Timelessness of the intangible

Bill Wolak
William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey, United States (Summer 2012)

 

Dileep

Dileep Jhaveri, 2011

Born in 1943, Dileep Jhaveri is one of the most dynamic and articulate poets writing in India today. Like the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, his poetry mixes the objectivity of a scientist with an indefatigable lyricism. For Jhaveri, poetry is a theatre of ideas, emotions, and theoretical propositions. Dileep Jhaveri is a practicing general physician based in Thane, near Mumbai, and a well-known Gujarati poet and playwright. He has published one collection of poetry in Gujarati entitled Pandukavyo ane Itar (1989) and a play Vyaasochchhvas (2003), which has subsequently been translated into English as A Breath of Vyas by Ms. Kamal Sanyal. In addition, many of his poems have been anthologized, and his poetry has been translated into English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. He has received the Critic Award (1989), Jayant Pathak Award for Poetry (1989), and the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad Award (1990).

Inside India, he has been invited to read his works by the Central and State Sahitya Akademis, Universities, and literary groups. He also has been invited to read widely abroad including at the Asian Poets’ Conference in Korea in 1986, Taiwan in 1995, and such other countries as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Most recently, he was invited to read his poetry in the U.S. by Georgetown University and South Asian Language Association for the organization’s 2009 convention. Dileep Jhaveri serves on the editorial boards of Museindia.com and the Kobita Review. Bill Wolak and Dileep Jhaveri met in Nagpur, India, where they were both featured poets at the 2011 Kritya International Poetry Festival. During that meeting, the subsequent interview was started, and it was completed over the following months.

 

