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The Interview: Abhay K

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Abhay K)

The Wise Owl interviews Abhay K, a renowned poet-diplomat, who has authored several poetry collections namely The Seduction of Delhi, The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu, The Prophecy of Brasilia, The Alphabets of Latin America, The Magic of Madagascar among others. He has also edited several poetry anthologies like CAPITALS, 100 Great Indian Poems, 100 More Great Indian Poems, New Brazilian Poems, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems et al. His translation of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara has received Kalinga Literary Festival 2020-2021 Poetry Book of the Year Award. He has also received the SAARC Literary award for his contribution to contemporary South Asian Poetry and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2013. He has also been honoured with Asia-Pacific Excellence Award in 2014. The Seduction of Delhi was shortlisted for Muse India Satish Verma Young Writer Award 2015.His latest book-length poem, Monsoon: A Poem of Love and Longing', has been published by Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters.

Q. You are a prolific poet as is clear from the number of collections in your name. When did you start on your creative journey? What attracted you to this form of expression (poetry)?

A. I started writing at the age of 24 after getting into the Indian Foreign Service in 2003. One day I happened to read 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway. Reading it, I realized that such a great story can be told in so few pages. It made me dream to write my own book someday. I began with a blog ‘Ideas and Universe’ which I started writing in April 2004. When I went on my first foreign assignment to Moscow to learn Russian, 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 was titled- 'Enigmatic Love: Love Poems from the fairy-tale city of Moscow', which was published in 2009.

Poetry came naturally to me as I could write a few lines during lunch break or while traveling in the metro. I revised them later during the weekends when I had more time. I think it is the short form of poetry that attracted me to it. We all use poetry in some form or the other to nourish our souls. With people’s attention spans becoming shorter, the strength of poetry lies in its concise form which holds the attention of the reader.


Q. Your poetry collections are a tribute to different cities be it Delhi or Kathmandu or a dedication to countries like Brazil, Madagascar, Latin America et al. The soul of the city/countries seems to come alive in your poetry. What is it about these cities or countries that awakens your Muse?

A. My writing comes from the deep quest within me to write about places I visit, civilizations I come across, to document my experiences of interacting with living people, reading about historical and mythological figures, seeing monuments, landscapes, flora and fauna in different parts of the world, some never sung/written about in popular realm of literature.


I find inspiration in nature as well as in the crowded places, like traveling in a metro in Moscow, or sitting in a café in Kathmandu buzzing with young couples or in a Saturday market in the outskirts of Brasilia or on the top of Machu Picchu full of tourists from all corners of the world, or in a meeting full of officials in South Block in New Delhi.


Rilke has described poetic duty as “Ein zum Rühmen Bestellter” — “the one whose task it is to praise.” I want to celebrate the beauty and diversity of our planet in my poems, sing about the places I visit, capture my feelings of wonder, record my experiences of meeting people living in different parts of the world, and create a poetic portrait of our planet.


Q. I was going through your poetry collection ‘The Seduction of Delhi’. Here, the past and the present of the city are laid out for the reader to examine at leisure. The reader joins in the ‘prayers of the past’ (Qila-E-Kunha) and at the same time is pained by the graffiti on its ‘ancient walls’ (Shermandal). How do you zero-in on the core of the city, its identity, its soul?

A. First I visit the places I am going to write about and then read available literature on them. While writing poems, I try to bring together history, myths, legends and my own vivid imagination to get to the soul of the city. For example, while writing poems on Delhi, I visited the seven cities of Delhi, their ruins, monuments and tried to merge myself with them so that they can speak through me. That’s why poems in The Seduction of Delhi are written in the first person. Here is an example-


The Iron Pillar of Delhi

An emperor's conquest
                               of Hindustan
withering tides of time
emperors arrived
                        and vanished
all vainglorious
                             in their reigns
I alone survived
                         to tell
                                  their forgotten tales.


Q. Another noticeable thing about your body of work is its positive energy. Almost every poem echoes with a spirit of affirmation of ‘those who dance, endure and stay’ kind (Machu Pichu poem from The Alphabets of Latin America). In a world where there is more bad than good, how do you sustain this positive spirit and more importantly how do you suffuse your poetry with it?

A. Miracles happen when we believe in them. We become what we think. My own life is a proof of that. I have always believed in positive thinking and in turning adversities into opportunities. My journey from a small village in Bihar to where I’m now is a result of positive thinking and overcoming many adversities in life. These reflect in my poetry. One should never stop dreaming and working hard. One must stay focused to make one’s dreams come true.

