Talking Civilizations and Arts with Abhay K.

Sunil Sharma
Sunil Sharma, editor, Setu (English), catches up with the noted poet-editor-translator and diplomat Abhay K. on issues wide ranging: From continents, cultures, poetry and translation.

The interesting conversation through email below:

Q: You recently lived the magical continent. How was the experience in the land of the greats like Borges, Vallejo, Mistral, Neruda, Marquez and Paz among others?

Abhay K.
Abhay K.: I lived in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil where I was posted as the Deputy Ambassador of India 2016-2019, and had the opportunity to travel across Latin America attending poetry festivals and visiting tourist sites. It was a dream for me to visit Machu Picchu, Isla Negra, Buenos Aires, Atacama, International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia, Mexico City, Panama Canal, Rio de Janeiro, Lima and meet the poets, writers and artists of contemporary Latin America, to walk with them the streets where once Machado de Assis, Borges, Vallejo, Mistral, Neruda, Clarice Lispector, Cecilia Meireles, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Marquez and Paz used to walk. Each of them were alphabets that made the book of Latin America for me. During these three years (2016-2019), I was able to complete CAPITALS, select and edit 100 Great Indian Poems, 100 More Great Indian Poems, write a collection of poems on Brasilia and write poems about the historical figures, places, flora and fauna, culture and traditions of Latin America. I was invited to read my poems at the major international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Medellin, Colombia, Santiago, Chile, and for poetry readings in Lima, Buenos Aires and Mexico City.  At the end of my tenure in Brazil, I was appointed as Ambassador to the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar and Comoros. So it was a very important period of my creative and diplomatic life.

Q: What lessons did the Mayans and Inca teach you as a poet and outsider, coming from another era and civilization?

Abhay K.: I have travelled to Cusco, the centre of the Inca Empire, which rose in the Peruvian Andes in the early 13th century and conquered a large part of western edge of South America in the Andes facing the Pacific between 1483-1533. Quechua was its official language. Incas worshipped the Sun god—Inti. Incas had developed a sophisticated civilization. Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca citadel is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Inca moral code – ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) is still worth emulating. Inca poetry—The Sacred Hymns of Pachacutec, have been translated into English. Here is another Inca poem titled ‘Beautiful Princess’ translated from Quechua into English—

Beautiful princess
your brother
has broken
your vase
and that is why
thunder rumbles, the lightning glares
and the thunderbolt falls.
However it is you, princess,
who must give us water
by making rain
and sometimes even
and snow.
The creator of the world,
created you
and charged you
with this task.

The Mayans, on the other hand, built their civilization in Central America. The first Maya cities developed around 750 BC while the last Maya city fell in 1697.  The Mayans developed sophisticated art forms and a complex system of hieroglyphic writing that was the most advanced in the pre-Columbian Americas. Mayan’s practices of sustainable organic farming, holistic healing, storytelling tradition, unique architecture, love poetry are noteworthy. The Book of the Dances of the Ancients is the source of almost all the ancient Mayan lyric poems that have survived to our day. Popularly known as Songs of Dzitbalché, it is closely connected to the Books of Chilam Balam, sacred books of the colonial Yucatec

Here is some exquisite Mayan poems translated by Dr. Alfredo Barrera Vásquez  and Munro S Edmonson, worth preserving--

Tz'utz'                                        Oh to kiss
A chi                                          Your mouth
T u caap cool                             At the loose railing
Hok che                                     Of the picket fence!          

Bin in tz'uutz' a chi                 I am going to kiss your mouth
Tut yam x cohl                        There among the little reeds.
X ciichpam zac                       Oh beautiful shining lady,
Y an y an a u ahal                   You must, you must wake up.

Q: In your poem "Atahualpa", the trauma, sadness and betrayal, and loneliness and resignation of a ruthless colonialism, can be acutely felt by a reader. You have transmitted and channelized the collective anguish of a wounded civilization so succinctly and economically in it. 
How real is this pain and recall of the subjugated history for the current Latin Americans there? Are the ghosts still roaming there or have been buried?

