Interview with Ranjit Hoskote, author, Hunchprose
Which poets have you been reading during the pandemic? What have they offered you?
The pandemic has been a time both of reading and re-reading for me. I’ve been celebrating new poetry and renewing my engagement with poetry I’ve known for a long, long time. I read in several languages, among them English, German, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, and Sanskrit. During the pandemic, I re-read Paul Celan, Ruth Padel, Agha Shahid Ali, Ashok Vajpeyi, Mangalesh Dabral, and K Satchidanandan (Satchida in English translation, as, alas, I cannot read Malayalam). I continued to translate, and thus intensively to re-read, Bhartrihari, Amaru, Bilhana, and Mir Taqi Mir. I read Kedarnath Singh’s Akaal mein Saaras and Dhoomil’s Sansad se Sadak tak, which I had not read before. Among recent books, I read Mangesh Narayanrao Kale’s Maayaaviye Tahrir and Mustansir Dalvi’s Walk, as well as Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire and Sasha Dugdale’s Deformations. In manuscript form, I read Sampurna Chattarji’s translation of Joy Goswami’s prose poems, After Death Comes Water, and in the form of an advance copy, I read Tishani Doshi’s forthcoming A God at the Door.
What each of these poets has offered me is a profound reassurance in the poetic vocation, great consolation and the hope of healing at a bleak time. And a belief in the voice as afterlife, its enigma and illumination continuing across generations, overcoming trauma and crisis.
What made you pick the title Hunchprose for your new collection of poems?
The public response to poetry has tended to be ambivalent. Sometimes, it is placed on the throne of literary achievement, as a profound, demanding and elliptical art. At other times, it is dismissed as elitist, remote from reality, uncommunicative, a minority interest. How does poetry assert its claim to bearing witness to the world, against the claims of prose, against the news cycle, against non-fiction and fiction? The title poem, Hunchprose, plays this out through a persona that must constantly contend with opposition and misunderstanding. The neologism ‘Hunchprose’ also carries, within it, the presence of Quasimodo, the ill-starred bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s memorable novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, who, despite his deformity, produces the most beautiful carillon of bells at Notre Dame.
How does it feel to release a new book at this time of distancing and disconnection when you have been holed up in Mumbai for perhaps the longest time in recent years?
I haven’t been on a flight in a year, the longest time I haven’t flown in 30 years. On the other hand, I decided, early on in the lockdown, to treat this period as an extended residency – and my normal life, in any case, consists largely of keeping to myself, sitting at my desk, writing and reading. Through the last 12 months, I have felt a resurgent connection to the city of my birth, to the neighbourhood, to the city’s cultural and natural histories. Bombay is present in many of my books, and in Hunchprose, you will meet a 19th-century denizen of our metropolis, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was brought here as a child slave and settled in Zanzibar as a freed adult. Where is home, he asks himself, and where, among the countries and languages he knows, does he belong? Island, shrine, song and traffic converge in disorienting yet ultimately redeeming ways in the poem Haji Ali.
Could you tell us about when and how this book began its journey in Doha?
I was walking along the Corniche in Doha one evening in March 2019, when it began to drizzle, the light rain growing in intensity. I was there to install a large-scale exhibition of MF Husain’s work, which I had curated, at the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art. My mentor and guru in the world of visual arts, Okwui Enwezor, had just passed away. My friends and colleagues from early days, the RAQS Media Collective, were installing their own exhibition next door to my Husain show. Abdellah Karroum, director of Mathaf, is also an old friend and colleague, and our conversations went back over the years. I was, quite literally, revolving many memories as I walked at the water’s edge. To walk where water laps in or roars in to connect with land has always been, for me, an extraordinarily vital and mysterious experience. It induces flow, it produces a regeneration of mind, senses, orientation to the throbbing world. I began to compose the poem, Gulf Nocturne, in that moment.
I worked on Hunchprose at white heat, from March 2019 to February 2020, summoning up questions that have been with me for a long time – such as home, belonging, displacement, cultural confluence – and others that I have been focused on in my prose work – the climate catastrophe, the polarisation of society, the asymmetry of masters and slaves, centres and peripheries. At the core of Hunchprose is the survivor who is hostage, pilgrim, thwarted healer, apprentice mender – someone who seeks to set right what is broken, to heal what has been traumatised without numbing it into apathy. The key questions in this book are: What outlasts us? What will we leave behind that is generative and nurturing, rather than destructive and toxic?
Many of the poems are dedicated to specific people – Abdellah Karroum, Sandeep Bhagwati, Gargi Raina, Sudhir Patwardhan, Tyeb and Sakina Mehta, Ranbir Kaleka, Susan Hiller. The book as a whole is dedicated to Ruth Padel. What inspired you to invoke these colleagues and comrades?
There are, actually, far fewer dedications in this book than there are in my previous books. It has always been my practice to dedicate poems to friends, colleagues, mentors, figures from across time and space who have inspired me or played a role in the nurture of my imagination and my life. These are, variously, gestures of friendship, gratitude, homage. Sometimes, the poems refer to or evolve from experiences shared with the dedicatee. The poem for Gargi Raina, Cellar, was drafted originally as a response to her installation at Khoj Kasheer, Srinagar, a workshop in which we were both contributors. The poem for Sudhir Patwardhan, Protest, is a distilled reflection on the interplay of revolutionary expression and the interiority of retreat in his art. The poem for the German composer Sandeep Bhagwati evolved from texts I had written for his experimental musical project, Miyagi Haikus. The late artist Susan Hiller’s work has long fascinated me, moving me both intellectually and viscerally, and deeply informs Lemuria, which is dedicated to her. Ruth Padel’s friendship, her work as a critic and anthologist, and the example of her poetic practice, all pulled me out of a very difficult time in my life, the summer of 2015, after my mother’s death, when I felt I might never write another poem in my life. My wife and I stayed with Ruth in London that summer, and I began to write again, as I sat looking out over her exuberant garden. My 2018 book, Jonahwhale, began life there.
