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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: Literature or Poetry is like a mirror. It reflects the poet’s thought process, state of mind and ideas. At the same time, it also helps identify the state of society. The opinions, beliefs, dogmas and feelings shared through verse, each with a different interpretation, collectively, paint a larger canvas of the state of the society. Yet, at the same time, poetry can be both abstract and thought-provoking. In my opinion, a poet should be truthful with oneself and express his or her views without fear. One of the poetry’s most appealing elements can be the mixture of observations and ideas. Here the poet reaches out to the world and poetry. Poems are not really written; they just happen as a reward of listening to inside and the surrounds. The sensory images that arrive and stay when we are open to the world around us. One can appreciate poetry from a moment in time. That moment when finally, instead of being asked to heal and forgive, they are allowed the vengeance, the rage that is rightfully ours. Since time immemorial, the poets are conscientious souls of the society persuading a vision, a reverie, a passion, inspiring the commoners and encouraging them to cross any hurdle or to provide solace.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: I don’t know when it started exactly but writing, especially poetry, is something which is absolutely essential for me. Poems that I’m creating are just part of me. As a poet, I do not have to work too hard to understand the inequalities in the society and reflect those on my poems. Poetry is indeed a new path of expression. I started writing in my childhood but seriously during my college days. In the late seventies and early eighties, I used to freelance a lot for a Calcutta based English daily, covering art and cultural events and writing in a few other journals. Presidency College is a renowned college in Kolkata and I enjoyed every moment there. Studying geology is a fascinating experience and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way. The college ambiance was such that it did create the fire and need to achieve success. Honestly speaking during college days, I used to be a serious science student, good in academics and want to achieve more in my career. But the hunger for creative writing was always there. Like many others, there is no denying that I visited the iconic College Street coffee house more often than not, checking the latest trends in poetry and little magazines per say, sometimes even bunking classes. I was more shifted to writing poems both in my mother tongue Bengali as also in English especially when I enter college. Later on, I find myself more and more fascinated by poetry. I can easily recall the reading of Tagore poems in my childhood and slowly I fell in love with poetry. In my early days fear was not any option and I was free to write. The answer was from my heart. I am a lover of nature and I have memories of writing poems on nature in a school magazine. As it happens, I am more enchanted by my surroundings with its smell, sound, fissures and lineaments and their intricate relations with people. It has been going on for nearly forty years. I never fume in the lines and I feel comfortable with this. I love writing review, editing books and translating prose and poems alike but less in numbers compared to poetry. Besides Tagore, I was amazed by the works of Jibananada Das and Bishnu Dey whom I read a lot. Now I find myself reading more of Subhash Mukhopadhyay, Shankho Ghosh, Alokeranjan Dasgupta, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Joy Goswami. In recent times of course, I read and write much less in Bengali. Yes. Sometimes, it becomes a hard task but I choose the particular language (either Bengali or English) if I feel comfortable to express my feelings on that particular theme of the poetry. There were a few English poets. I was wild about Byron in my early days. It doesn’t come in a moment. Later I look to Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, Browning, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkins and many others. I am very interested in reading Indian poets writing in English like Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawala, Ranjit Hoskote and a few others. I read and read. That is my USP.
NILAVRONILL: Do you think society as a whole, is the key factor in shaping you up as a poet, or your poetry altogether?
GOPAL LAHIRI: I am not entirely sure about my poetry but the society does influence in shaping up an individual and his or her upbringing to a considerable extent be it a professional or even as a poet. I am no exception perhaps. Poetry is about my engagement with life and I love poetic form exploring new territory in my own way.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: It’s true that people in general is not bothered about literature but there is always a group of serious readers who read literature. Yes, the consumerist world plays a negative role yet in recent times, social and electronic media has attracted commoners for generating interest in performing as well as in creative arts.
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.
GOPAL LAHIRI: Sometimes, I struggle deeply with how to fit in the systems already established, sometimes specifically to exclude or oppose me. Poetry gives me a reviving breath, an exhale I haven’t been experienced before. It is often said, when people are emotionally drained, they often express them through some form of poetry. Poets heart is attuned to the changing patterns of the society and its surroundings, its landscapes and seasons, its sorrow and malice, its dream and hope. I believe, true Poetry is a way to bridge, to make bridges from one continent to another, one country to another, one person to another, one time to another. The poet digs deep into the bottom of the heart that seeks new and revealing perspectives on the appalling human condition, its emptiness, pain, anguish and uncertainty. The poets are conscientious souls of the society persuading a vision, a reverie, a passion, inspiring the commoners and encouraging them to cross any hurdle or to provide solace. As a poet, I do not have to work too hard to understand the inequalities in the society and reflect those on my poems. Poetry is indeed a new path of expression.
NILAVRONILL: Please give us some idea about your own views on the contemporary Indian literature written in English.
