Novelty of Thought and Expression Makes Literature Timeless: Dr. Sarita Sharma

Interviewer: Uday Adhikari

 Dr. Sarita Sharma is an Indian academician, author, poet, translator, and keynote speaker. She is editor-in-chief of TAFFD’s The Magazine of the Future (USA). She has nine books to her credit including edited and translated books. Her most acclaimed works include Days V, a collection of poems, and Myriad Voices, a collection of stories.  She lives in the small town of Tezpur, Assam in India. She is passionate about gender issues and puts in every bit towards making this world an equal place for everyone. Uday Adhikari has a detailed talk with Dr. Sarita. The talk is presented herewith for our esteemed readers with due permission from interviewer Adhikari with thanks.

How did you get interested in literature?

Literature has always interested me. I remember reading books ever since. My father Shri Durga Dutta Gautam is also a writer. He writes in Nepali and Assamese. At home too there was a vibrant and open atmosphere of literariness. My father used to get us books every week from the library. In addition, he also subscribed to the Reader’s Digest, Tinkle, and Amar Chitra Katha comics for us. My mother used to read The Ramayana and The Mahabharata stories to us. We grew up amidst books. We siblings used to read and discuss and exchange notes amongst ourselves. Most of my siblings have been students of English literature. All of these factors together must have propelled me toward being interested in literature. But being interested in literature and being able to write are two different things.

How did you think of becoming a writer?

Being a writer wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t think that writing happens that way, especially creative writing. A creative writer not only has ideas stemming from within but also the right words and style to express those. Writing a creative piece is not like writing an academic paper. An academic paper can be written after a lot of study and structured planning. Although creative writing also demands structure and planning there has to be a streak somewhere deep which doesn’t let the writer in peace unless and until the same is put down in words. I can’t pinpoint to a particular when or how or why I got into writing. I have always been a voracious reader. I have been reading a wide variety of writers ever since I was a young kid. But only reading books cannot make one a writer. There must have been a creative streak in me somewhere deep down. I used to pen down poems and short stories just because I felt the urge to pour down my feelings on paper. I never thought that I would actually publish some of my works or that there would come a time when I would be known as a writer. So writing just happened to me. Serendipity you may say.

Which genre are you more interested in and why did you choose that particular genre to write in?

I am equally interested in both poetry and prose. I think that I am more of a poet at heart. Here again, I would like to say that I haven’t chosen any genre for myself. Rather the genres have chosen me. I think that I write in my subconscious. I haven’t deliberately sat down to write anything. It is always an inner drive that propels me to write. I have never constructed my thoughts or my themes in a deliberate, conscious manner. I wish I was more structured that way. Also, I do not believe that reading a variety of literature helps in creative growth. I may read tons of books every month but at the end of the day when I sit down to put my thoughts in words I should have my own ideas stemming from within me. These ideas themselves may not be unique but the way I present them has to be unique. I have to be convincing that way. This can happen only if I am practiced in my craft which reading other literature may help but up to a certain point only. All kinds of reading and writing practice can just hone the creative streak that we already have. It cannot make a writer out of a non-writer.

What is literature for you?

Literature is life. I am amazed at all the variety and color that I see around me when it comes to literature. Human emotions may be limited but the same emotions are portrayed by different writers in their own distinct and myriad ways. This is so beautiful and unparalleled. Ultimately what we talk about in literature is just a few things. We either talk of love or lost love or war. War can be both internal and external. But the way writers treat these subjects and the way they write with their own distinct style and flair, it feels as if we are reading something new. This is the beauty of literature. Every time I take up a book to read it excites me and challenges me and I am waiting to be enthralled by the beauty of how the writer takes me on a journey that I have undertaken with so many other writers before but the fact that it is a different writer and the fact that I shall be listening to the same things but in the unique style and flavor of that writer is what challenges me, attracts me. And I strive to give voice to my own uniqueness too when I write. Only I can talk the way I do, only you Udayji can frame the questions you do. The same question in my language will have my stamp of uniqueness to it. And this is the beauty of literature and this is the very reason why any literature that has well-documented human thoughts can never go out of fashion. It becomes timeless.

