Poet and Author Nalini Priyadarshni Interviews Two Authors and Editors Dr. Santosh Bakaya and Lopamudra Banerjee.
This interview was conducted via email.
Nalini Priyadarshni has been writing poetry and other stuff for almost a decade and published worldwide in literary magazines and journals. Her eclectic tastes reflect in her poems widely anthologised and collected in Doppleganger in My House and Lines Across Oceans which she co-authored with Poet Laureate, late D. Russel Micnhimer. She has been nominated for The Best of the Net 2017. Her greatest talent lies in turning regret into dust.
Nalini Priyadarshni: It gives me immense pleasure to be in conversation with stalwarts of English literature in India Dr. Santosh Bakaya and Lopamudra Banerjee whose prose and poetry I read and admire for its distinct style and unique voice.
A lot of readers who read and appreciate your writings would be interested to know the writer and the process of creation just as I am. You both stand out among the contemporary writers as not only versatile but prolific too. What prompts you to write?
Santosh Bakaya: There is a certain inner voice which prompts me to write, it keeps pushing me, coercing me, cajoling me, at times even bulldozing me into writing, so much so that I have to get up in the middle of the night to follow the dictates of its shrieks. Lately, I have taken to keeping a notebook by my side, because that little voice sometimes becomes too vocal, and I am left with no choice but to write. Sometimes, when the violence and injustice around me becomes too much, then I quietly creep into this refuge of writing. It has become a safety valve for me. When innocence is bludgeoned so callously, so senselessly, writing has been my only solace, and I have poured my anguish on paper, in the form of poems.
Lopa Banerjee: Like Santosh Bakaya di, said, yes, I too, am prompted and coaxed and cajoled by a stubborn, headstrong, messy yet unyielding voice inside me to pen down the innermost recesses of my mind, which sometimes assumes the voice of poetry, and sometimes stories, essays and memoirs. I had started this journey of writing as a clandestine poet scribbling secretly in the back pages of my notebooks during school, but as I grew up and traversed through diverse pathways of life, the voice inside my head gained momentum every year and then the urge to produce full-length pieces kept becoming stronger. As I always say with my poetry, it celebrates the splinters and shards of my being, of my existence as a woman.
Also, all genres of my writing are the manifestations of an inward journey of mine being a mother, daughter, immigrant from India in the US with a strong and sensitive literary flair, when the happenings around my personal space as well as the happenings around the world and my observations regarding them erupt as volcanic bursts through my pen.
Nalini Priyadarshni: I so get it. Writing is cathartic and therapeutic for most of poets as much as it is a weapon of choice against injustice and unfair practices we see around. However, out of non- fiction, fiction and poetry that you use to express yourself, which is your favorite genre and why?
Santosh Bakaya: I just love writing, be it, non-fiction, fiction or poetry. In fact, I started by writing novels for young adults, in the late 1990s and they were very popular with the youth– three of them were published, and two manuscripts are still gathering dust somewhere. One of them, a ghost story was so popular that I translated it into Hindi and adapted it for the stage, which won many laurels.
Suddenly, I lost all interest in them, because then Facebook happened!
I took to writing huge notes about the everyday happenings in my life which included my morning walks, the people I met in my walks , my travels , the strangers whom I met on life’s journey , the animals and birds , and the so-called invisibles languishing in dark peripheries of a topsy -turvy world .
These notes became so popular that my friends wanted them to be compiled in a book form. Flights from My Terrace, a book containing 58 essays, was published as an E-book on Smashwords , and its immense popularity there, encouraged me to have a printed version. So now it has an updated printed version – Flights from my terrace: The boy in yellow knickers and other essays [Authorspress, 2017]
I started writing poetry, when I was added to the highly popular writers’ group, Rejected Stuff, but my first written piece in school was a limerick, which was followed by more than 200 limericks. In fact, Ballad of Bapu, which won international acclaim, has been written in the limerick form.
