Interview: Abhay K

Abhay K.
Abhay K. is an Indian poet-diplomat and the author of 9 poetry collections and the editor of The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara into English have won the KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21. His forthcoming book length poem is ‘Monsoon.’ His Earth Anthem has been translated into over 150 languages.

Setu is going behind the scenes to uncover the inspirations and secrets of Abhay K.:

1. Tell us about your childhood. What were your hobbies?

Abhay K. - I grew up in a village called Chhabilapur near the ancient city of Rajgir, in Nalanda district of Bihar. I very fondly remember visiting my grandparents and uncles and aunts in a remote village named Bhattu Bigha, where I had to go walking and had to cross the river Paimar to reach there. I loved going there as the place was full of fruit trees—guavas, ber, mangoes, papaya among others, and sugarcane fields, all kinds of vegetables grew there, a gobar-gas plant in those days, and lots of birds including parrots. Above all this my grandma used to tell me stories at night. It was my garden of Eden, from which I have been banished, and I am ever searching for it wherever I am in this world. 

Then when I was in class five or six, I shifted to a boarding school in Rajgir, where I continued studying till class 10th. Those days I loved watching Hindi movies and just hanging out. I have always enjoyed reading. My father was a teacher in a primary school and we had lots of books at home. So one day I found a copy of Rashmirathi by Ramdhaari Singh Dinkar somewhere and read it and the effect was electric, since then I have always loved poetry. 

Those days, I probably wanted to become a movie star, after watching so many Hindi films in a video-hall in Rajgir. 


2. When did you start writing?  What inspired you to take it up and what was your goal?

Abhay K. - And then I went to Patna to do 10+2 with the view of preparing for the medical entrance exam. My father thought I could become a doctor or an engineer. Obviously, no one wants you to become a poet or a writer including yourself. So, I completed my Intermediate (10+2) in Patna, but could not get through any medical entrance exam, so I decided to go to Delhi University and study Geography there in order to become a Civil Servant. Again I had no intention to study literature. Becoming a writer never came to my mind. Afterwards, I went to JNU to study Geography and prepare for the Civil Services Exam. And only after getting into Indian Foreign Service in 2003, I started writing. So it began with a blog ‘Ideas and Universe’ which I started writing in April 2004. When I went to Moscow to learn Russian on my first foreign assignment, I started writing my first book ‘The River Valley to Silicon Valley’- a memoir of my first 24 years. It was published in 2007. Then poems started flowing within me. My first poetry collection is titled- Enigmatic Love: Love Poems from the fairy-tale city of Moscow. It was published in 2009. Since then I have been writing poems regularly and have so far 9 collections of poetry—


Enigmatic Love (Bookwell India, 2009)

The Fallen Leaves of Autumn (Amazon, 2010)

Candling the Light (Yash Publications, 2011)

Remains (Har Anand, 2012)

The Seduction of Delhi (Bloomsbury, 2014)

The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu (Bloomsbury, 2018)

The Prophecy of Brasilia (Colletivo Editorial, Brazil, 2019)

The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury, 2020)

The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2021)

My book length poem ‘Monsoon’ is forthcoming in 2022.

As you can see from the titles of these books, I initially wrote about love and nature, but now I write about places. I create poetic-portraits of the places I visit and live by bringing together myths, history, geography etc. 

I have also selected and edited a number of poetry collections—

CAPITALS (Bloomsbury, 2017)

100 Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury, 2018)

100 More Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury, 2019)

New Brazilian Poems (Ibis Libris, Rio, 2019)

The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury, 2020)

The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems (Bloomsbury, 2020) 

I have also completed editing The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins), which will come out in 2022.

100 Great Indian Poems which includes poems from 28 Indian languages spanning over three thousand years of Indian poetry has been translated and published into Italian as '100 Grandi Poeme Indiane' by Edizioni Efesto, Rome, into Spanish  titled 'Cien Grandes Poemas de la India’ by the National Autonomous University of Nuevo León (UNAL) Monterrey, Mexico, into Portuguese, titled '100 Grandes Poemas da India', published by the University of Sao Paulo, into Malagasy as 'Tononkalo Indianana 100 Tsara Indrindra' by Tsipika editions, and into Arabic as '100 Qaseedat Hindiyah Raiyeh' by Sharjah Institute for Heritage, UAE. 

It has also been translated into French, Irish and Nepali and it is likely to be published in these languages soon.


