An Innerview

Dr. T.S.Chandra Mouli in conversation with

Prof. Murali Sivaramakrishnan

C.M:  Namaste ! Thank you, Prof. Murali, for agreeing to give an interview. Kindly talk to us about your early childhood.

S.M:    I grew up in a small town—or rather in and among many small villages in south India—my father was in the Police force and wherever he was transferred officially all family went. As the fourth child of the family of six (one elder sister died in infancy) I always enjoyed a certain amount of freedom and love. I was quite close to my father and of course the entire family. However right from my earliest memories I loved the open doors and mountains and rivers, and all that’s outdoors.  I loved sketching from nature and listening to all sounds. I was always fond of solitude and could walk around long hours. I didn’t have many friends except the usual classmates and neighbourhood guys. My immediate elder brother and I were quite close to one another—now we appear to have drifted so far! Such is life, I guess.

C.M: How about your college days, please?

S.M: I was an undergraduate student in the University College, Trivandrum, Kerala, during the emergency period in the mid seventies.  Life was tremendously political and full of action! Memories come pouring into me when I reflect on those days! I was actively involved in student politics—that was the order of the day– and two or three times was the elected representative in the college union. More than anything this was the crucial period when I really awoke to the outside world. My painting and poetry grew alongside my reading and exposure to the world events. I lived a full life—as student, citizen and intellectual.

C.M: How did you develop interest in painting? Any formal training you had, sir?

S.M: No formal training at all! I have mixed feelings about this: because I did not have a proper guru I was never exposed systematically to the world of art, and then I was also fortunate to develop on my own with out any reins! As I said earlier during my undergraduate days I had the good fortune to get close to many eminent people in the world of letters and art—there were men like Kanayi Kunhiraman, who later became the Principal of the Fine Arts College in Trivandrum.  He was a willing guide – we could hold conversations no end. Unhesitatingly he would discuss with us about sculpture and painting. He encouraged us a great deal. And of course there were many young painters of great talent who usually hung out with us in college. Those were great days indeed, we could dream and dream!

CM: What are the other areas of your interest?

S.M: Poetry, of course! And then by virtue of being a nature lover I was also involved in natural history activities. Our small group of nature lovers initiated the Kerala Natural History Society in the early seventies in the lines of Bombay Natural History Society. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a couple of bird watching walks with the legendary Salim Ali in the jungle trails of Kerala.  In return for my enthusiasm and involvement I was awarded a copy of the famed Book of Indian Birds (a signed copy).  I was always a keen enthusiast of poetry—I appear to have inherited this from my father who could recite long narrative pieces. Well, let’s say I was indeed fortunate to have had access to books from early childhood. Our small town was also a haven for books and periodicals. There was the British Library, the Kerala University Library and the good old Public Library. The times were also ripe enough for intense reading. Books and books poured in from all around. Poetry was in the air. And the creative mind was kept active, alive and busy!

C.M: Coming to Indian English fiction, how were the initial endeavours?

S.M: Oh you mean how we responded to Indian fiction in English? Reading then was for us through books and periodicals as I said. The regular Indian magazines were there that carried the writings of anyone worth reading.  In my times it was the Illustrated Weekly of India, the Caravan, Mirror, and later much later Youth Times. Fiction actually meant for us work from any part of the world. My early readings in Indian English fiction were of course the works of RK Narayan. Raja Rao and Anand came a little later. Manohar Malgonker, Kamala Markandya and Anita Desai, followed. Actually I did not make any finer distinction over their origin and choice of language, style, narrative etc as Indian academic critics were wont to do even then.  What mattered was the world of experience they afforded. I enjoyed Khuswant Singh too. There was a special relish in the writings of Ruskin Bond. A strange kind of sincerity and passion.  Why not also include the delicious pieces of hunting narratives of Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson? Formally they would be placed in a different niche, I know.

C.M:  Can one notice any perceptible influence over the craft then?

