Sunil Uniyal and Ranu Uniyal: In Conversation with Charanjeet Kaur

Sunil Uniyal and Ranu Uniyal. Image credit- Ranu Uniyal.
Creation, Transcreation and Poetry

In a departure from our regular practice, we decided to have a ‘portmanteau’ In Conversation this time: the brother-sister duo Sunil Uniyal and Ranu Uniyal from Lucknow. Sunil, a senior retired Government official, is primarily a translator and poet with two published works to his credit - The Target is behind the Sky – Fifty Poems of Kabir and Tears of Blood – Selected Verses of Ghalib; and Ranu, a University Professor and a poet, whose work has been translated into several languages. Her two volumes of poetry – Across the Divide and December Poems offer a whole gamut of experience in poems that are thoughtful and meditative. The third publications of both Sunil and Ranu are due shortly and we look forward to them. In this unusual Conversation, both speak about their artistic pursuits, their love for poetry and the place poetry has in their lives.

  • Charanjeet Kaur: My first question is to both of you: How much have your respective careers contributed to your creative output? +

    Ranu Uniyal: A great deal. My profession has given me ample space to read, write and meditate. Classroom lectures have been helpful in consolidating my thoughts, my experiences, and my interaction with young people has added a certain zest to my writing. Once you enter the world of books – words become your intimate ally and you begin to ask questions, seek answers.

    Sunil Uniyal: I have worked with Government of India, mainly with its babudom at New Delhi, for well over thirty years – and it's a place that can hardly be regarded as conducive to the cultivation of Muse; but as an old adage goes, a poet is born, not made. One who has been graced by the Almighty with the spark for poetry, will not let it extinguish, and even though I have not been very prolific, I've somehow managed to hold on to my love for poetry by reading the works of many Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and English poets, and writing or translating the verses that appeal to me, off and on. Its, however, only after my retirement from Government service a couple of years ago, that I've become more serious about my engagement with the Muse and some sort of a regular with poetry-writing and translation.
  • CK: Ranu, please trace the journey from Across the Divide to December Poems for us. And when do we expect your next work? +

    RU: Second question first – My third book is ready and I hope it will find a publisher. It has been a long, but a beautiful journey fromAcross the Divide to December Poems. My first collection was more autobiographical in nature, it dealt with specific experiences of my life as a single woman living in England, working for her Doctorate. As a student at the University of Hull I participated in The Northern England Poetry Competition in the early 90s. Two of my poems received high commendation from the two judges – William Scammell and Debjani Chatterjee. I was invited to read my work at Lancaster literature festival and my poems became a part of an Anthology published by Littlewood Press in UK. In 1994 Kamala Das was the Poetry Editor with Femina and she published four of my poems in the magazine. It was a moment of deep satisfaction for me. Years later, Indian Literature, a Sahitya Akademi journal encouraged my writing. In 2006, Rajeevan Thachompoyil (Yeti Publishers, Calicut) published Across the Divide It had a youthful melancholia tinged with shameless nostalgia for a life away from home. These are the poems of a woman who feels strongly about her associations with people. Every poem is based on an encounter with someone somewhere. It has people and places in it and yet there is so much that I tell about myself through the various images that spill on the pages of the book. It has many poems focusing on my experience in England – there is a distinct diasporic sensibility that runs through my first book.

    My second collection could have been a better book. Although Writers Workshop did a good job, I feel it should have gone through rigorous editing and I should not have rushed through it. It has some interesting images and I have widened my poetic landscape. I am now more focused and I hope to have a mature perspective towards love and life. There is a deep sense of gratitude that permeates the poems. As you get older you become less obsessed with the trappings of the world, and begin to listen to what is going on inside. It is only when you move inwards that you find yourself receptive to the pain and suffering of other people.
  • CK: Your poetic journey, Sunil? +