Abhay K.: Athaualpa was the last Inca emperor and he was invited for a dialogue by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, where his men were tricked and defeated and captured. Centuries of their civilizations became subjugated to colonial whims. The indigenous community could not bear the double shock of disease and brute colonization and perished. Whoever survived were absorbed in interracial marriages. They are still tackling the cruel realities of colonial conquest of Latin America. The ghosts of history are still out, roaming in the streets. Neruda, Paz, Kahlo, Riviera, Marquez, Llosa, they all tried to make peace with them and in turn great literature and art have been coming out of Latin America because of the prevalent juxtaposition of incredible magic and harsh reality on the ground.

Q: What motivates you to write quality poems consistently and with such artistic finesse, moving from one country to another, in the corridors of power, very much like Octavio Paz?
Some kind of inner need for communication? Clarity? Or, articulating the non-heard voices?

Abhay K.: My writing comes from the deep quest within me to write about places I visit, civilizations I encounter, to document my experiences of my interaction with living people, historical and mythological figures, monuments, landscapes, flora and fauna in different parts of the world, some never sung/written about in popular realm of literature.  Octavio Paz is a much more gifted poet and essayist than me. There is a glorious tradition, though not so well-known among the literary community, of  poet-diplomats or poet-ambassadors writing great poetry while representing their countries as Ambassadors such as Pablo Neruda (Chile), George Seferis (Greece), and of course Octavio Paz (Mexico)who also received the Nobel Prize in literature. There are other poet-diplomats such as Gabriela Mistral, St. John Perse and Ceslaw Milosz who have been awarded Nobel Prize in literature.
There are a number of common elements between poetry and diplomacy. Both poets and diplomats deal with words and choose them very carefully (‘poetry teaches you, if nothing else, how to choose your words.’—Rita Dove) day after day during their whole career, are sensitive individuals and communicate through slant (‘tell it but tell it slant’ –Emily Dickinson) and pithy (say more in less) expressions. No doubt, so many poet-diplomats have made immense contributions to the field of literature.

Q: What are your views on contemporary world poetry, its contours and messages? Does it connect with the public?

Abhay K.: There is not one contemporary world poetry, but many, written in diverse languages, in diverse geographies, some of which we have not even heard of. Poetry happens when a poem is read by someone and the effects a poem produces. Sometimes, poems are read by a select circle of audience and not by the general public. There are all kinds of poets and all kinds of poems. So it is difficult to make a general comment about it.

Q: How do you handle writing and diplomacy in a high-pressure environment? How authentic is the creativity and the solitude required for it, in view of being constantly surrounded by diplomats and diplomatic work, in your context?

Abhay K.: I would like to quote the words of French writer Francoise Sagan—‘I shall live badly if I don’t write, and I shall write badly if I don’t live,’ to present my case. I’ll be a mediocre diplomat if I don’t write poetry and a mediocre poet if I am not a diplomat. Both are existential for me and I find time for both of them, even in a high pressure environment.

Creativity requires solitude, that’s true, and strangely I find solitude in the crowded places, like traveling in a metro in Moscow, or sitting in a café in Kathmandu buzzing with young couples or in a Saturday market in the outskirts of Brasilia or on the top of Machu Picchu full of tourists from all corners of the world, or in a meeting full of officials in South Block in New Delhi. I think solitude is a state of mind. We can be all alone with our mind crowded with all kinds of thoughts.

Q: Memorable incidents as a diplomat and as a poet?

Abhay K.: When I joined the Foreign Service, my first assignment after completing training was to be a Liaison Officer of a former Prime Minister of Indian origin of a Caribbean country who was invited to attend a function in India. He was a very humble, sweet and generous person and I really enjoyed being with him for a few days. Later when I was travelling to London I wrote an email to him unintentionally asking him how he was and he replied immediately and incidentally was in London at that time and invited me to an Indian restaurant for lunch. That time I was just a Third Secretary, basically ‘no one’ in the diplomatic hierarchy. I always think of this sweet memory and get warmed up. On another occasion, the President of a neighbouring country invited me to have ‘khir’ at his palace cooked with the milk of his own cow. That time I was merely a First Secretary. Such sweet memories keep coming back from time to time.