S.M: Yes. The regional writer in English always had to struggle a little more than his/her native counterpart while fine-tuning the craft of fiction.  There is always something of a curio-like factor when chaste English came out in the dialogues of a coolie or a common Indian man/woman in our own everyday situation. But then brilliant writers like Raja Rao and Narayan and the others wrote so effortlessly that their self-conscious craft was never visible on the outside.  For a true writer who is sufficiently creative and imaginative craft and language would come forth naturally as leaves to a tree!

C.M: How did the post-independence era distinguish itself? Is there any shift in focus or choice of themes, sir ?

S.M: Yes, naturally. Times change and so do fiction and its focus. There were some compulsive issues in the pre-Independence period—a desire for some sort of Indian identity as opposed to that of the colonial one, a search for some abiding distinctive values etc.  The second generation writers had two forces to contend with largely—how to maintain the tempo of their forerunners and then at the same time how to be different from them.  Some were too critical of their previous generation while others turned westwards hastily after recognition and rewards. Sensationalism and media generated publicity also contributed to many success stories. Of course there is a tremendous pace of change of life style– travel and the information-revolution have also contributed to these turbulent changes.  One thing about literature is that it is a product of its times—fiction is no different. It is double-edged: it changes with the time and also changes the times!

C.M: What characterises a post -modernist   work? Who are major writers of this era?

S.M: Now the concept of “Postmodern” is something that pertains really to western literary and aesthetic canons. This was an idea that was generated historically in the western context—something that came typically after the great modernist movement. There are many contentious issues here—some theoreticians argue for a continuity between the post and its earlier version—intellectuals like Habermas would look upon this as an unfinished project of modernity itself.  While some others would see in this strain a distinct breakage with the past. Either way postmodern –well, it depends on how you write this too (with a break in between post and modern, or a hyphen or even without a break!)—has for its theoreticians, some very distinctive qualities like the pursuit of a different order of reality from what the modernists were after and a distinguishable style that would suit such a pursuit. Each generation likes to invent its own ways of responding to life; literature, the literary and what literature attempts to convey, all change with the times.  Well, for the most we can easily characterise the work of some writers like

And as for your query as to how these categories work themselves out in the Indian context, we can safely draw attention to some works like these influenced for the most by the later generation of Euro-American postmodernist writers.

But I have always felt that these categories are mere appendages attached by academic theoreticians and literary historians—the work of art and the artists themselves would not take these ideas into the street!

C.M: How different is it from Postcolonialism? Kindly elucidate.

S.M: This is something quite different as a category—while the postmodern is definitely an aesthetic category when applied to works of art( one should also distinguish between postmodernist and postmodernism), postcolonialism is something that is historically validated.  Here also the distinction works when the words are separated by space or a hyphen—a lot of debate has gone into the making of these concepts! Postcolonial usually applies to the condition of aesthetic production or products from erstwhile colonial countries. The post appended here only is meant to typify either their separate temporal existence after a period of colonisation or a condition of having been colonised at one time. Depends on how you stress and where you accentuate the stress. It is a fact of history that almost two-thirds of the world’s countries have felt the impact of colonisation—theoretically, psychologically and historically this is supposed to work both ways: the coloniser is transformed as much as the colonised between the points of intersection—and usually the literature produced within these countries is referred to as postcolonial. But here as elsewhere, all literature produced after the era of colonialism need not necessarily be postcolonial: there are certain distinct self-reflexive categories that usually apply to these.

C.M: Ideological influence is said to be a significant factor in creative work. Do you subscribe to this view?

S.M: Of course! All literature is a product of ideology—there are several factors at play here though. Those ideas that are usually dominant at a given time do operate in the consciousness of any writer of that period.  These terms in the technical context are usually applied by theoreticians and critics who have a Marxist or neo-Marxist leanings. It is a non-contentious issue that the zeitgeist of a time reflects in the literary and aesthetic products of that time. And literature is a social product and it is addressed to society.

