“A writer should be able to open up a space inside the minds of the readers”

Says Prabha Varma, a well-known poet, litterateur, journalist and an editor, in conversation with All About Book Publishing.


Prabha Varma is a poet, litterateur, journalist and editor who works with traditional as well as electronic media, lyricist & social activist. Recipient of numerous prestigious awards, Prabha presently is the media advisor to the Chief Minister of Kerala, executive member of the Kendra Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), convener of the South Indian board of Kendra Sahitya Akademi, member of Kerala Sahitya Akademi, the convener of Malayalam advisory council of Kendra Sahitya Akademi and the member of Jyanpith Award Jury. Here, he shares more about his passion for literature. Excerpts.

Early childhood…

“I do remember my childhood days when I got unknowingly attracted towards the mantras and slokas that my father used to chant in chaste Sanskrit. I used to sit spellbound as if in a possessed manner when he chanted. I know that it was those slokas that brought a bridge before me, to walk across to the sublime realm of literature. The cultural atmosphere of my village, the presentation of classical art forms, the local library that initiated me to Vyasa, Kalidasa, Shakespeare and the others and my close association with the progressive movements also played a role in moulding me into what I am today,” tells Prabha.

A poet to reckon with!

“It is not that one goes in search of poetry, instead poetry comes to you. Thus it came as a very natural realisation that poetry is my mode of expression. I firmly believe a poet is bequeathed with a highly noble task. In ancient Rome, ‘Dats’ was a word used to denote poets. That meant they were some sort of an oracle. Poets do have such prophetic quality,” he shares.

“In my early days as a poet, I have gained a lot of confidence and inspiration from the words of a lot of renowned poets and writers of the time. From the beginning, many well-known critics also have showered kind words about my works and those too have helped me a lot in this regard,” he tells.

Themes behind poetry…

“Often from various aspects of one’s life, some themes and motifs strike you so hard that you cannot help but write them down. There is always this question asked, ’Why do we write?” Way back in the 1970s, while I was a high school student, a towering literary personality had come as a guest in our school when it was celebrating its anniversary. While all of us were in the Head-Master’s room chatting with the guest, a teacher from our school shot a direct question at him, ‘Why do you write?’ The answer from him was, “If you don’t ask me, I know; if you ask me, I know not.” Though years have passed, I think the answer likely to be given by a contemporary writer too will not be in any way different from what he had said several years ago. I too am not an exception,” tells Prabha.

Writers write. Is it for the recognition which may or may not be conferred on them by those who are in power? To which, he replies, “No, not at all! Even if no one is there to recognise, writers will write. Was it for laurels that Valmiki wrote? Did Vyasa expect any award when he penned The Mahabharatha? No. Writers write. They have no option but to write. Tears roll down. Is it for gaining something? Flower blooms. For what? Skylark sings. For what? A cloud has no option but to rain. A bud has no option but to blossom. A sorrowful heart has no option but to weep. Poetry also happens like this. There are certain things that happen in this world without aiming at any objective. But we fail to observe it. That is why these sorts of questions are repeatedly put before writers at various junctures of time. However, writing has a role to play. It makes our lives liveable. It converts Homo sapiens into human beings. It makes this earth a little more inhabitable. It soothes the minds that are wriggling in pain. What else should poems do!”

Life as an author…

“There are various stages in the life of a writer. There should not be a monotony with the progress of time. There should be several inner explosions often at many junctures. Such explosions take you to a higher level which is not yet experienced by any other. One should undergo such a process of self-rejuvenation constantly. Then only the writer can stand the test of time, or at times walk even ahead of time,” he tells.

Favourite quotes…

“Well, the first one I would like to share with the readers is one that is about the reading of life itself: Even though there in no land on either side, I am still swinging in between. Another one on similar lines is that, this heart is in fact a prison, where love ends up locked inside forever,” share Prabha.

“A third one is from my poem ‘Aparigraham’: While there stays oil still to the brim of a bowl in my hand, No flame of a lamp should go off with all its oil dried up,” adds Prabha.

Renowned works…

“‘Shyama Madhavam’, my work that has won the National Sahitya Academy Award is a 15-chapter novel in verse. It revolves around Lord Krishna and the lives of some who come across him, during his earthly sojourn, which for me is not a series of ecstasies as many believe, but agonies. It is the portrayal of travails of a solitary soul and the rare courage with which Krishna deals with them his life. It begins with a dramatically poignant and pensive mood and culminates with his ascension to heaven, between which he lapses into a series of confessions and repentance. ‘Shyama Madahvam’ offers a wide spectrum of chhandas, alankaraas and metric patterns such as dandakas on one hand and brings out the genuine concern of the lonely inner voice of the legendary hero against the backdrop of changing times,” shares Prabha.

