exacting with 10 to 15 hours a day, but the literary flame remained alive in the heart. I took an active part in literary, cultural and union affairs; and won quite a few prizes in essay, elocution and drama competitions – and some of them prestigious. I also started a literary forum, Vedika, while working at Hyderabad Local Head Office. We invited subject experts from outside as well, and even senior executives participated. I was given the job of compering important bank programmes, official as well cultural.

I had cherished a passion to be an academic or a journalist but eventually had to take up a banking job. I must admit I did not have, and still do not have, a natural flair for matters financial, but gave my best to the bank. There was a persistent trace of disappointment of not being in a better position to pursue the literary interests. A tug of war ensued between the demands of the profession and the pastime of literature – when I scripted a motto for myself: “Poetry is life in words; life is poetry in action.” Thus I enjoyed the challenging banking profession to my heart’s content. All the same, I had the unalloyed satisfaction of being loyal to the institution, never compromising on integrity or honesty.

Being an office-bearer in the Officers Association and later on the General Secretary of a 1200-member SBI VRS Optee Officers Organisation (who had sought VRS in compliance of the criteria but were denied it later on), and also an office-bearer in a couple of socio-intellectual organisations outside the bank – I had gained in confidence to write, speak and interact. I edited a socio-intellectual journal Bharatiya Pragna for a decade.

The poetry I sometimes wrote on domestic, festive or social occasions drew enough applause to sustain the activity. To take my competence to a next higher level, I did MA in English Literature and got a high second class. It was a treat to interact with the learned faculty who became my friends. I loved every bit of the course – both inside and outside the classroom.

I have an anecdote of personal experience to prove how the flourish of language could sometimes cover up a deficiency, which otherwise would glare at you. My regional manager came on a visit to the branch and he grilled me on the development of business, when I was manager of the Personal Banking Division. I talked of the inherent limitations coming in the way, but he would hear none of it. I had to silently stomach it. On the heels, my branch organised a deposit mobilisation campaign. To culminate it, we called a customer meet where the same regional manager was the chief guest. I conducted the proceedings and talked of the business netted in. He was so impressed with my eloquence that it had overshadowed the gap in the pre-set business target. He had a weakness and that became my scoring point. His weakness was… the love of English!

The fruit
Being under-aged for a lucrative VRS (golden handshake) and overaged for a not-so-attractive exit option, I worked to the brim until I superannuated, and even thereafter for a couple of months on request, gratuitously. The superannuation opened up an explosion of dreams to take the literary interest forward and with more intensity. So I landed as the founding editor of a neighbourhood weekly Cyberhood for close to a year. In the meantime I had done a PG diploma in Mass Communications and Translation Techniques at University of Hyderabad, earning the only distinction in the batch. The programme gave me immense pleasure. The dissertation I did for this course went to the notice of the Editor of Andhra Bhoomi, a Telugu daily, who invited me to contribute to it. I reviewed quite a few good English books for it in Telugu.

It was followed by a six-month trip to the USA where my poetic interest got keener thanks to the new and exotic environs. And free from any domestic obligations while being there, it gave me ample time to think over, write and interact with poets of various hues on I had already been a member of Muse India for some months, and I was asked to be its Editor for Fiction and Reviews. Reading the work of a spectrum of writers and the tasks of editing have further enhanced my skills, I believe. I have the satisfaction of having systematised the Fiction and Reviews sections of Muse India. My apparent passion for love’s labour made the Managing Editor of Muse India entrust a new section – News & Events – and also Telugu Literature to me. My seven years of editorial experience at Muse India has given me some more responsibility – to be its Chief Editor.

I have also been into freelance editing, having edited 8 books so far, and into translation with publication of two books besides a number of individual poems and short stories. And of course, my debut poetry collection, Sunny Rain-n-Snow has received an encouraging critical acclaim. My association with Muse India introduced me to The Hans India, an English print daily where for over four years I have been featuring poets from across the country, and a few even from abroad, in its Sunday magazine section.

The extract
The literary demands have so much proliferated that I feel that twenty-four hours a day is much too short. After all, “Art is long, and Time is fleeting,” as HW Longfellow observes. The only way is to cultivate a sense of clarity to prioritise and balance the things – a ticklish task indeed. I find myself swirling with exhilaration in a whirlpool of ideas and words. The world of words has sucked me in, and I don’t find any way out. I am simply a ward of words.
I don’t have claims to greatness; I am just on the fringes; I am an eternal student; it’s an incessant learning experience – with the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses, my idol –
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
… … …
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.