C.M: What harm or benefit results from this aspect, please?

S.M: There is no apparent harm in a literary critic stressing on ideology! Not that I can see! However, there is a problem when literary critical debates become challenges and critiques from a fixed dogmatic position. A free thinking society would appreciate dialogues from all angles. Ideology can be certainly dangerous when consumed verbatim! (Laughter)

C.M: Movements to establish identity seem to be major concern of some writers. Could you throw light on this and elaborate how far they were successful in their efforts?

S.M: This is a different point! All writers—at least some—indulge in literary and aesthetic creations as a process of self-discovery or self-recovery.  Barring those few who simply look upon these things as mere diversions or as part of that horrorsome phrase—entertainment industry—most authors and artists engage with their selves and the world in their work. Even fiction writers—in the world of poetry this is a little more easily discernable. There is a great tradition of writing that runs parallel to the work of knowledge-production in the hard sciences—these would constitute the literary and aesthetic circuit of the human identity.  In our own times, we can see that in the works of Rushdie and for the most in Kiran Desai. The great trio of Indian English Fiction—Anand, Raja Rao and Narayan—all were successful in their own ways in the creation or discovery process. As with all else this process has its play in both the content and form of a work of art.  But for the most we could treat this as part of the subject matter or themes that work themselves out through their works.

C.M: What is your view on pronouncing value judgement on Indian English fiction           from western point of view?

S.M: I would certainly disagree—Indian fiction whether in the erstwhile language of the coloniser or other continues to be Indian in form and meaning.  How could it be judged by other means and measures than what it constitutes? Now, on account of certain historical incongruities, we in India are faced with complex issues of defining what Indian would mean.  We cannot simply seek Sanskrit aesthetic parallels nor can we resort to regional concepts.  We have a lot of work to evolve new categories of our own, new parameters successfully evolved from our own history and tradition. And we need to be cautious and committed—otherwise we could turn fundamentalists and destroy the whole cause.  Why should we be worried about his issue at all? We do have a distinct tradition of Katha and Sahitya with great traditions of folk and tribal lavanyasastras. The need of the hour is to trace out these sources and reframe our vision and understanding.  Leave the west be!

C.M: What according to you is the best way to assess Indian writing in English?

S.M: As I said earlier we need to look upon English language writing from India as a distinct part of Indian heritage and reframe our aesthetic categories drawing from the vast variety of our regional and national sources. Indian English writing is not something of a curio like a dog walking on its hind legs! (Though some people would certainly like it to be!)

C.M: Diaspora writers occupied centre stage for some time. Every one is a migrant in           some way or the other. Why were the Diaspora writers treated as icons? Do you feel that we have not shed our preference for imported ideas, fiction and accompanying propaganda to ensure success of the work and the creative writer? Why were writers at home shunned?

S.M: I do not agree to this completely—we have not shunned the writers at home! The point is that media have always hyped those who make some quick bucks abroad as some special incarnations! As with everything else there still remains a hegemonial attitude when it comes to categories of values and ideas. Those inflows from the west have not completely stopped—the import of name and fame through the west still continues to be fascinating for the media that relies on sensationalism and overhyping!  Believe me! At a recent gathering a promising writer sidled up to me and enquired as to how he could procure the Booker—just let me know, he said, just let me know those secret techniques that would fetch him the prestigious prize! Can I do some ghost writing for him drawing from here and there perhaps even downloading from some remote sites? The desire for fame and fortune and name abroad continues to haunt our young minds.  And name by all means even plagiarism!

C.M: Multiculturalism seems to be the in thing now.Pl, throw light on this concept.