I was struck by one of the epigraphs you have used: “So hear me with your whole body.” Is this a roadmap for your readers, or your muse instructing you?
That line comes from Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva – I’m addressing it to my readers, but yes, I’m also reminding myself that listening is an act that is transformative, and that underwrites all forms of speaking and writing, and that calls upon us to respond to the world with all our senses. Hunchprose is an invitation to share a journey through the topographies of an irrevocably unsettled epoch, to begin conversations that can sustain us along this journey, to connect across disciplines, domains and world-views. Rational inquiry alone is not going to help us. We must learn to respond with all our faculties of instinct and intuition, bringing long-lost forms of sensory attention back into play, evolving new forms of empathy and mutuality.
How did the poets Kabir and Ghalib find themselves in these pages?
I have walked with Kabir and Ghalib, as a fellow pilgrim, for a very long time. My mother introduced me to each figure as a child, to the currents of their individual worlds. Their poems, distinctively different in utterance, tonality and context, have been vibrantly present to me and been an integral part of my life. Kabir and Ghalib have appeared in my essays, and in my poems. Kabir has appeared before in Cautionary Tales and Treasure Map with No Spot Marked X from The Sleepwalker’s Archive (2001), and in Landscapes with Saints from Vanishing Acts (2006). Ghalib has appeared before in Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt from Vanishing Acts, and in Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle, Night Runner, The Memoirs of Don Quixote, all from Central Time (2014). I’ve been working, for over a decade, on a translation of Ghalib’s ghazals.
The poem Prayer in Hunchprose left me curious. It says “what is healed is dead.” Could you help us unpack that? Is death here a cessation, a stagnation, a resolution? Can one ever know?
As I worked on Prayer, I had in mind the Sufi experience of the raqs-e bismil – the dance of the wounded, those who have been struck by the barq-e tajalli, the lightning of illumination. One form of healing is an overcoming of pain, a recovery of strength and wholeness. Another form, the one ironically flagged in the poem, involves the numbing of sensation, the anaesthetising of affect, the repression of that which seeks voice. Can one ever be certain which form of healing one has gone through, especially after historic trauma? And does one want to test its resilience?
For me, the poem Tree in Hunchprose sparked off associations with two other poems on the same theme – Gieve Patel’s On Killing a Tree and Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Tree. Do you find your work conversing with theirs, not only with this poem but also more broadly?
I have counted both Gieve and Arundhathi among my friends for over 30 years. In Tree, however, I converse with somewhat older poets, the kavi and the sramana, the composers of the Upanishads and siddhas like Sarahapada who, in one of his dohas, sings of the Fair Tree of the Void. What is that tree whose shadow we take to be reality, producing an entire lifeworld around it? What is the sap that might gush forth if we gash the bark of this “fornever and never tree”, as I call it?
When you revisit your translations of the Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded in I, Lalla (2011) after working on Hunchprose, what do you notice about your own craft? Would you call Lalla a mentor?
Lalla is a constant presence to me. I very certainly think of her – the historical person at the core of the corpus, and the generations of anonymous contributors who composed vaakhs under her signature through the centuries – as a mentor figure. Working on my translation of Lalla’s vaakhs took me in the direction of a supple poetic diction, one that could play between the everyday and the cosmic, across tonal registers ranging from the robust to the subtle, the allusive to the direct.
The blurb poses these poignant questions: “What affirms our humanity, enduring beyond our barbarism? Where is home, in a world beleaguered by climate crisis, pandemic and genocide?” Where do you look for the answers? Or does it seem enough to question?
Where do we seek sustenance after an engagement with the world, however necessary, has depleted us in spirit? To what sources of perennial energy do we turn? Art is a source of replenishment, to me, as is meditative retreat. The quest for common ground, for solidarity, can be demanding – but it, too, helps us find healing and mending, as individuals and as members of larger collective formations. The practice of the civic imagination – that faculty through which we propose constructive alternatives to the current social, cultural, economic and political systems – is crucial to the asking of these questions, and to looking for answers in a spirit of indomitable hope.
How do you hold the questions that seem most urgent to you when you have collaborators on the journey? Hunchprose made me think of Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West, which you co-authored with Ilija Trojanow, and also Veer Munshi: The Dialogues Series, which you co-authored with Nancy Adajania.
I collaborate with individuals with whom I share a set of values, anxieties, joys and preoccupations – and with whom I have shared perceptions of artistic, cultural and political urgency over a long period. Ilija Trojanow and I researched and discussed the book that became Confluences for over a decade. Nancy Adajania and I grew up with, or have long known, the artists with whom we conducted the conversations that went into The Dialogue Series – Veer Munshi, Atul Dodiya, Manu Parekh, Anju Dodiya, and Baiju Parthan. Collaboration, to me, is not an instrumental project-oriented activity so much as it is a sacrament of sharing in which something gets produced that is larger than the contributors, that is expansive and inexhaustible, and potentially rich in significance for ever-amplifying circles of readers or viewers.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect