The London Magazine interviews Manash Bhattacharjee, author of the poetry collection ‘Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems’ to give us a glimpse at the inspiration behind his collection.
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem, a very silly love poem, when I was in the eighth standard. I wrote nothing thereafter, till I reached my final year in school. A torrent of poems followed, all grappling with the crests and troughs of love. The poems, even in their adolescent exuberance, are proof how love is always desperate to invent its own loneliness and then struggle against it. What also strikes me today is this mysterious thrill and satisfaction at such an early age in giving a poetic form to feelings. It was three years after this initial burst of poetry that I started writing, during college, the poetry that would stay with me till today, slowly maturing with reading.
Tell me about your experiences living in Delhi.
My initial years in Delhi were spent in a university campus. JNU was a boon after my decision to dump the pulp-fiction world of engineering and study humanities. I was glad to meet students who had discarded the preaching of family, religion and nation. We stood in solidarity withPalestine, Kashmir and Manipur. Students wrote pamphlets against the designs ofAmericaand capitalism, and walls were painted with lines from Neruda, Muktibodh, Kishwar Naheed and Namdeo Dhasal. Meanwhile JNU’s tall library fed my doubts. Mandelstam overshadowed Mayakovsky. Koestler overshadowed Sartre. I decided my disillusioned writing will be my politics. Those who were exposing society’s contradictions hid their own. Progressive politics was also a politics of masks. I kept faith in the classroom, but discovered another: alcohol. Carousing is the best ritual for exorcising ghosts, deepening friendships, inhaling music and sharing poetry. The campus also allowed the primal luxury of making love under the moon in the wilderness. Today JNU is the caged rhino of Alok Dhanwa’s poem: all security and no freedom.
Delhi was a partitioned beast that had vandalised its memories. It gave up its ability to embrace other cities and people.Delhi’s language became foul after it lost touch withLahore. Its politics is shallow theatre. Only among dwellers around the graves of medieval saints and poets, you found courtesy and good food.
Ghalib is said to be the last great poet of the Mughal Era and is considered to be one of the most popular and influential poets in the Urdu language. What do you find most captivating in his poetry?
Ghalib was a disbeliever who dared faith. His most poignant verses were not without twists of self-irony. Alcohol was his magic potion which paradoxically granted him insights into the difficult life of human desire. To assert beyond what Wittgenstein said of Shakespeare, Ghalib was Urdu’s creator as well as its most prodigious poet. It’s a pity Tagore never came to read Ghalib and missed his influence.
Why should people read your collection? What do you think they will take away with them upon reading it?
The poems in this collection are about my encounter with the world of poets, singers, myth, history, city life, women and a threadlike self that weaves itself through them. These encounters are both map and meridian: they connect human experiences across time and space, in what Octavio Paz called a “time beyond time”. The map is a map of love, meant for free birds, not stagnant armies. It is also a map of reading, and all reading is a sign of leaving home.
All who are travelling from elsewhere to elsewhere, who believe in borderless maps, might find through my poems a fellow traveller. I would like to hear from them what they could take away.
Before anyone begins reading your collection is there anything you’d recommend they look up?
Unfortunately yes, a few poems are related to specific readings. The poem Diary is a response to Passolini’s poem of the same name. The Broken Vase is a surrealist poem inspired by André Breton’s book Mad Love (L’Amour Fou). I have mentioned the poetry collection of W.G Sebald that occasioned Reading Sebald. A reviewer who hadn’t heard of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan found it enriching to hear his singing after reading the poem Ustad Nusrat. I would recommend the same for the sublime Kashmiri singer, Ustad Saaznawaz.
You seem haunted by the ghosts of dead poets: how much do they shape your poetry?
It is a coincidence that all the poets I pay tribute to in the collection are dead. I wish some of them, who died not so long ago, were alive. Isn’t it fascinating that Octavio Paz, who came fromMexico, opened my eyes to the images of modernDelhi? I have of course learnt from each of the poets I mention. To handle influences is both an art and a trick. T.S Eliot said better poets don’t imitate because they are good at stealing. Aga Shahid Ali, for example, had a brilliant style of revealing his poetic signposts.
Who would you compare yourself to?
No one. I have not yet passed all the Rilkean tests of being a poet. So I can only compare myself to this struggle of finding my voice. Maybe one day readers will find it resembling other voices.
What poem in the collection means most to you?
I have a tender place in my heart for the small poem, Stillness. I wrote it during the terribly hot and lonely nights in the university. My friend, Bidhan Laishram – who used to say, the moon knew all his secrets – recited it when we walked the streets late at night with the drunk moon over us. The poem is also about a way of seeing the moon with intensely estranged eyes. I am reminded of Borges’ lines, “I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked / long and long at the lonely moon.” There is stillness in this poem about stillness. Nothing happens in this poem waiting for something to happen. I realised only later the strong Beckettian undertone in the poem.
Many of your poems make reference to or carry a tribute to someone. Do you feel that poetry is the best way to communicate your feelings towards them?
Why not! Poetry is written in physical isolation, but the mind’s solitude is always peopled by the presence of others. Poetry is a social act. Poems are sometimes born out of conversations, references and connections you make with particular people. You want their name to be part of the memory of the poem. Poems are also memories. A poem becomes less lonely when you dedicate it to a name.
What do you think makes a really good poem?
A really good poem is a perfect shock that may force open the blind eyes of time. The world has an anaesthetic hold over our senses. The poem is meant to break our slumber and look at life’s contrary face, its hidden wound, with open eyes.
The London Magazine published Manash Bhattacharjee’s debut poetry collection last year. It is available on the Kindle store for only £2.99. You can buy this collection here.
To find out more about the collection, click here.
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