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Interview: Sharmila Ray

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Sharmila Ray)

The Wise Owl interviews Ms Sharmila Ray, a celebrated poet, short-story writer and non-fiction essayist, who is currently an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of History at City College, Kolkata. A major in History with a Ph.D. on Durga and governance, Ms Ray has authored eight books of poetry viz. Earth Me And You (1996), A Day With Rini(1998), Down Salt Water (1999), Violet Heart Strings (1999), Living Other Lives (2004), It’s Fantasy,It’s Reality (2010), With Salt And Brine (2013) and Scrawls and Scribbles (2016). Her chapbook, ‘Windows’ has been published by Melbourne based Black Prune Press.

In 2006, she rendered her poetry against the backdrop of Sarod played by Avijit Ghosh in the album, ‘Journey Through Poetry and Music.’ ‘Hello’ (2013) is another poetry CD of hers. Her poems, short stories and non-fictional essays have appeared in various national and international magazines and journals. For a time, she wrote the column Moving Hand Writes (Times of India). She also edited Poetry and Art, a journal of art and poetry (1992-1998) and The Journal (2012-13), a journal of the Poetry Society of India. Ms Ray has curated an exhibition combining paintings and poems sponsored by Alliance Francaise, Calcutta. She represented India at the International Struga Poetry Evenings, in Macedonia and International Poets Meet in Kerala and Vietnam. She was on the English Board of Sahitya Akademi (India’s National Akademi of Letters). Her poetry has been widely anthologized and featured both in India and abroad. Her poems have been translated into Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Slovene, Hebrew and Spanish.  She has received awards for her poetry from Green Tara Initiatives in 2018, from All India Qaumi Ekta Manch in 2019 and from Ethos Journal in  2019.

Ms Ray, thank you so much for talking to The Wise Owl.


RS: Your body of work is brimming with beautiful poetry. Our readers would be curious to know what it is about this form of expression (poetry) that beckons you.Also, please tell us a little about your creative journey.

SR: Thank you. I really can’t point to a definite form of expression for my poetry. I would feel claustrophobic. I toy with an idea, perhaps a word and then it slowly grows into poetry. It can be in free verse or in meter, depends on the subject and my state of mind at that given point in time.

From a very young age I always felt there was more to my surroundings than I perceived. I was always searching for something. Being an only child and both parents working (both professors) I was left to find devises to brighten up my everyday life. Our house was full of books, books belonging to my grandfather, books of my mother, father, uncle. And in the sepia shadow of bookshelves and chairs, I started to dream of a world created by me, a tantalizing universe which came into existence and faded simply by my imagination. Every night I wrapped this around me like a warm quilt creating a comfort zone. Then one day I thought of writing down my imagination. I thought if I didn’t do it fast it would elude me. Perhaps, that was my entry to poetry. I really cannot pinpoint a particular time or year, But this much I can say, written words always attracted me. My mother developed my taste for reading and she bought me many books. The smell of paper created a secondary world, a world that was distant and at the same time inviting. Looking back I feel my school also helped me because sometimes, we had to write rhymes.

RS: A lot of your poetry is like a shimmer of colours on a canvas. Your poem ‘Summer’ talks about how summer spills paints making the ‘Veranda ochre’ and how small pots of coriander ‘add colour.’ ‘Alphabets’ talks about how ‘words have colours too-coral, topaz, cerulean.’ What brought you close to the bright colours of Nature? What made you meld colours in your poetry?

SR: I love paintings, especially abstract art. Sometimes, I play with colours also. It is not always necessary that to write poems, poetry should be the inspiration, I have a very vivid visual memory and paintings motivate my creative process. I love to see everything in terms of colour. For example, your smile an attractive fuchsia, my response is cadmium yellow, so on and so forth. As far as I am concerned poetry can be Chinese lanterns hanging from Van Gogh’s Peach Tree, the warm amber and ochre of Rembrandt’s Universe or it could blur all formal representation and become lines and colours on a Kandinsky’s canvas.

RS: In your Prelude to ‘Scrawls & Scribbles’, you describe poetry as a universe of sentences-hallucinating sentences, meditative sentences, adoring sentences, impenetrable sentences. Could you throw some more light on this? Could you also tell us the creative process that goes into your poetry writing? Is it any different when you write non-fiction essays or short stories?

