Vijay Seshadri: In the glow of a splendid, silent sun

He may call himself an American but there's no taking the Malleswaram boy out of Vijay Seshadri! The Pulitzer Prize winning poet was besieged by fans during his two days in the city and he enjoyed every moment of it. No matter how daunting, Seshadri always knew he was a poet, “I don’t write poetry to survive. But then, would I survive if I didn’t write poetry?” he asks. Now, with more success than most poets dare to dream of, he tells Darshana Ramdev of a new longing to return to Bengaluru, to his roots and the “warmth” that only home can bring.

It was the year 1990 and the train from Bhopal rumbled slowly into Bengaluru. He was home at last, filled with longing to hear people chatter in Kannada, like he remembered from when he was a child. To his surprise, he was greeted by a volley of Punjabi. This was a greater assault than one might imagine, for Seshadri had arrived, somewhat disillusioned, after four months in Lahore.

"I was young, young enough to think it was important to know politics," he smiles, basking in the afternoon sun at the lawns of the Lalit Ashok, to watch his friend, Ranjit Hoskote, take the stage at the Bangalore Literature Festival. The session that preceded it, #metoo, had run over time but Seshadri doesn't seem to mind as he takes in his surroundings with a mixture of fascination and the unmistakable solace of being home. "This is really nice, there are so many different people here now.  There was a time when it bothered me, you know, that people from outside were taking over my city!"

Seshadri left his childhood home in Malleswaram when he was five, moving to Ohio where his father was a professor of Chemistry. The word 'Cosmopolitan' was bandied about a lot less in those days leaving Seshadri to assume his role as the outsider. "I was racially isolated, yes. I was the only Indian in a sea of white and we were not very welcome, either." It lent him, he says, a certain precociousness for there was little else to do save from hiding away in a quiet corner with a book. "I was lost in my own mind, daydreaming all the time," he remarks. "I was an outsider. But all artists are, in a way."

The Pulitzer Prize, which ranks rather high on the desi barometer of accomplishment, brought Seshadri a newfound tidal wave of love and affection from India in 2014, when he was declared the winner in the Poetry category for 3 sections. In the United States, however, fame over a decade earlier, came through tragedy: The catastrophe that was 9/11. That was when his poem, The Disappearances, written in response to his memories of John F Kennedy, made it to the New Yorker.  

The itch to write began when he was about 16, when the Confessional School of poetry found the spotlight in America. Poets like Walt Whitman and Robert Lowell, the Pulitzer-prize winning 'Boston Brahmin', moved away from odes to springtime, bringing poetry into the darker, more murky regions of humanness. "It was an expression of the self where a society was in crisis," Seshadri remarks. "It was the Vietnam era, so the poems had elements of existentialism and politics, poets like Lowell laid themselves bare, speaking of their own suffering."

By the age of 20, he had turned his attention to prose. "I was writing a novel," he volunteers. "It got bigger and bigger but it was a failed project. That's often the case with writers, isn't it? There are more failures than successes." In the aftermath of this, he turned to poetry. It was a fortuitous twist of fate, perhaps, for Seshadri had always known, deep down, that his heart lay with poetry. "I'm a connoisseur of prose in the same way that I'm a connoisseur of music, it doesn't mean I would pick up a violin," he says.

He has come a long, long way since his brief tryst with politics, which came with an unpleasant aftertaste. "When I came to India, I wanted to learn about her history and the Partition is the country's greatest tragedy," he recalls, nearly drowned out by the hum of visitors crowding around the stage. He studied Persian and Urdu and set off to Lahore, where he was to spend a year in study. "I came back in four months," he says. "It was a hopeless place. The violence there was never going to end and everything else shaped itself around it. I didn't want to see that."

The #metoo debate rages on the mainstage and talk turns to the preoccupation with identity. That one doesn't want to be reduced to one's gender or religion is a sentiment he understands all too well. "Of course, we're immortal beings," he says.   

Seshadri, may shrug off the idea of being a philosophical poet  but it would be unfair to deny that his poems are infused with a certain spirituality, a surrender to the cosmic forces and the seeming irrationality of the universe. It's an image-driven approach he learned through Whitman's work. "Identity is a given, it's what you start with," he says. "But a poem is not the material, it's something transcendent. The artist makes the particular universal and the universal particular, that is his duty. That particularity, though, comes from identity."

A fan comes up to say hello and Seshadri, a patient raconteur, obliges, describing his process of writing poetry and of being the outsider, always. Faced with the obvious question: It's hard to survive off poetry, why do it, he says, "I don't write for the market. I don't even write for me. I write for the poem." There comes a time in every artist's life when he must be worldly-wise, for nature is unforgiving and a man must eat. "I wrote a lot of essays and articles, which are more in demand than poetry. That helped me meet people who could help with the latter. Poetry was always the driving force."  

Seshadri, like any great poet, is a self-contained man, spending his two days in the city engrossed in very quiet, apparently serious conversations in the authors' lounge. 'Shy', 'introverted', 'dreamer' – these are more or less expected from a poet although he says, "I'm less shy now than I used to be. "I'm still a solitary person although that's changing too, as I grow older. I find I can't tolerate those long periods of solitude like I did when I was younger. Now I crave contact. Maybe I fell the coldness of death coming on and when it does, you want to warm yourself in the presence of other people. There is something divine about this but at the same time, you want to huddle up."

Troubling thoughts, no doubt, and Seshadri greets them with a smile. "I like Bangalore," he says. "I have family here and so much history. It's nice and warm. People have been really nice to me since I won the Pulitzer!" The man of metaphysics, literature and art, constantly scanning the world around him for inspiration – "The world is full of poems, you just have to learn to spot them " -  but his mischievous twinkle is the pleasantest surprise of all.

He laughs at the idea that a Padma Shri might not have won as many Indian hearts, saying, "Well, I really do think they should give me one!"

We agree!.



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