Lakshmi Kannan : I was born in my grandparents’ house in Mysore and spent some very happy years of my early childhood there. I was fascinated by the river Kaveri that flows through the city and its outskirts and is worshipped as a female deity by the local population of Mysore. My earliest memories of the river are associated with my grandparents who would take me and the family out on picnics and excursions near the river bank. Later, I when I got married, I saw Kaveri flowing into Tanjore and Tiruchy, two places where my husband grew up. So ‘Kaaveri’ became a natural choice for a pen-name.
Lakshmi Kannan: It was stimulating to interact with writers from twenty-six countries in a relaxed ambience because we had enough time (three and a half months) in which to cultivate a few friends, to get to read their writings, know their culture and the political climate of their countries. I admired how some writers had bravely lived through the political turmoil in their countries. The IWP arranged seminars, panel discussions and readings and also a planned travel that took us to all the four zones of the US. This was very enjoyable as we got to see historic places made famous by towering figures such as Lincoln, Jefferson, and writers such as Mark Twain, Hemingway and others. The Shakespeare Centre in Washington was excellent, and the huge, monumental US Library of Congress was awesome. Also, because it had some of our books!
Lakshmi Kannan:I remember the names of a few. Dan Tsalka from Israel who wrote in Hebrew. He was deeply into classical music. Wayne Brown, a fine poet from Trinidad who thought the world of V S Naipaul, Marc Bloch from France, Hernan Lara Azvala from Mexico, Bert Schierbeek from Netherlands. Guido Rodriguez Akala from Paraguay who had a healthy indignation against the overrated ‘magic realism’ as a method, Elena from Philippines, and from the African subcontinent, Cliff Lubwa P’Chang, the son-in-law of the renowned poet from Uganda Okot p’Bitek, Wizas Phiri from Zambia and Vincent Chukwemeka Ike from Nigeria. I’ve forgotten the names of the lively group of writers from Latin American countries who bonded warmly over their language Spanish. Enviable!
Lakshmi Kannan: You can guide the participants to a certain extent, with their written submissions and your talks on major writers, but they need to have an innate flair for writing. It is undoubtedly an art, so you cannot teach someone who doesn’t have that spark or potential. Writing also requires certain personal qualities such as rich emotions, empathy, a healthy intellectual curiosity about life, about people, and an eye for detail, and not just an impressive vocabulary. And a writer needs to have a language that can match the flow of these.
Lakshmi Kannan:There are no secrets! There are quite a few writers who write across genres. Actually, I started off with poems. But the brevity of a short story also appealed to me. A story can accommodate a lyrical style and a sudden, startling epiphany that illuminates something about the entire story, or life. In Tamil, the genre of a kurunovel (novella) has all the elements of a play. Many a play or a film has been based on a novella. I’ve published many novellas because Tamil journals give a space for them. They eventually become a training ground for writing a full-length novel.
Lakshmi Kannan: I wrote playfully and sporadically while I was in school, and later as a teenager. I wrote for fun, and even if they got published in school/college magazines, I didn’t take it seriously. It was only when my articles found their way to Junior Statesman, and to Young Corner, Hindustan Times, and the concerned editors asked me to contribute more articles when I took on a more responsible attitude to writing. I became aware of this segment called ‘readers. I must add honestly, that receiving cheques for my articles was thrilling for a teenager.
Lakshmi Kannan: I went to school in Bangalore and grew up in my grandparents’ house, because my father got posted in the north. Although I went to an English medium school, there was plenty of opportunity to learn Tamil and spoken Kannada during our playtime. I liked the richness of all the three language – English, Tamil and Kannada.
My grandparents’ home has a big role in the formative years of my education. While my grandfather had a well-stacked library of the choicest books in English (and in English translation), my grandmother sort of competed with him and had a rich collection of books in Tamil ranging from the classical to the modern. She also subscribed to the current magazines in Tamil that featured the works of well- known writers. So, my home felt like an extension of my school where I could get lost in the world of good books and masterpieces.