I have received positive reviews about my poems from leading poets of our generation. Jayanta Mahapatra wrote -"Qualities of love, tenderness and compassion set Abhay K's work apart from much of the general run of current poetics." about The Seduction of Delhi, while Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock commenting on The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu, wrote “Abhay K has a special gift. His poetic mission, rare today, is simply to praise. His poems shimmer with a deep human appreciation of the gift of life and its fragile tapestry. I see them as Vedic hymns of praise in contemporary dress."


Q Your poetry seems to worship nature and exult in its beauty. In Pokhara (The Eight -Eyed Lord of Kathmandu) you talk about the ‘sacred call of birds’, ‘the silence beneath the crimson sparkling peak’. What brought you so close to nature?

A. I don’t know why but I feel the irresistible pull of nature. In fact I would rather use ‘Earth Family’ instead of ‘Nature,’ because using the word ‘nature’ implies that humans are separate from nature, which is not correct. We are a big family, the Earth Family. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam actually means Earth is a family, which encompasses the whole creation. It is human arrogance that divides it into the human world and nature. We are part of nature and it is our true home.

I find birdsong the best music in the world, purest and elevating. Here is a poem titled ‘Mountains’ from The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu.


Mountains

I wish to lose myself

in your immensity,

your torrents, your winds


Let your rocks be my strength,

your cascades my fall,

and your peaks my rise.


My very first poem says it all about my immense love for both the animate and inanimate world—


Soul Song

I was always here

As blowing wind or falling leaves

As shining sun or flowing streams

As chirping birds or blooming buds

As the blue sky or empty space

I was never born, I didn’t die.


Q. In The Magic of Madagascar you have embraced haiku. What attracted you to haiku? What made you feel that haiku could express the beauty of nature better than free verse or other forms of poetry?

A. 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, listening to the calls of the critically endangered Indri-Indri, watching silky Sifakas dance,  seeing turtles swimming in the emerald sea and watching sunset at the alley of baobabs or merely wandering around like a fakir following the tradition of the Japanese poets Basho, Buson and Issa, though in another island, and in another space-time.


a new born baby

or sickle-billed Vanga

who is crying?


breaking

night’s silence

Scops owls


the sound

of mating fossas

the full moon


how it loves

to bathe during the day

the spider tortoise


eggshell fragments

on windswept dunes

once Elephant birds


Q You have translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara. What made you turn to such ancient literary texts in Sanskrit? What kind of research did that entail? Did they help you in honing your own poetic skills?

A. I chose Meghaduta and Ritusamhara by Kalidasa because of their focus on nature and sensuous love, the two subjects of everlasting interest. These are not about a particular deity, king or queen or prince. These two are not court or religious poetry but secular and universal poetry like much of the contemporary poetry written today.  These are also works of ecopoetry.


As the world faces biodiversity loss of unprecedented scale with around one million species on the verge of extinction, poetry with a strong ecological content has started to take the centre stage of contemporary poetic discourse. New anthologies of ecopoems are getting published every year.  Meghaduta is full of detailed descriptions of flora and fauna of the Central and North India as well as of their hills, rivers, mountains, legends, beliefs, traditions, mythologies, rituals, high erotica among others while Ritusamhara is pure ecopoetry. Meghaduta creates a magical world in itself full of sylphs, nymphs, spirits, eight-legged animals, the wish fulfilling tree, various kinds of drums, celestial elephants, birds, rare flowers, fruits, plants and trees who help the cloud in his journey to deliver the Yaksha’s message to his beloved.


Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara describes changing life in six seasons—Summer, Rains, Autumn, Frost, Winter and Spring, by making reference to a wide variety of flora and fauna and their interaction with the environment. Kalidasa emerges as an ecopoet of very high sensibility and consciousness as he describes the plight of animals in different seasons in Ritusamhara and how they come together to support each other during extreme weather conditions while keeping their natural instincts at bay.


