NILAVRONILL: Do you think literature or poetry is really essential in our life? If so why? And how does it relate to the general history of mankind?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Literature is to my mind the oxygen of life. It is vital to awaken our sensibilities to the world around us, its people and the events that are unfolding. It takes into account the science, art and commerce of living. It introspects on and analyses the very essence of existence. Literature gives us a very accurate picture of the history of mankind, whichever genre it may choose to portray. Apart from the social and political scenarios it depicts, it’s a mapping of the mindscape of the peoples of the world. It represents the ethos prevalent in a particular place or time. In fiction a storyteller takes many liberties and hence it’s, as in good literature, often ahead of its time. It distills the events of history and current issues and offers perspectives and questions norms and ideas unrelentingly.
NILAVRONILL: Our readers would like to know your own personal experience regarding the importance of literature and poetry in your life. Why literature or poetry in specific interests you so much? Who were your favourite writers during the early period of your life? And how they have paved your early routes in literature?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Books were a way of life for us. My father had a trunkful of classics mostly, which travelled with us through our various postings during his career in the Indian Air Force. And books were the rewards we got for everything, as well as our birthday, Christmas and New Year gifts. I started writing young, at maybe Class IV. I used to be given thick lined notebooks, which incidentally, were of the Nandita brand. And as I was in the habit of writing stories, Dad eventually asked me to write them in one notebook. That notebook was presented to my grandfather who was a senior criminal advocate and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s classmate in Presidency College. He in turn would show it around the Bar Council members and they would ask him to publish it. Grandpa also had the most amazing hexagonal library with French windows and an endless stock of books. He too presented me with a lot of children’s classics. The Erle Stanley Gardner collection also I devoured during those winter holidays, amongst others. I was interested in almost every kind of book uptil around college. Poems were an automatic choice. I could always identify easily with poets. I loved reciting too. Literature was my favourite subject in school and I read the textbooks completely, despite having only selected poems and stories in our syllabus. Shakespeare was an early fascination, at first through Charles and Mary Lamb’s stories, and later when I started enjoying reading Shakespeare directly, without annotations. Of course, early readings were fairytales and children’s classics, apart from Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton became our Bible, so to say. She determined the way we thought, imagined, eat or dressed. Our curiosity and sense of adventure was whetted by her books. Then Oliver Strange had a great impact on us, the kids of the Air Force station. Since books and comics were all we had, we had to exchange them amongst ourselves to have a constant supply of new books. And so it was everything, the Holmes, the Chase, Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Barbara Cartland, M&Bs, Hemingway, Forsyth, Sheldon, Steele… The school library was the bigger source of the classics, Mill on the Floss, One flew..etc. Hardy, Dickens, Tolstoy. And all the comics! I read whatever I could get.
NILAVRONILL: Do you think society as a whole, is the key factor in shaping you up as a poet, or your poetry altogether?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Not at all. As I mentioned, we were brought up without much contact with society. We grew up as an extended family in an Air Force station. We neither saw strangers nor had any interaction with them, even during our sheltered holidays. We only saw common people through our school bus windows, on one part of a particular route. Since there was no phone or TV our exposure to the world was very negligible. The overriding influence in my life has been through books. I avoided newspapers then, so my GK was nil. It was my interest in journalism which trained me in reporting, editing etc. I instinctively veered towards human interest stories, much before I actually started getting exposed to them through journalism.
NILAVRONILL: Do you think people in general actually bother about literature in general? Do you think this consumerist world is turning the average man away from serious literature?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Yes, in general reading has taken a big hit. Television, social media, games, sports are the abiding interests of youngsters. As mothers we have always discussed this lack of interest in reading among the students. Since that’s the age really when one has the freedom and time to indulge in leisure reading, that lacuna sets the pattern for later life. And thrillers and bestsellers are what people in general read. Luckily for us, my son is completely into books and is now by far the best read in the house.
NILAVRONILL: How do you relate your own self existence with your literary life in one hand, and the present time and the socio-political space around you, in the other.
