My Writings and I: The Fool In The Tarot Card Apulaachi vaad apunishi: My Arguments with My Own Self
It is not easy of course to talk about everything I have done in the world of writing. When I look back, I am shocked by the huge output I have burdened the world with: 900 pages of poetry, 800 pages of drama, 300 pages of translation, 600 pages of prose in Kannada. As if this is not enough to pollute the already polluted world of letters, I have nearly 500 pages of prose, 300 hundred pages of poetry and 400 pages of translation in English. All this I wrote in a life not entirely or whole heartedly committed to writing. It was never my intention to be a writer. I wanted to become a vet or an agricultural scientist or a world famous wrestler. I have invested more time in my teaching job and in pursuit of other interests: I have spent years in chasing saints, tantrics, astrologers to understand the non-rational dimension of experience; I dedicated an equal amount of energy to my social commitments in Communist Party, Dalit organizations and more recently in the social movements in the Himalayas and North East. So my writing has come out of me in spite of myself.
There is a cyclicity about events in life. This year received Sahitya Akademi Award, the highest literary award, given by Govt. of India, I was one of the oldest writers to get it. When I was given equally prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1997, I was one of the youngest play-wrights to get it. The recognition accorded to my humble writing is of course a matter of joy. I have also been a recipient of several other prizes and awards for different genres of writing at the state level.
When I got Sahitya Akademi award this year for my 9th book of poems, Mabbina Haage Kaniveyaasi (Like Mist through Valleys), I remembered that my second book made it to the last round of selection way back in 1982. I missed it narrowly. I was not sad about this loss as getting an award at such a young age would have gone to my head and made me lazy about my art. Waiting without hope for thirty years was a great learning experience which helped me fine-tune my craft.
My favourite Japanese writer Yukio Mishima put up an exhibition a few days before his tragic-comic hara-kiri in a desperate bid to stop Japan’s modernization. I remember him because he was a splendid writer though I hate his Fascist politics and masochism. This exhibition was intended to be his farewell to the world. It had three sections: the river of the body, the river of the self and the river of writing. This has symbolic meaning to me. Mishima spent a lot of time perfecting his body as a student and master of kendo. He had lived rich mental and social life as a student of different branches of knowledge and as a rightist activist. This was the conscious part of his life. But his unconscious life he lived in his writings. Hence the message of his many-faceted writings is much more complex than his conscious beliefs or intentions.
I too have used my writings as a clearing ground of my non-literary engagements and experiences. My long commitment to the culture of the body during my wrestling, yoga and karate days and to life of the self through spiritual, intellectual and social commitments metamorphosed into my creative writings in verse, prose and drama.
Hemmingway, one of my favourites, said: ‘For a true writer, every book is a new beginning.’ For me, every poem or play has been a new beginning.
I see myself as in the first card of Tarot deck called Fool. Here we see a fool walking ahead unmindful of the fact that he is walking along a sharp cliff about to end nowhere. He is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t know he is about fall off the cliff. When he falls, he may become a lump of shattered bones and muscles unless some kind angel or god rescues him. When I write I enter the unmapped and uncharted territories of my personal and collective unconscious. I am almost on the border of total insanity or extinction. But luckily for me, my muses, divine daughters of imagination, appear from nowhere and like, Beatrice leading Dante through hell, lead me to a meaningful destination.
A private adventure undertaken unwisely leads us to a goal that makes sense to us and the rest of the world. The great Marathi poet Tukaram called poetry ‘my own argument with my own self’ (Apulaachi vaad apunishi). If it does not make sense, it can be just balderdash. If it does, it becomes poetry. Particularly when it makes sense to other individuals and communities that is the moment of great reward bigger than any award.
I consider myself blessed because there were many such richly rewarding moments in my life.
After the publication of my second book, dalits, leftists, feminists started looking upon me as their spokesperson though they were greatly embarrassed by my spiritual preoccupations. Between 1992 and 19994 my first play became the subject of a violent controversy in Karnataka. This play about the 12th century social reformation movements led by saints was opposed tooth and nail by fundamentalist groups and was equally militantly defended by leftist, dalit, OBC and feminist groups. It also became an election issue. The detractors of the book burnt 20 government buses and brought two districts of North Karnataka to a standstill. The book was debated in assembly and council. It gave headaches to one Prime Minister, two Chief Ministers and their cabinets as protests for and against the book hit the headlines for three years. I became the most hated and most loved writer of my language in those three restless, sleepless years of my life.
I have not just been a trouble-maker. My writings have bought new hope to dalits and marginalised. My poem on Tehri dam endeared itself to social activists in the Himalayan region. My plays have made sense to Meitei people in Manipur and to Rabha tribals in Assam.
When my collected poems were published in 2011, this huge volume was sold out in 3 months. That means I have many admirers and followers in Karnataka. My play productions are popular, one of which has crossed 500 shows. Many writers and readers from most Indian languages love my writings. I have my readers in Asia, Africa, Europe and Americas.
In the autumn of my life, I am once again close to the edge of the cliff like Fool of Tarot cards. The denouement is again uncertain. I do not know if the muses will turn up this time. But they have always come and comforted me whenever all else failed.
Though I gave up my glorious ambition of becoming a world class wrestler or veterinary doctor at the age 16 and switched to the study of English language and literature, this had nothing to do with any literary ambitions. I never intended to burden the world with so much poetry let alone publishing them in English.
Poetry entered me through the backdoor. I started scribbling some Kannada lines surreptitiously in my English classes where lectures in chaste English were going over my head. What began as a harmless pastime later became a hobby, then a habit and at last a commitment
A part of broader culture, literary cultures exist and expand only through equal exchanges. So creativity is coeval with translation, adaptation and domestication in my Kannada tradition. But traditions live on not because they are givens; they grow up, expand, transform and transcend to ensure their health and longevity. This process so natural to cultures is not always smooth or unimpeded. Politics of unequal exchange in the form of conquest, control, subordination and subjugation—what Soyinka called recurring cycles of human idiocy—interfere time and again when to retain the conditions of equal exchange is in itself a great challenge.