Sukrita Paul Kumar – In Conversation with GSP Rao
Sukrita Paul Kumar. Courtesy- Sukrita
Dr Sukrita Paul Kumar, scholar, critic and poet of great sensitivity, has done significant work in diversified areas like women’s studies, literary translations, and cultural diversity and literary traditions of India. She has published important tomes in these areas apart from books of her poetry.She has been recipient of several national and international grants and fellowships and has lectured at Cambridge University, SOAS (London University) and several Canadian and American Universities on Indian literature. As a writer with wide exposure to traditions of both Hindi and Urdu literatures, she has interacted with leading writers of the sub-continent. As Director of a UNESCO project on “The Culture of Peace”, she edited a volume of Urdu short stories from India and Pakistan,Mapping Memories. She teaches in a Delhi University college. Her detailed profile can be viewed by clicking on her name at top left corner of this page.
She serves as the Contributing Editor of Muse India for Hindi and Urdu literatures. Here, GSP Rao, Managing Editor, engages her in a discussion on her work and motivations.
GSP : You teach, write poetry in English, are a scholar participating in several international seminars, have written and edited important tomes on Indian and South Asian literature, and were on the jury of several literary awards. You are also an artist who has had a solo exhibition of paintings. Is there a synergy in all these activities? Which of these roles is the closest to your heart?
>Sukrita : I am very conscious of the flow of time and unless I dive into it - swim in its stream - I feel like an outsider to life and suffer a strange sense of alienation. Perhaps that is what motivates me to remain engaged in the “here and now” constantly. I feel driven to go into deeper waters, always looking for something. In writing poetry or painting, there is the creative excitement of perhaps approaching something unknown, also of taking a journey within...An adventure which may not actually have any destination! The process itself seems to matter. My research and seminars etc are more outward and external but there too I try to remain close to my inner voice that gets tuned to the voices of other writers I may be studying. You mention my being on the jury for literary awards. I must say here, I do not enjoy sitting on judgement on writers and their writings and often I go against myself in accepting such assignments!
GSP : You seem to be deeply involved with life around you and derive inspiration from it for your creative work. What have literature and poetry meant in your life and how have they influenced you?
Sukrita : Literature and poetry are not separate from life… so, it’s difficult to say what they have “meant” to me. I write, teach, read literature and may be breathe it too. In fact, I have been brought up on literature! Writing a poem brings me into contact with my deepest self and I revel in that… this is what keeps me alert to poems lying all around … as much in the sunset or the full moon, as in the eye of the urchin on the road or the dog barking in the middle of the night.
As for teaching literature and sharing the joy of studying a poem together with my students and discovering its varied meanings, it is a collective and creative experience… How else would the same poem taught to a different set of students yield a fresh set of meanings? The classroom is a vibrant and dynamic workshop.
GSP : You have wide exposure to literary traditions of both Urdu and Hindi. They have similar linguistic sources and have gained significantly from cross-cultural currents. What are the abiding appeals of these two languages?
Sukrita : Hindi and Urdu have been a source of great strength to each other through centuries. Unfortunately, the language politics of the subcontinent have led to separation, nay a divorce, between them. Not only were they in complete unison at one point of time (it was difficult to decipher any dividing line between them) they remained interchangeable even while having two different scripts. The dialogue between the two languages churned a synergy and at the same time, each language strove to evolve its own identity through an inspired and sophisticated literary expression. Indeed, there has been a sharing of space as well as culture between them that nourished a healthy syncretism in the literary tradition of Hindi as well as Urdu. The politics of Partition and the well-known British strategy of “divide and rule” played an unfortunate role in communalising language identities. We must remember Gandhiji here who wished to have Hindustani, not Hindi or Urdu, as the official language of Independent India.
But, with Partition, despite the ousting of Urdu officially, can we say that we are done with it? Couched in people’s memory, Urdu poetry passes on from one generation to another and the role of Bollywood remains strong in keeping the language alive with us, within us…
GSP : Yes, Urdu ghazals and shero-shayari are particularly popular here and it is perceived as a language ideally suited for poetry. Both Hindi and Urdu literatures have long traditions and are very rich. To what extent have the important works of these literatures been translated into English and other foreign languages for them to be recognised in world literature?
Sukrita : I’m afraid, even though a lot of Hindi and Urdu literature may be found in English translation and some in other foreign languages too, there hasn’t been any significant impact of these literatures on world literature. To my mind, this is because we have not paid much attention to the quality of translations. Many times the power of the original creative writing in Urdu and Hindi does not get carried adequately into English… not in the same way as it happens in the case of say, Latin American or Russian literature. We have a long way to go in this regard.
GSP : Quality translations have been a big problem, not only in Hindi and Urdu, but all vernacular literatures. National institutions, universities and publishing industry don’t seem to be doing enough. Translations of important works should be commissioned and good translators paid well … any comment on that?