What are the challenges that a woman writer faces when it comes to Sahitya srijana (literary creation)? Do male writers have no challenges at all?

I don’t think that Sahitya Srijana has different challenges for different genders. Literature is all in the mind and hearts of the writers. The challenges that we talk of may be external, day-to-day challenges. The external challenges are definitely more for women when it comes to finding time for their own pursuits. I often say that women writers write in ‘stolen moments’ (choreko samay). But when we talk of real challenges as writers per se, whether it be a man or a woman, faces internal challenges which may be gender specific but that is something again very individual and personal. My struggles as a writer may not find resonance with another woman writer but it may with some male writer. Internal challenges cannot be gendered. Thought processes or experiences or reactions to an event may be different in men and women but challenges as writers are the same. There must have been a time when women couldn’t come out in the open as writers and had to remain closeted but that time is gone so far as I know. Today everyone, barring people in some Islamic states, is free to write and express what and how she feels.

What is your take on the feminist movement? Is the feminist movement in our society different from its Western counterpart?

The feminist movement arose because of various reasons. We all know the crux of it. Well in some ways it may not be wrong to say that the social and cultural context of a particular place makes it imperative for some changes in the movement. Indian feminism or the feminist movement in Nepal may be considered to be a little different from the Westernized view that we are so attuned to. Ours is feminism which doesn’t isolate the needs and wishes and rights of a woman but rather tries to see it as part of a whole social rubric. A woman here is not just an individual who has duties only towards her own self but rather a person who has diverse roles to fulfill. She has to find her own individuality amidst all of these. I doubt if women here ever want to isolate themselves from society and live independently and not have any responsibilities in hand to fulfill. Women here are looking for a space within the various roles that they have. They are looking for an identity of their own apart from all the other roles that they have to fit in. They do not deny the fact that society needs them to fulfill certain obligations in order to grow and thrive. What they are asking for is recognition of their identity within that fold. They will do all that is expected of them but also want the other half, the men, to not exploit them, not dominate them, recognize them for who they are, give them respect, not jeopardize their freedom and safety and see them as copartners in the beautiful journey of life. We are looking at a life which doesn’t have to be bound to unnecessary idioms, a life where there is equal opportunity, where our voices are heard and also appreciated, where we do not have to fight for every small and big right, where we can all thrive together as humans and not be clustered as the other who is slightly lesser than the you.

Please talk about some books which have left a deep impact on you.

Some books which have really touched my inner core are-

The Bhagavad Gita. I read the Gita during the time when I was mourning my mother’s death. I have to say that although I had heard my parents talk about it (my mother was also summarizing the Gita in Nepali which she couldn’t finish) and I had tried to read the English translation of it too much before but it had not touched me the way it did when I read it after my mother’s demise. It consoled me like no one else could. It answered me like no other teacher had. It fulfilled me like no other feeling had. It calmed me, pacified me, strengthened me and refined me. It opened me up to a completely new way of looking at life. It is a must read for all although the actual understanding of it may happen only after a particular juncture in our lives. But we must make it a point to read it as early as we can.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket. When I read this book as a young girl I didn’t understand the actual philosophy behind it but as I grow older this book almost always creeps up to my mind making me realize the futility of all that we pine for, yearn and thrive. This may sound negative but at the end of the day it is a fact that we still do not know and have no way of knowing what the next moment holds for us. We all are waiting, just waiting. The frustration of the Vladimir and Estragon is so similar to our own as we wait for lives to happen unknown to the fact that life is passing us by every moment even as we wait for it to happen.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. With the invasion of AI and all of that technical expertise we may just be unfolding into a loveless, mechanized society that Atwood talks of in this book. A beautifully done book which can be read again and again.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This book changed the way I look and perceive things. It simplifies philosophy to the extent that by the time one finishes the book one is open to a world of endless mysticism.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker. A masterpiece written in plain, ungrammatical, everyday language which has the power to convey so much through the broken and unstructured style of writing and use of language.

