interview: Rati Saxena by Farideh Hassanzadeh (Mostafavi)

Dr Rati Saxena – is an eminent Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar.

1-Reading your poems , I feel poetry is your lost half. How did you find him¿

You are very correct, my poetry is, what I have lost. But I can not say that I could find everything back in poetry. In-fact every minute I loose my self and every minute poetry tries to bring back me to my self. Poetry gave me a shelter, where I can sit for a moment and talk to my self. While talking to my self, I can talk to the whole world.

How did I find him- is really a big story, because I was born in a family where no one even talk about poetry, I was married in a family where poetry was never liked, I am living in a family where writing poetry is a madness. Yet poetry and I found each other.
First time when I wrote a poem, I was too sad….. I felt like crying, but I saw my self laughing loudly, more I asked for tears, more I got laughs… my pain became thick….. strange moments. Then few words came on the tip of my pen… I found that it was poetry.

I could not write for more than fiftheen years…. that was the time when I was passing through a black tunnel, but when I started writing, poems come to me like butterflies. I am grateful to poetry….that’s all…

2- Please tell me more about this black tunnel .It seems your life has been an epic made by your own hands. Please let us know about details.

This is very difficult question .

Well, I was born in a beautiful city of Rajasthan called Udaipur as a fourth daughter in a middle class educated family. In the Indian community birth of a daughter is not appreciated by society. So I was almost an unwanted child. When I was quite young, my uncle (mother’s brother) took me with him to Bhopal. I can say, that was the best period in my life. I could have a real carefree childhood. I stayed with them until I passed my fifth std., but I do not remember anything regarding studies as those days I was too busy playing. My uncle taught me some maths that’s all. When my father got the information about me, getting spoilt, he was furious. He brought me back to my own family, my own home was a prison for me as all my sisters were very sophisticated and well-mannered girls compared to me and there were no chance for worthless playing with my poems:( girls from a good family is a hint to this story !) It was a tough time for me. I was put in ordinary government school, but my sisters were studying in good schools so they opted for science as they were good students, I opted for arts because I did not wanted to study in boys school .( as those days there were no science subjects in a girls school and studying in a boys school meant living in a jail) and I was more interested in other activities like debate, elocution, acting in drama etc, more than study.

Even though I studied in a very ordinary school, I always remained the star of the school. I used to get a number of prizes. Opposite to it, I was a very quiet and reserved girl at home. In school days I was always busy in all types of extra activity and never much bothered for study. But somehow, I used to get good marks. In 10’th standard I got good marks in maths, so I wanted to opt maths for my higher studies (pre-degree) (by that time my father got transferred to another city) and my elder sister made fun of me saying that how come an art student can handle the math subject. I was too upset and decided to take a subject in which I had minimum marks and that was Sanskrit (ancient Indian language). I managed to learn this language; as usual, I was a star in my class and the foolish girl at home. Then I opted for BA honors (bachelors) in Sanskrit. In college again I became popular as debater, actor and in other activities. I won a number of prizes in these competitions. Then I did my M.A.(masters) in Sanskrit. As soon as I completed my masters I applied for a doctorate, but soon I got married. I could only complete my doctorate after marriage, facing a number of problems. I had to go threw a number of problematic family adjustments with my in-laws. I had to behave as middle-class village daughter-in-law ,like pressing feet of mother-in-law, cooking, stitching, embroidery work etc. that was the time I had to live without any book also, let me explain that even though I studied in an ordinary school, I was very much fond of reading. Words always hypnotized me. I do not remember when did it started, but I always found my self-reading. I was too fond of reading that there was a saying in my home that –don’t ask Rati to sweep, because if she finds any torn paper while sweeping, she will stop her work to read it first. so the passion for reading did not allow me to remain a good daughter in low for long. After 13 years of my marriage, I came out to start my studies again. This time I have passed teachers’ training exams and started working in a school, then in a college and left the job after 17 years experience as I could not cooperate with the politics in services. From my early childhood time I was writing and destroying as I did not have the courage to prove to the writer in me. But at the age of 40 I started writing openly and getting published. Unfortunately, I write in Hindi and live in the south India. So I never had any direct communication with my readers. But in ten years almost 15 books and 5oo-600 journals are to my accounts, still, I have a lot of unpublished work. so this is, in very short, I could tell you about my life..

