The Light and Fire of a Lantern: An Interview with Mangalesh Dabral, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

Mangalesh Dabral is a significant name in Hindi literature. He appeared on the Hindi scene in the 70s with his poetry collection,’Pahad Par Lalten’ (A Lantern on the Mountain) and earned himself a place among some of the most important writers of Modern Indian literature. Mangalesh Dabral is the author of five collections of poems: Pahad Par Lalten (A Lantern on the Mountain), Ghar Ka Rasta (The Way Home), Ham Jo Dekhte Haim (What We See), Aawaz Bhi Ek Jagah Hai (The Voice is Also a Place), Mujhe Dikha Ek Manushya (I Saw a Human Being). He has also published a travel account Ek Bar Iowa (Once, in Iowa), and Lekkhak ki roti (Writer’s Bread), a collection of his cultural essays.

Mangalesh Dabral is known for his simple expressions in poetry, and touching the complex and relevant themes in his writings in general. He writes in his author’s note of This Number Does Not Exist, a collection of his translated poems, that “My poetry was born in the mountains, lived among the stones, and sang of water, clouds, trees, and birds; but soon it migrated to the cities where the world was not so simple and innocent despite all its attractions.” His migration to the city from his birth place in the foothills of the Himalayas was a personal loss for an elemental poet like him, but it also prepared him for tougher roles and greater opportunities along the path of his career as a poet, writer, editor, and journalist. He was honored with one of the highest literary awards of India, Sahitya Akademi, in 2000, for his poetry collection, Hum Jo Dekhte Hain (What We See), only to return that award later, in protest against what he describes as “the increasing intolerance in the country.” Today, Mangalesh Dabral is an international name. His work in translation has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies worldwide. His poetry has been translated into all major Indian and foreign languages, and he has travelled to speak in many countries. The poet, who has lived the metaphor of his Lantern on the Mountain, continues to give light, illuminating a corner of the earth.

Mangalesh Dabral in a conversation with Kalpna Singh-Chitnis –

KSC: Life is a journey of self-discovery. What have you discovered about yourself along the journey of your life as an individual and a writer that has surprised you? Please share.

MD: It’s difficult to know and answer what I’ve surprisingly discovered about myself; or if I could discover, I could discover anything at all. But I think one of the early surprises was that I could and did write poetry, and that I could call myself a poet. I’m still surprised by the fact that I’m writing poetry. My father would have been very happy to say—”well, good that you continued writing poetry and other stuff, otherwise nothing would have become of you!”

KSC: How did you become a poet and a writer? Would you like to share your first poem with us?

MD: I can’t recall the name of the first poem I wrote, leave aside sharing it. Surely, it must have gotten lost, but it must have been very childish. Poems are as mortified as human beings. I don’t believe in their immortality. They die in the course of time, or leave the person who wrote them, and start living their own independent life. One of our major poets, Raghuvir Sahay, sometimes said that poetry dies the moment it is born. I often tend to forget my last poems, and when someone refers to one of them, I remember oh, yes, did I write it!

KSC: Tell us about your background.

MD: I was born in a remote mountain village in Uttarakhand where days were much brighter, clouds much more dense, and nights much darker than where I am now. Stars shining in the clear night sky seemed so bright and near that we could almost touch them. I marveled at them. My father was an Ayurvedic doctor and a Sanskrit scholar, wrote poems in the local dialect, staged Parsi dramas in my village, and sang on his sonorous harmonium. My grandfather also was a scholar of Ayurveda and Sanskrit and a collector of poetic idioms and phrases used by the common people. So nature and the house-poetry inspired me to put my small feet into my ancestors’ big shoes. I started with lyric poems, imitated some major Hindi poets, but soon came into contact with modern and contemporary idioms. Taking some of my poems, I came to the cities, Delhi in particular, where I did not have to struggle to be called a poet, as my poems spoke in the language of certain images that were drawn from my native place, and were somewhat new to the Hindi poetry of those days. But I had to struggle a lot for to make ends meet.

KSC: Do you miss the poet from the mountains in the poet you have become, in a city?