Oh Hark! , a long, surrealistic poem, which won for me the international Reuel Award  for writing and literature , was written purely on a lark , but I really enjoyed writing it on Facebook every day , and if I did not post the next episode , my inbox used to be flooded with messages wanting to know, “where is the next part?”
Every form of writing has given me a huge sense of contentment, because basically, it is that twitching in my fingers that I enjoy – the twitching waiting to be transformed into writing. The mere sensation is pure bliss.
Lopa Banerjee: As for me, I would also want to echo the words of Santosh di and add that I love to write in all genres: poetry, fiction and nonfiction. I must admit that poetry is a natural, spontaneous extension of my own being, though I have formally studied the genre Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and it is the classes I took there in Autobiography, Personal Essays and Publishing Nonfiction that laid the foundation of my first book, ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, a memoir/narrative nonfiction work. Incidentally, before the publication of Thwarted Escape, I had teamed up with Rhiti Chatterjee Bose, another writer/blogger to curate and edit a collection of short stories, titled ‘Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas’ on the overarching theme of women empowerment. Then in 2017, when I co-edited another collection of short stories, ‘Darkness There But Something More’ with Dr. Santosh Bakaya, where I also co-authored with her, I instinctively felt an affinity towards fiction writing. Some of my short stories have been published in a few e-zines and anthologies and have received critical acclaim, so now that my debut poetry collection ‘Let The Night Sing’ has been published, I am delving into fiction with a sense of contentment.
Truly speaking, it is a bit difficult to decide a favorite genre of mine since it keeps changing from time to time, depending on my mood and my inclination during a particular phase. Having said that I believe in the fluidity between genres. That is precisely why readers who have read my book ‘Thwarted Escape’ have said that it is a poetic memoir and it hardly reads like a nonfiction book. Even the fiction I am writing these days is sprinkled with poetry and lyricism, so you can understand how I believe, one genre can feed into the other if only a writer is ready to make it work in his/her narration.
Nalini Priyadarshni: What kind of research did you do, and how long did you spend researching before beginning your books?
Santosh Bakaya: In the books that I have written so far, Ballad of Bapu is the only one which needed a lot of research. Since I had already been teaching Gandhism in my post-graduation and MPhil classes, all the basic concepts were clear, but for the lesser known incidents of his life, I read more than 200 books.
My poetry books needed no research, because they were written on the spur of the moment.
Flights from my terrace, a collection of 58 essays also did not need any research. In this book I have just captured some quotidian moments of life, unfolding on busy intersections, on the streets, in rooms, in classrooms, in trains, trams, planes and buses.
Lopa Banerjee: As for my books till now, I didn’t have to do much research since mostly they have been written about my everyday life, the little nuggets of the daily paraphernalia, whether it is my poetry collection ‘Let The Night Sing’ or my memoir ‘Thwarted Escape’. However, there is a chapter ‘Writing The Woman’s Life’ in my book ‘Thwarted Escape’ where I went ahead and wrote about the literary works of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, her exile and her fearless female subjectivity being censured, drawing parallels of her life and works with that of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, for which I did have to do a bit of research for some facts, which I mostly managed from the internet, other than remembering my reading of some Bengali books written by her which I had read quite some years back.
Also, while writing my recently released book ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’, and while compiling the stories and two novellas in English translation, originally written by Nobel laureate of Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore, I had to do some basic research regarding the time period of the original publications by Tagore, the language and rhetoric used by Tagore in the original pieces and the emotional impact of it in Bengali, so that I could attempt to trans-create the emotional worlds of the protagonists through my English translation.
Having said that, I truly wish to write a research-based book someday, a novel or an essay collection that reflects the times and travails of real people in history.
Nalini Priyadarshni: You two have edited two short story collections together?
Tell us something about these collections.
Dr. Santosh Bakaya: Yes, one is a collection of ghost stories, [Darkness There but Something More, 2017, The Blue Pencil] which is doing brisk business, so much so that readers want a sequel where they can also contribute. We have already started thinking on those lines. Seeing the success of this book, I have realized that readers really like the surreal, scary and spooky. We are going to make the submission call soon.