    SU: My attempt at writing poetry began when, soon after my High School exams in the summer of 1968, I was enthralled on reading Tagore's spiritual poems in 'Gitanjali' (English version) and one of my earliest poems was a tribute to the great human rights' activist, Martin Luther King on his assassination. However, since I often wrote on loose sheets and was not very meticulous then (why only then? my wife often complains that I bear this trait even today! ) and so these early poems were soon lost to nowhere! However, it was in the early 1980s that I first read the translations of Japanese haiku-masters by RH Blyth and was drawn to this art-form and started composing my own haiku. I was much encouraged when my haiku on milestone were published in Bombay's Mirror Magazine in Oct 1983, and to this day haiku remains my preferred medium, although I've been dabbling in other forms like ghazal, too.
    During the last four or five years, I have also been strolling in the field of translation, inspired to a great extent by the works of Prof P Lal of the Writer's Workshop, Kolkata. I consider him a translator par excellence and a role model for translators of verse. Like him, I believe that the translation of a poem succeeds when it can stand on its own legs as a poem. I strive to achieve this in my translations, but I haven't found it an easy task. At times I'm compelled to think that translating another poet's work is even more difficult than writing one's own poem. This is particularly true when you are translating a genius like Mirza Ghalib, or Firaq Gorakhpuri, or S H Vatsyayan 'Ajneya'.

    But I don't regard writing and translation as different processes; to me these are two sides of the same coin – creativity. I feel that translation of another poet's work is no less gratifying to your soul than writing your own poem. After all, whatever sublime we think in poetry today, has already been thought of and written about by some poet or the other, in some other age or time, in some other manner. Some shers of a Hindi ghazal I composed some years back, come to my mind: " Unheen raaston pe kataa safar, jinse gaye the log kayee//Shabd-jaal hee hamne bune, hamse hui na koyi baat nayee." (Same roads I've travelled again and again, /Through which have so many passed in vain.//I just wove webs with many a word, /Nothing was new in what I've uttered !)
  • CK: Do you discuss the creative process and your work with each other? Is there anything in common between your approaches? +

    RU: We like to share the finished product, but we never discuss the creative process. We are both deeply spiritual and see our writing as being inspired by the unseen force. We have an abiding faith in the Almighty and are conscious of his graceful presence in our lives.
  • CK: Ranu, you have been much translated. How does it feel to read your work in another language? Has Sunil translated any of your work? Please share with us a favourite poem of yours which has been translated. +

    RU: It feels really good. A whole new world opens itself to you in translation. I like the music, the rhythm and the rise and fall of another tongue. Rajeevan Thachompyil has translated some of my poems in Malayalam, Azam Abidov in Uzbeck and Anamika in Hindi, my friend late Khursheed Anwar in Urdu. They are all good poets in their own language and have been able to capture the nuances from English with effortless ease. Sunil has not translated my work so far. Woman to Woman (Kamala Das to Judith Wright) is one of my favourite poems and has been translated by Anamika (a well-known bi-lingual poet) in Hindi.
  • CK: The range of your translations is very wide, Sunil. But you seem to prefer to go back to the classics – Kabir and Ghalib, as your two books The Target is Behind the Sky- Fifty Poems of Kabir and Tears of Blood: Selected Verses of Ghalib show. What place to these two poets, – each extraordinary in his own way – have in your consciousness as a writer and in their relevance to contemporary society. +

    SU: Kabir has fascinated me since my primary school days when I first read some of his couplets (dohe), but my interest in Mirza Ghalib's poetry developed much, much later, when I saw a serial written by Gulzar Saheb on his life on Doordarshan, with the brilliant Naseeruddin Shah in the lead role.

    Both these poets are widely different. Kabir is a 14th century Bhakti poet, in fact a pioneer of the 'Nirgun-Niraakaar-dhaaraa' in the Bhakti movement – a stream regarding God as Attributeless and Formless. Kabir lived a pious, disciplined life, dedicated to God, and from being a seeker first, he became a realised Soul in his lifetime. He was illiterate, but acquired knowledge under a Sadguru, or in the company of the sadhus (ascetics), and also from life experiences. A weaver by caste, Kabir earned his living by working on the loom and selling clothes thus produced; he was truly a commoner who never yearned for others' favour for his sustenance.

