Q&A with Gopal Lahari

Tell us about your family background and How and when did you get started as a writer?

 G.L :I was grown and spent my childhood in South Calcutta. My father was in service, working for Indian Statistical Institute and later started his own business of scientific and surgical goods. My mother was a house wife.  I have three sisters and two brothers and I am the youngest member of the family.

Calcutta (Now Kolkata) is always a great city for me. Clean roads, tree lined avenues and parks and the wonderful Ballygunge Lake which had spruced up my early days. Nature was close by if I may put it that way. I was in a Bengali medium school and started writing poetry in Bengali in my childhood, probably from class-IV. Initially, I was more inclined to write prose especially short stories, features and essays, in school magazines and local journals.

I don’t know what started me? In my early days when fear is not any option and you are free to write. The answer was from my heart.

Presidency College is a renowned college in Kolkata and I enjoyed every moment there. Studying geology is a fascinating experience and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way. The college ambiance was such that it did create the fire and need to achieve success. Honestly speaking during college days, I used to be a serious science student, good in academics and want to achieve more in my career. But the hunger for creative writing was always there. Like many others, I have brewed many poems in the college street coffee house, the melting pot of art and literature in Kolkata.

I felt gradually that poetry was the forum I should stick to. Meanwhile I joined drama groups and edited literary magazines as well. As a matter of fact, I used to travel with the poetry groups and recited poems in different poetry conventions and festivals. In the late seventies and early eighties, I used to freelance a lot for an English daily newspaper covering art and cultural events.

As the time progressed, I was more shifted to writing poems both in my mother tongue Bengali as also in English especially when I enter college. My parents and elders never discouraged me in any of my efforts and the flag of freedom was always there in our house.

How do you usually find your ideas?

G.L : I got the influence of nature early on and I still love that. It means so much in my poems. I am happier writing about my childhood. But yes, I don’t think I could live without it, the childhood memory.

May be the wealth of reflections of everyday life that I collect in my mind and translate later into words.Being a earth scientist, I have to travel a lot and watch the life in realms of nature. May be that help me to break in if at all.

I don’t know when it started but writing, especially poetry is something which is absolutely essential for me. I guess I love to watch and listen to the people in realms of beautiful earth- how the world is and how the world ought to be. Never really want to grab the readers by their frontal lobes and immediately snag their attention.

Who are some of your favourite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?

G.L : Rabindranath Tagore of course is one of my favourite authors. He is a towering figure in Bengali literature if I may say so. Poems, novels, essays, song, paintings and what not where Tagore isn’t there and one is stunned to get a feel. When I began to write poems, I looked to Tagore. But yes, I read Tagore and that is that and it is presumptuous to talk about the influence of Tagore.

Besides Tagore, I was amazed by the works of Jibananada Das and Bishnu Dey whom I read a lot. Now I find myself reading more of Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Shankho Ghosh, Alokeranjan Dasgupta, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Joy Goswami. In recent times of course, I read and write much less in Bengali. Yes. Sometimes, it becomes a hard task but I choose the particular language (either Bengali or English) if I feel comfortable to express my feelings on that particular theme of the poetry.

There were a few English poets. I was wild about Byron in my early days. It doesn’t come in a moment. Later I Look to Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, Browning, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and many others. I am very interested in Indian English poets like Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawala, Ranjit Hoskote and a few others. I never think of any influence but surly get inspired by their wonderful poems.

I am reading currently more of Sunil Sharma, Sanjeev Sethi, Ananya Guha, Kiriti Sengupta, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Vinita Agarwal, Reena Prasad, Madhumita Ghosh, Sarala Ram Kamal and a few young poets.

Tell us about your books. What was your first one? How many books have you written so far and which is your favourite one?

G.L ; I have had eight collections of poetry in English and eight collections in Bengali. First four collections in English, namely ‘Flicker of Hope’, ‘Sandstone Corridor’, ‘Give You Back’ and ‘Light and Shadow’ were POD (Print on Demand) books published from Lulu publications of US. The next four books, namely, ‘Silent Steps’, ‘Living Inside’, ‘Tidal Interlude’ and ‘Cities: Two Perspectives’ (Jointly with Sunil Sharma) were published and printed from India.