Poems and verses written by Kahlil Gibran, Rumi, Mirza Ghalib. When words fail me and yet I feel the need to convey my thoughts it is these poets that I turn to. They always have something that resonates with me or what I am going through at that moment.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo. A racy thriller which skillfully navigates through love, family, sex and society. A good travel read I must say but something which leaves you wondering about the power of language and how it changes shape according to the person who uses it.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A difficult read. I had to struggle to read and comprehend this book but it left me enriched and satisfied.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. A very convincing and beautiful novel on life after death. The satire that comes across through the subtle humour is simply mind blowing.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. A compelling and immersive read.

I have a problem with these kind of questions actually because any list cannot be inclusive of all that I have read. This is just a mention of some good books out there. I have read many, many fascinating books. Also I think that reading and liking a book is very personal and subjective. There cannot be a list which is inclusive and comprehensive enough to accommodate all that I have read and been left astounded by. This is just a glassful in the ocean. Also not all books here may appeal to others in the same way that they did to me. So I would like to urge the readers to be experimental, curious and try to make their own list and not just go blindly by what anyone has to say. My English professor had told me that anyone who wants to write good English must read the Bible. I disagree. I tried to read the Bible but I found the language very archaic and difficult to comprehend. I could never finish it. So anyone’s personal opinion about any book out there is just that, an opinion. We may agree or disagree to that.

You are a writer of this generation. Do you think that literature of this time has been successful in portraying the times accurately? How do you see literature of the contemporary times?

Every day there are scores of books that hit the market. There is nothing that typifies a generation or a broad time frame. Every writer has a different perspective, a different way of putting things in words. We talk of the same issues every time. Our issues haven’t changed over the generations but the way we talk of them is hugely different. Every book is a part reflection of the times and social milieu that it is witness to. We all as writers are trying to do just that-hold the society in our words, portray it through our vision. Our approaches may be different but our goals remain the same. What we need as readers is a broader view point so that we can recognize the space that a writer is coming from. This space that forms us is what shapes our writing. This difference in spaces is what gives out a distinct flavor and colour to what we write. Some writers talk of and from wider spaces while some others talk of and from narrower ones but we all are, in our own myriad ways, showcasing what we have witnessed. The only thing that makes a writer more readable and loved is the way we voice our thoughts and how strongly it can resonate with the readers. I am happy with the way writers are experimenting with new forms, techniques and style of writing. There are experiments even in the use of language. There is so much trans-creation literature happening around, rewritings. There is so much happening. Everyone is free to take up anything and write on it, translate it, rewrite it. All this is very impressive. But as I say, that which resonates with the readers is what shall pass the test of being a worthy read.

How do you balance your family, work and your writing? What is the secret formula?

I don’t have any formula. I just write when I feel the urge to write. I am not disciplined that way. I do not compulsorily write everyday as a rule. Sometimes when the urge to write is on then one can find me writing even very late at night or in the heat of the day or when the kids are doing their homework. I do not have a set time. I write in snatches. I write a lot in my head rather than on paper. This has disadvantaged me to some extent. But this is how things are. But having said this, I do feel that had I been more disciplined in my writing schedule I would have been able to produce more than I have done till now.

One of Prakash Saput’s recent music videos drew a lot of negative criticism. Is it justifiable? Or is it a reflection of the times?