MD: I do. I escaped from the mountains like a stone or a pebble and stopped in the cities wherever I found a place. Sometime I feel I failed to belong to anywhere. I could never come to terms with a big city like Delhi, nor could I retain the identity of my native place. It’s a kind of refugee condition—as if I were a dislocated persona unable to be rehabilitated. So there seems to be a kind of tension, something critical between my native memories and the urban experiences. German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht said that the “sufferings of the mountains are behind us and the sufferings of the plains are in front of us.” I think this is also the case with me. Maybe my poems are born in that tense void between the mountains and the city landscape. Cities are great alluring spaces and have always given birth to various civilizations. Their wide, ever-lit roads reach new and unknown landscapes, while the village streets lazily remain in the villages. So I’ve a bizarre relationship with both of them, a kind of in-between situation. Maybe I belong in a void, a no-man’s land between them.

KSC: You are one of the most significant Indian writers of our time. Who do you recognize as your inspiration? Who influenced your writing?

MD: I got inspired by so many writers and poets that naming them would become an endless list. But, in the early years, I was influenced by some great poets like Nirala and Jaishankar Prasad— once I just imitated one of Prasad’ s short stories, as I was awed by his charged prose—and later, by Hindi poets Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Raghvir Sahay, and Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and many others, mainly by those who spoke of the agony of the people with a deep sense of irony. Another thing is that I, like some other poets of my generation, was much influenced by the great cinema of the world, films of Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Ozu, Ritwik Gahtak, Satyajit Roy, Mrinal Sen, Tarkovsky, and many more. I was attracted by the finality and authenticity of an intense pure cinematic image, and wished to attain this characteristic in my language. But I don’t know if I’m one of the most significant writers in India, as you put it. I believe I’m just one among them.

KSC: Tell us something about the books you have written. If you were asked to recommend one of your best works, what would that be?

Mangalesh Dabral at the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 2008.

MD: I have five collections of poems, two books of essays and literary-cultural reviews, and a travel diary of my days in Iowa, US, where I was a fellow of the International Writing Program way back in 1991. Some of the translations of my poems into English, Italian, German, Dutch have appeared in book or booklet forms in the US, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Three new books are in the offing. But it’s not easy to recommend any of my books, as all of them have left me unsatisfied in the end. All I can recommend is my soon-to-be-published books!

KSC: Modern Indian literature is shaped by a number of social and political events and many global movements. What influenced your writing in your early years and continues to inspire you, even now?

MD: As I already said, first it was the surrounding nature—trees, water, air, stars at night, fire in our household hearths, toiling women, and the cultural atmosphere in our house in a distant village. Then, reading good poetry, watching good cinema, and Marxism. They have been my inspiration forever. I wanted to be a classical singer like my father—or better than him, but I failed to pursue this art due to a busy life as a journalist. I have loathed this failing all my life.
As we live in political, highly critical times, we can’t remain aloof to the socio-political course of events and human destiny. Political events in my country have influenced me a lot—Leftist movements, Naxalbari, Emergency, the dislocation of people, the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, the plight of the poor, Adivasis and Dalits, and of course the present air of rising communalism, intolerance, fear and violence. Most sensible people are becoming fearful of those who are in power. We had a similar situation during the Emergency in India, but at that time, there was a certainty about the rules of the game. Now the fear has gained an air of uncertainty and extra-constitutionality. On the international level, almost half of the world has been turned into a dirty battleground and a refugee camp. Globalization, which is almost another name for Americanization, has been very inhumane, and tries to establish itself as the only available thought, only philosophy of our time. I deal a bit with its human manifestations in my last poetry book Naye Yug Mein Shatru (Enemy in the New Era).

KSC: Most Indian writers seem to be political, or at least politically aware. Do you consider yourself a political writer or a politically aware writer?

MD: Yes. One has to be political as a writer and as a citizen, as a human being. It will be dangerous to leave the country to politicians alone; they will destroy it. All worthwhile writers have intervened in the politics of their times.

But it doesn’t imply that I would give up the finer artistic and aesthetic sensibilities and mysteries of creativity. At times poetry visits you in the form of vibrations, whispers, abstractions, and ambiguities, even things that you cannot make out, and it is when you feel, see, or hear them that they become poetic material.

KSC: Did you ever have any formal affiliation with a writer’s group, inspired by a political ideology? Why is it important for the writers to join such groups, and how do they benefit from them?