Another novel worth mentioning is ‘Kanal Chilambu’ (Anklet of Fire), which is also a novella in verse. “The story, told is seven chapters of around five thousand words, is about love, lust, intrigue, power, revenge and incest. In short, all the elements that go into the making of tragedies are at full play there. Most importantly the plaintive story of love and revenge answers an age old riddle which posits the question: “why did the milkmaid laugh when her earthen pot of milk fell to doom?” ‘Anklet of Fire’ is my second narrative poem after ‘Shyama Madahvam’. The professional drama based on ‘Kanal Chilambu’ has been staged in more than five hundred stages all over Kerala,” he adds.

Target audience…

“Every poem is a letter written to a person of same wavelength. Even though the address is not mentioned, the letter reaches the target,” says Prabha. “A writer should be able to open up a space inside the minds of the readers. That itself is what I aim for when I start writing. Here, I would like to express my apprehensions over the setback that the poetical language suffers during the decades of modernity. It was Hopkins, who in a letter to Robert Bridges defined poetical language in its totality. He said, “The poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened.” I am afraid the modern poets, quite oblivious of this, are indulging more and more in the current language with the misconception that it itself is the poetical language. When one says, Jesus converted water into wine; it gets confined into the current language. When Byron says, “Water looked towards the face of its creator; seeing that face, it’s face blushed”, he reaches up to the sublime level of poetical language. What the new generation misses is this sort of the cream of poetry; the essence of poetry.”

Writer’s block…

“Often many poems are formed inside the mind. But it takes a deliberate effort from one to sit and write those down. I mean, the external task or the actual physical process of writing is as important as having internal imagination. This in my opinion, is perhaps the hardest part of writing a book,” tells Prabha.

What next?

“Currently I am working on a novel in English. It is based on the October Socialist Revolution. The main protagonist is a poet who has turned into a revolutionary and it deals with the struggle between these two aspects of the same person. In a way, it is a confrontation between power and art. It blends a lot of elements of fantasy and mainly involves the inner trials and tribulations of this rebel, that plight where he finds himself in,” he shares.

Experience with publisher…

“From the very beginning, I had not much difficulty in getting published. From university days, my poems got published in several leading journals of Malayalam. Then when my first anthology was ready, one of Malayalam’s prime publishing group, DC Books came up to publish it. From those times up until now, I have kept a very warm relationship with my publishers,” tells Prabha.

Role of awards…

“Right from my early days, I won several prizes for writing in Youth festivals. After that I have received several awards including National Sahitya Academy Award, Kerala Sahitya Academy Award, Vayalar Award, Asan Prize, Ulloor Award, Vallathol Award, Vyloppilly Award, Changampuzha Award, Mahakavi P Puraskaram and many others. Twice I have been winner of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy for my songs in plays and thrice I have won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Lyrics. In my opinion, they have all helped me as a writer in inspiring to write more and more. But I also have to say that beyond any award is the nice words and appreciation I get from my readers. I consider that as the greatest award a writer can have. Once I received a letter from a man who was imprisoned for life after he has read one of my poems. That is way above any award bestowed,” tells Prabha.

On languages…

“India is a land rich with an ancient tradition and has such wealth of languages and stories. I have never considered modernity as a total break from tradition, instead it should exist only as an extension of tradition. Great poets like W. B. Yeats and César Vallejo took a lot of energy from ancient traditional folk cultures,” he says.

“A move should be on to link modernity back to tradition. Only then can we have a literature which is fully equipped to confront the cultural invasions that are on towards us, crossing the barriers of nation states, and the ethnic and cultural constituencies of the nation states. If you do not have any regard for your language, ethnicity and culture, you will easily become vulnerable to any type of invasion that is unleashed by imperialism. In this context, you can make the pen also a weapon. It will be possible only if the pen instils some sort of a self respect in your mind with regard to your language, literature, culture, ethnicity, etc,” he adds.

“Fundamentally, I write poems in my mother tongue, Malayalam. I have also written poetic criticism, travelogues and general articles in Malayalam. In the past, I have also written poetry in Sanskrit. As part of my profession as a journalist, I have also written many articles in English,” he says.

Donning many hats…

Being a journalist and a poet at the same time is indeed a difficult task, to which Prabha replies, “It is a question of sense and sensibility. While poetry deals primarily with emotion, journalism demands a sort of detachment from it. I will try to cite an example from my personal experience. I was assigned to report on the sati-incident of Roop Kanwar. While I was on my journey to Rajasthan, I had a lot of verses of poetry in my mind. But after I was done with reporting the incident, all poetry I had in my mind about it vanished.”

On promoting reading habits…

“A large percentage of people in India are still illiterate, even after more than seventy years of independence. In a country where a large group of people worship Goddess Saraswathi as the embodiment of letters and knowledge, it is rather unfortunate that such a large part of the population still knows not to read and write. This has to change first. There should be widespread literacy campaigns all across the country, wherever it is essential. Only after one is literate, one can be lured by the resonance of letters,” concludes Prabha.

“Every poem is a letter written to a person of same wavelength. Even though the address is not mentioned, the letter reaches the target.” -Prabha

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