I don’t think I could live without poetry and my books. The experience of writing a poem is more exciting than to look back at your poem once it was written. ‘Living Inside’ is my favourite creation. Perhaps the title means a lot. Perhaps I speak less here. Perhaps these poems can’t be read aloud. Setting aside the peripherals, the poems looked more focussed and have an emotional and psychological depth. True, this poetry collection is close to my heart.

But in my other poetry collection, ‘Tidal Interlude’, I deliberately moved away from myself and created a space for others also to enter and soak into my pool of thoughts and reflections.

Tide is intrinsic in periodic rise and fall of water and the overlapping moment breaks into music. May be this says something but I don’t judge. I can only talk for what I feel and for my own experience. The poems here come out of dynamics of tide, more of life I presume, not out of still picture. Sylvia Plath has also shown a larger truth about how emotional suffering makes people feel isolated under their own airless glass jar.

Yes, it’s about a change of path. In Silent Steps there it was a free- wheeling experience, uniquely intense, jumping in and out of the surrounds but in Tidal Interlude there were less peripherals, more controlled emotion and nuanced expression and in the end more of life. Regarding how I have shown the silence, I can say that here the eloquent voices of angel are Silence and the essence is the sound of church bell. I am probably more on the calling of Silence as a signature tune of Silent Steps.

In ‘Cities: Two Perspectives, ‘City’ is the central metaphor. I do believe that our cities are not hell and people are not always ignoring their hearts. It’s not just the grim depiction of despair but celebrations of nature and life as well. And it is in a way.

I have also translated in Bengali (from English) a short story collection from Israel and the book was published from National Book Trust of India If I may say so the translation work is well received.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

G.L :Auden wrote once ‘Poetry makes nothing happen. there is a general feeling that a poet lives a bit in air, but frankly I believe a poet can do much more and make our earth a better place with his/her creation. Honestly, I never intend to pack empowering messages in my poems. Poetry is actually the weaving of words. Poems that I’m creating are just part of me. I am more inclined to ‘eye’ poetry rather than ‘ear’ poetry where images are more cut out than the musicality of the words.

Not to deal with trivia, nor sticking to certain sacred principles, never bothered by the constellation of magic words and try to focus only on the search not for gentility but for something that belongs to us and at the same time it escapes us always.

We know a poet always pays a great deal of attention on symbolism, the development of plot and character, the use of allegory and myth but in my mind the real challenge is the relevance and I am always facing this challenge to reach a reader’s or listener’s ear, resulting in a uniqueand highly complex experience.

What cultural value do you see in writing?

G.L : If ,You look at poetry, none of a poem’s effects the functions in isolation. Each one works against a backdrop set up not only by the poem itself, but by all the literary and artistic conventions of our culture.

I am not sure but one thing I do believe that my heaven is not hell and want my readers start beginning to look at the positive vibes with me. Tagore and nature are inseparable. Do you remember the short story of Tagore, Balai? We are reminded of John Keats’ ‘The poetry of the earth is never dead’. I do find a kind of emotional and psychological depth in nature which embodies the universal culture and these were reflected in my poems.

What I admire most is poetry but I must say it is not an extension of dreams and the most important thing is that it can make a difference. In my poems, the emptiness always ends with hope that’ there will be time to fill it’.

Sometimes my poems represent a multitude of thoughts play into the words and letters. It is true that given the opportunity, words and letters can recreate texture and rhythm and I feel that’s poetry.

What projects are you working at present?

G.L : I started first writing poems in Bengali and I have been excited by what I felt. My first publication was Amader Kobita. (Our Poems) was published from Proma publications in late eighties and it was a collection of poems by four young poets. Later I have published over the years seven more collection of poems in Bengali. One manuscript of my collection of Bengali Poems is ready and may like to publish probably in next year. Bengali poems are my first love and English collection of poems came much later.