MD: I have believed in Marxism, irrespective of the different literary organizations inspired by it. I still believe that Marxism is one of the most humane ideology after Buddhism, both being philosophies of human grief. It unearthed and analyzed the root cause of suffering and misfortune by underlining the role of the economy, surplus value, private property, and religion. The deeds and misdeeds committed by the power structures in the name of Marxism is another related issue. This has been so with Buddhism and Christianity as well. I’ve been almost a sleeping member of Jan Sanskriti Manch, Despite the fact that such groups have not been able to address many issues that concern writers and culture in general, they are useful in the sense of giving a deep feeling of belonging, of solidarity, and of fighting the forces of inhumanity and atrocity to their members. I may be called an independent Marxist.

KSC: As a writer and a journalist, you have been a vocal critic of the current right-wing government of India. If you are given the power to change things in the Indian politics, what changes would you like to make?

MD: I’m afraid, I would be a worse change-bringing force. I’m unable to lead anything. So better to remain a critic of our time. I think, criticality is something that is being undermined in our society, and the middle class has almost stopped being critical, raising questions. It is important to restore the critical mind.

KSC: Please share the reason you returned one of the highest literary honors of India, Sahitya Academy, in 2015.

MD: I, along with several writers in Hindi, English, Punjabi etc. returned the Sahitya Akademi Award as a protest against the increasing communal violence and intolerance in India with the tacit or open support of the ruling class, against the killing of scholars like MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Pansare, and the murder of some poor Muslim people based on pure rumors of having eaten or stored beef in their houses, and hitherto unfounded fact of indulging in the“love jihad.” I feel troubled by where our society is heading, and I believe it’s the duty of every citizen who wants to live in a free and fearless country and wants to live constitutionally, that he/she should criticize and even oppose the forces out to destroy the warp and woof of our social fabric. It was a symbolic protest, and I did not have anything else that I could return. But surprisingly, the protest did echo on an international level, had support from at least 80 eminent authors, including Salma Rushdie, and made power-to-be people a bit alarmed. A number of film people also returned their national awards, which is not an easy thing, as those awards are much coveted ones.

KSC: How would you respond to the accusation of your right wing critics that the Congress party of India, which is supported by many liberal writers, uses the Maoist and Naxalite insurgent groups to counter the threats of the RSS, supported by the BJP government in power for the same reason against the left?

MD: It seems just one more rumor that the BJP, with all its apparatuses, has expertise in spreading. The Naxalites are hardly concerned with increasing communalism or Congressism; their agenda is to overthrow the state power, be it BJP or Congress.

KSC: How optimistic are you about the future of Communism in India, after that system has collapsed in Russia, Germany, and other parts of the world, and is barely surviving in China?

MD: A major Hindi poet, the late Kunwar Narain, aptly remarked that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Marxism has come to stay in a wider world of thought. It will be a pity if Marxism is seen just as a tool to grab power or create a new power structure. Almost all the prominent discourses today—Feminism, Subaltern studies, Tribalism, Identity struggles of the marginalized people –owe their existence to Marxism. The Soviet system got dismantled as much due to its shortcomings and as to the forces of capitalism relentlessly working agains it. It also failed to address the issue of nationalities that was supposed to have been resolved during the Stalin era. It proved a false notion. We have witnessed this in the “Balkanization” tragedy. But, on the other hand, we are witnessing a clear shift to the Left in Europe and South America and Nepal. People may not like Communism, but they are very much in favor of the Left all over the world. Let’s keep in mind that the era of “classical” capitalism and “classical” communism is over. And the “class enemy” is also not the same. All monoliths have melted away, leaving different new forms.

KSC: What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer and a journalist?

MD: No idea. Never thought of it. Maybe it has been just a journey with nowhere to reach.

KSC: Once your poetry saved the life of an Indian girl. That is remarkable! What poem did she read?