    On the other hand, Ghalib, who flourished in the 19th century, belonged to the aristocratic class and was very self-conscious of his rank. He led a reckless life, squandering his money on excessive drinking and gambling and frequent visits to nautch-girls or courtesans. He always looked at his royal patrons for sustenance and even fought a running battle with the British authorities for increase in his pension. Unlike Kabir, he couldn't free himself from the trappings of the mundane and though he believed in one God, he couldn't help questioning the efficacy of His system of justice.

    Thus, while Kabir was a realised Soul with no misgivings about the Divine Supreme, Ghalib remained just a seeker - if one can say so - till the end of his breath. Another important difference between these two poets is in regard to the language used by them: while Kabir uttered his poems (padas and dohas) – he never wrote them, this task was in fact performed by his literate followers - in the common vernacular Avadhi Hindi, Ghalib wrote his ghazals in chaste Persian as well as in Urdu, which is more often than not, highly Persianised. This seems to be the reason why Ghalib couldn't become popular during his lifetime, as his poetry was not understood. There is no denying the fact that only those Urdu ghazals of Ghalib enjoy popularity which were written in simple Urdu, more akin to Hindustani. Kabir is certainly more popular than Ghalib, but it must not be forgotten that they were both humanists, for whom love and brotherhood was extremely important. Both were against orthodox rituals and sectarian restrictions, but while Kabir displays the zeal of a social reformer, Ghalib doesn't go that extent. Both espoused eternal human values, and therefore, their poetry remains relevant to humankind in all ages. Their various translations into English and many other languages in recent times, only serve to prove their global appeal. But I'll say that the mysticbhakti poet has gone more into my consciousness than Ghalib – I don't know why - and I intend working more on Kabir's poetry in the near future.
  • CK: Tell us something about the process you follow while translating, Sunil. When you retain the original words in your translation, do you feel that certain elements are absolutely untranslatable, and hence, the need to keep to the originals? +

    SU: There is nothing special about the process. My first draft is normally a literal translation, and I follow it up with a poetic translation in my second or third draft. Of course, before embarking on a translation, I also like to read works available on the poet's life and translations done by other scholars or poets in English or Hindi. I also believe that if you are translating a poet, you should yourself possess some poetic sensibility, or as some would say, the 'third eye'. That only can make a translation good. This also comes after a lot of practice and since translation is an art in itself, it needs a lot of focus and effort to master it, as with any other art.

    Yes, I do retain original words in my translations when it is absolutely necessary to do so and when these are already well understood. While translating, it remains my endeavour to ensure that the spirit of the original poem is not disturbed unnecessarily, but on some occasions I've broken this rule by replacing the original word with a word having an altogether different meaning, when it has resulted in transcreation or adaptation. I may illustrate this with an example. There is a famous sher of Mir: 'Dil is qadar shaguftaa huaa thaa ki raat Mir/ Aayee jo baat lab pe so fariyaad ban gayee.' Literally, one would translate it as : 'The heart was so much happy at night, Mir/ That all speech on my lips became a request.' This would be simply a drab to me. I've preferred to render it as follows: 'How much low was my heart at night, Mir/ That all the words on my lips became a prayer.' You'll see that here for the word 'shaguftaa' which literally means 'blossoming/conveying a happy mood', I've used the word 'low' which just means the opposite, and in conjunction with the word 'prayer', it becomes a transcreation, tilting toward the spiritual. So, at times a rendering can even be raised higher. Firaq was a great master of this art and called such poetic transcreations 'Gulkaari' – i.e. patterns of flowers woven in poetry. However, one ought to be very, very careful and sensitive while doing such experiments with the original. Even an angel will fear to tread this ground!
  • CK: Your poetry is very imagistic, Ranu. And you are a bilingual writer – you write in Hindi and English. Does the choice of language make a difference to your themes, style, vocabulary etc? And more, important, are you conscious, while writing, that the poems in the two languages cater to two different readerships with perhaps two different mindsets? +

    RU: I don't write with the reader in mind. I write because there is an urge to do so. My choice of language depends on my mood. Often when I am playful I choose Hindi. Images differ in the two languages, but the themes develop in the subconscious. I can eat words at all times. I may not be very articulate, but whenever I sit in silence words become my only tool, like a shrapnel I corrode the simmering discontent. Images and metaphors resonate with urgency and you cannot help but write.