3- So you deny Isadora Duncan’s saying : “I wonder if a woman can really be an artist , since art is a hard taskmaster who demands everything, whereas a woman who loves ,gives up everything of life …..” I am curious also to know if in your life ” the imperious call of art ” has ever put “a tragic end to love “?

I think my background is different than Isadora Duncan, because for me art is not limited to paperwork only. In my childhood, I have seen my maternal aunty smearing cow dunk on the flour of courtyard with her fingers. Within few minutes the courtyard used to get a shine. That shine was not the shine of cement, lines of fingers made it more human. That was the first art that stuck to my mind. I have seen my aunty drawing on the walls with rice paste on the coating of cow dunk ( it was a part of a festival of women) that artwork still gives me strength. Still, those lines are stuck in my mind. I have seen my family women singing while working on grinding stone, while cooking or while celebrating. Art was the important part of women folk of my childhood, but of course, they were never called artists, they were only women or mami, nani or didi or chachi i etc.. (Relation’s names in hindi).

Yes I could not become fulltime artist for a long time because I had responsibility of my family and some expectations from my in lows. But even in those days, I was living with arts, doing embroidery work on my daughter’s dresses etc.

When I became fulltime artist, I was still with my family, but by that time my family started accepting my emotional need, and I could manage both. So I was away from pure art because of responsibility not because of love. sometime I feel, I could never get pure love in my life, that is why I keep on finding it in poetry.

My name is Rati, in mythology Rati means “love” but in same time she is wife of “Kamdeva” ( God of love) according to mythology Kamdeva was burnt by Shiva( An Indian God) , but Rati asked a boon so that kamdeva (love) is still alive , but without body. That is why I feel I am Rati with lots of love without any physical love……

4-Nazar Qabbani , Arab poet says : Artists in their everyday life are not what they are in their works; a kind of Dr. Jakyle and Mr.Hyde. What do you think about this ?

Up to a limit, Nazar Qabbani is right, but why poets only, we all are like this. most of us have double personalities. We can not become our own image in our life even, What I feel that a real poet will be more kind in real life, for example, Hindi’s great poets Nirala, Mahadevi Varma, Maithili SharaN Gupt etc were very kind and good human beings in their real-life also, but in modern days we do find poets like them, for example, your favorite poet Kamala Das’s ” my story ” is not 100% real story, as she herself accepts. Moreover, her mother who was a great poet of her time was very calm and quiet in her real-life was very strong in her poetry. What I want to say that if a person is a good human being in real life and writes something different will be a good poet in my opinion. As I see my self, in real life I am a very talkative, carefree woman, but my poems talk about pain only. Sometimes it is difficult for me even, I have written very few love poems, and in real life, people think that I am a very free woman. In society, people think that I am very lucky and fully satisfied, but in my heart, I am very lonely. There is a difference in what we see and what we don’t want to see. Some time as a poet we can see all those things which are impossible in real life. And this is good for poetry. I hope you also agree with this.

5-The Turkish poet Enis Batur writes: “If ‘Death’ didn’t exist, Mankind would never write poetry. He would never need it.” The Iranian poet Soufi writes: “Everyone fears death: Poets fear it more.” How do you interpret this? To what extent do you agree with it?