Translating these two Kalidasa’s classics inspired me to write a long book-length poem ‘Monsoon’. It is a poem of love and longing wherein an Indian poet-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, Tibet, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir Valley, their  flora and fauna, cuisine, festivals and monuments as monsoon travels through these places. Here are the first six stanzas of ‘Monsoon’-


I wake up with your thoughts

your fragrance reaching me

all the way from the Himalayas

to the island of Madagascar 

                                           

brought by monsoon

from the Himalayan valley

to the hills of Antananarivo[1] 

on its return journey                  


I dream of you every night,

the shimmering dawn snatches my dreams

but the morning breeze comes whispering your name, permeating

my being with your thoughts, only your thoughts, my love              


I’m far away in this Indian Ocean Island

yearning for your touch, gazing at the Moon,

Venus and myriad star constellations

hoping you’re gazing at them too                                             


I wait for the monsoon to be born[2]

to send you sights, sounds and aroma

of this island, redolent of vanilla, cloves,

Ylang-ylang[3] and herbs of various kinds                                       


O’Monsoon, wave-like mass of air,

the primeval traveller from the sea

to the land in summer, go to my love

in the paradisiacal Himalayan valley                                        


Q. The ‘Earth Anthem’ penned by you, has been translated into 150 languages and has been rendered by many prominent singers like Kavita Krishnamurti and Edson Soares (Symphony Orchestra of National theatre of Brasilia). What made you write this poem? Do you think this panegyric will help humanity to love its planet and keep it intact?

A. I wrote ‘Earth Anthem’ in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Russia one night, inspired by the Blue Marble image of our planet taken from space by the crew of Apollo 17 and by the ideals of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the whole Earth is a family) from Maha Upanishada. The idea behind writing ‘Earth Anthem’ was to celebrate the beauty and diversity of our planet from a cosmic perspective (Our cosmic oasis, cosmic blue pearl/the most beautiful planet in the universe), express the unity of life on Earth (united we stand as flora and fauna, united we stand as species of one Earth), to emphasize unity in diversity (diverse cultures, beliefs and ways/we are humans, Earth is our home), to show solidarity with one another (all the people and all the nations/one for all and all for one) and finally uniting to give our highest reverence to our planet (united we unfurl the blue marble flag).

It means a lot to me as it sums up my world view, my philosophy of being on Earth. ‘Earth Anthem’ has come a long way since I wrote it in 2008. It has been translated into more than 150 global languages, played at the United Nations in 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, featured in over 200 publications across the globe including the BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, The Times of India, Khaleej Times and China Daily. UNESCO described it as “an idea that can help to bring the world together,” and it was performed by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Brazil and the musicians of the Amsterdam Conservatorium, was set to music by violin maestro Dr. L. Subramaniam and was sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy. Over 100 poets, artists, singers, musicians, professors and people from different walks of life from across the world came together to read Earth Anthem to mark the 51st Earth Day on 22nd April 2021. It became one of the key global events on this occasion.


Q. Our readers would like to know if for you, poetry is simply a ‘spontaneous overflow of emotion’ or a conscious effort to put pen to paper. Could you please share the creative process that goes into your poetry writing with our readers?

A. It is at times ‘spontaneous overflow of emotion’ and at times a conscious effort. I don’t have a set routine for writing. I read a lot and write very little. Whenever I get an image, or a line, I write it down and then start building upon it gradually by reading literature available on it. Once a poem is complete, I leave it for some time and revisit it later and edit it until I’m fully convinced with the final outcome. Then it is ready for sending out for publication.


Q. You are not only a poet but also a painter. Your exhibition in Brazil reflects the richness of its culture. What made you pick up a brush instead of a pen to paint the hues of that country?

A. I have been painting since 2005.  I started painting almost at the same time I started writing poetry in Moscow. My artworks have been exhibited in Paris, St. Petersburg, New Delhi and Brasilia. Being a diplomat I travel a lot and that makes me aware of global issues that get channelled into my art works. My solo exhibition in New Delhi in 2012 titled ‘We have come far’ addressed issues related to environment and spirituality.

My last solo exhibition at the National Library of Brasilia, titled ‘One Planet,’ aimed to raise awareness about the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution that our planet faces.


Q. You are a very senior diplomat with onerous responsibilities. How do you manage to juggle your professional preoccupation and the call of your Muse? Do you at times feel that it hems your creativity?

A. Poetry and diplomacy have a lot more in common than it appears to our eyes. Poets and diplomats both deal with words and employ figures of speech to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Both choose their words very carefully. Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell it but tell it slant’ is valued by poets as well as diplomats. Brevity of expression, or to say more with fewer words, is practised by both poets and diplomats. One needs to be sensitive to be a good poet as well as a good diplomat.


