Sunday, November 28, 2010

Shiv K. Kumar - A Chance Meeting With a Tall Literary Figure

Met Padma Bhushan Awardee and Fellow of Royal Society of London, one of the s tallest living names in Indian Writing in English, ninety year old poet and novelist, Shiv K. Kumar during my visit to Bangalore recently. A doctorate in English from Cambridge, visiting Professor at various British and American Universities, he is also a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of Literature, London, He has authored several popular books of poetry (Articulate Silences, 1970, Cobwebs in the Sun, 1974, Subterfuges, 1976, Woodpeckers, 1976, Trapfalls in the Sky, 1986, Woolgathering, 1998 and Thus Spake the Buddha, 2002, won the Sahitya Akademy Award winner in 1987 for ‘The Trapfalls in the sky’), 6 novels and several collections of short stories (A River with Three Banks, Nude Before God, To Nun with Love, Two Mirrors at the Ashram, The Bone’s Prayer and Infatuation-The Crescent and the Vermilion, a play (The Last Wedding Anniversary,1975), and translations from Urdu to English of Faiz's works, so far. A veteran who suffered the pain of the partition (he is from Lahore), witnessed the Freedom struggle and several ups and downs in his life, he is as busy as ever with his writing, as passionate as ever about life and sharp as ever with his words and observations. His memory astounds me.
Prof. Shiv K. Kumar and I, Bangalore, November 19, 2010

I met him while visiting his daughter Vandana and her husband Ramesh (and son Shehan who was kind enough to allow me in his room), my hosts during my two day trip to Bangalore last weekend. I had the first morning off since I was to meet Keerti, my editor only later in the afternoon so I was delighted at the prospect of finding out some answers from someone who has seen it all. Undoubtedly he is the biggest literary figure that I have had the luxury of meting so far so I was pretty keen to ask a few questions.

Prof. Shiv K. Kumar was reading his morning newspapers when I made my rather early entry into their home at Adarsh Vista. I had met him at least ten years ago, rather briefly, when I went to show him my first manuscript at his Hyderabad home. He placed me instantly the moment I was introduced to him. Funny! I was in Bangalore to show the same manuscript to my editor today!

‘I remember you of course Hari,’ he said in that polished accent, speaking perfect English, the way it should be, the kind of English that makes you want to get it somehow. ‘I remember reading a few chapters from your book which I thought was well written. The only thing was that you wanted to make a career out of writing which I thought was not possible.’

I asked him if he would have the time to answer a few questions that I always wanted to ask him. He laughed and said, ‘An interview? Very well. Let us do it at 1 p.m.’ But as we sat and chatted for a while longer over tea and breakfast, I kept asking him my questions to which he gave me long and detailed answers, never digressing off the main point as most people do, quoting so many authors and poets that I do not even recall their names, much less what he quoted.

At ninety, Prof. Shiv Kumar writes six hours a day – 3 in the morning and 3 at night, goes for a walk, gets a massage and travels. ‘I am happy when my flights get delayed,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I take off my shoes and put up my feet and start writing. People ask me if I am a writer.  I tell them that I am a Chartered Accountant. I do not want to be disturbed you see,’ he chuckles.

But how do you sustain this energy to write at this age I ask him.
‘Writing is about imagination, visuals, fragrance – it energises me. I love that process. Writing poetry, stories, translating beautiful works – it really energises me. There is so much to write, to write about.’

What are the qualities that a write should cultivate?
‘Concentration’. Pat came the answer. I did not understand. He continued. ‘It is the biggest thing.’ He told me that in his book ‘The river with three banks’ the writer protagonist ask a deadly cobra to give him just a fraction of the concentration it has. ‘Concentration is really the most important thing.’

And then he explained. ‘When you write,’ he said quoting another famous writer (was it John Gardner?), ‘it must make the reader ‘feel’. More importantly it must make him ‘hear’. And most importantly the reader must ‘see’ what you wrote. Aha, I got it now. To make the reader feel, hear and see is no easy job if you are not absorbing details from the environment. Fantastic advise.