There is no doubt that death affects a poet more than any other person; this is because to feel the loss of life, a poet is more sensitive compared to a common man. From very early time wonderful poetry is written about death. All the Veda’s and Upanishads, which are wonderful poetry as well, try to handle death their own way. The man was not afraid of death, but he was afraid of loss in life. In Indian continent, when some very old member of a family dies, his death is celebrated by giving him a wonderful JANAJA(last journey), but young death is always painful. In BrihadaraNyak Upanishad, death is called the cause of the world. So poetry is a way to handle this loss in a psychological way. Our ancestors develop an imaginary world after death so that man does not lose faith in life. Actually death gives us faith in life if there is no death; there will be no love for life. death is actually loved ( in Hindi we say. vah pyar me mar gaya he dies in love means he falls in love very deeply) Moreover death does not come only at the end of life, one has to die a number of times in his own lifetime. Poet is more sensitive, that is why death comes to him/her very frequently.

As a poet I am very sensitive person, death troubles me a lot. As a poet, I have to die almost every day, and try to get back from death. I do not say that I am not afraid of death, but I will like to say that I do not want to live without any work, as a weak and old woman. So I will be ready to accept death.

6-What is your idea about the translation of poetry? Please tell us of your own experiences as a translator .

For me, translation is something like meditation, while translation one has to transform not only words into different languages but also feelings, emotions, culture and so many other things. in case of poetry poet’s identity must be kept intact. For eg when I translate a woman poet of a particular time, my translated poems should speak the language of that particular time and space and poets. While translating a male poet I can not change gender or poetry. One more important thing is when I am translating a Malayalam poet or writer; I must bring my readers to Kerala. I should introduce them some words related to culture and society, I should give them an idea of Malayalam poetry. it means while translation, one has to be very careful.

Another important thing for me is that I can not translate every one. I can translate only what I like. if I do not like the poetry, I can not translate it, If I am not comfortable with poet, I can not translate. One very strange thing is with me—poetry comes to me…some very difficult poems came to me and I found them quite easy, but some time so-called easy poems do not open up to me..

It is strange, but it is true that I started translation of my poems with the so-called most difficult poems of MAlAYALAM, that time I did not know the language well. I did not know the poet personally, but that poem invited me. It started opening its meaning step by step… by Unveiling the sentiments, emotions and words. I never found difficulty in translating that poem. After translating that poem only I come to know that poem was most difficult poem of Malayalam litterateur.

When I do not have time to meditate on poem, I take help of poet, but in that case also, if poem does not come to me.. I can not work on that.. I leave them …If poem has power, she will not let me sleep and force me to translate..

Identity is more important thing in translation, I my self am a poet, so I have to be careful that my translated poems should have their own identity. for eg. if my poems and my translated poems have same flow or same style than what is the use of translation. Translated poems should bring the poet in picture and hide the translator behind veil ..

7-To know your idea about the difference between Women’s Literature, and Men’s Literature ,perhaps I should remember again restrictions for women. You may accept that even in societies where equality is not the slogan among men and women, she feels uneasy with the circumstances when she sits behind a desk to write, she feels unusual, as if she has betrayed others. Her conscience suffers from the guilt that she might have robbed others’ rights.

No doubt that writing is more easy and natural for man compare to woman. It is more difficult for woman to devote her self for writing completely. It happened to me, my most of the writing have died before birth, because those ideas came to me while cooking or doing some other things for family. I could not write for 15 years as those years were completely devoted to my family. But when I started writing, I had very fast growth as guilty for not writing was too strong in me. For me I could never give first preference to my writing till now, still writing is my part-time job and my home is at first place. Sometimes I feel as I am working in a circus, doing so many things at the same time. But sometimes I feel that this pressure gives me an energy to write.

I feel guilty for not reading or writing. That makes me write better. I could never sit behind writing table and think, I always think while doing something like cooking driving etc. I could never follow the time table for writing, as when I want to write I ignore everything, sometimes a wonderful idea comes to me while driving or while doing something. So I feel a woman has to train her mind for writing. I am popular with my serious prose writing and serious articles too. They need lot of time and energy, I could never write them in one sitting. But breaks give me time to think, that is why I can write more strong and serious prose. Sometime I could not write a single word when I had plenty of free time. I feel that God has given more energy to a woman than man, that is why she can do so many things at a time.