Sukrita: Mere commissioning of translations will not serve the purpose. There must be a close follow up in reviewing the process, have good editors for the translated texts and concerted efforts must be made at developing a culture of reviewing, studying and reading the translated texts. Some time ago I was invited to a couple of meetings of “Translation Mission” being set up by the government at the national level. I hope the project is on and that literary translation gets its rightful focus in a country that needs meaningful bridges amidst a plethora of languages, each abundantly rich with its own long literary tradition.
GSP : You have done a book on the noted Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai. What do you consider as her most important contribution to Urdu literature?
Sukrita : Ismat Chughtai brought into Urdu literature the voice of the woman from the inner courtyard. The language she learnt while growing up in a haveli full of aunts and grandmothers finds its way through her pen into the realm of “respectable” Urdu fiction, and that came to be known as begumati zubaan. “Lady Chengez Khan,” as she was called by the eminent Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder, stormed into Urdu literature with a host of women’s issues in women’s own language!
GSP : You have interacted with several writers from Pakistan and have edited an anthology of Urdu short stories from India and Pakistan. What has been your experience with these cultural exchanges?
Sukrita : The short story in Urdu we must remember has acquired a highly sophisticated form cultivated over a long period of time; it evolved from the traditions of dastan and kissagoi, the shadow of Persian poetics, the parallel fictional tradition in Hindi and a strong interface with modern and progressive literary sensibility. It was so difficult to leave out so many wonderful stories for my book Mapping Memories. I was not surprised to find how, both in India and Pakistan, such powerful stories are being written in Urdu; after all, both the countries share the same rich fictional tradition of Urdu. I must mention here that doing this book was certainly not an experience of dealing with two different cultures…!
GSP : In spite of much cultural affinity among the peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the political divide generates much animosity. How do you see the subservience of culture to politics?
Sukrita : Politics and media are bedfellows. In reality, culture is not subservient to –though it may eventually get affected by - politics but the messages sent to the public through media are to the contrary. That’s why, I believe, literature and not political journalese should be brought centre-stage … it is literature that presents cultural contexts, reaches out and shows connections, and through it, the differences get understood and ultimately respected, not resented…
GSP : That’s true. What I meant was that politicians are adept at generating a divide among the people and our cultural affinity takes a back seat. Yes, literature has its own power and has caused revolutions that have overthrown regimes.
Coming to cultural diversity, you were the chief editor of an important book, “Cultural Diversity & Literary Traditions in India” (Macmillan, 2005). What major literary traditions of the country did the book focus on? What were the broad conclusions?
Sukrita : Yes, in the last few years I have been very keenly researching the domain of cultural diversity witnessed in our subcontinent. While we have been happily raising slogans about “unity in diversity” and venerating linguistic plurality in India, I believe, there hasn’t been an adequate intellectual engagement in exploring and understanding what has gone into the making of our cultural diversity. The questions to ask are: does this diversity smack of any issues of social injustice? What language politics are at work that create a hierarchy of languages and thus of cultures as well? How and why do we lose some vital languages and with them also the cultures they carry? Do our literary traditions represent the variety of cultures we have on our soil? When we grapple with this question we then see how we do not offer an adequately respectable space to oral traditions of many languages in our school and university curricula. In this book, there is amongst other material, an inclusion of Sufi-Bhakti poetry, women’s folktales, tribal songs, a discussion on language politics, background essays and head-notes as academic entry points for study. This is actually a textbook for undergraduate students of the University of Delhi. It is heartening to see how through this course a large number of students and teachers are now engaged with this kind of study material. Hopefully this will open up a good number of new and relevant research areas for students of literature, culture and languages.
GSP : That’s interesting. You have also been involved with projects in Women’s Studies in India. IIAS, Shimla, has published an important work of yours in this area in 2002. What were your findings? Do you see important trends emerging in women’s studies?
Sukrita : No matter what research or critical work I may get into, I’m very conscious of the gender aspect of the subject of my study. For instance, I have been for long involved in the study of Partition literature and therein too, in my book Narrating Partition, I have a chapter on “Re-membering Women”. Women’s Studies in some universities in India have been extensively bringing scholars together for collective and individual research on patriarchy, women and gender situation in India. And for the evolving and understanding of indigenous feminisms here, concerted efforts have been made. I think some centres have come a long way in helping sensitise scholars from different disciplines to gender aspects of many issues and in that many silences got articulated. There is also evidence of bringing the vast body of feminist knowledge centre-stage by integrating gender studies into mainstream disciplines.
GSP : You have been working to create “Shelters for the homeless.” Can you share your experience of running this humanitarian institution?
Sukrita : I find it difficult to articulate my experiences of working with the homeless… in fact I don’t even really try it. I have been writing a series of little poems that come out of these experiences. I think I’d like to leave it at that for the moment. May be I’d write more about this at some point in future…
GSP : May be you can publish your poems on the homeless as a book later. Thanks, Sukrita ji, for sparing your time.