As a poet, to my surprise, when I was editing CAPITALS, an anthology on the capital cities of the world, once I called Derek Walcott and he, himself picked up the phone and spoke to me from St. Lucia and told me he loves eating at the local Indian restaurant there. Poet Mark Strand replied to my email just before succumbing to cancer giving me his permission to include his poem ‘There is no wind in Oslo’ to include in CAPITALS. Later in 2018, to my wildest surprise, I was invited to record my poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC by Grace Cavalieri in her long running programme The Poet and The Poem. It was a great honour. Traveling to poetry festivals in Wardha, Thimpu, Kathmandu, Nicaragua, Medellin, Santiago, Jaipur, meeting Tracy K. Smith, the poet-laureate of United States in 2018, having long conversations over breakfast with Robert Hass in Washington DC, lunch with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Vijay Seshadri in Brooklyn, New York, bus journey with Simon Armitage, poet –laureate of UK to Amer fort, signing a copy of Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems for Pulitzer Prize winning poet Forrest Gander and Nigel Newton, the owner of Bloomsbury Publishers, dinner with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee and William Dalrymple at Sava Haveli, conversations with Ruth Padel, Chris Agee  and Pulitzer Prize winner Benjamin Moser on the sidelines of Jaipur Literature Festival, are some of the memorable moments of my life as a poet , so far, among many others.

Q: How different is the Latin American prose and poetry scene from the ones of the UK and the USA literary scenes?

Abhay K.: Latin America excels in hosting poetry festivals. Both the International Poetry Festival of Nicaragua and the International Poetry Festival in Medellin are world class poetry festivals and are held at the public squares in which people can participate freely. I have not lived in the UK and USA, but most of the literary festivals are paid events for which one has to buy tickets to attend. The UK, USA both have a number of reputed literary magazines, some like Poetry, founded over a hundred years ago and some well-known literary prizes to promote literary culture. Latin America, I think, has a very strong literary culture visible in the writings of Machado de Assis, Neruda, Paz, Marquez, Llosa, Lispector among others.

Q: On translation as an art? On translating the immortal Kalidasa?

Abhay K.: Translation is an art that makes the World Literature possible. Every time a translation happens, the world literature gets enriched. It involves transporting the thoughts, lyricism, images of the original work into a language understood by the target audience. The point of translation is to communicate something valuable which is worth preserving and propagating from one language into another.

Reading and translating works of Kalidasa has been a pure delight and wonder for me. He can be our contemporary. A great eco-poet writing about nature using the trope of love. Even flowers, plants, animals, seasons, rain, rainbow, wind, sun, moon, stars, stones, rivers, mountains among other things animate and inanimate have their own sensual personas and feature prominently in Meghaduta. Kalidada mentions twenty-six different kinds of plants and flowers in Meghaduta such as Mango, Ashoka, Rodhra, various species of Jasmine, Kakubha, Kurbaka, Mandara among others. Women’s physical beauty and sensuality is vividly depicted using the metaphors from the nature—
Your slender limbs Syama-creepers
your glance the doe’s tremulous eyes
your face the moon
your luxuriant hair the peacock’s tail
your eyebrow play the brook’s ripple
O fair one! you alone have all these                   
there is no one like you in this world.        101 Meghaduta

I have translated Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, and feel very happy about it.

Q: Your ultimate dream as a human and an author in a post-truth world of divisions and racial tensions?

Abhay K.: The world was, is and will be full of suffering because we have desires. If we solve one problem, another will arise. Anne Frank wrote—‘Think of all the beauty still left around and you’ll be happy.’ And here is Czeslaw Milosz— ‘My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations./But all this a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow…/would compose from fragments a world perfect at last.’