GOPAL LAHIRI: I am primarily a poet and can only talk more about poetry. The new Indian English Poetry is realistic. The poet’s consciousness of the grim realities of life has shattered all illusions and romantic dreams. The tragedy of everyday life has induced in the poet a mood of disillusionment. So, the poetry today is in general bitter and pessimistic. The pessimism of the modern poet is very poignant and heart-rending. It is even sharper than the pessimism of Hardy. Because it arises out of the contemplation of the stark realities of life. There is nothing sentimental about it and poetry is as if extraction of poems from pain and wounds. Happiness, they say, writes in white ink on a whit page. The Modern and post-modern poetry are a poetry of revolt. It results largely from the impact of science. The poet turns away from the older romantic tradition. The revolt is best exemplified in the poetry of T.S. Eliot. The poet sees life in its naked realism. Poets welcome even the most prosaic and commonplace subjects are considered suitable. The imagery and vocabulary of the modern poet reflects the influence of science and scientific inventions. As a scientist by profession, I deeply hope so. It is the means of expression that exist from time immemorial. Rhyming poetry was with us since ancient time. It’s an oral art and ear poetry was the order of the day. End rhyming is more popular than any other form. But with passage of time, poetry has undergone changes and readership shows declining trend. Rhyming poems are almost passe now. Free verse is more accepted now. “The heightened consciousness” in poetry still reminds us that the ideas are not necessarily doomed in “utopia and dreamscape.”
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: Poetry can attack us suddenly, sharply, so deftly we hardly notice. Readers have to be there to feel the effect. Its true poetry can’t stop your digestion but can take your breaths away. I believe that’s what’s so powerful about poetry. Electronic media and Social media has broadened the space of writing both poetry and prose. But we are apprehensive of quality because of mass production but I believe only good works will survive and sustain. Poets like to express themselves in a way they never could before. It allows them to say what they want while still leaving the true meaning up to interpretation, beyond metrics and rhyme. It is a form of art that is unique, special and borders on a creative outlet. There is no denying that poetry is one of the most powerful instruments for our survival. It is one mode of transport one takes on the long way through unknowing.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: Now we are global in mind because of the virtual world and can connect to anyone in the globe. It’s time for borderless time, beyond nationality. Realism in subject matter has led the modern poet to reject the highly, ornate and condensed poetic style of the romantics in favour of a language which resembles closely the language of everyday life and connect with the readers Poetry is alive and more vibrant now and this trend will continue in future also. As it is the soul of the humans which can never be destroyed. I am lucky that I can see this phenomenon.
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.
GOPAL LAHIRI: I am humanist by heart and an eternal optimistic. It is difficult to pinpoint any standard against which a poet can measure humanity. It may, at times, feel verbose but its ultimate effect is one of deep humanity. Poets suffer when humanity suffers at any part of the globe. It goes without saying that every poets’ dream to be read, to be recognized for lifting the submerged soul and casting light into the various corners of life.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI Every poet strives for celebration of the enduring human values during his journey from ‘abstract to concrete’, for achieving ‘the eternal spirit’ as Byron penned long back. I want to gather light like a healing flame and navigate the emotional terrain. The frankness, beliefs and feelings shared through the verse, each with a different alignment, paint a large picture of humanity and the physical world around us. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth so said, Samuel Johnson. Freedom of speech is not uniform everywhere and sometimes poets are in conflict with the regulators. In my opinion, a poet should be truthful with oneself and express his or her views without fear. Freedom of mind is essential. Poetry pouring out in torrents out of luminous words pushes readers to slow-down, think harder and revisit the earlier assumptions. The poet finds the vein of expression by attending to the minute details and offers new space that goes beyond the existing.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: I have already mentioned that I am an eternal optimist. I always believe- United we stand. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth so said, Samuel Johnson. Freedom of speech is not uniform everywhere and sometimes poets are in conflict with the regulators. In my opinion, a poet should be truthful with oneself and express his or her views without fear.
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?
GOPAL LAHIRI: If I say that I am satisfied with my achievement, then there is no point of writing any further. I think I am yet to reach the heights which I aspire for and this dissatisfaction always shoves me to move further. I hope, certainly that my best work is before me. I know that, though I have revealed fragments only. I have recently edited an anthology of poems titled’ Jallianwala Bagh: Poetic Attribute’. I’m working further on new and a selected bunch of my poems and the book will be ready for publication early next year. Perhaps editing an anthology of poems will also be on my next agenda but nothing has been firmed up yet. One poetry collection on Kolkata may see the light of the day soon. I have a huge respect to my contemporaries and I do read their works. I always believe that every poet/writer has a space of his or her own and one should respect that. My advice to the younger generation is to read more and write better if one is going to succeed at it. Find a way to keep alive and write. Be evocative, thoughtful, lucid and fluent. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem: the soul should always/stand ajar/ready to welcome/the ecstatic experience. But at the end you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.
GOPAL LAHIRI was born and grew up in Kolkata, India. He is a bilingual poet, writer, editor, critic and translator and widely published in Bengali and English language. He has had nine volume of poems in English and eight volumes of poems in Bengali and jointly edited three anthologies of poems. His edited volumes include ‘Selected Songs- Rabindranath Tagore’, ‘Bridging Continents’- Indo-American Anthology of poems and Jaillianwala Bagh- Poetic Tributes’. His translation work from English to Bengali of the short stories of Israel ‘Not Just Sweet and Honey’, published by National Book Trust is widely acclaimed. His poems have been published across various journals and anthologies worldwide. He has attended various poetry festivals in India and abroad. He is published in 12 countries and in 12 languages. He is the recipient of the Poet of the Year Award in Destiny Poets, UK, 2016, Setu Excellence Award, 2020, Pittsburgh, US and Indology Life-Time Achievement award, 2020 West Bengal, India.