The second is an anthology not of short stories, but of 28 women poets, published by Global Society of India, Gurugram, India.
Lopa Banerjee: If you ask me, our collaborative journey of writing truly started with ‘Defiant Dreams’ (Readomania, 2015), the book which I co-edited and where Santosh di was one of our esteemed contributors. Thereafter, towards the end of 2016, we decided to team up as both co-editors and co-authors for a number of anthologies with diverse themes and concepts, ‘Darkness There’, a collection of award-winning, spine-chilling ghost stories being only the first of them. The second one, ‘Cloudburst: The Womanly Deluge’, which is about to be released any day, is a grand celebration of the lyrical voices of as many as 28 Indian Diaspora poets dispersed all over the globe, all of us being women poets. But having said that, since there are many poetry collections these days focusing on feminist themes, in this book we wanted to journey through a different route. Here is an excerpt from my editorial note for the anthology, which will make you realize the theme and the purpose behind the collection of poems.
“As women poets, whether or not we bring into this anthology the question of female subjectivity, we are constantly looking into the world in flux around us in our imagery and in a subtle, ingenious way which is unmistakably feminine in its essence. In some of the poems of this anthology, ‘womanhood’ is a lyrical scream, in some, the creative force of life ebbs and flows in unexpected trajectories, in some, the artistic vision of the poet transcends the boundaries of time and space. In my understanding, the idea behind this anthology was to see how the contemporary Indian women poets react to the fungi of poetry evolving in their psyche, how the aspect of self-identity, the intricate links between the soul, the senses, the natural world, the familial home and the greater world is represented in their poetic voices.”
To this, Santosh Bakaya di adds in her editorial note:
“In this anthology, we see 28 women writers, upturning those poetic bags hidden in their hearts, versifying their anger, anguish, existential angst with great aplomb. They dream, they visualize, they rhapsodize, they are indignant, they are volatile, eloquently gnashing their teeth at the mutilated and bruised world, and lashing and, thrashing out with powerful poetic punches. I found the poems in this anthology, hard- hitting like bullet shots, and also soft and soothing like candy floss clouds.”
More anthologies will be on their way soon as we believe that a creative collaboration between two likeminded poets and authors would bring about a surge of ideas which is actually nothing but our cumulative search for life itself, in a flow, in continuum.
Nalini Priyadarshni: How has your experience of working together been considering that you live on different continents and in different time zones?
Dr. Santosh Bakaya: Well, it has indeed been wonderful, irrespective of the time zones and different continents. We would get down to the nitty-gritty only during a mutually convenient time and thrash out matters on WhatsApp and messenger calls.
Lopa Banerjee: As for myself, I believe that time zones and geographical distances are only very superficial elements when the hearts are in the right place. Moreover, with internet and social media spilling over our daily lives these days, the world has become a home, a unified family. During the entire phase of curating and editing both our anthologies, we have worked in perfect sync with each other and thanks to our lucky stars and social media, coordination has never been a hindrance. If there has ever been a technical concern, we have made up for it with our infectious enthusiasm. Also, The Blue Pencil, our publishing partner of ‘Darkness There But Something More’, especially Antara Nanda Mondal has been a pillar of support, looking at the nitty-gritty and the final print till the end of the editorial and publishing process.
Nalini Priyadarshni: World in general and India in particular is going through tumultuous times. There is growing intolerance and discrimination in society. Has the present volatile socio-political scenario affected your writing? If yes, how?
Santosh Bakaya: Yes, it has indeed affected my writing. In fact, many of the poems in my poetry anthologies are a reaction to the global volatile – political –social scenario.
Where are the lilacs? [A collection of my peace poems, 2016] has many poems based on refugees, the Syrian crisis, female infanticide, the rampant injustice and unfairness.
