‘To the edges of language’: Souradeep Roy in Conversation with Mani Rao

By and | 1 May 2021

SR: What made those early poems and how did you arrive at the voice? I feel this voice comes to a culmination in echolocation: your most precise long sequence.

MR: Just the stuff of life. Body, body processes, watching this and that around me and savoring the detail. I felt a lot of yearning, but … what could I do with it! An overall horror at the business of living. I couldn’t figure out why, so of course writing became the raison d’être. For all the angst I went through, it became something else in the writing. I look back now at a line from my late teens ‘why does depression trouble me when uppression doesn’t?’ and hey, I know, writing was really where I could also be my best friend, work it out.

But I think you’re asking about the sources. Sometimes the source was dreams.

In college days and after, I read literature. Once I moved to Mumbai, in 1987, the inputs expanded. I read French literature in translation. And in particular, I discovered my love for cinema. I would see everything aired by the Film Circle at The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). Literature and film were my world. I never felt like I could fit into the social conventions around me anyway.

Sometimes I was haunted by a shot or a line. For instance, this line in Catapult Season: ‘If you forget it will happen again’ is from Hiroshima Mon Amour. (I think I put such quotes in italics). I was also into photography then (had my own dark room) – did a film appreciation course at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) – perhaps that was in 1990, and in those days, I thought I would move out of advertising, join the FTII and become a cinematographer. (I did not).

After I moved to Hong Kong too (in 1993), I was watching a lot of cinema. In retrospect, I think that I probably loved cinema because that is how I wrote. I told stories in images, composed vignettes. Each line was like a new reveal. Basically, after one line comes another line, a different line. Nothing repeats and needs no explanation. Later, I’m sure I absorbed film techniques in my writing.

You say that this early voice shows up later in echolocation … possibly echolocation was intense, that time of my life was intense. I would close myself in my study and write all day, then find myself dry mouthed, dazed. Some of those poems were like a bloodletting.

SR: The predominant lyric ‘I’ is absent in your latest collection, Sing to Me. There is a different side to your writing here. Would you say that’s the voice you inhabit now, and the hurly burly of the young years are gone?

MR: Sing to Me poems were a part of a specific project to engage with Greek and Indian myths. So, I guess they are more objective. These were mostly written between 2009 and 2010 and collected in Sing to Me in 2019. Most of them were out in Almost Island way back in 2009. Thus, publication dates of books can be a little confusing, if you’re trying to trace some trajectory for writing style …

But Souradeep, don’t you think the reflective voice and objective voice perhaps took over from the lyrical even in Ghostmasters (2010)? I don’t seem to write compulsively, or out of angst now. I guess happiness is not so lyrical?

Did you say hurly-burly? I’m busy as ever. Much more engaged with the world outside – outside my mind, I mean (though some would dispute that). But my writing is now somehow linked to a different quest. Scholarship has become a methodology too, to find out what I was always looking for.

SR: I feel Ghostmasters is a middle ground between the later collections (Sing to Me) and the earlier collections, so the examples for the following question is drawn from these collections. You have a sense of play with words (‘Five-word poem’), and a sense of childlike play with sound (‘Doe Ray Me Far Sew Lah Tea Do’ in ‘Drowning by Numbers’). But they also come in very deep, sometimes very serious moments and surprise the reader. How do you describe this playful relationship with sound in poetry?

MR: Sometimes it’s natural that words become sounds – either the content has reached its culmination or end – you can call this inarticulate or speechless, or you can call it music. Words thus move naturally to their source, that of sounds. It would have to happen when the poem is usually finished.

And then I just can’t help the playing playful part. That is present throughout my writing. It’s so enjoyable in the mouth. The poem, ‘Auditorium’ is all about that. Those lines were fun to make – ‘Some frogs gargled in the gutter / Some frog gargoyles on the path’ and so on.

When I’m working and working at the grain, I can’t help but notice and relish – and get stuck with – the play. So, for instance, ‘alas’ is inside ‘lasting’:

Day and night : lips played at missing
Twilight a lasting a las t

Specifically, for Ghostmasters, all those poems were written after 2004. I was sensitive to sound (and still am), this was a byproduct of meditation.

My most favorite ones though are those that arrive from a combination of sound, rhythm/timing, and have a heightened meaning. These may include words I cannot explain the meaning of. In ‘Star-crossed’ – ‘Someone always playing at Vega’ – why Vega – where is Vega? (Don’t ask me). Or such as ‘uality’ and ‘iolatedness’ in the poem, ‘End of Scene’. Or how ‘air avages the plump’ and ‘eerious ways of god’ in the poem ‘Drought.’

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