BW: What first attracted you to poetry?
DJ: I started to write at a very young age, and I was sure it was poetry, in my innocence and ignorance. For me, to be a poet meant being different from others, and this distinction from others first attracted me to writing. A first-ranker1 in the class from a poor family, I shunned sports to concentrate on studying. I used to paint also, but I could not afford the materials. So my cheap pencils and pens provided security and assured me that poetry was always close by. Poetry became a compulsion and an identity.
BW: What is the role of poetry in your own life?
DJ: Poetry gives meaning to existence; this was an accepted idea and truth in my time. But what is poetry was not clear till I read Rilke. Poetry expands your consciousness always and variously. That decided once and for all what I wanted to be. Several previous encounters with non-poetry forced me to abandon my own understanding and words. This lightness and liberation led me to poetry. Since then, the attraction continues. The surprises are unending, and nothing like the first attraction holds any meaning because of the timelessness of the intangible that is poetry.
BW: Did you ever have teachers who encouraged you to write poetry?
DJ: Every poet has memories of being encouraged when young, but knowing poetry comes only after reading, and still that is not a guarantee that one will become a poet. Often after coming face to face with poetry, one gives up the ambition. Poetry is not a kind teacher and is indifferent to the fate of the aspirant. Rajendra Shah was a major poet from our previous generation. He introduced us to Pound, Eliot, Valery, Laforgue, and Herbert, who we read along with Dante and other classical poets. Of course, Sanskrit poetics and metaphysics also formed part of the discussions, and his favorite was Tagore, who symbolized Indian aesthetics. Rajendra Shah made us aware of what poetry is. Later, it was Suresh Joshi who made us know what is not poetry. What we had been writing was not poetry. He introduced us to Lorca, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Saint John Perse, and a host of other pre-modern and modern European poets. The post-Tagore generation of Bengali poets like Jibananand Das and others were translated by him, and we discovered a world beyond Tagore. Romanticism and juvenile confidence vanished. Silence after initial failed attempts at writing free verse poetry was a logical consequence.
BW: How did reading prose fiction transform your encounter with poetry?
DJ: Silence is a great teacher. It liberates you from self-preoccupation and expands space. In this expanded space entered Rabelais and Cervantes and James Joyce and Henry Miller and Faulkner and Nabokov to teach new dimensions of what poetry meant. From prose I came to know poetry. The space was unlimited, and I read a lot of science fiction—Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Huxley, and several others cleansed the notions of reality. Slowly a poet’s relationship with reality was taking a turn.
BW: When and how did you become interested in science?
DJ: During the days of medical studies, a saint visited me. He was Sigmund Freud. He baptized me in science. Science fiction was one thing, but a scientific attitude was another. One must doubt, question, collect information, assimilate, articulate, apply, reach conclusions, and remain open; these ideas were ingrained by him. Surely these also are the features of modernism. Jean Paul Sartre was a ruthless task-master giving me marching orders. This is how I started writing, for the first time, poetry about which I was confident. This is how I became a doctor in the real sense. A doctor relies upon what he knows. He may not know everything and knows this, too. But he does not rely upon any divine assistance. Often I am amused at my colleagues who have photographs of deities and gurus on their tables with incense and flower offerings. It is also true that a doctor is not always successful at curing a patient, and when that happens to me, I go back to my textbooks of medicine and pharmacology. Now there is even some help from my laptop. I offer them my hours of sweat to find an answer.
BW: Was becoming a medical doctor a calling for you similar to poetry?
DJ: I majored in medicine originally not by choice but because of the lower middle class family compulsions and my very good grades in school and college examinations. But life is a great transformer. Since the last several decades, the profession of medicine and vocation of poetry have provided multiple possibilities of experiencing reality in its myriad forms.
BW: Can you describe your medical practice to me?
DJ: I belong to that era of medical practice when technology was not advanced. To touch a human being physically and emotionally was important. Most of my poor patients cannot afford sophisticated investigations or costly medicines, but they have to be cured or relieved at least. Listening to them with care, examining them, and assuring them that there is hope of happiness is not a difficult job. A simple hug, a light pat, a smile or an occasional rebuke changes their misery. The love you receive in return is more than any fees you charge or waive away. Small children picking stray flowers to present you, a young girl confiding of her first love, an old mother crying on your shoulder for her errant son, a father worried about his child’s examination, a young man uncertain of his prospects, or a drunkard’s wife seeking a gesture of affection release you from your own existential angst or anguish. I try to demystify their notions on omnipotence of medicine and demythologize their deification of my role. Being an atheist, I encourage my patients in whatever faith they follow and absolve myself from any mysticism. I feel happy when they save some money from the treatment of their ailments and buy toys or clothes for their children or treat their spouse to a film. I am still left with enough to indulge my favorite luxuries, such as books, travel, food, and drink.
BW: What role does poetry play in your life?
DJ: I do not have to write poetry to cure humanity. Poetry does not change the outer reality or alter the history. The role of poetry is demystified in my mind. It makes me feel liberated and happy and enlarged. To write or read poetry is a similar process. Poetry is only for those who have made an effort to understand it. For those who endure poetry’s tyranny, the rewards are limitless. To a poet the awards are given in advance, so fame also has no relevance. With their munificence, the words create layers after layers of multiple realities and relations which your senses cannot grasp in totality, your mind cannot comprehend fully, your existence cannot collect in a single lifetime. When you listen to a symphony, the sounds connect you with the waves and winds and stars, and the silences in between merge the interstellar spaces within you. That is what poetry does, like the smile of a feverish child and a tear of a widow or the inaudible last breath of a dying man. A sense of the never ending continuity pervades beyond suffering and futility of this worldly existence. There is no afterlife because the life never ends.
BW: Who were the first poets that you enjoyed reading?
DJ: Those poets from Gujarati, whom I read initially, will be unfamiliar names. The Sanskrit works of Kalidasa and later Valmiki and Vyasa have remained favorites till today. In English, it was a convention to start with Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. In one’s teenage years, without understanding much, one could quote a few lines to impress others as well as one’s self. Edgar Allen Poe was another poet avidly read early on. The acquaintance was later renewed when I began reading Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, who were also influenced by Poe. Poe’s basic aesthetics have remained a continuous source of inspiration, confidence, and strength.
BW: Who are the poets you enjoy reading today?
DJ: Eliot, Baudelaire, Lorca, Rilke, Voznesensky, Enzensberger, Paz, Neruda, Milosz, Szymborska, Herbert, Holub, Popa, Ritsos, and Amichai are the poets I read again and again.  Except for Whitman, Williams, Cummings, and Stevens, I have not read many American poets in depth. From the contemporary Indian poets, K. Satchidanandan, Jayanta Mahapatra, and Keki Daruwala are the poets I enjoy.
BW: Tell me a little about how you go about writing a poem. I know you use notebooks. Do you write out your poems on paper first, or do you compose directly on the computer?
DJ: Composing poems on the computer is still in the never-land, so I keep writing in notebooks and diaries presented by pharmaceuticals or banks. All that is written does not become a poem, and from several completed poems only a few would be worthwhile. So countless words are scattered in these aging and outdated diaries. But a poem does not exist only on paper. It takes various forms. Sometimes it begins with a visible sound of words waiting to be a musical order. At times a sentence emerges that needs to be taken apart and examined word by word, linked earlier by grammar or reason. What appeared first as an exclamation may then turn into a question. From these separate points emerge different possibilities. Beginning with wonder or excitement, it may turn emotional, seeking correspondences from the surrounding world or events. As a question, it may proceed to explore stored associations in the mind. A fluid start may turn rocky.
BW: From where does the idea for a poem arise?
DJ: A poem may be a sequence of images seen in mirror, and that mirror may be a framed glass or flowing water or shining metal or ocean surface or the dark sky. But the poet knows in advance that a pattern will emerge. Sometimes while listening to music, watching a painting or a film, listening to someone talk, while drinking or in erotic ecstasy, a poem appears as in a trance and is experienced in totality that evanesces the next moment.
BW: Do you revise your poems once they are written?
DJ: At times a poem, short or long, may get written at a single sitting. At times after the first five lines the sixth obstinately refuses to emerge, even when the last ones are clearly in the mind. Every poet has his or her own ways to deal with this, and sometimes there is no solution. The courageous, confident, and the pious ones fulfill their commission with their ideas and ideologies, intentions, emotions, fictional autobiographies, recollections of authentic poetical experiences, and aesthetic theories and complete the homework. Being non-possessive, I give up. So writing a poem is a multidimensional act of which only a little survives on the two-dimensional paper as letters marked by ink. A happy poet is one with few written poems but with memories of many. He or she is liberated from ideologies, commitments, service to humanity, culture, nationality, and such unending demands. He or she is selfish, leaving little to posterity while exploiting his or her inheritance fully.
BW: Is English your first language? What other languages do you speak? 
DJ: No, Gujarati is my first language. I also speak Hindi and Marathi equally well.
BW: Do you always write your poems in English?
DJ: A poet writes in many languages simultaneously and variously. I have largely written in Gujarati and now a bit in English.

 

Notes

  1. Honors student

 


 

BILL WOLAK, MA is a poet who has just published his third book of poetry, entitled Archeology of Light, with Cross-Cultural Communications in 2011. His most recent translation, Your Lover’s Beloved: Fifty-one Ghazals of Hafez with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in 2009. Mr. Wolak’s critical work, which specializes in writing about international as well as American writers, has appeared in Notre Dame Review, Southern Humanities Review, Paterson Literary Review, Persian Heritage Magazine, Florida English, and Prime Number Magazine. Currently he teaches Creative Writing at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. He has earned three master’s degrees: one in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University, one in English Literature from William Paterson University, and one from Columbia University in South Asian Studies.

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