Lopa Banerjee: Though I admit I do not understand the political happenings of the world much, like Santosh di does, the social discriminations, gender discriminations, class struggles, rape, abuse and other social evils do affect my writings in a huge, inexplicable way. Many of my poems are composed on some startling universal issues around me, including the story of Nirbhaya (Jyothi Singh), the inspiring account of Mala Yusufzai’s life as a crusader of empowerment of girl children, the theme of child marriage which is still rampant in parts of Asia, Africa and Arabian countries, or the story of the sex workers’ children in the Sonagachhi area of Kolkata. Many of them are the manifestation of my existential angst as a woman.
Nalini Priyadarshni: What is your writing Kryptonite?
Santosh Bakaya: I was never very good at science, so if I am expected to write about anything remotely connected with the sciences, I will cut a very sorry figure. So, I make it a point not to write anything which involves a mention of the sciences.
Lopa Banerjee: I second Santosh di here. I would rather be comfortable writing about the subjects I see/observe in our daily lives than writing about obscure scientific elements, which I don’t have any knowledge of, though I very much appreciate authors who write science fiction in an engaging and memorable way.
Nalini Priyadarshni: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Santosh Bakaya: The Man Who loved children  by Christina Stead. Although some critics have severely criticized the book, I believe, this is one book which should be read by bibliophiles for its unendingly original cascade of alliteration, nonsensical rhymes, its lyrical prose and rip-roaring jokes. As a teenager, I remember, enjoying it thoroughly, and even jotting down words, and sentences that caught my fancy. I can very vividly recall dad’s powerful baritone reading from the book.
In our house, in the university campus in Jaipur, one hour, every Sunday was reserved for the critical analysis of books. It was during one such discussion that I heard of this novel, which dad had bought with some grant money that he had received in the university. I was heartbroken, when he had to give back the books to the library after his project was over.
I even remember him talking of another novel in this context, My Family and other animals, of the unobtrusively masterly prose the author has used, which, I remember, was lyrical at times.
I don’t know, whether it was dad’s overwhelming influence, but, this book which revolves around a highly dysfunctional family, impressed me greatly and I stored many of its quotes to use in my essays later. No, I never used them later, but they were always at the back of my mind.
“Life is nothing but rags and tags and filthy rags at that.”
“What a dreary stodgy world of adults the children saw when they went out.”
It was undoubtedly, one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century, but not many seem to know of its existence.
Lopa Banerjee: When thinking of under-rated novels, many names in my vernacular Bengali literature comes to my mind. These are canonical works, but have unfortunately not been available to readers outside Bengal. When we discuss Rabindranath Tagore’s work, we promptly refer to his poems of Geethanjali which fetched him the Nobel prize and his other poetry collections which are dissected by readers and critics all over the globe, but how much do we know about his novels apart from ‘Gora’ and ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and The World)? How many people outside Bengal know about ‘Char Adhyay’ (Four chapters), which is a love story between two revolutionary souls, or ‘Chaturanga’, ‘Malancha’, (The Garden), ‘Dui Bon’, ‘Noukadubi’, all with powerful protagonists and their inner conflicts/turmoil, or his two novellas ‘Nastanirh’ (The Broken Nest) and ‘Laboratory’ which represents the sagas of women in a patriarchal social construct? My translation of Tagore in his selected works of fiction is a baby step towards the direction of creating awareness/consciousness among the global readers about these outstanding literary works. Also, in the post-Tagore world, writers like Ashapoorna Debi, Samaresh Basu, Samaresh Majumdar, Sunil Ganguly, Buddhadeb Guha, Shirshendu Mukherjee, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Bani Basu and many other Bengali novelists have produced great novels which are superior works of literature and the arts, but due to language barriers, global readers do not know as much about them as canonical works. Fortunately, translations are happening these days, but we need really good translators who can effectively trans-create the emotional microcosm of the characters of these novels so that the fictional representation of these authors comes out more authentically.
Nalini Priyadarshni: What are your favorite literary journals? Can you name couple of journals that budding writers can benefit from reading?
