The Indian Review Interview: Prabhat Bora, our editor, brings to you the man behind the poet, the story-teller, Harekrishana Deka.
[Harekrishna Deka, is one of the most important literary figures in Assam. He won the Sahitya Academy Award (1987) and the Katha Award For Creative Writing (1996)]
Prabhat Bora : Let us begin with a prototypical question. It seems you resolved to be a poet quite early in your life; your poems appeared in ‘Asom Bani’, when you were, perhaps, in your early teens. What made you resolve to be a poet?
Harekrishna Deka : In those early teens, my first love must have been rhyming words — it was the dance of sounds rather than the gait of sense that hailed me and brought me to the magical world of language. Sweet sounds of patterned lines were music to the ear then. Eyes acquired vision much later.
PB: When you were at Cotton College, the intellectual atmosphere of the college was very congenial to the budding writers. How did it help you in becoming a poet? What did you study then, and did what you studied influence your
|Indian Review Notes:|
|Harekrishna Deka has written 2 collections of poetry: Swarabor and Ratir Shoboyatra (1981)|
HKD : My venture into poetry that was called modern was rather tentative but even before joining Cotton College as a student I felt the visual impact of poetic images of this kind of poetry. But its conceptual frame was very vague to me. ‘Ramdhenu’, the mouth piece of the new writers (call modernists) gave me an impetus. But much that went under the name of Assamese modem poetry in those days appeared to me to be confused cacophony. I had even felt that I was not adequately equipped to grasp the significance of that kind of poetry. Then I read an article by a perceptive young critic, Hiren Gohain (not “Dr.” then) and felt assured that my judgment was not unsound. I knew Gohain’s name even before I read this article. He also wrote poems for the ‘Ramdhenu’. I found his poetry innovative (wish he continued writing poems!), its language critical with an enlightened focus on modernity. When I came to the Cotton College, he was not there but I felt his intellectual impact from a distance. Today, my perceptions, judgments and views differ in many ways and quite a lot from his and yet I must admit that his writing is still an intellectual stimulant. Navakanta Barua and Mahendra Bora were our teachers and were leading voices in Assamese poetry and critical writing. I was a shy student and never came close to them but Navakanta Barua’s poetry had a powerful impact on me. Mahendra Bora’s ‘Natun Kabita’ brought into one space all the important practicing modernist poets. Bora’s introduction to that collection of modern verse, despite vagueness and shortcomings helped me to formulate my own views and freshen up my language in those days of groupings. Literary Competitions held during the celebration of the college week gave an opportunity to the aspiring writers to catch eyes of the elders. By the time I came to the Cotton College, Nilmani Phukan had left it. But my attraction to his kind of poetry impelled me to strike acquaintance with him and my association with him from then on is unbroken and is extremely invigorating. I must also speak of the atmosphere prevailing in our hostel in those days. I fell privileged to be in the hostel from where writers of the stature of Homen Borgohain and Bhabendra Nath Saikia (not “Dr.” then) did pass out. We, the hostelers, used to have lively discussions on the prevailing literary scene and felt an ambiance of creativity around us. Yes, the Cotton College in its space and in my time helped me to be a poet.
PB: Do you sometimes feel your professional career impedes your creativity? Some of your later poems are written in the form of personal statement. Do you think, had your profession been different from the present one, the form of these poems would not have been the same?
HKD: Except that I do not get enough time, my professional career has not created any difficulty in my poetic pursuit. It has rather given me a rich field of experience. It may be that my creative consciousness was occasionally blurred by my professional perceptions and when the cloud was removed I felt some angst that found expression in symbolization and allegory. One may perhaps look into my poetry for signs of this. But here I would like to clarify that I do not take symbolism and allegory as mere tools of expression for censored feelings. I would rather say that indirection is the basic quality of language – symbolism, allegory and metaphor are some common traits of language.
PB : You played an active role as a critic in the literary upheaval of the sixties. How did it affect the contemporary literary scene of Assam?
HKD: I did not do much as a critic in the sixties. An atmosphere of mudslinging, vituperation, personal attack disgusted me and I found silence in that atmosphere of critical fisticuffs more eloquent. There is no question of my making an impact on the critical arena in those days. My venture (rather re-venture) into criticism is from the eighties.
PB: In the Author’s Foreword to ‘Ratir Sobhajatra’ you have stated that your intimacy with Nilmani was greatly beneficial in your personal life. How this intimacy with these influences on you as a poet? Now looking back, don’t you sometimes get annoyed with this kind of influence on your poetry?
HKD: I have already mentioned about my association with Nilmani Phookan. l came in close contact with Bhaben Barua when he joined the Gauhati University as a lecturer. I was then a student of the University. Meeting him was definitely a gain-full
|Indian Review Notes:|
|Harekrishna Deka was an M.A in English Literature and a Senior Police Officer in the Indian Police Service.
experience. He was influenced by Leavis from where he turned to the ‘New Criticism’. He had an amazing ability to provide convincing analysis of a very difficult poem. But his obsession with ‘purity’ of language did not fully convince me. Later, when he started writing on socio-historical and cultural topics, I could not subscribe with many of his views. I still have regard for his scholarship and intellectual inquisitiveness. But I have my own views on many matters including literature, which do not conform to his ideas and ideals.