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: It’s a lot of anguish for me. I chose to do a lot of deeply impactful stories in journalism, on children’s issues, the physically and mentally challenged, labour etc. That’s the reality which my current writing too centres on. The deprived, the rejected, those afflicted by war and strife. I get deeply affected by the social issues around me. I no longer exist in an insulated world. The common cause is very important to me. The journalist in me takes precedent always, and I like to think of myself as a journalist- poet. I react to events in the world, and particularly around me. I have been reading newspapers obsessively since my 20s, say. So with my background in literature studies and direct exposure to social causes, my poetry is a distilled form of the realities of the world. It’s sacrosanct to me and I would not sacrifice it to the urge to introduce artifice into it by way of embellishing it with language and effects. The integrity of the piece is very important to me. If I write, it has to be true to me. I firmly believe a real poet is honest, is introspective and is committed to the soul of his work. If one can achieve that through words, he’s in a good space.
NILAVRONILL: Please give us some idea about your own views on the contemporary Indian literature written in English.
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: It’s a very exciting time for Indian writers in English. I think in the Internet age there will be an explosion of talent from India in the world. Firstly, the numbers of educated and erudite Indians everywhere are huge. Indians still have more reading and writing habits in general, in English and the vernacular. Secondly, the opportunities thrown up by the digital world have kind of levelled the game. And since India is a very large, complex country with mega issues and problems, there is no end to the stories which beg telling. Since a motivated writer does not have to achieve the success of the celebrated authors to be published, the playing field has become very wide and exciting.
NILAVRONILL: Do you think in this age of information and technology the dimensions of literature have largely been extended beyond our preconceived ideas about literature in general? Now, in this changing scenario we would like to know from your own life experiences as a poet, writer and a creative soul; how do you respond to this present time?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: The conventional publishing industry has definitely changed. Like in music, where people no longer have to buy music and have their playlists with them always, so too with books. Kindle was a gamechanger in more ways than one. People read digitally all the time. The monetary savings account for a lot. Travelling around with heaps of books is now almost a thing of the past. Access to everything, books, poetry, audio books, research papers online really means that whoever has the incentive can indulge in reading anywhere, anytime and without extra expense. Also, the delivery system of books has made it very easy to acquire books. It’s a far more conducive world for readers and writers today, besides students and academicians. Since I wrote in mainstream English dailies, I have the published experience and it was very exciting to have your story in newspapers around the country. It’s a quieter experience being digitally published, but the reach is worldwide. I’m very grateful at having had the opportunity to write at this time when the digital world is opening up and opportunities are available everywhere. It’s a fantastic experience being able to write in books and be published both digitally and in paperback, and seeing your work listed in Amazon etc. I am blessed that I was able to avail of the opportunities which came up.
NILAVRONILL: Do you believe all writers are by and large the product of their nationality? And what are the factors which pay dividends and which become obstacles for your ultimate growth as an international writer even beyond your time?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Roots and personal experiences are the bedrock of creativity. To have integrity in one’s work, first or even second hand knowledge is important. The factors writers are exposed to determine their philosophy and styles. To make a lasting contribution to literature, I feel a writer has to have a rare insight into people, events and the culture of the place and have the vision that goes beyond time, either backwards or forward, so he can imbibe the spirit into himself. Travelling teaches a lot and opens one’s mind enormously. An observant person will be able to write more authentically. Empathy with people and their emotions is a must if a writer has to be honest and candid in his work. Experience counts always and expertise in a particular area goes a long way. I think lack of integrity and pretentiousness are the main obstacles to good writing. Imitation is another huge blunder. Basically, I feel if one speaks truly, sincerely and simply, one will be heard.
NILAVRONILL: Humanity has suffered immensely in the past, is still suffering around the world. We all know it well. But are you hopeful about our future? How do you react when innocent peoples suffer immensely in Gaza or in Iraq, Syria Afghanistan or elsewhere? Whether it is state sponsored terrorism or sponsored by individual terrorist groups. Innocent peoples are the first victims. Your response.
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: It’s very difficult to come to terms with the world as it is now. Prior to the pandemic, the situation was already grave. Greed and power have made puppets of entire nations. The concept of One World, One Humanity is in tatters. Forced migration is a brutal reality. Hatred and revenge are the hinges on which the world is operating. And the common man is facing the brunt everywhere. Innocents are being killed. The world today is more savage than ever. When or how we will achieve deliverance is any man’s guess. Religion is just an excuse to propagate hatred. Where are the statesmen needed to change the world? International bodies have failed repeatedly. I’m deeply anguished and ashamed as a human being today. Whereas we have so much to be proud of in the fields of technology, medicine, science, archaeology, art and culture etc, in day to day life people are having to flee their homes with babes in their arms. They’re being shelled or facing fearful destinies at sea. The world of the educated, upright, reasonable human beings is reduced to being a mere bystander, watching ineffectively. What is the use of progress if one cannot ensure all human beings eat and live in peace? It’s as if the entire thinking world is in paralysis. They are so powerless in the hands of a few.
