Saturday, November 12, 2005
Write well or die
C P Surendran is 40 and doesn’t like the country he lives in a bit. For a writer, he says, there is no future in India. “Money, fame, satisfaction, everything is in the West….”
Most of his friends and readers think this bearded and bespectacled Keralite is a rebel. “It’s wrong,” CP (his friends and colleagues call him that) wants to clarify. “I believe in compassion.” He doesn’t want to be termed a rebel, but the words he speaks betray his own belief that he is compassionate.
CP taught in a college in Kerala before he took a train to the then city of Bombay in the late 1980s to become a freelance journalist. He did pretty well, thank you. Almost every English newspaper and magazine in this city of swarming millions has carried his articles or columns.
I went to meet CP, just like that, in 1992. He was sitting behind a heap of books, magazines, and useless press communiqués, at his office in the Old Lady of Boribunder. The Bal Thackarey-worsened communal riots hadn’t started then. And CP had just started writing poems.
After his first wife, Usha Zackarias, walked out of his life, CP became terribly lonely. Then he embarked on a junket to Kashmir along with several journalists. “The trip,” CP reminisces, “changed my life. I was minus a companion. I needed companionship very badly. I touched ice there. I came back to Bombay. Then I told myself, ‘Mr C P, now you should start writing poems’.”
For CP, the Kashmir trip became the impetus, or inspiration, to become a poet.
CP was looking for a companionship. Did he succeed? “Of course, not.” The search continued for almost six years. Then, I met Manjula Narayan, who was a colleague of mine at Bombay Times, and I got married to her, and I have two sons now.
“Where did we stop…? Yes, I started writing poetry. I took a month’s leave from The Illustrated Weekly of India, and went home and slept. I used to wake up in the middle of the day, and type out my poems, all of which had a basic theme: Usha’s love towards me, my love towards her, how she betrayed me and walked away from my life, my loneliness, my disillusionment.”
CP wrote 39 poems, and didn’t know what to do with them. So he went and met Dom Moraes, who has then advising David Davidar, Penguin India’s publisher then. “Dom liked my poems and told me that he will ask Davidar to publish them under the title Gemini-II along with verses penned by Jaitirth Rao, a banker.” (Gemini-I was a collection of poems by Jeet Thayil and Vijay Nambisan). “In fact, Rao’s poems play a very insignificant part in the book,” CP says, while mixing rum with water at the Bombay Press Club.
CP’s poems received critical acclaim. I liked his words immensely and the feelings they created. I identified myself in those poems; maybe because I’m from the same district he hails from, and I too live in Bombay as an intruder, eking out a living as a journalist, most days travelling my last trains and knocking at my own door only to realise that there is no one inside. Some of his later works were published in the now-defunct Biblio, a literary quarterly edited by Dileep Padgaonkar. CP reworked all these poems, and lots more. Penguin India, who had decided not to publish any poetry four years ago realising verse doesn’t sell in India, lifted the ban and came out with CP’s book, titled Posthumous Poems.
Posthumous poems? “Yes, that’s the title. And for your information, I’m still alive. The present collection in an effort of two and half years, and it is proof that anyone, even you, can write poetry. The only virtues you require are luck and strength to get a shape to the words you write. With the kind of history we have and the kind of things happening around us, I am surprised there are few poets in India. But things are changing; poetry will outrun and outsell fiction. The future is in poetry.”
CP is now a senior assistant editor with The Times of India, Mumbai. He handles a supplement and writes column, called ‘Brief Grief’, with a droopy-eyed picture of his. The best thing about the column, which sometimes I don’t like, and which I read first thing when I wake up in the afternoon, is that it reads more like poetry than a commentary piece. And CP surprises me with: “In my latest book [Canaries on the Moon, published by Yeti Books, Kozhikode] I have used some of the passages from some of my columns, verbatim, as poems in my collection.” The anthology, dedicated to — what else — Bombay, is different from his earlier one because it muses a lot.
Sample some more his gems:
“The bad thing about Indian writing is we are used to Girilal Jain kind of writing: political correctness, seeking redress. It’s nothing but a pain in the ass and it has to change.”
“Write well or die. If you can’t write well, go commit suicide. But keep your sanity while you write or die.”
CP appreciates that there is more money in writing English these days. And if books are published abroad, one can earn crores of rupees, and worldwide recognition comes free. “Yes, I want lots of money. So I will write more [CP is writing a novel now] and I want to leave this lousy country and live aboard, in England or in America, and lead a decent life. There is no life in India; it is dead, all regional languages are dead, the future is only in English. I’m not going to teach my son Malayalam, but I don’t want him to write poetry. I’ll kick him if he tries to do that.”
CP is six drinks down, and he can’t make up his mind. He wants to leave India, but doesn’t want to. He wants to leave India because there is no future here. But he thinks India has a future only if English becomes the national language. But India is senile. But, when he was in England, he was punched by the natives just because he was an Indian. But he wants to go and live in England….All this is CP’s poetry — his life and words. And the drinks, and the job he does, too are his verse. And he doesn’t believe in following norms while writing poetry. Even if he wanted to, he doesn’t know how to use them. But he has a good constituency of readers who read whatever he writes, even when he wrote only Zzzzzzzzzz… Zzzzzzzzzz.. Zzzzzzzz…, which was supposedly a profile on H D Deve Gowda.
— Sunil K Poolani / The Sunday Observer
Savour two of his poems:
First light on the kitchen table
Breakfast for one. Beer and wine.
Feline eyes kiss fallen tart.
Lunch's a conceit of three. My cat,
Your snapshot and me. Secret rum
In mint tea. Invalidation of the sea.
Last light comes to sup. Dinner's a feat
In Rectitude. Water and Whisky.
Campaign of shadows. No despair.
A sliver of music around the ankles
In a dream's corridor.
Endless retreat of inaccessible feet.
While you were sleeping
A dog yawned in the sun
And in the distance,
A train, blindfolded by a tunnel,
Window by window
I thought of all the things
That could happen
When we are looking away,
The universe we miss in a blink.