Santosh Bakaya and Lopa Banerjee: There is no dearth of national and international literary journals. But, to our minds, the first names that come instantly in these couple of years are ‘Café Dissensus’, published from New York, ‘About Place’, an independent/non-profit journal of poetry and the arts, ‘Dialogue Times’, published from London, ‘Jaggery’, an independent literary journal published from Chicago, ‘Muse India’, which is a very prestigious online journal published from India, ‘Setu’, a bilingual online journal published from Pittsburgh. There is also ‘Rattle’, a very dynamic publication featuring avant-garde works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and also poetry prizes and chapbook prizes. And of course, ‘Reviews’ mag, where we are being featured! It has really published some quality poems, literary criticisms, reviews and more, in the recent times.
To find an extensive database of some very fine contemporary journals published internationally, one might like to go to www.newpages.com
Nalini Priyadarshni: We all wisen up in the course of our life. So if you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
Santosh Bakaya: The very first thing that I would tell my younger writing self would be to be patient, and in this context, I feel, it is clichés like , ‘haste makes waste’ which make the most sense.
Lopa Banerjee: Well, if you are asking me as the person, when I was much younger, I used to fall in and out of love quite a number of times, but probably didn’t know anything about self-love. I would now like to tell my younger self to love myself more before those crazy calf-love siestas ripped my heart apart.
If you are asking me the poet/writer, I would love to tell my younger self to be more confident in publishing my poetry and stories and in sharing them to the world, rather than being the closeted writer that I was back then.
Nalini Priyadarshni: How has publishing your first book changed your process of writing?
Santosh Bakaya: Well, when my first book was published, I was a complete novice, very desperate to get my work published. So I gave it to the first publisher who agreed.
Lopa Banerjee: My first book in paperback, ‘Thwarted Escape’ has let me go through the many crests and rims of rewriting, editing, rejection, heartbreaks and finally acceptance and critical acclaim. Looking back at it, my heart brims with gratitude, remembering the journey. The long wait for the publication was a blessing in disguise as I continued to edit the manuscript in various ways. But now that I have published three books of mine in three different genres, poetry, memoir/nonfiction and translation/fiction, I would say more pronouncedly that I will have to swim against the tide of ruthless categorization, as the mainstream traditional publishing world, I found, is rather reluctant to publish experimental literary works, no matter in whatever genre it might be.
Nalini Priyadarshni: You are widely read and appreciated in India as well as other parts of the world. What does literary success look like to you?
Santosh Bakaya: For me literary success means a diffident call from a stranger, wanting to meet me, effusive praise from just one reader, and the never –ending smile on my face which follows just one appreciative comment from anyone whom I hold in high regard in literary circles. For me, literary success is just a word of genuine appreciation.
Oh, let me relate an incident. Recently , I was in Hyderabad as one of the delegates at the Pentasi B , World Poetry Meet , and was absolutely delighted when a gentleman , walked up to me , and remarked , “Madam , let me salute you . Ballad of Bapu is a stupendous work. You know, I bought five copies of it. How could you have written such an epic?”
Another young man, shyly asked me, “Madam, I really loved your Kolkata diaries, where is the next part?”
“Oh, I will continue them immediately on reaching Jaipur.” I stuttered.
Yes, it is precisely at such moments that I have felt that I have succeeded.
Lopa Banerjee: I believe the world today is in too much a state of flux to bother about literary success, compared to the way it used to, when the great poets and writers of English literature like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, or even James Joyce or Virginia Woolf had gained prominence. The tremendous socio-political unrest and the upheaval of various other forms of media, news and entertainment, and the overload of information in the various social media do take away the attention of readers from books, but amid such times, it has been all the more important to produce books to create an imprint of one’s narrative voice that will, I believe, have an impact on our next generation, assuring them that words and the mosaic of thoughts do matter as a form of dissent. That to me is what literary success ideally is.
Nalini Priyadarshni: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Santosh Bakaya: I don’t know whether it is spiritual, but yes, for me, it has definitely proved therapeutic and cathartic, leading to hours of creative satisfaction.