    These days I get upset whenever I hear of atrocities on women and children. There is little or no concern for those on the other side – the differently abled – children and adults suffering from mental disorders tend to face maximum challenges in our country and continue to live in the most harrowing conditions. I wish there was a concerted effort to improve their lives.

    For me, poetry signifies the desire to continue the fight. One must never give up. The world must retain its beauty and spread love. It is unfortunate that we refuse to connect ourselves with our deeper instincts and are infested with greed for power and material success. In my profession I have seen people distorting truth, pushing each other to extremes, with an insatiable lust for power, position, paisa, a certain kind of madness is everywhere, it is so perverse and petty. It breeds distrust and serves no purpose. I love my profession, but it would have been difficult for me to survive without the power of pen. You can push me, cast me aside, make your rules to snuff me, supersede me, step on my feet, crush me, laugh at me - you cannot take away from me – my pen. I see poetry as the only domain which has helped me retain my sanity, my equilibrium. Poetry is the speaking voice of silent God – it tells me to look beyond, it shapes my dreams, it has blessed me, it nurtures my hopes and makes me happy. As a writer I can lift up my falling spirits, unleash my anger, recharge my batteries and enter into the world of cosmic energy and light. Shabd Brahm – Word is God and yet how casual we get with our use of language. We tend to hurt, hurl, and ham, hinder lives with words. If only we realized the power of word and let it radiate love and life. Language is the best gift of God to man – neither plants, nor animals nor birds have the privilege of words – perhaps that is what makes them so happy.

    Having said so, I have often been in the company of children who are unable to speak, but do respond warmly to words of affection and care. Their eyes glow and their hearts beam with pure joy to music, to rhymes, to poetry. One can also feel their helpless silence and deep anguish because of this inability to speak. It is Amitav Ghosh who said "those who deal in words should pay scrupulous attention to what they say". Yes deep within I do have the two selves in me that wish to communicate in both the languages. Hindi is my mother tongue – it has a natural flow. It is in tune with my imaginative spirit, whereas English is my second language – my twin soul – I have grown and survived in its midst. I love its malleable reach, its distinct candour, and of course its global tenor. Like the two nostrils – involved inanulom vilom – breathe in and breathe out – with Hindi I savour my inner self and with English I rejoice in the outer space. It has helped me travel and traverse, with one I commune and the other helps me to communicate. And let me also acknowledge my love for Sanskrit. I am not well versed in Sanskrit, but it remains the ultimate language in poetry. "Aham Brahm asmayee tat twam asee" – I see it as the final sutra – the eternal mantra of Being – now and forever.
  • CK: Why poetry alone? What about other genres like fiction? +

    RU: In poetry less is more. For me a good short poem has a better shelf life than a bad book of fiction. It stays with me and can lift my spirits at odd times. It is various, rich in complexity, provocative and powerful, bound up with life and in communion with death. In my youth I read fiction, but nowadays whenever I feel out of sorts I choose poetry. Let me have a tryst with Kavafi, Kamala Das, Rilke, Roomi and Kabir and a date with Elizabeth Smart whose By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept is one of the most remarkable books I have read. Someday I wish I could write with equal intensity and with such abandon. It is a novel that blends prose poetry.

    SU: I can't think of writing anything else than poetry, as it is more a discovery of the self, whereas fiction to me is more a discovery of the world.......It's a matter of choice, I would say.
  • CK: Both of you are involved with a very significant social cause. Is there a two-way interface between your social commitment and your writing? +

    RU: Life has brought us close to each other. Our personal circumstances have drawn us to the people with disability. And I see it as a blessing. It has made us much more humane and has helped us dissolve our conceits, and has certainly become integral to my poetry.

    SU: Ranu has already answered this for me, too.

    CK: Thank you Sunil and Ranu. Your reflective, explorative and well thought-out responses are sure to touch a chord with all those who have entered the spirit of poetry.
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