First of all, I would like to thank you for having sent the video to me. It is a beautiful song rendered beautifully. Having said this, I just found one thing objectionable in the video, the slap scene. It disturbed me. No man should have the right to hit a woman irrespective of how angry he may have been on her. You speak of all the negative reactions on the video, I seriously do not understand where the negativity is coming from and why. I think it is a hard hitting and realistic portrayal of how the society operates. Every day scores of Phulmaya’s are being exploited and turned into puppets in the hands of powerful and moneyed people. This exploitation should stop. And we can stop this exploitation if only we are honest enough to pin point the underbelly, the hidden and work towards the evils that operate under the shield of respectability and status.

How did you get command over a foreign language?

Command over a language is all about proper exposure to that language. I was born and brought up in Nagaland where English is one of the main languages. This was the language that I read in, spoke with friends and was greatly exposed to. This is why it is the one language in which I feel most comfortable talking about my feelings. I didn’t chose the language, rather the language chose me. Having said this, I do wish that I could write in my mother tongue as well but I feel limited because of a lack of proper exposure to it. I am really thankful to you Udayji for taking the pain of translating my thoughts into Nepali and thus giving me space here.

Why are we so weary of adult content in literature? Why do writers shy away from addressing this?

We are always hiding behind the garb of respectability and honour and so we think  that talking of adult content may harm the reputation that we have created for ourselves. There is nothing wrong in sex because it is one thing which drives and sustains the world. If you look closely at some of our marriage rituals, they are subtle hints at the fact that you are legally wedded now and you may go ahead, have sex and procreate. We have been so used to keeping it behind doors that we are afraid to talk about it even when there may be a demand for it in the story. Or we are very quick to judge and label someone as promiscuous if they talk about sex openly.  But it is a beautiful reality of life. It is an extension of love which has myriad hues. Also, eroticism has been a part of our culture. It is one emotion which should also be properly addressed. But then adult content for the sake of cheap publicity or titillation should be avoided.

What is beauty? What is the politics over the body of a woman? Why do women openly expose themselves and take part in beauty pageants even when they are exploited? Why do they beautify themselves if they do not want male gaze? Should women not take a stand against this?

Beauty is a million-dollar business. Think of all the politics behind it, all the industries behind it, all the literature behind it. Everything revolves around it. Everyone likes to have a beautiful face, a perfect body. And if you are blessed enough to have one or have the means to achieve one then you would want to fall into the money making bandwagon. At the end of the day everyone wants to have a moneyed life and if some are getting it through their beauty it is alright. There is always the concept of demand and supply. The world demands to see beauty, beautiful people supply the needs and take home the moolah. Why is there so much of rant and cry on this? But having said this, let us talk about choice and the problem that comes along when we talk of choice. Mia Khalifa is an adult film artist. Her movies sell like hot cakes because there is huge demand for it. She has made a choice in her life, the choice was to star in such movies. Now, she does it to make money. Every woman should likewise have a choice. If they are happy selling their bodies let them. There are scores of women who are into other professions. There are women who are not comfortable showing off their bodies. And that’s perfectly alright. To each her own. Choices should be respected. A woman wearing revealing clothes is not necessarily asking for a man’s attention. She likes dressing up that way. She is not asking anyone to ogle her or touch her. Her choice should be respected. If she doesn’t like your interest on her you should turn your interest away from her and not force yourself on her just because she is showing her cleavage. If one is uncomfortable about such women then one should turn his gaze away.  Let everyone be happy doing what they want to within the parameters of a legalized society. To say that such women are polluting our society is again a laughable idea. If demand stops supply will automatically dry down. So long as both demand and supply parties have no issues, why are we even talking about this?

You have a strong feministic bend in your writing. You have had the opportunity to work and interact with women from different parts of the world. Where do you think our women writers stand? What is the level of their consciousness?

