Born on February 15, 1954, in Nasriganj, located in the Rohtas district of Bihar, Arun Kamal is a renowned figure in modern Hindi literature. Widely acclaimed for his progressive and ideological poetic style, he stands as a prolific contemporary poet. Apart from his poetic endeavours, Arun Kamal has made notable contributions to criticism and translations in Hindi. His outstanding literary achievements were recognised with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for Hindi in 1998, Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Purushkar in 1980, the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1989, Shrikant Verma Smriti Samman in 1990, the Raghuveer Sahay Smriti Samman in 1996, the Shamsher Samman in 1997, Samagra Krititwa Samman of Bhartiya Bhasha Parishad, Dinkar Samman (Bhagalpur), Kalinga International Literature Award 2021, and the Nirala Smriti Samman in 2023, and many others, which highlights the profound impact, he has had on the literary landscape.
Among his notable collections of poetry are Apnee Keval Dhaar (1980), Saboot (1989), Naye Ilake Mein (1996, earning him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award), Putalee Mein Sansaar (2004), Kavita Aur Samay (2002), Main Wo Shankh Mahashankh (2015), Yogphal (2019), Kathopkathan (2009) and Golmez (2009). These works display his unique voice, innovative imagery, colloquial language, and the rhythmic cadence of 'Khadi Boli,' contributing significantly to the vibrant tapestry of Hindi poetry and criticism.
Arun Kamal is presently immersed in the writing of five distinct upcoming literary works. These encompass a compilation of his poetry book, a collection of insightful literary essays, a series of thought-provoking conversations, translations of diverse works from various authors, and a deeply personal autobiographical narrative.
In these verses, life, portrayed as a unified expanse, unfolds from the world, exposing an intricate web of interconnectedness where elements engage in continuous interplay and mutual influence. Arun Kamal's poetic exploration ensures that nothing remains entirely secluded or openly exposed, as the verses shed light on the intricate choreography of forces, where every aspect of existence converges and interacts in an unending, symbiotic rhythm.
Arun Kamal's dedication to literature extended beyond his poetic pursuits; he served as a professor in the English Department of Patna University until his retirement in 2019. His academic contributions further enriched the literary community and demonstrated his commitment to the intersection of languages and cultures. Kamal's journey is marked not only by the prestigious awards and accolades he has received but also by the enduring impact of his words, both as a poet and as a scholar in the field of literature.
Ashutosh Kumar Thakur spoke to Arun Kamal covering various aspects of his life, literary journey, and reflections on Bihar's literary tradition:
Can you share some insights into your early life and the factors that led you to pursue a career in literature?
My early life was the ordinary life of a lower middle-class child, spent in several small towns and villages of erstwhile Shahabad and Gaya districts of Bihar, the only distinction being the fact that I had to change places and schools seven times with every transfer of my father. So, I had floating roots and no long-staying friendships. It is perhaps this unstableness in life, together with frequent spells of illness, that led me to the comforting and enduring company of books. I saw books all around in my house as my father Kapildeo Muni was an avid reader and collector of all kinds of books, including world fiction.
How did your educational journey shape your perspective as a poet?
In those days, our schools had some excellent teachers, widely aware of the world, who would ignite and nourish the creative spark in their pupils. I was lucky to have had such teachers in Kudra and Hasanbazar and later at Patna University. We were just a decade-odd years away from the day of Independence, and the air was still fragrant with that Renaissance spirit. At Patna University, I got the congenial soil and environment, and mentors to guide and light my path. It was a vibrant campus, and the literary life of Patna was extraordinary with Dinkar, Nagarjun, Kalimuddin Ahmed, and Renu still around and writers’ associations frantically debating poetry and politics.
You worked as a Professor of English at the prestigious Patna University. What motivated your transition from teaching English to actively contributing to Hindi literature?
There was nothing like transition. I was born into Hindi. My mother’s language was Magahi and my father’s Bhojpuri. As a student of English poetry, I found that Eliot or Pound and many others could as well have written, say, in French. But they deliberately chose to write in their mother tongue as poetry, ‘the mother language of humanity’, can be conceived only in the mother language. Of course, one should be intimate with English and world poetry, but poetry as such can happen in the mother language alone. Even Ghalib gave up Persian for Urdu. Further, I learnt that many of the major poets while writing in English carried over the cadences and flavour of their first language— Robert Burns’ Scottish, Yeats’ Irish, and Dylan Thomas’ Welsh, to cite just three examples. One may use English or any other outdoor language and may perhaps succeed to an extent with their innate talent, but they cannot tap the veins of the language. Suggestiveness will be the first causality.
Are there any specific aspects of English / World literature that you find have influenced your Hindi poetry?