In fact, a number of poet-diplomats have excelled both in poetry and diplomacy, such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and George Seferis, who served as ambassadors of their respective countries and received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Saint-John Perse was the Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry with the rank of an Ambassador, and had also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. There are several other poet-diplomats across the world who excel both in the art of poetry and diplomacy. Therefore, I believe there is a connection that needs further exploration.

I think poetry connects us at a deeper level, no matter where we come from. Reading and sharing a poem creates lasting bonds, even among strangers. Its universal appeal reaffirms our common humanity and transforms our minds. Poetry, like other art forms such as music, dance, painting…helps us in promoting dialogues across cultures.

I would like to quote the words of French writer Françoise Sagan—‘I shall live badly if I don’t write, and I shall write badly if I don’t live,’ to present my case. I’ll be a mediocre diplomat if I don’t write poetry and a mediocre poet if I am not a diplomat. For example, last month I was invited to guest edit the Madagascar Literature Month by the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and while interacting with Malagasy writers I learnt about Ibonia-the Malagasy Ramayana, as well as a book published in 1951 that lists over 300 words from Sanskrit in Malagasy language. I also learned that Madagascar’s greatest poet Jean Joseph Rabearivelo was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and mentioned him in his poem number 15 in his poetry collection Translated from the Night. These facts are of great value for cultural diplomacy. I would not have come to know about these if I was not interested in poetry.

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 the trend continues in Madagascar with the name ‘LaLitTana’. So far 13 editions of LaLitTana have been organised. These poetry events brought together a number of poets and gave them recognition, inspiration and support to continue writing poetry. 


I have not merely continued doing my job but have thrived in it. I was appointed India’s Ambassador to Madagascar in 2018 when I was 38. Now I am almost on the verge of completing my tenure in Madagascar.

I have found synergy between the two. For me poetry and diplomacy complement each other. Both are important for me and I find time for reading and writing poetry despite my highly demanding job.


The poetry of Abhay K is characterized by joie de vivre, as well as the tranquillity of a recluse. More power to such poetry!!


Thank you so much for taking time out for the readers, viewers and listeners of The Wise Owl. The Wise Owl wishes Mr Abhay K success in all his creative endeavours.



[1] Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar.

[2] Monsoon is born in the Mascarene high near Madagascar.

[3] Ylang-ylang is a tropical tree valued for perfume extracted from its flowers.

 

A look at the Book Jackets

Some of the books Published by Abhay K

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Great Indian Poems

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The Prophecy of Brasilia

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Ritusamhara & Meghaduta

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New Brazilian Poems

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Great Indian Love Poems

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The Alphabets of Latin America

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The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu

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100 Great Indian Poems

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CAPITALS

 A Poetry Anthology

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The Seduction Of Delhi

 

A Man of Many Parts

The inspiring journey of a poet-diplomat

Abhay K, a writer, a poet, a painter, a lyricist, a diplomat, is clearly a man of many parts. Looking at the number of poetry collections, translations, edited works and anthologies to his credit, one would assume that he comes from a long line of scholars and academicians. But when you read his Autobiography ‘River Valley to Silicon Valley’, you realise to your surprise that he has rural and agricultural antecedents. Abhay K’s grandfather was an agriculturist and wrestler residing in Bhattubigha, a tiny village on the banks of a seasonal river Paimar in Bihar. His father was the oldest of seven brothers and sisters. He had a thirst for knowledge and education but no money to assuage his thirst. Despite financial constraints, he somehow managed to complete his matriculation and subsequently subscribed to a government sponsored training program and became a schoolteacher. Abhay K  narrates the story of his parents’ marriage and how, much to their grief, they lost their first three children as there were no medical facilities in the village. So, they relocated to Chhabilpur, another village with more access to education and medical knowhow. This helped them to save their fourth child. Abhay came next. He says, “My mother often tells me that I was born after she had offered many prayers to the local village deities.”

Abhay K’s first school was the school his father had started in the village for village children. The school was a mud structure of two rooms where the children sat on the floor on ‘boras’ (sacks) to receive their education. But the days spent in his parental village and his ancestral village were days of bliss for him. Reminiscing fondly about those days, he says, “Now I can say I had the most blissful days on earth playing with other village kids, just running in the mango groves, outside my home, carefree, plucking guavas and ‘beris’ along the bank of Parimar.” But he realised that ‘he had promises to keep and miles to go.’ So, with steely grit, determination and dedication, despite initial disadvantages, Abhay K graduated from Kirori Mal College of Delhi University. He then went ahead and completed his Masters in Geography from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 2000 and was awarded the Junior Research Fellowship by the Union Grants Commission. He was not done yet. In 2003 he aced the prestigious Union Public Service Examination and joined the coveted Indian Foreign Service. Even as a probationer, he worked hard on a proposal to set up a SAARC University at Nalanda, which had been the seat of learning in ancient times.