Most of my writing is women centric. This may have happened because this is the space that I know more intimately than any other spaces. I have experienced almost all the facets of being a woman and this experience is what I can talk about with utmost confidence. Yes, I do have the opportunity of interacting with women from all over the world belonging to different strata of the society. Indian women as I said earlier are still rooted to family values and traditions. They have a lot of faith in the family system and the society at large. They are not looking at a space where they want to completely turn their faces away from the norms. Rather they look for assimilation into the society with their unique voice and identification. They are looking at equality without shaking the seat of the other and this is so doable when you think of it. Women shouldn’t have to struggle so hard for what they are asking. They are not asking you to vacate your seat for them. They want that you should be comfortable enough to have a woman seated next to you or above you or below you and that you should respect her position. Women writers in India have a distinct voice and status. They have been vocal, right from writers like Mahashweta Devi, Amrita Pritam to Arundhati Roy, Chitra Devakurni, Manju Kapoor and others. They have not shied away from talking about the underlying issues in the society which are detrimental to the growth and development of women as individuals. And now also, even in the field of regional literature we have strong women voices who are not afraid to talk about things that actually matter. We are living in a transitional world and I strongly believe that we shall come out better.

What attracts you to be a writer?

I have already given a sneak peek into the kind of books or writers that I love to read. Having said this, I am open to experimenting new writers, translation literature and nonfiction. I read anything and everything that I can lay my hands on. I wouldn’t say that any writer can be equally good in all that she writes. I did not enjoy Coelho’s other books as much as I enjoyed The Alchemist. Same with many other writers. This may have to do with my mental status during the period that I was reading those books or my expectations from the writer. Reading and enjoying the read is very personal and subjective. Sometimes it is the language that is attractive, sometimes it is thought process, and sometimes it is the characters. There are some books which I don’t recall anything else of apart from the characters. Again there are books where the characters may be nondescript but the way the book is written remains etched in the memories. So it is again a complex process. When it comes to spending some quality time I would rather prefer some close friends and family. You are one person who I would love to spend some time with.

How do you conceive your thought process? What kind of environment do you require for writing?

I don’t have a fixed plan of action when it comes to writing. I am very eccentric and impulsive that way. I will write when I feel like writing. Mostly writers are much disciplined I hear. I can write only when something propels me from within. This must be the reason why I haven’t been able to write as many books. I write a lot in my head before I can actualize them in words. So much is lost at times because I feel that words do not or cannot justify the way I think or feel. I somehow cannot write just because there is something out there. It has to go through a process of actualization or it has to hit me personally, tear me apart or make me so joyful that it can burst out thorough my words on paper. There is so much happening around us all the time. There are scores of such incidents which really move me but not to the extent that I can write. I have a very difficult relationship with my writing self. She operates on her own sweet will. She doesn’t follow my diktats.  She will write only when she is convinced that what she is saying can move the readers in the same way that she herself has been moved. She won’t write till the moment she is convinced of her own ability to deliver exactly what she has been feeling. So conceiving my thoughts is a difficult process. It frustrates me at times because I feel that I can write so much that I need to write so much and yet my writing self is not convinced that I can do justice to my feelings. This dichotomy has torn me apart many a times. I do not require any environment. I can write anywhere and everywhere, provided I am inspired enough.

From the first reading of your poem on stage to the latest talk that you delivered, how far have you come?

I have always been a stage person. I have anchored, given speeches, performed dances and also dramas on stage so that way I do not have stage fright. But yes reciting a self-composed poem for the very first time must have been scary. I say ‘must have been’ because I cannot recall the exact feelings that I must have had during that moment. Or for that matter I do not even remember where and when I recited my first poem but one thing I can say is that I wasn’t sure if many people understood my poems. It has happened to me several times. We have multi lingual poetry sessions here. I am also invited to some such sessions. But sadly there aren’t many people who can understand or appreciate English poems here. I recall that after I had finished reciting my poem, a very senior writer stood up and said that ‘for the sake of the crowd here I would like to request you to summarize your poem in the local language because if you do not do so they may not be able to appreciate the beauty and depth of your lines.’ Since then I always make it a point to summarize my poems so that the audience can appreciate it better.