In Malayalam literature , a great poetess called Balamaniyamma ( mother of Kamala das) had opportunity to get time to write like men, without any family Burdon as her husband support her very much. Her writings are good, but some time I feel she missed so much in life. Another poet Ayyappa Panikkar looks after his family like lady of the family (because of some problem of the family) but he does not regret for this. He says “kitchen is the place where you get all rasas (salty, sugar, hot etc) (Indian poetry talks about Nava rasa (nine rasas/ emotions) so working in the kitchen helps me to write better. Because of cooking I learn to use rasa in better ways.” I feel that he is correct when a woman cooks, she never major the salt, chili etc. all the majors are within her, so she need not be over careful while cooking, same way she can have the ability to experience the life deeply, that is why she does not need time table for writing like a man.

It is not necessary that woman’s literature is different than man’s literature all the time. But there is no doubt that most of the woman can not come out of her experiences. That is why she mostly writes around her own world. But I suggest that woman should handle serious writing I am sure that her serious writings can be very powerful.

So I am not unhappy for getting less time. Because I feel lucky to get a lot of experiences in my life.

8-Fame ,means : condition of being well known. Please tell me what is the good or bad points of being well known? Ann Stevenson in her book : Bitter Fame claims that Sylvia Plath’s most mental distress was Fame.She needed it . James Tate in one of his essays says: Fame for a true artist is luxuries. What is your idea?

Frankly speaking, most of us like fame. But there is no doubts that defame follows fame. My own experience is that you are safe until you are not famous, but as soon as you achieve something whole world turns against you. when somebody is a ordinary person, he/she will be treated well by society, as there is no threatening from ordinary person. Fame is mostly bitter and it follows mental distress. Mostly fame makes you lonely and loneliness is terrible. About all we need a bit fame, otherwise who will read us? An artist also needs luxuries some time.. isn’t it?

9-Do you believe that :
” Beyond this window
someone unknown
is anxious about you and me ” ?
F. Farrokhzad

And what is the relationship between literature and religion?

Yes, sometimes I too feel that “someone unknown” is always there, maybe this is the result of my religious background. I think literature has only one religion, and that is freedom for expressions. This freedom should be for goodwill, beauty and welfare. I have worked on Vedas which are called religion book. I found that they are more poetry than religion, as they talk about brotherhood and love in society. It does not mean that I do not respect religion. In fact, I love all good things in every religion, but I do not believe in blind faith. Love your religion and respect other’s. That’s what I know. I can not say like so-called Marxist that I do not believe in religion, as it is rooted in my culture. I do not know what is the relationship between literature and religion, but I know that “ Ramcharit Manas of Tulasidas is wonderful literature but same book is the foundation of religion also. When I read it I feel wonderful as it is marvelous literature, but I do not deny that I do not read it for the sake of religion. At the same time if you ask me to write a poem for a particular religion, then I can not write. I can not write anything for any particular religion.

Because as a writer my religion is humanity.

10-How do you see the effect of political subjects on poetry ? And what do you think about Yeats’ “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”:
“I think it best at times like these
a poet’s mouth be silent.
We have to gift to set a statesman right…”

See, I do not know about world literature, but Indian literature especially Hindi literature have a section called “veer gatha kal” means a time in which poetry was written for bravery. It contains beautiful poetry. As I belong to Rajasthan, where a number of wars have taken place in olden days. So we have beautiful poems for war. In these poems mostly praise for own kingship was important. These poems were part of my childhood. We appreciate Gandhi’s war, because it was for our freedom. But now the time has changed. The face and shape of war has changed. It is becoming crueler. So this is not the time to appreciate war even if it is for our country. Modern time war is not located to a particular race or country, its effect is on all human beings. So I feel that the poet should speak against it without taking the side of any power. War is the enemy of a human being, not any cast or race. Another way is, we should talk about LOVE, love for human beings, love for nature, love for animals and love for universe. I feel true poet always loves love. Isn’t?