Abhay K's first diplomatic assignment in 2005 was to Moscow. Here, even while shouldering his career responsibilities, he took time out to study Russian language and literature at Moscow State University. This was also the time when his Muse beckoned, and he began to write. He wrote his first collection of poetry in Moscow in 2009. The collection was called Enigmatic Love: Love poems from Moscow. This was followed in quick succession by Fallen Leaves of Autumn in 2010 and Candling the Light in 2011. Several collections were to follow, each inspired by the city or the country he was in. So The Seduction of Delhi pays tribute to the city, he studied in, The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu showcases the rich tradition and heritage of Nepal, The Alphabets of Latin America: A Carnival of Poems, describes and finds joy in the life and tradition of Latin America and The Magic of Madagascar writes about the beauty of the island of Madagascar, where Abhay K is currently posted as the Indian Ambassador. His extensive body of work includes translations of Sanskrit text Meghaduta and Ritusamhara by Kalidasa. His poetry has been featured in various anthologies like A Poem A Day by Gulzar, where I came across his poetry for the first time. He penned the ‘Earth Anthem’, which has been translated into 150 languages and has been rendered by many prominent singers like Kavita Krishnamurti and Edson Soares (Symphony Orchestra of National theatre of Brasilia).

The one thing that stands out in his writings and attracts the readers is the positive energy that suffuses all his work. There is an appreciation of the beauty of nature and an embracing thankfulness for being given a beautiful life. Abhay K says, “My journey from a small village in Bihar to where I’m now is a result of positive thinking and overcoming many adversities in life. These reflect in my poetry. One should never stop dreaming and working hard.” Inspiring words from a man whose life itself is an inspiration.

 

Delhi's Balladeer

The Seduction of Delhi: An Analysis

​The city of Delhi is a strange and complex mix of old world charm and modernism. The old monuments like Purana Qila or Humayun's tomb or Sher Shah Suri's gate peacefully co-exist with the modern Metro or the high rise buildings. Abhay K lays bare the soul of the city of Delhi with  his lyrically articulated poetry, a soul that seamlessly melds the past and the present. The 'pleasure pavilions of Shershah' become the 'abandoned abode of grafitti lovers.' Echoes of a turbulent past break through the contemporary veneer of the city. In Qila-e-Kunha, the poet encapsulates the fragrance of the past:

A stony grandeur

fragrant

with prayers

of the past

A Muezzin's call

echoing in my cells

For the poet, Delhi becomes a maiden plundered and ravaged by attacking 'hordes':

My smell

My nakedness

entices

hordes of human flesh

from faraway lands

What clearly comes through in the poetry is the poet's undying love for this city of 'poets, emperors and merchants.' Pavan K. Varma rightly says in the preface of the book that “I applaud Abhay for falling prey to its seductions with such literary elegance and poise. Delhi needs its own balladeers. In Abhay K., it has found one.”


Dr Suman Dogra, Asstt Professor, Government Degree College, Baroh in her paper entitled Approaching Abhay K's The Seduction of Delhi: A Study of Major Themes (New Academia: An International Journal of English Language, Literature and Literary Theory) says that the book is also marked by contemporaneity that dovetails into the traditional. The book has three sections focusing on: places, people and reflections on Delhi. Each section evokes a mixed feeling of nostalgia, loss, admiration and awe. In total there are thirty poems on monuments, edifices, popular places and common items that colour the fabric of Delhi including the modern Indian Coffee House, Rabindra Bhawan, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Connaught Place, Delhi University, Parikrama and Siri together with Lal Qila, Qutub Minar, Jantar-Mantar, Alai Minar, Purana-Qila, Shermandal, The Iron Pillar of Delhi, Ugrasen ki Bauli, Lodhi Garden, Sheesh Gumbad, Safdarjung Tomb, Humayun's Tomb, Tughlaqabad etc. The poems interweave the past and present effortlessly.The city has endured and survived many attacks and still retains its dignity and charm.