In Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

(First published in Borderless Journal, republished in Countercurrents, translated to Persian and published in Arzhang)

A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.

You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?

I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.

When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?

It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982.  At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.

It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.

You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?

No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations.  I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.

But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.

Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?

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God in Poetry: Does he exist in a Postmodern World

(Published in Modern Literature, 10.3.2020)



Father! Thou must lead.
Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me be bred
That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.

This is from a poem by the famous Renaissance artist, sculptor, poet and architect Michelangelo. This particular poem, ‘To the Supreme Being’, was translated into English by the romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Here Michelangelo reaffirms his faith and talks of divine nature of inspiration, how God gives him the ability to write, paint and create. Michelangelo wrote about twenty poems, some of which bring to life the paintings of Sistine Chapel.

Centuries down the line, we find Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the opposite end of the world still acknowledging divine participation in his creative process. His experience seems to be close to that of Michelangelo. He finds that he is infused with a creative urge and inspired by divinity to create. In Kemon Kore Gaan Koro he Guni’ (How do you sing O Divine One), he acknowledges this divinity:

How do you sing O Divine One,
I only listen to you in awe.
The tune is like the light that flashes through the world,
The tune is like the breeze that flows through the skies,
It thunders like a torrent ripping through rocks
Flowing creating a wondrous music.
I try to sing in that tune
And yet I cannot find that tune in my voice.
The lyrics hesitate to say what I want —
My life surrenders itself to you
You have trapped me
In this web of tunes

When Tagore and Michelangelo composed these poems, they wrote of being in touch with an energy that led to the creation of the most beautiful. In ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ (1819), romantic poet John Keats had stated –

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Imagination, beauty and God all merged together for the Romantics to create a sense of wonder and awe. However, it is difficult to find a definition of beauty or God in today’s poetry or postmodern literary thought. Essayist Pete Lowman, a doctorate on God and the English novel, enquires into this: “But now we have a culture that does not believe in God, so what is beauty? Is it purely subjective?”

Art is perhaps as close as we can get to it. French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, an atheist and one of the major influences on postmodernism, defines the concept of art“The rising ground is no longer below, it acquires autonomous existence; the form reflected in this ground is no longer form, but an abstract line acting directly upon the soul. When the ground rises to the surface, the human face decomposes in this mirror in which both determinations and in determination combine in a single determination which ‘makes’ the difference.” This kind of thought is often applied to poetry, making it an intellectual maze -perhaps too complex for the common reader to comprehend. But such art is not beauty or God. It is more an exclusive artistic expression to which only some can relate.

South Asian English poetry, while often influenced by occidental thought, seems to have continued having a stronghold in the voice of the people. Though whether God has ceased to exist as an entity or inspiration is not really talked of, the angst of the people has often been reflected in poetry. Amrita Pritam wrote passionate poetry in Punjabi. Her poetry, often feminist reflected on the issues faced by a woman in a patriarchal society. Her most famous ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ (Today, I Invoke Waris Shah), around Partition (1947) cried out against the violence that ripped through the subcontinent piecing it into India and Pakistan.

Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from your grave,”
And turn to the next page in your book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.

Some South Asian poets have gone deep into the politics of national identity to appease occidental critics. Nissim Ezekiel in his ‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ has tried to create a poem which is supposed to be depictive of how Indians think and speak.

I am standing for peace and non-violence
Why world is fighting and fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understand

He did what he was advised to by opinions such as that of Paul Gieve who states“A writer needs a national or cultural identity, without which he becomes a series of imitations, echoes, responses; he does not develop, because there is nothing at the core to develop.” But, is that not rather a limited definition of a writer? Should poetry not be universal rather than defined by an outmoded concept borne off the steel mills of Lancashire in the eighteenth century?

While South Asian English poetry still reels under occidental influences, recognition, awards, communism and Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’, in the mid-twentieth century, around the time Nissim Ezekiel was twenty and, two years after the death of Tagore (1941), Sartre explained the lack of God in his essay called ‘A New Mystic’ (1943): “We should not understand by that that He does not exist, nor even that he now no longer exists. He is dead: he used to speak to us and he has fallen silent, we now touch only his corpse. ”Was this a reaction to the World War that bore existentialism as its own child and adopted Kierkegaard’s absurdism and nihilism as its foster children and wove them deeply into the intellectual thought process so that it continued to bear fruit into our times?

Lowman traces the start of this disbelief to romanticism, imagination and then to Camus, a strong proponent of this philosophy. He explains, quoting Camus: “‘Up till now, man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, to the wasted sensibility.’ He (Camus) illustrated that waste on another occasion by remarking, ‘A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.’”

Then, can there be a reason left to write?