My dream is to have a common anthem for our planet—not only for our large human family but for millions of other species with whom we share this beautiful planet. My dream is to have a global poet laureate at UNESCO someday, a poetic voice for the planet. My dream is to leave behind some memorable poems for the coming generations. My dream is that someday rivalries and wars among nations come to an end and we see ourselves as citizens of one planet and devote our energies in addressing real challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change, environmental pollution, global pandemics and rising income inequalities.

Q: The fate of a disenfranchised poet in today's world?  Are they still relevant?

Abhay K.: Poets wield their power with a pen and a blank paper, so I don’t think they are ever disenfranchised. Poet Alicia E. Stallings recently wrote in the Times Literary Supplement—
‘Poetry was around before the alphabet. Poetry is not useful, and it is in every culture. Not only is it not endangered, it will outlast any number of species of living things on the face of earth. It will only perish with our own. I worry about journalism. I don’t worry about poetry.’

Q: How do you view the commercialization of the culture industry, of the arts, the Lit Fests and marginalization of the regional and small-town writers?

Abhay K.: Commercialization of art and culture is a healthy thing if it also benefits the artists, helps them to devote more time to their art. It should be our endeavor to regulate the field of art and culture in a way that artists benefit from it.

The numerous Lit Fest have come up all across the country, including in regional state capitals and smaller towns engaging more and more regional and small town writers. Jayanta Mahapatra is a good example of a fine poet who lives in a small town of Cuttack but his poems are published all across the world. One does not have to live in big cities to make it big in the literary field. It is the power of one’s words that really matter, not where they come from. These days the Internet makes a lot of free material accessible online to even those living in remote villages.

Q: Please share your thoughts on your upcoming poetry book: The Alphabets of Latin America?

Abhay K.:  The Alphabets of Latin America, is a collection of poems I wrote during my travels across Latin America between 2016-2019. Organized alphabetically, they take you on a roller coaster ride to one of the most culturally and geographically fascinating continents in the world, known for its legendary Maya and Inca civilizations, sizzling Samba and Tango dances, the world's biggest carnivals, great writers such as Borges, Marquez, Ruben Dario, Pablo Neruda , Gabriela Mistral, Cesare Vallejo, Octavio Paz, renowned artists such as Frida Kahlo, Fernando Botero, among others, Martian landscape of Atacama desert, Machu Picchu,  the Iguazu Falls, magnificent cities of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Lima among others.
The noted Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez writes –“Latin Americans must be grateful, today and always, to Abhay K. and this fundamental book. Armed with intelligence and sensitivity, with calculation and passion, The Alphabets of Latin America is a love poem that honors us as a society and culture. In these pages, poetry, as a way of thinking and a response to adversity, reaches breadth and mastery, depth and splendor. Our region’s past and present are approached not only as reading but also as experience, with the knowledge of cause and the authenticity of memory. What’s more, in these texts, narrative and lyric, intellectual rigor and formal play, description and reflection happily shake hands. Likewise, identification predominates over differentiation, and an essential link is established between Indians and Latin Americans: “A people, a tribe, a nation is destroyed, / only to reincarnate in another form.”
While Forrest Gander, the winner of Pulitzer Prize for poetry 2019, who knows Latin America very well writes—“The Alphabets of Latin America is welcomingly strong. Abhay K. has a great sense of lineation, of understatement, of memorable, very particular images, and of manuscript structure. I also am moved by the way he can subtly use the elements of a place—the dream vision of Tenochtitlan (which was founded on a dream-vision) or the Borgesian paradox of looking for Borges and finding mirror reflections of the self. I love the way this abecedarian works and shifts between short and longer poems, refreshing our rhythms constantly. Also, it’s such a personal pleasure for me to re-see so many places that I know, through his eyes. It is a very original and thrilling book—a book that opens the borders of time and place, which is what seems so necessary now in this epoch of nationalist entrenchment and paranoia.”

The Alphabets of Latin America is so far my most ambitious poetry collection that tries to capture the beauty and splendor of a whole continent.

1 comment :

  1. Debaprasad BanerjeeJuly 11, 2020 at 11:08 AM

    Very enjoyable. Feel like reading the poems


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