PB : “Like the young men of 1969, those of 1923 were equally shy. Fearing own inner poverty, they tried — as now — to hide it away, under loud and innocent novelties”. In the light of this comment of Borges, made in his preface to the 1969 of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ which was originally published in 1923, how do you assess your earlier poems, anthologized in ‘Swarbor’? In the beginning were not you fascinated by poetry more as a craft to the point of discovering the feelings completely from poetry? Do you think you have made some breakthrough back into life in ‘Ratir Sobhajatra’?
HKD : Poems included in my first collection ‘Swarbor (Voices)’ are not mere experiments in poetic language. Like other poets of the time, I also acquired a belief that there was a need for innovation to rid poetic language of ‘poeticity’ but I never believed that poetry could ‘aspire to the condition of music’ or the visible world is a projection of an ideal world symbolised through words. I felt that poetry had to connect to life. Poetry’s evocation of meaning had to be to gain insight into the meaning of life individual or social. (Post—Derrida, Languages’ ability to connect to life may be suspect but it is not really so. Language arose out of life’s necessity and language negotiates between our notion of life in us and life out there). Also one cannot escape ideology, even if one may not be consciously committed to one. I also do not believe that self through time and space is a coherent whole. Traces of all such vies and beliefs may be found embedded somewhere in my poetry, if one reads minutely, or to say int today’s language, if one deconstructs. Many of my poems in ‘Swarbor’ like ‘Uttar Purush (Posterity)’, ‘Lungleir Kabita (Lunglei’s poem)’, ‘Silchar’, ‘Atmoja (Bom from the self)’, `Ratir Relgudi (The night train)’, `Chatur bingsoti (The twenty fourth)’, ‘Jihetu Hridoy Ache (As there is heart)‘ etc. all arose from experience.
PB : In ‘Ratir Sobhajatra’ and ‘Aan Ejon’ you have evolved a style of your own which is different from that of your distinguished contemporary poets like Nilmani Phookan. In your later poems you seem to have disclaimed any difference between poetry and prose. Though this change in your style has marked you from the rest of your contemporaries as a distinguished poet since then, what has made you turn away from poetry? Is it because you feel more at ease in prose than in poetry? Or are you looking for a wider public? Or have you fell: ignored as a poet as you did not draw the same attention of the critics like some of your contemporary poets?
HKD : Even at the beginning, though influenced by many of the elder poets, I tried to evolve a language of my own. In my early days, my one aim was to lessen the heightening effect of poetic expression and therefore I tried to achieve a neutral tone in my poems. I do not distinguish between the language of poetry and that of prose except in use of rhetorical tools of figures and tropes. In my later poems, I tried to avoid what Dr. Hiren Gohain has called ‘facile rhetoric’ and ‘charming eloquence’. Even I tried to allow plain statements to resonate in close encounter. Dr. Gohain has rightly seen the specialty of my language. He has also rightly pointed out that for an un-attentive reader this may sound banal. For me “Nirahth taruwar” is for poetic poets, I would rather extracts poetry from “Husht Kontho” My another aim was to avoid being repetitious. No, I did not try these experiments to attract wider public as you have suggested. Had it been so, I would have taken easier recourse. I have, of course, felt that many facile critics forgot to mention even my name in their writings, because I am not constantly in view in magazines, news papers and platforms of poetry recital.
PB : Do you agree that some of your early short stories could have been collected together with the poem of ‘Ratir Sobhajatra’?
HKD : Bhaben Barua once made a perceptive remark that some of my short stories were connected to some of my poems. Perhaps he is right here. It is not up to me to show the connections.
PB : You are more familiar to the present generation of readers as short story writer rather than as a poet. How you will like to be remembered more as a poet or as a short-story writer’?
HKD : As both. In recent times I have of course paid more attention to short- story writing. I have also tried some experiments in the structure of short story.
PB : It seems you are greatly influenced by Borges not only as a poet, but also as a short story writer. Did you read Borges at the time of writing your celebrated poem ‘Samudra Bhiti’? ‘Samudra-Bhiti’ may remind one of Borges’ ‘The Sea’. I am not sure if Borges’ poem was written earlier than yours. Were you influenced by the title of one of Borges collection of poems. ‘El otro el mismo.’ (The self and the other) when you titled your last collection of poems as ‘Aan Ejon”! Or were you inspired by Cocteau’s ‘other’—‘I am something — “another” speaks in me”!
HKD : Borges in one of my favourites. He is not only an original thinker but is also a great creative writer. But I did not read Borges when I wrote ‘Samudra Bhiti (Sea-Scare)’. I was very young when I wrote that poem. I was quite hesitant to publish the poem as I did not see a sea till then, except in films. A sea in one English film fascinated me. I have forgotten the name of the film but it was on a mythological story. At my very tender age, I used to hear my father reading out Mahabharata to my mother and some echoes remained in my memory since then. The conch and the sea may also be echoes from those past days. The fear of the sea is the sense of the futility of creative efforts in the face of the infinite unity and uniqueness of time. Yet, there was a feeling of reassurance in that creativity. Regarding, ‘Aan Ejon’, I came independently to that realisation. It struck me when I found the similarity of the name in the Borges collection later. As regards any influence of Cocteau, there is none. But why, I have found the ‘gaze‘of Lacan in that poem and yet I did not read Lacan when I wrote the poem.