Power of the pen: In conversation with two Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winners

From finding a voice in Urdu poetry to chronicling history — Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar winners Nighat Sahiba and Manu S Pillai tell us about their beginning, inspiration, and the obstacles they overcame to attain success.

books Updated: Jul 17, 2017 10:37 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
Sahitya Akademi,Literature,Manu S Pillai
Delhi-based author Manu S Pillai and Kashmiri poet Nighat Sahiba tell us about their journeys and what the Sahitya Akademi award means to them.

When Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar and Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2017 were announced last month, one thing that emerged was the recognition of regional poets. We speak to Kashmiri poet Nighat Sahiba, who received the award for her collection Zard Panike Dair, and author Manu S Pillai, who was felicitated for his book The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, a biography of the last queen of Travancore.

Verses from the Valley

For poet Nighat Sahiba, books came as an escape and a tool for empowerment. “I was born in a traditional semi-literate family in rural Anantnag where females had no say in the decisions. I would wonder how men could speak freely about everything and women simply cry in solitude,” says the 34-year-old poet.

“It was in this suffocating environment that books became my oxygen. Though I leaned to books for an escape but soon became an ardent reader of history, religion and fiction,” she adds.

“I believe poetry can make mountains move provided the poet is interested in moving them,” says poet Nighat Sahiba.

Though initially she was scared of failures, she wrote her first Urdu poem in the XIth standard. “Little did I know that someday people will read me. It took me yet another three years to get my first poem published,” she says.

She feels that more than her own contentment upon receiving this honour, it is the happiness of her friends and readers that matters more to her.

Coming from a war-torn area, separation and pain became pre-dominant themes in her poems. “But [I] soon moved to socio-political and socio-religious issues. I have tried to reject many deleterious popular beliefs and evoke people to think beyond established traditions. Many of my poems revolve around feminist themes. Since I belong to a war zone, a reasonable space is occupied by the themes of pain and loss caused by political distress. Love and hope are my favourite themes, though I am not an idealist,” she says.

Can poets like her bring about reform? “I think it has never been duty of a poet to transform a society but, he, nevertheless, possesses the power to do so. I believe poetry can make mountains move provided the poet is interested in moving them,” she says.

She writes in Urdu, and the collection of translations will expectedly come by the end of this year. “The immediate thing I am planning to work on will be an autobiographical novel or an autobiography. Since a lot of my poetry, both Kashmiri and Urdu, is unpublished, I may get that published within a year or two,” she says.

Charting the course of history

History is a resounding theme in the works of author Manu S Pillai, and his debut novel The Ivory Throne chronicles the life of the last queen of Travancore. “The book took six years, and these were six challenging years. Everything else I did was aligned to the book-writing — something as basic as where I lived. When I needed archives in India, I came and worked in Delhi. When it was time for the British archives, I moved back to London where I first went to study, and so on. At the end of it, in 2015, I took five months off to finish the book,” he says.

“Indian history, frankly, has such remarkable richness, such a wealth of accumulated experience,” says author Manu S Pillai.

The award has come as a reassurance to the 27-year-old author. “Many writers have that fear of not being up to the mark; an acknowledgment like this is encouraging. Though, there is still much to do, much to learn, and lots to write,” he explains.

The moment he realised his name was up on the website, was a funny one, by his own admission. “I was getting into a taxi to go watch a film, and my mother called, demanding to know why I hadn’t “told her”. I asked her to tell me what it was that I hadn’t told her, and that’s how I heard the news. Of course, I then checked and saw my name in the list on the Sahitya Akademi website,” he says.

Given that history fascinates him, when asked what aspects of it he wishes to shed more light on, he says, “It isn’t one aspect as much as the fact that there are so, so many stories that are yet to be told; so many layers to peel off, and so much to discover, and to understand. History is also a warning. The world has always moved a step ahead, only to regress two steps in a repeated cycle. This dance of society with time is fascinating. Indian history, frankly, has such remarkable richness, such a wealth of accumulated experience. If only we could learn from it with maturity, we could build new ways forward,” he says.

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First Published: Jul 17, 2017 10:36 IST