S.M: Ah! Those inscrutable Americans! This is a concept that has been thrown up for current debates in the American context and that’s why it appears as something new and noble! Indians were multiculturalists for a long, long time. This is just another facet of that old issue of melting pot and salad bowl etc. The US has been the home of many people from a variety of cultures and as a national policy it is their interest to keep the debate going—there is also the professed humanitarian grounds of treating all people with/to equal opportunity etc. However, multiculturalism has been a lived experience in the Indian subcontinent and it has been made possible only through compassion, tolerance and understanding. A community that proffers equal opportunity would certainly need to come to terms with this concept of multiculturalism.  After all people do move about a lot in today’s world and when people of diverse cultures come to inhabit a common place there is a need and necessity for understanding and tolerance—hence this idea of multiculturalism has come to the forefront of today’s debates.

C.M:  Your interest in conservation of environment is well known. You are an expert in           eco-criticism. What is eco-criticism and how relevant is to the study and appreciation of literature? Kindly amplify your views in this regard, sir.

S.M: Ecological Criticism—ecocriticism for short—is a comparatively recent entrant in literary debates in the academic circles in India.  I have written a lot in this direction and have done a whole lot of seminars and symposia. It has been my contention that although this ecocriticism and its contemporary dimensions have their origin in the US University contexts we can trace its roots in the Indian contexts too. For the sake of a definition I could safely say that ecological criticism is a theoretical approach that takes into serious considerations the history and texture of non-human cosmos and its impact on and relevance to literature and art. Of course as you can see the fate of the planet is a serious timely issue and literature and literary debates cannot afford to ignore it. Literature and art have always been intimate with non-human nature and at no time have they been segregated.  However the academic study of the interconnected nature of these two have been overlooked and hence ecocriticism strives to bring back the globe on to the text! Another very significant aspect of these debates have been the notion of value and significance in literature and art which had been safely laid aside in our haste to deconstruct the language of signs.

C.M: Please explain what is ASLE ?

S.M: ASLE is the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.  It was founded by a group of devout nature lovers in a small town in Nevada in the US—Reno. Some of the early founding members are Scott Slovic, Patrick Murphy, Cheryl Glotfelty, etc. ( Later as Fulbright Visiting Scholar in I had the good fortune and privilege to visit the very town where it was founded.  I could also lecture at various forums there, meet many scholars and hold discussions with them) In Chennai my good friend Nirmal Selvamony and I launched ASLE India under the inspiration of Scott Slovic .  However soon Niraml and I parted ways—he branched off from the mainstream into Regional connections.  I still continue as the Founder President of ASLE India.  We have some publications to our credit. A couple of books too.

C.M:  May we know more about ASLE and the way it is functioning?

S.M: ASLE India has its own website and we produce a newsletter. We have members all over India and it is our desire to hold conferences and seminars and workshops in many places.

C.M: Enlighten us about your creative work, please ?

S.M:  I am a poet and a painter. I have had many solo exhibitions in India as well as abroad. There are also four volumes of Poetry.

C.M: You are a reputed critic. How do you evaluate a work of art?

S.M: In simple terms I feel inspired to write only about those works that touch me. Well, because I happen to be an academic also I have to respond to several inauthentic works too. I do not try to evaluate the work—but only try to see how it achieves its effect and through what manner and mode. Each genuine work brings with it its own aesthetic and the task of the genuine critic is to explore this factor.

C.M: How do you manage such diverse activities, please?

S.M: I don’t see them as diverse—they are simply me!

C.M: What is your prognosis as regards Indian English fiction?

S.M: Great scope. If only we were a little less market-oriented!

C.M: What is your advice to students and research scholars?

S.M: Follow your heart! Let yourself into the work of art and allow it seep over you. After all great literature evokes great feeling and without the ability to enjoy and appreciate literature one can never sense anything in it. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet puts it: The play is the thing!

C.M: One personal question. I know you love to drive and visit places. Why?

S.M: I love outdoors. Driving is one way of reaching places—walking is another!

C.M: Thank you very much for sparing your precious time and sharing your erudite         views with us, sir!

S.M: Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure sharing thoughts with you. All the very best!



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