MD: It’s so strange. A tribal girl, Tina Naika, who was a domestic servant to a woman writer near Anand in Gujarat, decided to end her life ,as she was of pitch black complexion, and her father failed miserably to marry her off. She was also privately studying in class 10, and her optional Hindi textbook included one of my poems –“Pahad Par Laltein” (Lantern on the Mountain). Incidentally, the very page was open in front of her. She must have thought to take a look at that lantern before putting an end to her existence. And suddenly, the poem turned into a helping hand, a finger that pulled her out of the deluge. There might have been more coincidences like this one, but it’s amazing that poetry can be capable of saving lives. Or curing illnesses. “How to save” has been one of the gravest concerns of the contemporary poetry. Its protest emerges from this concern for saving things from destruction.

KSC: Please share a favorite memory of your stay in Iowa City. How did you get the opportunity to join the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and how did it help shape your writings?

Mangalesh Dabral as a fellow of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa in 1991.

MD: There are many such memories. Some are in my travel diary —Ek Baar Iowa (Once, Iowa). It was a long stay, and I made several friends. One of them was a well-known author from Zimbabwe , Charles Mongoshi, who never switched off the TV in his room and said—”What is America, except for a TV?” One day he had a bad toothache and had to be hospitalized for four days. He got fed up there, and when the doctors let him go, he got dead drunk in a bar, created a big fuss, abused the American hospitals with the choicest slurs, and was fined by the police. Another day, it was my turn. The hospital doctors made me fill out a long form mentioning if I ever had every possible disease from cold to cancer, and told me that I would have to get my wisdom tooth removed. Taking my cue from the Charles Mongoshi incident, I lied to them, saying that as I would be traveling the next day, I would better like to have it removed back home. The doctors laughed at my dig, and let me go after some local anesthesia in my tooth.

KSC: This Number Does Not Exit is a wonderful collection of your poems translated into English. How did you decide who was going to translate a particular poem in this book? Or did the translators choose the poems themselves?

MD: They were done over the years. I never decided. The translators chose them by coincidence. Most of them came across some of the poems in magazines and contacted me for permission. Only Arvind’s translations were done in a workshop conducted by Hindi poet, Girdhar Rathi, on behalf of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, and some poems were translated by my friend Christi Merrill, who was a student in the Iowa Translation School, and afterwards, in Delhi, where she had come on a fellowship. Most of them were spontaneous.

KSC: What is the reason we do not see the same level of interest in reading and translating literature from the Indian languages in the West, in comparison to our interest in reading and translating literature from English and other European languages?

MD: This is mainly due to the lack of quality translations in English, or for that matter, in any other language. Take one example: AK Ramanjuan excellently translated U R Ananathamurthy’s famous novel Samskara from Kannada. In Iowa, I found out it was highly regarded, and taught as an example of the Indian novel at many universities. But they didn’t know about other Indian novels. One more reason, I think, is that the West is much less interested in Indian literature than in European literatures since India is not a global economic or cultural power. The situation now seems to be gradually changing. But I think we ought to pay more attention to the Asian languages, with which we have less literary-translational dialogue. It’s more or less a colonial hangover that makes us all West-bound.

KSC: If you have to say one thing in defense of Indian literature to our readers worldwide, what would that be?

MD: Indian literature is not one literature, it’s always many literatures. For instance, Bangla literature is much different from Punjabi literature, and Kashmiri literature and Malayalam literature are miles apart from each other. This is the uniqueness, the strength of our creative pursuits. One of our prominent linguists, Ganesh Devy, says that we are not just a garden, but a forest of languages. So our literature also is a forest of human sensibilities and expressions. Its wide range is amazing.

KSC: What are you reading and writing these days?

MD: I’ve just finished translating Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and will be completing a biography of eminent poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh. Meanwhile, I’m also working on a book of poems and a collection of my travel accounts. Recently, I translated poems by great Marxist-priest poet from Nicaragua, who was also a minister during the Sandinista government there. He is a liberation-theologian, and believes that Christianity and Marxism are not contradictory to each other, but in their truest sense, mean the liberation of humankind.

KSC: What has inspired you to translate The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy, into Hindi? How did this book come to you for translation?

MD: Arundhati Roy is one of our great writers and social-political thinkers. She has been, along with Bangla author Mahasveta Devi, a major Indian literary icon known the world over. Her maiden novel, The God of Small Things, is among my favorites. Her political writings are also profound and fearless, which rank her in the line of Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, and others. So both the writer and I wanted me to do the translation. I’m very happy to have done this job.