3. Tell us more about The Magic of Madagascar.

The Magic of Madagascar is a collection of haiku on the unique flora and fauna of Madagascar penned during my stay in Madagascar.

When I arrived in Madagascar in March 2019, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would start writing haiku here. I began with usual length poems but soon felt that I was not able to capture and express the multiple enlightenments taking place within me while waking up with birdsong, looking at mynahs, hoopoes, black Vasa parrots, red fodies, yellow wagtails, green geckos, colour changing chameleons, butterflies and dragonflies of all possible colours, bees sucking nectar from flowers, making beehives, while I was upside down on the grass in a yogic headstand pose and gazing at the sky, or while travelling across Madagascar listening to the calls of the critically endangered Indri-Indri, watching silky Sifakas dance,  seeing turtles swimming freely in the emerald sea and watching sunset at the alley of baobabs or merely wandering around like a fakir following the tradition of Basho, Buson and Issa, though in another island, and in another space-time.

Here are some selected haiku from the book-

sea of innocence

exuding amber light

lemur’s eyes

 

an ascetic meditating

turned upside down

the baobab tree

 

 

sings incessantly

even in dreams

Malagasy Coucal


having engulfed the fishermen

the sea waves

crave the moon


eggshell fragments

on windswept dunes

once Elephant birds


4. Tell us more about your forthcoming book-length poem Monsoon?

‘Monsoon’ is a  poem of love and longing wherein an Indian poet and diplomat in Madagascar exhorts monsoon to take his message and the sights and sounds of whatever it comes across on its way to his beloved in the Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas. The poem, a  quatrain (rubai) of 150 stanzas, introduces the reader to the rich beauty and splendour of the islands of Madagascar, Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Mayotte, Comoros, Zanzibar, Socotra, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Andaman & Nicobar and the Western Ghats, Aravalis, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Sundarbans, West Bengal, Bihar, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir Valley, their  flora and fauna, cuisine, festivals and monuments as Monsoon travels through these places. Monsoon is a must read for all those who believe in its magic to rejuvenate life and love.



5. What impact has your poetry had on the community?

Abhay K. - Well, it is difficult for me to assess that, but Maharaja Gangasingh University in Bikaner has awarded a PHD to Amit Dhawan on the topic ‘Cultural Construct of the Self: A critical study of Abhay Kumar’s poetry’ in 2018. A number of other academic papers have been written on my poetry books. My poem ‘The Partitioned Land’ was taught at Cornell University in Fall 2021 on a course on Revisiting Kashmir taught by Dr. Asiya Zahoor. University of Bath is going to have a panel discussion on The Alphabets of Latin America which will be chaired by Jessica Sequeira from the University of Cambridge and include Prof. Jorge Heine, Boston University as a panelist.

Gulzar has translated my poem ‘Shantipath’ from The Seduction of Delhi into Hindustani and included it into his monumental anthology ‘A Poem A Day’ (Harper Collins, 2020), which included poems from over 30 Indian languages. 

My poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines across the globe including in Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review, Gargoyle among others. My books have been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, World Literature Today, Asian Review of Books, The Hindu among others.

I co-founded ‘Poetry at the Monument’ initiative in Delhi to involve people in reading and listening to poetry at Delhi’s landmark monuments in 2011-12, which received huge appreciation.

I received SAARC literary award 2013, citation of which read—‘He co-founded Poetry at the Monument movement to bring poetry back to Delhi and to pay homage to 3000 years of Delhi’s heritage. The movement that started in Delhi has spread across the whole of South Asia.’

When I was posted in Kathmandu, I started a monthly poetry event named ‘Poemandu’ which ran for 39 months. In Brasilia, I continued this monthly poetry reading with a different name ‘Cha Com Letras’ for 36 months and it continues in Madagascar with the name ‘LaLitTana’. So far 12 editions of LaLitTana have been organised. These events have brought a lot of poets together and given them recognition, inspiration and support to continue writing poetry. 

I wrote Earth Anthem in 2008 in Russia, which was put to music first in 2013 by Sapan Ghimire and in 2017 by Dr. L. Subramaniam. It has been translated into over 150 languages across the world and is played to celebrate Earth Day and World Environment Day every year by thousands of schools, organisations and people globally. It was played at the United Nations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day celebrations in 2020. 

I also wrote a South Asia/SAARC song which was extensively played during the last SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in 2014.

I penned a Moon Anthem, which has been put to music by Dr. L. Subramaniam and sung by Kavita Krishnamurti. It was played live on major Indian TV channels hours before the landing of Chandrayaan on the moon in Sept 2019. 