SR: Poetry is shared with oneself and others through written words or orally. Sentences are made of words and the placing of words create variegated meanings and emotions. Hence it can be hallucinating, meditative etc. When I write, be it poetry or prose, there is no process as such, and this in itself is a process. For me every charred door has a story, every crumpled shirt can speak. Journeying through present, remembered past and anticipating future, while I am in the process of writing, snapshots, recollections fill me up. They do not follow any palpable logic rather they are off springs of paradox. This is how I see my life and my response to my surroundings, tides coming and going and leaving marks on the sand only to be erased by the next wave.

RS: You say, ‘words are my valentine.’ This probably has piqued the curiosity of many. Please tell our readers what you mean by this succinct turn of phrase.

SR: Very simple. Without words I would die. I need words to scribble to create sentences. To bring out my inner self, bathe in heart-warming colours, to communicate with the world which is mine as also yours. There is no barrier between you and your words. Valentine indeed! It can bring the seashore smell of seaweeds upon your window-sill at a moment’s notice or perhaps, midnight-indigo on a hot summer afternoon.

RS: Your earlier poetry was more about sights and colours. You talked about ‘a shaft of starlight’ ‘marble-veined’ cityscape ‘Marooned in chiaroscuro’ et al. But in a recent poem ‘Smell’, you talk about a breath that smells ‘like green chillies’ like ‘hot chocolate’ and you say (perhaps with resigned acceptance) ‘no words, no sound, only smell’. In a prelude to the recitation of the poem you say that the lockdown has enhanced your sense of smell.  Please tell our readers how the lockdown impacted your creativity and why the focus on smell. Do you feel that the lockdown walled up your other senses?

SR: I don’t remember if I said that the lockdown had enhanced my sense of smell. But yes, this pandemic effected each and every one of us. This lockdown made me realise even more that human relationship is next to breathing and our planet is very precious. All my senses became more sharp. The joy and frustration of human existence, death and melancholy all made me strong to live a new grammar of life, the total willingness to live within this paradox which in turn gets reflected in my poems.  To open to other’s sufferings with what Levinas called infinite, absurd compassion. It is absurd for it is not based on any ratiocinative calculation of blame and responsibility. It is infinite for it engulfs the I into oblivion, at least for that moment.

RS: Most of your poetry talks about the beauty of Nature and heady moments. But in your poem, ‘Earth’ you talk about ephemeral moments, about life which is a ‘dying swan song’, about ‘ashes mingling, us, the universe’. Why this movement from ‘this moment to cherish forever’ to ‘these moments never last long’? Was it the pandemic that turned your mind and creative expression towards the temporary nature of life and its moments?

SR: Not pandemic because those poems were written much earlier. All moments are ephemeral, transitory. That is why we have memory. Nothing is permanent in an earthly sense. Life I feel is a mystery. Hidden, half-hidden, complete, incomplete stories. I am basically an optimist. I see the world, people and places and try to get into their skin, their smell.  We all know nothing lasts long. So why not savour the moments, the nano seconds?

RS: In Earth, you say ‘Let’s talk softly, you and me.’ Who is your invisible companion in solitude?  You also say ‘Do you dream? I do.’ What dream are you talking about here? What (if I may ask) is your dream for yourself as a poet?

SR: Anyone who is willing to listen. No one in particular. The dream of looking at life with positivity. We all have ups and downs but to get embraced by negativity is not my cup of tea. This world of ours is very beautiful. We need to open our heart-eyes even if for once.

Writing poetry, more poetry is my dream. The home that I carry within me, much denied but irrefutable home. In this impossible universe this is my God’s window.

RS: You have written a chap book ‘Windows’. Please tell our readers about the central theme of this chapbook. Why did you feel the need to publish a chapbook when you have written full length collections of poetry?                                                                                                  

SR: Why not a Chapbook? There is no hard and fast rule that one can’t. The theme is eclectic. They range from personal domestic observations to large externalised themes. I would certainly turn mad if I had to write constantly on one particular issue and make my signature.

RS: Do you have any favourite poet or poets? What do you like about them?

SR: It is a very difficult question to answer. Reading is my passion. I read poems in English, Bengali and English translation of other languages. I love Rabindranath Tagore for his universalism and spirituality, Jibanando Das for his ability to get inside the skin of an emotions, Pablo Neruda for his metaphors, Sylvia Plath’s intense imagination, Fernando Pessoa’s  esotericism and alchemy. The list goes on.

