An interview with Prof. Sunil Sharma
Kiriti Sengupta: Working as a college principal and heading the department of English. Penning down poetry, short stories, novels and nonfiction as well. Conducting interviews with other authors, supervising the editorial committee of Episteme, your college journal, and critiquing literary works by other writers and poets. You seem to be a perfect renunciate although you might be living with your family. How has been the journey so far?
Sunil Sharma: It is tough managing many roles but since you love certain things, you have to do them and do them with red hot passion. Luckily, I am on a break. Completed my five-year-term as a principal in a Mumbai suburban college in July of this academic year. Then I decided to allow myself a holiday where I am my own boss. I hope, my lovely wife is not listening! A transit period; a time to introspect, gaze at the smoggy sun and flowers in the pots and decide what it means to be contemplative old man in a culture that valourises work and material gains. A different kind of engagement now but enriching like earlier assignments, multitasking, job pressures and a desire to glimpse beauty through arts. Enjoyed the hectic period; enjoying the current lull, and, preparing for upcoming responsibilities of similar profile, soon. Being a hermit does not lead to any breakthrough. You have to be this worldly and then be productive, despite odds and usual stresses. Well, journey like any other is good. A learning curve. Enjoyed setbacks and gains; lows and highs. Editing journals and books; undertaking literary activities — they are rich and fulfilling. You come to know many wonderful guys. Kindred souls. That is a rewarding experience and part of the delight.
Life! Thrilling! The best teacher! You live every minute.
Kiriti: Poetry writing has turned up to be methodical and at times fancy enough to be written over a discussion on Cricket or a movie. Like sex chat poetry has gone viral, worldwide. Do you think poetry is being benefited? The soul of poetry is being nurtured by any means?
Sunil: Depends. A poet might be interested in craft; another, in subverting the rules. It is subjective. In a consumerist society, everything is on sale. Erotica sells. Titillates. Gives a momentary shock to a jaded palate. Market evolves forms to keep the consumer engaged. Equating poetry with sex chats can be a way of looking at the process of communication. It is a libidinal in a cross-culture that sexes up everyone and turns things into sexy! Smart cellphone — sexy! Clever marketing devices that turn humans into objects and objects into humans. It is pure Marxism, not me. Likewise, devaluation is happening in arts also. It cannot be avoided. The commodification is affecting thought processes as well. Poetry is getting instantaneous like other emotions and expressions, standardized, neatly labelled and packaged for varied needs. It is an age of mediocrity. Great poetry — its soul is missing in a soulless world. Poetry, despite numbers and being viral, is anemic. It no longer speaks to the community. It is trapped in formalism and wordplay and displacements and abstraction. Almost antiseptic and clinical. That inner splendor is missing, its wealth, its lyrical appeal, its simplicity. Current poetry is like a pricey meal ... satiating and then forgotten.
Kiriti: It is said fiction writing is not only time consuming, it involves a great deal of effort and sweat. What has made poetry sound effortless?
Sunil: Fiction is lengthy and demands a big canvas. Poetry in 30-40 lines is a quickie. So it sounds like that. But scrupulous poets do work on the form and the medium and polish it to near perfection. It is a lifelong sadhna. The more you work, brighter it becomes. Many poets do not have that kind of patience and do it in hurry. Sometimes, a good-intentioned comment, becomes hurting for some and they tend to go at the jugular. Narcissism does not fetch long-term rewards in the liberal arts.
Kiriti: Literature does not fetch a handsome salary to the writers. Except for a few authors, most of the writers and poets in India do not receive any payment for their contribution to literature. Recognition, although a rare entity, is not enough to run a household. Moreover, not everyone would be included in academic curriculum. Future of Indian authors does not seem bright. What measures would you like to suggest to the editors and founders of those uncountable literary journals that have blossomed lately?
Sunil: I have no locus standi to do that — dispensing advice. We know art does not sell. So our choice. Editors or journals cannot alleviate this grim scenario. Unless you are writing Potter series, you are bound to be on the margins of impoverishment or poverty. That is its beauty and ugliness. Good art is above the logic of market hard-sell. So it creates its own USP and later on, gets incorporated into the system. Then another one comes up, a book and it disrupts the tradition and inaugurates another one. The cycle goes on. But few writers can expect pecuniary benefits out of writing and editors cannot determine the entire process.
Kiriti: Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das, Keki Daruwala and a few more poets are being studied for ages by the students of English literature in India. Don’t we have younger voices with enough potential to be studied and researched upon? Being an academic of long standing have you ever suggested names to the UGC and relevant authority?
Sunil: UGC and university system are ecosystems of a different order where entry of outsiders like me is banned. Run by coteries and bureaucracy, they have their listening posts and do not care for the subaltern. Babus! They do not care about people coming from the underground. But time is the best judge.
Kiriti: Not all poems can satisfactorily be recited. For example short verses, Haikus tend to end as soon as one starts reading them. Poetry is a subject to contemplate, absorb and assimilate into one’s being. Do you think reading sessions help in promoting poetry? Or do they promote the readers and poets concerned?
Sunil: English poetry in India is elitist. It is read in the Starbucks. So you can understand. It promotes Anglicized voices in an upper-middle-class ambiance, a certain exclusivity, a certain lifestyle, a salon-like discussion of art that makes the participants look a different species; a kind of reading and listening exercise in art appreciation and consumption that is remarkably pretentious and remote from the daily struggles that make our ordinary lives so magical and educative. On the other hand, recitation of folk art in a village setting or poetry session in any city adda is a different and more liberating gesture of connecting with popular concerns and struggles. It is more genuine mode of articulation of our struggles as human beings, driven out of the power structures, by a callous system.
Kiriti: What is the current trend of short stories in India, written in the English language?
Sunil: The typical angst. The ennui. The innervating experience. For me, it does not capture the real dimensions of metropolitan or rural India as does the fiction in regional languages.
Kiriti: Translated texts, be it poetry or fiction, are commonly neglected by the mass, even by the academics. What are the future prospects of translation studies in India?
Sunil: Translations are hot. They sell. I read lot of the Bengali literature in Hindi. Lot of cross fertilization is taking place and cross communication in Hindi and other languages is proving to be heavy traffic. As far as English translations are concerned, they are also very popular and open up new worlds for the readers. So, contrary to this perception, translation studies are most growing field of study and employment worldwide. India is no exception.
Kiriti: You have a number of published books of poetry and stories to your credit. Looking back, do you feel equally satisfied with all of them? Did you ever repent on any of your published work? Like, I should have avoided publishing this collection, or I should have edited the book more carefully?
Sunil: Once a piece is finished, it takes on its own independent entity. Regrets have no meanings then. However, revision can be done at any stage and book. No work is ever perfect. While re-writing it, another version pops up. Sound and Fury is a good example. A serious writer is never satisfied with their works.
Kiriti: Securing a steady flow of quality work is a difficult affair. How do you manage to publish quality work in every issue of Episteme consistently?
Sunil: Currently I am editing Setu and we go a long way to secure its quality. Once the credentials are set, it automatically starts coming, quality as per the set standards and expectations.