I have also penned anthems on all the planets in our solar system, which have been received well. 

Hope all these above have had some tangible or intangible impact on the community.


6. When and why did you pick up the quill? How much time did you devote to it, and did you keep your job alongside? How did you juggle both?

Abhay K. - As I mentioned earlier, I started writing in Moscow, first to record the story of my journey from a humble village in Bihar to the ramparts of the Lal Bahadur Shashtri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie and then to express the sense of awe and wonder I felt in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Then it became a habit to read and write poems. 

I have not only kept my job but thrived in it. I was appointed India’s Ambassador to Madagascar in 2018 when I was merely 38, perhaps, one of the youngest Indian Ambassadors in the history of the Indian Foreign Service. Now I am almost on the verge of completing my tenure in Madagascar.

I have found synergy between the two. I think poetry and diplomacy complement each other. I have written in detail about the connections between poetry and diplomacy and poet-diplomats who have excelled in poetry to the extent of six of them winning Nobel Prize in literature. They include Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, George Seferis, Saint John Perse and  Ceslaw Milosz. Ambiguity, brevity of expression, sensitivity and carefully choosing one’s words, are some of the characteristics shared between both poets and diplomats. 


7. Who is Your favorite Poet/ inspiration and why?

Abhay K. - I have many favourite poets who inspire me. However, just to name a few as it is not possible to name them all— Ramdhaari Singh Dinkar, Kabir, Kalidasa, Vidyapati, Amaru, Bihari, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Neruda, Octavio Paz, T.S. Eliot, Wisława Szymborska, Khalil Gibran, Rumi, Hafiz, Rabindranath Tagore, Basho, Buson, Issa, Du Fu, Rilke, Baudelaire among others, because they show me extraordinary in ordinary. 

 

8. Mention the success you have experienced.

Abhay K. - My biggest success has been to find motivation and inspiration to keep writing new poems and being able to do so along with a very demanding job as an Indian diplomat. Besides, I have been lucky to find publishers for the books or poetry collections I have written so far. My publishers have never complained. They have been able to sell the books, some of them like The Seduction of Delhi and 100 Great Indian Poems becoming the bestsellers.

I have also had the opportunity to interact with the leading poets of our times such as Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, Pulitzer Prize winners for poetry such as Vijay Seshadri, Forrest Gander and poet laureates at the Library of Congress in Washington DC such as Tracy K. Smith and Robert Hass and poet laureate of UK Simon Armitage whose poem ‘Lockdown’ recently inspired me to translate Meghaduta of Kalidasa , Ruth Padel, George Szirtes and Benjamin Moser, winner of Pulitzer Prize 2020 for his biography of Susan Sontag, among others. It feels great to have some of them as friends. 

I was invited to record my poems in the long running ‘The Poets and the Poems’ programme at the Library of Congress in Washington DC by Grace Cavalieri in 2018. That time, I was the first Indian poet to record for this prestigious programme, and it was such a great honour. My poetry recording for that programme can be heard here

A museum in Brazil in the city of Formosa has put one of my poems titled ‘Formosa’ on permanent exhibition. 

My poem-song Earth Anthem has been performed by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Brasilia and played by the musicians of Amsterdam Conservatorium. The first line of the Earth Anthem was quoted by the Christian Science Monitor in an article to mark the 50 years of Apollo Missions. BBC featured Earth Anthem video on 22 April 2020 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.


9. Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Abhay K. - No, not really. Poetry is written for oneself. Others also find it interesting that it is a mere coincidence.


10. What are the greatest lessons you have learned from your journey?

Abhay K. - Miracles happen. My own life is proof of that. That one should never stop dreaming and working hard, staying focused, to make one’s dreams come true.


11: What are your future plans?

Abhay K. - To continue writing poems and editing anthologies and translating literary works from other languages. I am working on a poetry collection titled 'In Light of Africa', which will have poems on various personalities, monuments, cultural practices and traditions of Africa.


12: Your message for fellow poets.

Abhay K. - Please keep writing, one poem at a time, or even a line at a time and you’ll surprise yourself one day. Even if you just write one good poem during your whole poetic journey, you have done your job well. 


13: Anything you want to share about Setu.

Abhay K. - - Setu is a great initiative to bring good literature into the lives of our generation which is gradually becoming addicted to social media. Kudos to Sunil Sharma ji and his dynamic team for this noble endeavour to serve the muse of poetry. I wish Setu all the success!


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