Indian poetry of the 20th century, including Hindi, has been closely connected with English poetry, at times paralleling the trends or movements. But things changed by the 80s. Hindi poetry then discovered new continents of poetry in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. We could now have access to this poetry through direct and instant translations into Hindi, thanks to the new squad of language experts. It was an entirely different sensibility and craft, much more intense, complex and rebellious. Neruda, Brecht, Milosz, Yannis Ritsos and Symborska, Voznesensky and Rasool Hamzatov, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmood Darvesh, Aai Ching and To Hu, Rendra and Soyanka became household names in the literary circle. And Hindi poetry became more rooted, more intensely political, and diverse in its engagements aspiring towards what you may call ‘total poetry’. From English poetry I learnt that a poet has to go to the people, the source of virgin language, in order to recharge herself, and that the form of a poem must be well-wrought like a crystal. For me, Shakespeare is the ultimate in poetry where every word germinates.
Winning the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998 is a significant achievement. Can you reflect on the impact of this recognition on your literary career and personal journey?
In a moment of exasperation Rabindranath had once said of his Nobel Prize that it’s like a tin box tied to the tail of a puppy. Awards bring you consolation and joy, but they are a distraction too. With lots of sudden exposure, you are tempted to dwindle into a public figure. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a creative worker. Soon I gathered myself up for steeper climbing.
Your book "Apni Kewal Dhar" is widely acclaimed. Could you provide us with some insights into the inspiration and themes behind this collection of poetry? Can you point out specific instances in your book where your ideological stance is particularly pronounced or nuanced?
That is my first book published at the age of twenty-six. It is a summing up of my life, memories, dreams, and engagements and the entire being till then. It was rather cordially received. It’s Neruda perhaps who says that there’s nothing like your first book again, the first flush of creativity. It is always warm and fresh like the udders filled with first milk. But you have life beyond and very complex experiences in the way. You have to go on and on. Here Nirala came to my aid, and he is always a lighthouse for me—you have to keep changing, moulting, and regenerating. Rabindranath too never rested, never stopped. Without haste without rest, as Marx would say.
You have been praised for effortlessly transforming life's events into poetic expressions, weaving narratives that encapsulate the essence of various experiences. Your notable poetry collection "Putli Mein Sansar" appears to encapsulate a universe within a pupil. Could you elaborate on how this metaphorical exploration unfolds within the book, and what artistic decisions you employed to convey the dynamic interplay between the pupil and the world it symbolises?
It is difficult to talk about one’s own work and embarrassing too. I can only say that this metaphor has been taken from Mahabharat and given a contemporary frame. In a way, it is a repudiation of the postmodernist theory of the end of grand narrative and of celebration of fragmentations. As for the ‘artistic decisions’ arrived at and employed, here I have to submit that my endeavour is always to say as much as I can within the shortest possible space. I have written longer pieces too, but again I aimed at, though not always succeeded, the precision where every word is multifoliate. Second, my efforts are directed at enacting the moment itself, to concretise it through images and to let you have the feel of the thing. Proust says of Baudelaire that he always talks in images and symbols; he would never say it’s morning in Paris; instead, he would show it through the dust rising from sweepers’ brooms choking the sun rays. This reminds one of great Sanskrit poets and Shakespeare of course.
In your highly praised work “Kavita Aur Samay" is a book on criticism that delves into the intersection of poetry and time. Could you share your reflections on the relationship between poetry and the passage of time, and how this theme is explored in the book?
For me, it is something like this— every art is rooted in its time and, therefore, it is deciduous by nature; at the same time, an accomplished poet creates a ‘human moment’ within the transient and evanescent. Whatever you write about, or whatever social segment you belong to, or however distinct and unique your experiences are, you will have to discover what is most common to all humans of all times for your work to survive. Borges says that all those who read Shakespeare became Shakespeare just as all men at the climactic moment of intercourse are the same man.
Your poetry is often described as having a progressive, ideological style. How do you see the role of poetry in expressing and advancing ideological perspectives?
It is not a matter of style at all. It comes from your experiences of life and your reading and thinking processes. Let me repeat what I have always maintained—for a writer, philosophy is more important than ideology, but even more important than philosophy is the vision of life that a writer has to earn through life experiences; and it is this vision that tells her apart. Kabir and Tulsidas or Meera have different visions peculiar to each one despite the fact that they all belong to the Bhakti movement. However, in certain phases, a poet may have to resort to direct statements, rhetorical devices, declamations or even sloganeering as many of our major poets have done during the freedom struggle and afterwards.
Over the years, how do you perceive the evolution of your literary style and the subject you explore in your poetry? Have there been any pivotal moments or influences that have shaped this evolution?
Again, it is a difficult thing to do. No post-mortem is done on a living body. However, I feel that poetry, like the roots of plants, is granted two kinds of movements— either you go deeper vertically or expand horizontally. Great poets defy this choice restriction and move about freely in all directions. My endeavour has been to focus upon the minutest detail without losing sight of the wide arena around. To quote W B Yeats, It must go further still, it must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer—the mirror turn lamp. Further, to borrow a metaphor from Tulsidas—A poem may be ‘like a lamp placed in the doorway illuminating both the exterior and the interior’.
In your role as a translator, you've translated poems by Nagrjun, Trilochan, Shamsher, Muktibodh, and Kedarnath Singh into English, contributing to various journals. Your translation work extends beyond Indian poetry, encompassing the translation of international poetry and literary essays into Hindi. How do these diverse forms of literary expression complement each other in your creative process?