A current day favourite, Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges, finds one. He says wrote poetry because the lines came to him and bothered him till, he wrote them down.  “If I don’t write this down, it will keep pushing on and worrying me. the best thing I can do is to write it down.” And the source of inspiration? Borges says“I know for a fact that I accept my inspiration, but I am not sure where exactly it comes from.” Borges never admits his inspiration rests on the divine.

In an age of disbelief, Cambridge has taken on cudgels to foster religious imagination in contemporary poetry.

Read the rest in Modern Literature

Book of the Year: Jorasanko



Title: Jorasanko

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Jorasanko was published in 2013, but it has been the best book I read this year, especially relevant for understanding the violence faced by women in our society, the fear instilled in them by age old blind beliefs and customs. Authored by Aruna Chakravarti, a translator, writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner,  the novel gives the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s family and the Nobel laureate himself — his wife, his inspiration, his daughters and the women who grew up within the manor of the same name in Calcutta.

What is fascinating is not just the compelling storytelling but the history of Indian women emerging out of abarodh and moving towards progress and education. Abarodh, literally means blockade, is the state of purdah among the Hindu women where we are told, they did not even have adequate woollens or shoes to face the winter as it was deemed unnecessary because they lived behind closed doors and never stepped out. It is an in depth telling, or a historical account one can say, of a change in the psyche of womenfolk in India, of the awakening of their strength and their sense of independence and also of Tagore’s own realisation of how much these women had impacted his life and creations.

It starts with Tagore’s grandfather, father, his brothers and then him. The story is not the Nobel laureate centric but women centric. We see Jnananandini emerge out of the young simple child Genu, the fashionable and Westernised mejoboudi* who evolved the modern day style of wearing the saree with a blouse; Kadambari, his sister-in-law who suffered from depression and yet was his inspiration and most importantly, Mrinalini or Chhuti, his own wife, a woman who metamorphosed into a butterfly from a caterpillar and the one who exorcised the ghost of Kadambari with her own vibrancy. Perhaps, one should not call Mrinalini a butterfly but a deep, caring, nurturing, kind and strong woman. She stood by her husband to her end.

I felt the book is really relevant in context of the current crisis faced by women where rape accompanied by murder seem to be on the rise in India.

The deeply patriarchal mindset prevalent in Tagore’s grandfather, Debendranath — who despite moving on to Brahmo faith, refused to countenance widow remarriage — can still be seen in the patriarchal statements made by earlier politicians in India about women’s safety and security and PM Modi’s stunning silence as rape and murder cases keep rising. Debendranath had perhaps a less patriarchal mindset despite his belief in abarodh and his opposition to widow remarriage as he does eventually cleave in to his grand daughter travelling to Mysore to teach in a school run by the Maharaja. That in the nineteenth century, men compelled women to stay home within ‘safe’ boundaries while they were free to indulge their whims and the women complied is well woven into the fabric of the narrative.

They advocated safety for women by keeping them in the house, and not by educating humans to treat women as equals and as more than vessels for bearing children and seducing men. That was actually the role of the woman as prescribed by Tagore’s mother who believed in, lived and died within the confines of the abarodh. We are told that she firmly believes, “Females… were required by society to perform only two functions. To serve as sex partners to men and to perpetuate their lineage.”

The call for change starts with Tagore’s generation. Satyandranath, Tagore’s elder brother, freshly returned with an ICS from England tells his father, Debendrenath —“…An educated woman will find it more difficult to stay within the rules of the abarodh. Education must go hand in hand with freedom. One without the other is meaningless.” When Debendrenath expresses his distaste for the changes his ICS son is making to the house and hearth as the women never complained, Satyandranath tells his father —“They don’t even know they have a right to complain. They’ve been conditioned, so thoroughly, to accept their lot in life that they have no idea that something is missing?”

Can this statement be still seen as true for some of the womenfolk in India and across the world? Can it be women are still pre-conditioned to look at themselves as helpless and disempowered when faced with masculine might?

As early as 1931, Begum Rokeya had written a novel called Abarodh Basini, which is said to be a spirited attack on women in purdah. Attempts are being made repeatedly to create an awareness and bring in a change. Things have definitely improved over the last century for women in general — though one is not fully certain looking at the violence and violation countenanced by them in the recent months if the perpetrators have evolved as humans at all.

The need for educating men and women to counter violence and violation of women is an ongoing issue. We find in these pages a powerful awareness among women wakening to the negatives of purdah and concealment, to the need for education and emancipation, to rebel against strong reinforcements of patriarchy.

This should be a book read by every man and woman. And then we should wonder — when will we all learn to be human … look beyond our animal needs and instincts and rise above them to have a humane world.


*middle sister-in-law