Lopa Banerjee: I would say writing is a spiritual practice in the sense that when you create anything, whether a painting or a poem or a story, you feel the closest to God. And yes, it is therapeutic in its effect as well, undoubtedly.
Nalini Priyadarshni: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Santosh Bakaya: How to juggle with the different ideas that keep attacking me at all weird hours. In fact, many a time, I have to sneak out surreptitiously from the bed, in order not to disturb my sleeping husband. Many a time, I have had to face the indignation of my daughter, when, despite my best efforts, I am not able to stop the flow of my so-called creative juices. Some might find it weird, but I have this inherent mad streak in me of working on many projects at the same time. Right now, I am working on six manuscripts simultaneously, crazy, isn’t it?
Lopa Banerjee: The most trying and challenging part of my writing process is the assimilation of the proper words and expressions when a particular idea strikes me in a story I am framing these days. I tend to be overtly descriptive in the presentation of my narratives, so cutting down the words while still remaining faithful to the core idea or philosophy behind the story seems a daunting task to me. I think more practice would help me craft the stories in a more succinct, refreshing style, which I admire in many writers.
Nalini Priyadarshni: It has been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for taking time to answer the questions.
Santosh and Lopa: It was indeed great answering the questions, Nalini. Thanks a ton. Looking forward to more such opportunities.
Dr Santosh Bakaya, an academician- poet- essayist- novelist, has made her mark both in prose and poetry. Her three mystery novels, [The mystery of the Relic, The mystery of the Jhalana Fort and The mystery of the Pine cottage] for young adults were very well received in the 1990s. Flights from my terrace, her e-book of 58 essays , published on Smashwords in October 2014, now has a printed version by Authorspress Delhi, India, 2017. Ballad of Bapu, a poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, [ Vitasta publishers, Delhi 2015,] is also being acclaimed internationally. Her essays on Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.have been published in Gandhi Marg, a quarterly journal of GANDHI PEACE FOUNDATION.
She has also been published and interviewed in Cafe Dissensus and has contributed to national and international anthologies – [Colours of Refuge, Resonance, Mytho Manthan, Authorspress India, on behalf of Poets, Artist Unplugged], in Kiew-an anthology of tree poems published by The international Visitor Programme,Phillipines. Many of her poems have figured in the highly commendable category and Poem of the month category in Destiny Poets, a U. K based poetry website. Her poetry has also appeared in Learning and Creativity- Silhouette magazine, in Incredible women of India, in Mind Creative [Ezine from Australia], In Brian Wrixon’s anthology, the online magazine Episteme, published from Mumbai and Setu – a bi-lingual journal published from Pittsburgh, USA, Spillwords.com – an international e-zine of repute, and in PIN [POETS IN NIGERIA QUARTERLY] journal.
She has co-edited UMBILICAL CHORDS: AN ANTHOLOGY ON PARENTS REMEMBERED, published by Global Fraternity of Poets, Gurgaon, Haryana, and also DARKNESS THERE BUT SOMETHING MORE – AN ANTHOLOGY OF EERIE TALES [Blue Pencil , 2017]
WHERE ARE THE LILACS ? [A compilation of 111 peace poems] was launched in 2016 and is getting rave reviews. UNDER THE APPLE BOUGHS , is her latest collection of poems [ 2017].
Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, editor and translator, currently based in Dallas, USA. She is the co-editor of two anthologies, ‘Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas’, published by Readomania in collaboration with Incredible Women of India and ‘Darkness There But Something More’, a collection of 30 spine chilling ghost stories published by Blue Pencil, where she is a resident editor now. ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, her memoir has received Honorable Mention at Los Angeles Book Festival 2017, and has also been First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC, USA. Her recently released books, ‘Let The Night Sing’, a poetry collection and ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’ have already received much critical acclaim.
Her poetry, stories and essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, both in India and the US. She has received the International Reuel Award 2016 for her English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (The Broken Home) instituted by The Significant League, a renowned literature group on Facebook and she is also the recipient of the International Reuel Award for poetry 2017.