NILAVRONILL: We all believe in individual liberty and human rights, yet these two are the constant targets of attacks from various quarter of power, even in India. How you would like to respond to this situation?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: I see regression everywhere. I see a total absence of human rights today. The incidents of the past are horrific and it’s unbelievable that women and children are being subjected to such trauma blatantly. Liberals are losing their stand daily. Politics is centre stage. There’s a complete lack of principles and ethics. Consumerism is also ruining the ethos of the youth. We need to seriously promote harmony, equality, peace and equal opportunity in the people. We need to reassert the importance of a value-based system, and we need to do that through education, story telling, art, films and culture. Value education is of critical importance today to stem the degeneration of the social mindset. This has to be reinforced with very strict law and order. With such technological leaps that we have made, this is a very credible agenda, I believe.
NILAVRONILL: Dear poet tell us; do you believe one day may be in the distant future this world will be a safer place for every new born? When we will see each other as an equal in dignity and embrace everybody as human being overcoming all the differences of ethnicity, religion, nationality, racism? Bringing the world altogether?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Again, as a journalist I am sceptical of any quick change. Writers and poets are always optimistic and positive about the world. I too hope and pray that the world will have learned its lessons from the past. The future generations will definitely be more responsible, as we see now in the environment sector. Migration has also taken its toll everywhere. Lots of changes have come about, morally, legally and socially. Those will continue to improve as people shed prejudices and inhibitions. The world has come closer in time technologically. That is having a definite cultural impact. Whether they want to or not, communication is happening, and it’s changing the way people think and react. If every nation focuses on inclusive growth and progress, we are bound to see better days. But terrorism has to be dealt with unitedly and firmly.
NILAVRONILL: Many thanks for spending such a wonderful time with us, we would like to conclude this interview with a personal note, are you satisfied about your own achievements in your life? What are your plans for future? And how do you evaluate your contemporaries and what are your aspirations from the younger generation?
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: The creative heart is a seeker. It seeks continuously. I think I have a long way to go still. There is much that needs to be done, from my side. So much to read, so much to experience, to write about. A lot left to discover, to understand. Spirituality, philosophy and humanity are my abiding interests. All extremely vast areas. I’m still at the doorstep. I want to explore these areas more intimately and translate my experiences into writings. But I want to do so with complete integrity, without compromising to the lure of commerce, accolades or popularity. My contemporaries are a great inspiration to me. Some of them I follow regularly and I read a lot of work going around daily. It’s interesting and also I feel I learn continuously. I see films, listen to podcasts. There’s an endless source of stimulation. The younger generation are doing great. One has to just open Quora or hear the Ted Talks to realize that. There’s endless activity going on, good stimuli readily available. And there are very big sections gaining immensely from that.
NANDITA DE NEE CHATTERJEE: Writer/freelance journalist/housewife. Formerly with Economic Times. Cover stories and Feature Writer with Statesman, Illustrated Weekly, Economic Times, Telegraph, Times of India, Femina, Filmfare, Germany Today, Voix Meets Mode, UK, Frontier Weekly, Namaste Ink, Setu magazine, US, Innsaei International Journal, Co Author: Big Bang of Non-Fiction, Life in Reverse; 30 Best Poets; Sea; Coffee & Echos; Wrapped Up Feelings; Poetry Planet’s Christmas in my Heart , Moonlight; ALS’s Kaleidoscope of Asia & Bilingual Anthology of Poems; Poetry Planet’s Writers’ Haven; Rewrite the Stars; Love Thy Mother; The Real Hero; Heart of a Poet by inner child press anthologies; Ashes; Arising from the Dust; Our Poetry Archive’s Striving for Survival; An Indian Summer by Plethora Blogazine; Gems II, Gems III, by World Pictorial Poetry & Art Forum; Poems from Best Poet