KSC: Freedom of expression is threatened in India by fundamentalists in all groups. In recent years, we have seen more and more examples of writers, journalists, actors and filmmakers being prosecuted, receiving death threats and being murdered. Why are we failing as a true democracy?

MD: Such events are increasing day and night. Mainly it’s because our ruling classes have given almost a free hand to the mafias, religious cults, and cliques, thugs, babas in their operations. True, there are all kinds of anti-human forces in a society, but democracies always discourage them, nipping them in the bud. It’s very sad and unfortunate that our politicians have been letting the violence, communalism, insanity and delirium be absorbed by the society. Just see, almost all so called saints and babas, who have been captured doing wrong in recent times are big supporters of the leaders of our ruling party! It is more than a mere coincidence.

KSC: Do you ever fear prosecution or threat to your own life for speaking your mind?

MD: Not so far, but that doesn’t mean there is no fear and no threat. You can smell it in the air, read it every morning in the newspapers. There is no declared censorship as such, but it is indirect, under-handed. And there is self-censorship in all the media. We even hear some leaders of the ruling BJP say they can’t open their mouth due to fear. When the eminent author and thinker UR Ananathamurthy was threatened, no government issued an order, but an atmosphere was created where it became very easy to target him. Such things work in a minute way. When a person in power or a minister says “let the writers stop writing” or someone asks people to “take revenge for a son of the soil against his humiliation,” it implies a license to them, who would commit such acts. Recently, one minister said that he and his party didn’t only want to rule the country, but to change the constitution. That means he is asking his followers to take steps to change the constitution. It’s a mafialike way of working.

KSC: Very recently, you have lost a dear friend and a great poet of Hindi literature, Kunwar Narain. How was he different from the other poets of your generation?

MD: He was one of our major poets—a philosophical voice of sanity, morality, and human goodness. He had varied concerns that included music, cinema, and other art forms as well. Secular to the core, he was a multi-cultural person, which, I’m afraid, our generation might be lacking. He could rehabilitate the old words into new values and turn his detachment about power centers, power-plays, and market forces into weapons of rejection and opposition.

KSC: Today, Indians are concerned about the political unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. As a democracy, we believe in freedom of expression and the opportunity to exercise human rights in our own country that has been questioned in the recent years in Kashmir. Where do you stand on this issue? How do you think the situation in Kashmir can return to normal? How can the intellectual community of India help the people of Kashmir, who are not only Muslims but other minorities, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhists, and Christians also?

MD: India, under the current dispensation, seems to have lost Kashmir, as it has miserably failed to understand the meaning “Kashmiriyat.” Things improved a lot during Manmohan Singh era ,and many times, there was complete peace in the troubled valley, but the situation now is out of gear. Nothing would be more misleading than to think that all Kashmiris are separatists and most of them are militants or terrorists. Unfortunately, our government thinks only that way, and wants to solve a very intricate issue with more army and pellet guns. More sadly, most of our middle-class people also believe in such stereotypes. They love Kashmir, but hate Kashmiris. What irony!

KSC: Do you think the political independence of the state of Jammu and Kashmir would bring peace in the Indian subcontinent, or lead to a greater instability in the region marred by terrorism and controlled by religious fanatics?

MD: I think that the people of Kashmir, even those who are called “separatists,” should have a say in all the peace processes. It should also include the senior journalists and analysts who have watched and reported on Kashmir for a long time. Relatively more independence will certainly bring stability in that unfortunate region.

KSC: What should be the role of a writer, poet and an artist in a world full of turmoil and deprived of basic human values?

MD: To try to record the turmoil, portray a new possible world, and to re-establish basic human values.

KSC: How would you like the world to remember Mangalseh Dabral?

MD: Just as a lone son of his parents, made of their dust, and a well-intended father of the two children. And as a person who wanted to be humane, loving, trying to ….

KSC: If you have to give a piece of advice to the new generation of writers, what would that be?

MD: No advice. They are sure to find their own ways. Moreover, these globalized times are non-advisable. I think poetry is the last, final draft of every human experience. If our young poets can work hard to turn their experiences into final drafts, they would probably create great poetry.

To read Mangalesh Dabral’s poems CLICK HERE 


Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an Indian-American Poet and Filmmaker, based in the United States.





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