11-Is it so difficult in India for a poet to make a decent living?

Decent living?, my God ! It is difficult to live with poetry in India. If a poet is completely depending on poetry for his livelihood, he can not get a signal meal in a month.

Now most of the poet has other jobs, very few are there who completely depend on their writings, and they find it difficult. I left my job for writing and started the web site, every single paisa in site was spend by me from my pension. Luckily my husband has a job, so I need not worry about food or shelter, otherwise, I would be on roads. Even for my site I could never get a single coin.
The strange thing is – people ask me—where do you work? I can not say that I am a poet-writer. Even though, if I say—I am a poet, and writer. Then their next question will be. That is fine But where do you work? And if I say—at home,than they will say—oh . You are housewife(Home maker)

How can I explain them that I work more than any working woman, I work for 10-15 hours a day It is not that poets are less in India, a number of people are writing poetry, (without understanding about poetry). But poetry writing is not a respectful job in modern days. In my social life, nobody knows that I am writing serious things. They do not know even about my writings. It is difficult to get published in India, you have to pay for publication, But there are clever people, (who are very bad poets) they manage to grab the big awards and get a lot of money (because of their political relations) still an officer get more respect than poets.

I think , this situation will be everywhere in world, isn’t it?

12-If you were me what did you ask from Rati Saxena ?

I do not think that I am as knowledgeable as you are. You have asked very important questions. And you are a clever interviewer. But there are so many things, which people from outside of India or the Indian continent can not understand. Such as, being a poet is not respectable work here for a woman, or as most of the poems written by woman are taken as her biography. Even though we had great woman poets like Meera, Habba khatoon, Laldad, Akka Mahadevi and many more. All these woman poets suffered badly in their life. I don’t think that things have changed here. Society still do not give them proper respect , and mostly male poets do not accept them as a poet.

One more thing, I do not understand, meaning of love is changing so rapidly that some times it is very difficult to differentiate dimension of love. You asked about death, but Love is more important than death. This earthy word is full of confusion. There is a wonderful variety in love. We try to limit this wonderful feeling. I remember my childhood, the number of friends I had. We used to sit together, walk together catching each others hand, or hugging each other. No one could wonder about those relationships. But in modern time this relationship will be not taken as healthy affairs. Why? Why we limit this wonderful emotion. Other hand sex became a disaster these days. People are so hungry to grab anything. I remember the Kalidas, I remember the Kamasutra. They talk about sex in such a beautiful way that it gives the strength.

There are thousands of “why” still roving around me, I feel sad as I can not write on all topics. (who will read ?) at the end of the day I feel too sad. Day by day the color of my sadness is becoming darker and darker, that’s all.

What I am writing is only 2% of my thoughts. I feel too lonely some times I feel, why I am not dumb like so many other women? Why my brain always have fire? Why my heart is so weak?… So dear, there are so much more to talk and talk
Shall I quote one of my poem-
I am talking—
night kept on exploding, the mine
is ready to turn into bits
I am waiting for the smoke
and light coming out of fire
right now I am talking to my self.
morning is waking up night
figures are fluttering in calendar
twit-twit tighten in figures
my eyes are glued to the screen of computer

I am talking
I talk to every one
to the line of ants
to the blade of grass
to all of them
who are doing a conspiracy
to push me out of this earth
still so much talk remains that
I am talking, endlessly
To my self
A lot is there to talk about…
Rati Saxena

Farideh Hassanzadeh (Mostafavi)

An Iranian poet, translator and freelance journalist. Her first book of poetry was published when she was twenty-two.
Her poems appear in the anthologies Contemporary Women Poets of Iran and Anthology of Best Women Poets. She writes regularly for Golestaneh, Iran

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