RS: In ‘Small’ (Scrawls & Scribbles) you talk about streets dressed up in ‘swathes of supermarkets and high rises’ and reminisce about how ‘summer squirrels leapfrogged here’. You seem to be lamenting the excessive commercialization that has destroyed the innate beauty of the earth. Do you think literature or literary works can impact the thinking of society and redress imbalances?

SR: Surely but it takes time. All revolutions and great changes had philosophers and poets to marinate the mind. Our civilization would have ended long ago if we didn’t have literature and culture.  Today we have so much writing on anthropocene, just to save our planet. This reminds me of Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book The Climate of History in a Planetary Age which is very insightful. Climate changes he argues, turn upside-down long-standing ideas, notions and practice of history modernity commercialization and globalization.

RS:  I enjoyed listening to your mellifluous rendition of poetry along with and in tandem with the sarod notes of Avijit Ghosh. Some of your poetry also has a lyrical quality to it. Has this lyrical and musical quality of your poetry come from training in music, or does it come to you naturally?

SR: Oh no. If I sing everyone will run a mile. I just read my poems. That’s all. I don’t like dramatising when I am reading. After all poetry is you speaking. You hardly amplify and exaggerate your emotions when you talk.

RS: You have said somewhere that you never left Calcutta. Clearly it was not the fear of the unknown, considering your poetry does not hesitate to be experimental or depart from regimented pathways. So, what anchored you so strongly to the city of your birth?

SR: It just happened. After school I went to Presidency College and Calcutta University. I always wanted to be a creative writer not an academic in a narrow sense of the term. So it didn’t matter where I stayed. Then I got a job in a college in Kolkata. Of course I was travelling in India and abroad for poetry readings and poetry festivals. And honestly I love Kolkata. Its warmth is all embracing. I indulge in nostalgia regarding my relationship with the city. It is an indulgent nostalgia, picking up some long-remembered wanderings, a leaf here, a memory there. The city is wretched at one point and tantalizingly seductive at the other. Perhaps enigmas are meant to be like this. Kolkata is an enigma to me.

RS: The great MF Hussain did the cover of your book ‘Living Other Lives’. Our readers would be curious to know (as I am) how this happened?

SR: Well! that is story I cherish. I was thinking about a cover for Living Other Lives when one of my friends said why not MF Hussain. I took up the challenge. But I didn’t know him, nor did I have his contact number. After sometime, a friend forwarded me his number. I was afraid to phone him, and I wondered if he would receive my call or not. Like a school girl tense and unsure, I rang him. A baritone answered yes. Nervously I told him that I write in English and if I send him my poems and then if he likes them will he do a cover for me. I was ready for a no response. But to my utter amazement he just said send me your poems and gave the address. The rest is history.

I am overwhelmed still. He just could have said no. He didn’t know me personally. Such expansiveness, open-heartedness I have never come across. Truly a great painter in every sense of the term. 

                    

RS: Our readers would be eager to know if there is another poetry collection on the anvil. When do we see a freshly minted book in the bookstores?

SR: Yes. This poetry collection is very different from others. It is on Varanasi. But not descriptive, rather an inward journey. I feel either the readers will love it or throw it in the bin. There is no grey area here. Hope to publish it soon.

RS: What advice would you give to budding poets about honing their craft?

SR: Really, I am not that great to give advice. But a small suggestion, that is read poems more poems, non fictional essays, ponder and assimilate. Go on writing. No matter what. And do not sell your conscience for immediate gains. One must understand writing poetry seriously is a form of meditation. It is so internal and subtle, and it brings changes without the headlines.

RS: Today’s generation is moving away from the written word, moving more towards a visual representation of feelings and emotions through emojis, memes etc. How do you envisage the future of literary genres like poetry or story writing in a world where Tik-Toks and ‘shorts’ are the order of the day?

SR: Look you cannot go back. But I do believe in balance. People will choose. Maybe the number of readers will dwindle. But it is my firm belief that the world of words will stay, be it poetry or novel or any other thing. I want to echo Umberto Eco’s words in This is not the end of the book that is -

‘Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing’.


Thank you so much Ms Ray for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you joy and satisfaction in your creative journey. We hope you continue to experiment with words, music and painting and make the experience of reading poetry a multi-layered one for your readers.