Poetry has always been the art of self-expression in wandering souls but inviting the readers to share experience in a few words in poems is also an old art form especially the Japanese one. Yes, I am talking about Haiku.  One of my collections on Haiku and other short poems is likely to be published early next year and I am still working onit. Besides, I am currently doing a few book-reviews for Muse India, Indian Literature and CLRI.

What do you think is the future of reading/writing?

 G.L : There will be no dearth of poets or writers in future, that’s for sure. People will read perhaps more through virtual means, like e-book and internet and the interest for the printed book will be muc less. Internet is a revolution and Indian writers and poets have a huge responsibility of carrying themselves before the global readers.

I think we can come close together, not confining in a siloand create a level playing field where every poet/writer can help each other and showcase his/her talent. It’s not so quite frightening! I am very optimistic about writing as exposure in various forms will be more in future.

What is the biggest thing that people think they know about your subject/genre?

G.L : Poetry is always a part of me. I look it this way. Spontaneity is pure, ecstasy is in the blood, passion is unblinking, rhythms are singing and the lines are coming from unknown areas. There is a poetry, isn’t there? Living in a city or in a rural area are very important instrument to the human elements. You have to build a relationship with your location and in that relationship, you have to be able to identify the essence of the surroundings and the people. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem: the soul should always/stand ajar/ready to welcome/the ecstatic experience.

What do you advise new writers to do?

G.L : My advice is to the upcoming poets and writers that you have to read more of others works, develop a relationship with your subjects and in that relationships, you have to able to identify expressions and nuances of creative writing. There is a sense of belonging in it and you have to cultivate that. You have to ask yourself can I make it? It’s an art form very frankly. Be evocative, thoughtful, lucid and fluent. When I look around I feel that many of us are interested to make short-cut and trying to be famous. We should not ignore our objectives of being a good and honest poet or writer.

Poems of Gopal Lahiri

Eye-witness

Evening is there, forlorn, unnoticed,

Go and retrieve your footprints,

 Moon rays paint us silver,

undress in that light before the cloud cover,

 One or two tiny stars start walking around,

Stitch them a constellation,

 Night birds are hiding like hapless refugees,

A thin layer of mist now stills the sky,

 An old tree that has its eyes, opening slowly

From those shades of grey,

 Witness a large window drinking the secrets

Of the beauty and the grace.

 @gopallahiri

 Morning Vibes

Morning rays rest on the little soil hills,

The birds hold their bells and whistles,

A row of ants

slowly moves on their paths,

Ducks moving about, swimming on the pond,

Shadows of the grass falling,

The wind

blowing the grass, ripples on the water.

Trees are already on their knees to greet the breeze,

Embrace and seal the evening with a smile,

The rainbow can

memorise all those beautiful moments,

The boats acquire a thin yet sharp and curved line,

Plodding up and down in low currents and

Finally

dissolve in downstream.

@gopallahiri

Unheard Story

A smell of dust, remove Grandma’s saris,

Unused cloths, dry towels from the wooden box,

Startled birds sit on the iron railing,

And set tune the old tanpura,

Their laughter overlaps the ceaseless quarrels,

Open the widow, let the wind in,

A shaft of light tearing the leather cushion,

Do not wait for the evening sun.

As if a gravelly voice calls in silence,

Your unheard stories slip through,

Outside the guava tree is now drenched in rain.

@gopallahiri

Absurd Moments

Night misshapen and maimed, stars cease to knock,

Dark shadows and the veils of cobwebs

Swing on the high ceiling,

Lights on the edges, muffle its curses, look like half a light,

Silence follows the footsteps,

The strong wind returns soft words,

Unknown voices dip slowly, a flush comes from behind,

Dews of innocence,

Night birds flapping their wings,

A stretch of black sky pulls down the eyes,

Silence wraps all around,

Palms storing whispered sentences,

The rains never hurt, never scar the painted walls,

The tiny drops now turn into secret notes,

Grey hairs memorise all those absurd moments.

@gopallahiri