Also, initially I used to hesitate when speaking Nepali or Assamese on stage. As I have said earlier I was born and brought up in Nagaland and English was the only language that I was comfortable in. Over the years my hesitation has lessened. At home we always conversed in Nepali but when on stage one cannot just speak like one does at home. Over the years my hesitation has lessened and now I am fluent on stage too in four languages-English, Hindi, Nepali, Assamese.

Why do you write? Is it to fulfill some need or to meet the kid in you which you have left far behind?

I am still a kid at heart. I am the loudest banterer in my group, I can laugh like crazy, I tease and am quite a tongue in cheek. Also, I am the one whose leg gets pulled every time because I do not mind being teased by my friends. The kid in me in very alive and kicking. I do not write to meet anyone else other than my own inner conscience. I write from the space that I am now in. even when I look at my childhood it is from this time and space. There must have been times in my childhood which were unhappy or scary or unwelcome but that is then. Today I can separate the child in me from the situation and look at the whole incident with objective eyes. Of course, my childhood has shaped me in certain ways but I try to consciously not let certain unwelcome episodes of the past bother me, haunt me and thus make me unhappy now. I have lived that life. It is gone for good. Now I am living this life. This too shall pass. Eventually it is only memories that we are left with. So I consciously try to avoid painful memories that can haunt me. I have learnt from the past. If at all I will share my experiences to people who are living that stage now but I will never let the past bother me in an unhealthy way.  I write because it liberates me like nothing else can. I write because I feel happy about expressing myself through words. I think I cannot express my deepest feelings well verbally. It is only when I write that I am loquacious and clear. Of late I have also realized that I am quite an introvert that way. I mingle well with people, I adjust fast but when it comes to sharing my personal details I cannot. I am very choosy about who I can talk to. Recently a friend told me, ‘I know you cannot express your deepest feelings in one go. Take your time. I understand. I will wait for you to talk about what is bothering you,’ and it was at that moment that I realized that writing is how I express. I have written very less in comparison to other writers my age. But whatever I have written is straight from the heart. You can see parts of myself in my writings. But let me also add that it may not all be personal but is definitely something which touched the core of my being and it came out straight from the heart.

Editing a piece of writing is one thing. How did you get into being the Editor-in-Chief of an entire magazine?

It is actually quite a serendipity that I am editor in chief of “The Magazine of the Future” which gets published from the USA. The magazine is published by Trans Disciplinary Agora for Future Discussions, an NGO registered in the USA. The founder of the organization Osinakachi Akuma Kalu and the president were looking for an editor in chief for the magazine. The magazine is trans-disciplinary in nature and they wanted someone who not only had a good command over the language but someone who was well read and could do justice to the trans-nature. Somehow I came into the picture. Osinakachi offered me the post which I was reluctant to take up. I was reluctant not because of the nature of the work itself but because it would entail a lot of travelling. He was adamant and after some time he did convince me to be a part of the organization. I am glad that I took it up because I enjoy my work there. I am amazed at the variety of work that is happening all over the world. Also, in course of the work I have met some very wonderful people and have had the privilege of learning quite a lot from them.

What have been your struggles as a nonnative writer in English?

The struggle that I face has never been the language itself but rather how I can use it to the best possible way so that my thoughts do not get diluted. I think this is true of writers who write in their own mother tongues also. We all struggle in order to express ourselves in the best possible way, in a manner which can do complete justice to the thought that arises. English is almost like my mother tongue for me in the sense that I do not translate my thoughts from Nepali to English. I conceive my thoughts in English. The thoughts come to me in English. They are of course random and haphazard but they are not conceived in my mother tongue. A writer friend who also writes in English found this very amusing. She said that she first conceives her thoughts in the mother tongue and then translates them into English. I don’t know if other non-English writers writing in English also do the same. But for me it has never been that way. So the struggle is not language but the best possible usage of it.