Does writing have to be done with a message, I asked.
‘No!’ says he. emphatically. ‘Write honestly about what you feel and when you do that, it does convey in its core the message you want to convey. Normally it is a responsible message. So there is no responsibility in writing except writing honestly.’ 

‘When you write a poem it make no sense. It is more about the pattern, about using the metaphor and creating something beautiful. There is no message and no sense almost!’

I asked him what he learnt from life and what he wants to share with us, a generation apart.
He thought for a while and said – ‘Life is a constant state of flux. Every moment is so different. We are different people each moment. We must accept that life is changing. It is like a river always different and we must make peace with it by accepting change which is its very nature. So you take the good with the bad – a book gets published and another gets rejected. Take both in your stride.’

I asked him if he exorcises all that he had experienced through his writing.
‘Yes’, he said. ‘Writing does that. I wrote a novel about my experiences with the partition’.

Is all writing through experience I asked.
‘Some through personal experience and some vicarious. But yes, I’d say most of my writing has been based on experience’, he said.

And how have his views changed over the years – towards love and other such emotions?
‘Love has lost its quality of leisure, of caring. It is a self obsessive love now. The concept of the trinity of love – of one woman, of one love and one commitment is gone. I do not see that kind of love anymore with all the hurrying around, calling, computers, Viagra and what not. But love to me is that trinity.’

There was much more that he said, in quotes and excerpts, too much for me to handle without a pen or paper so what I got down above was only the gist of our discussion. Prof. Shiv K. Kumar has just completed writing his version of the Mahabharatha, which is being published by Harper Collins India in January 2011. ‘It is 430 pages.’ he says. ‘I have romanticized it without departing from the main story’. He explained a scene here, a scene there for me. ‘And then there is a translation of Faiz’s works which should be out by August next year, published by penguin. And I have started writing the ‘Life of Buddha’ for which I am negotiating with US based publishers. And then there is Penguin which has commissioned him for translating 100 popular ghazals in English’.

And the river flows on, purposefully, focused on its course. His memory is razor sharp as he reels off dates, names  and quotes without a moment of hesitation. His life is brimming with ideas, with things to do, with new stories to write, with felicitations to receive. So much to do and so much to achieve. It amazed me, energized me when I met him, for their clarity about what they want to do, for their passion to do it well, for their passion to their work, for their passion to life and for their ability to laugh so easily. I now propose to have that clarity of purpose, that same unconditional dedication to my work and retain that kind of passion to life. That I think is how one could go about doing the things one loves best, how one could give back, be grateful for and appreciate life for what it is. 
That is the least I can do for myself.


Rajendra said...

Interesting stuff, interesting guy.

Harimohan said...

Yes he is. Very interesting. You should hear him quote people, poems, excerpts so easily. Would like to talk to him again soon.

chitra said...

Very interesting indeed. And so true; there are so many colors in a life's canvas, so many ups and downs. Every day is a new day.

Sunanda9 said...

Came across this as I was surfing...wonderful to know that he is still active and writing, had the fortune of being his his student!Thanks.

Harimohan said...

Yes Sunanda, He is full of zest for life. Great inspiration for writers - or to any professional for that matter. He is always at it, rain or shine.

Surya said...

Fortunate indeed to meet & have a close conversation with a vibrant writer like him. Eager to know more about him. Am doing a research on him & it will be of much help.

Surya said...

very fortunate indeed to meet & have a conversation with such a great literary figure. eager to know more about him. Am doing research on him.It will be of much use.

Harimohan said...

Oh yes Surya, he is a fine person with some wonderful ideas and thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him. Good luck with your research.

Surya said...

Fine sir.Could you throw some light upon Kumar- the man behind his works? where could I get his autobiographical details?

Harimohan said...

Surya, I've written whatever I know about him. I'm sure you'll find plenty of stuff on him. Good luck.

Surya said...

Yes of course there are many writings on him. Am collecting some articles and interviews now.The more he gets aged the more he becomes active in writing it seems. Very interesting man he is.