Lakshmi Kannan : No, not really, other than the fact that I regularly feed birds early in the morning and put out a large trough for the bird-bath. I cherish those early hours listening to how the birds communicate with each other and look so happy, picking my feed and slaking their thirst in the water, and dipping into the bird-bath.
I started on a fable mode experimentally and once I let myself into the background I had created, my ears took over. All I heard were the sounds of bird calls, the chirp, twitter and warble of a variety of birds in the charmed atmosphere of a lush garden. I also heard the unspoken thoughts of the senior man, the ‘grandfather’ of the birds. He seemed to communicate with them easily and all of them spoke the ‘same’ language. I lived the story on its own terms and it came out like a fable.
Lakshmi Kannan : That’s a reviewer’s phrase for Nandanvan! Not all stories give me a chance to explore something soulful. It is only when a protagonist or a particular theme, such as the other-worldly experience of Varadarajan in the long story “A Sky All Around”, or the existential dilemma of the young husband Ramachandran in “Please, Dear God”, or when a feisty protagonist like Muniyakka who can have a sense of humour even while she is left severely alone in life give me an uplifting mood that I rise above the ground.
Lakshmi Kannan: That’s a difficult question. It’s also difficult to pick only five among a long list of writers I admire. Still, I’ll stick to five. They would be Virginia Woolf, the American Saul Bellow, the German Maria Rainer Rilke, the Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharati and the Tamil novelist T. Janakiraman who could highlight the enigmatic and shifting colours of human relationship in his novels. It can also be answered more honestly if one takes away the ‘influence’ part of my writing. While some great writers certainly influenced my thinking, I cannot say how much they actually influenced my writing. And yet, when I write, I am determined to find my own narrative voice that would be suitable for the reality of my poetic and fictional world.
Lakshmi Kannan : Alas, no. Sadly, a certain frivolity has taken over and it is even celebrated! Now, poets are in a hurry to get published and to make a splash in the media. They want instant fame, even if it is ephemeral, and cyber space gives them a chance for all that.
Lakshmi Kannan : That must be Rushdie’s vivid way of implying that a poet has to sting you into questioning, thinking, and interrogating fossilised systems that don’t work. Yes, I agree with that statement. Poetry should disturb you enough to make you lost sleep, to make you angry about the injustice that is rampant. But why only poetry? Any effective fiction also does the same. The novels of Amitav Ghosh rob me of sleep, for they are so profoundly unsettling!
Lakshmi Kannan:I do! A poem happens. And a poet is a medium that makes it happen. That is one reason why certain poems (and fiction) from an author are memorable and they defy time, while certain other compositions by the same author are forgettable.
Lakshmi Kannan:I write only when something knocks on my consciousness repeatedly and I feel an inner urge to bring it out on paper. I suppose I write to have this experience as a record for myself, to capture what life offers in its luminous moments, and for the pleasure of exploring them through language. Equally, there are many moments when I note something as extraordinary and I absorb the experience in my memory and just let it be without writing about it.
Lakshmi Kannan: Of course, I do! The two recent books you mentioned in this conversation, Nandanvan and Genesis (Orient BlackSwan, 2011, 2014) are my translations from the original I wrote in Tamil. Besides my works, I’ve also translated the novels of Sahitya Akademi awardee T. Janakiraman and Saraswati Samman awardee Indira Pathasarathy.
Lakshmi Kannan: Translation calls for creative skills. A translator has to be equally concerned about the readers in the target language. If the translation has to go down well with the discerning and informed readers in the target language, it has to be idiomatically viable in that language. To achieve that, making certain modifications while keeping the spirit of the main text is inevitable. It is criticised only by certain orthodox sections who prefer a literal translation of a text.
Lakshmi Kannan :It has made it easy for first-time authors and for those who are “in a hurry” to get there. Yet, the two kinds of publishing will continue to go their different ways – the traditional, mainstream publishing in print medium will enjoy its status and value while the Internet-fed digital books will occupy another slot.