I have done translations mainly for two reasons. Either on someone’s demand or for the sake of my own pleasure, ‘Swantah Sukhay’. I compiled a book of contemporary Indian poetry in English translation for Afro-Asian Writers’ Meet at the suggestion of Bhisham Sahni who published it with his foreword. All the translations you mentioned were commissioned by Indian Literature of Sahitya Akademi. But I translated Muktibodh for very personal reasons. I wished to do Nirala too, but Madhusudan Thakur had already done an impressive one. I translate the poems I like in order to see how it has been made or structured, much like the way I did with a clock just to find out how it works, and in the process dismember the wheels and levers and hands to find to my utter dismay that though I have somehow reassembled it and it has started ticking again, it is now a changed construct, loose and ready to fall apart. For me, every translation work is akin to that.
Bihar has a rich literary tradition, especially in Hindi, Maithili, Urdu, Bhojpuri and Magahi. How has the cultural and literary environment of Bihar influenced your work as a poet?
When I started cutting my literary teeth I found great poets like Dinkar, Nagarjun, Renu, Suhail Azimabadi, and others walking the streets of Patna, a daunting sight for a newcomer. Vidyapati has been a presence throughout our culture. But then you have to concentrate on your own job. I saw Dinkar and Renu on several occasions, though I never met them. Nagarjun, I did meet and learnt a lot from him. I remember I once asked him for a list of ten Sanskrit books I should read. Bihar has a glorious tradition in Hindi, Urdu, Maithili, Bangla, and other languages. When I was in class ten, I had seen Bhikari Thakur at Piro, the legendary poet-dramatist. He was very old by that time. He recited a few couplets from Ramcharitamanas. Having such a great legacy is both a blessing and a warning. At times I feel like those small boys you spot in the game of lawn tennis who keep collecting dropped balls when the mighty are playing. And that is not a mean thing.
What is your perspective on the contemporary writers from Bihar in the domains of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, regarding their overarching impact and potential? If you can name a few of them?
Although it is not proper to talk of writers in terms of provinces, one may employ such categorisation for the sake of convenience. It may also help us locate them in a socio-geographical matrix. We have some outstanding poets and prose writers in our midst. Some of them have moved outside the state for their living. If we include them all we will have a galaxy of writers in every generation. Patna itself has some highly gifted young poets whose works have been well received. However, it is sad that we have no active academies or institutions to support them.
What, in your opinion, are the challenges and opportunities faced by contemporary Hindi literature, and how do you think these can be addressed?
It is good that Hindi has a large number of speakers and users today. It has a wide reach even outside the country. During the freedom movement and somewhat till the eighties, Hindi enjoyed happier acceptability and social patronage. Today the middle class has altogether abandoned Hindi and is patronising the Indian literature produced in English. This is a bizarre phenomenon where a middle class, not to speak of the upper one, embraces a foreign tongue and discards its own. Most of the Lit Fests are English-centric and glamour-drugged. Second, the state support is shrinking fast. Third, our Hindi samaj in general has no love or regard for its writers or for anything serious or morally disturbing. It is rapidly degenerating into a mediocre society driven by money and power. If writers are writing at all it is because of their personal commitment and devotion.
Can you provide insights into your present literary endeavours and any upcoming projects or aspirations you have for the future?
I have no projects or aspirations as such. I just keep reading and writing. This is the only thing I can do on my own of my own free will. I hope that by next February, quite a few of my books will see the light of day. I am busy assembling the pieces.
Looking back at your literary journey, what do you hope your legacy will be, and what impact do you aspire to leave on the world of Hindi literature?
I cannot say anything about that. Those who live by their wits are never sure about the future; whether there will be any output or not, whether the output will survive or slip into history’s dustbin, you never know. One cannot write without faith in the afterlife.
What message would you like to convey to readers about the significance of Hindi and other Indian Languages literature in today's world?
All languages are equally important, though they may be at different stages of evolution. We exist in a language. We exist in our language. We cannot have a borrowed existence. If English, French, Spanish, Russian or Chinese can have a life of their own Tamil, Hindi or Dogri too can have a life. Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati or Bangla are loved and adored by their speakers. Their intellectuals too love their language and literature. But Hindi sadly lacks this, though I have the satisfaction that Hindi is highly hospitable to writings from other languages, never grudging that it is not being reciprocated to the same measure by some of the sister languages. Many people believe that Hindi, Hindus, and Hindustan go together. Language has a religious basis, language has an ideological boundary, language should be identified with power, neither German with Hitler nor English with Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru asks: Which England came to India, the England of Shakespeare and Milton or the England of merchants and profiteers? Hindi and all languages should be developed as vehicles of knowledge and providers of employment if they are to survive and grow.
What message would you like to convey to young readers and aspiring writers?
Diderot said you cannot be much of a writer without an abhorrence for wealth. I say you cannot be a writer without an abhorrence for wealth and power. But you must have Karuna, love, compassion, and charity towards one and all.
(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bengaluru-based management professional, literary critic, and Curator. He can be reached at [email protected])