Interview: Sukrita Paul Kumar

‘A writer first, then a father’

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Sukrita Paul Kumar. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Joginder Paul, a 2010 picture. Photo: S. Subramanium

Interview with the noted author-poet Sukrita Paul Kumar.

THERE are many layers to the poet-author-painter Sukrita Paul Kumar. For old-timers, she is the daughter of the illustrious Urdu short-story writer Joginder Paul, who passed away on April 22. For those who are involved in the world of translations, she is an honest translator, one who keeps the soul of a story or a poem intact. For those who frequent the rarefied world of art, her work is notable for its remarkable affinity to nature. For those who like their poems short and not necessarily sweet, she comes up with some unputdownable stuff. Sukrita Paul Kumar notched up a first to her name when Vani Prakashan launched the companion volumes of her Dream Catcher and the small book titled Behind the Poems at the same time. Yes, Sukrita Paul Kumar wears many hats with ease.

Then, fate decided to deal her a new hand. Her father, a much-admired part of the Progressive Writers Movement, lost his battle with a prolonged illness. While it left a vacuum in her life, it also left the world of Urdu literature much poorer. “A writer first, then a father,” she said of her father. After the generation of Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi, Paul was an icon along with the likes of Intizar Hussain and Qurratulain Hyder. But the loss of, first, Qurratulain Hyder, then Intizar Hussain and now Paul means that the generation who saw Partition at close quarters is lost to us. In this interview, Sukrita Paul Kumar told Frontline about her father’s contribution to the world of Urdu short stories, the effect of Partition on him, and his ability to use long silences, often termed understatements. She also explained how Paul, who taught English for a living and spoke Punjabi at home, was able to express himself best in Urdu. Excerpts:

As a daughter, how would you assess the contribution of Joginder Paul to the world of Urdu short stories?

For as long back as I can remember, I have known this man, Joginder Paul, as a writer, someone who suffered acute creative pangs, agonised over long periods over writing stories and also one who savoured moments of frenzy at the completion of each of his stories. A writer first and then a father! All his professional preoccupations as a teacher, an education officer in Kenya, a professor and the principal of a college in India were secondary to him, even though he performed all those roles passionately. His ardent commitment to life came from his deep commitment to writing. He lived literature, taught literature and breathed literature.

I say all this to highlight the quality of his engagement with fiction; he was a very genuine writer, one who never associated the idea of writing with fame or any gain in mind.

As far as his contribution to Urdu short stories goes, I believe after the generation of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander he stood tall as one of the leading Urdu writers, dismissing old forms and ideas and capturing contemporary times with new perspectives.

I think he, with Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Hussain, Ram Lal, Surendra Prakash and some others, demolished stereotypes and reinvented both modernity and progressivism in Urdu literature. His short short stories [ afsaance] are extraordinary in their brevity, sensitivity and impact.

Partition affected different writers differently. For instance, one can see Saadat Hasan Manto’s searing intensity and Krishan Chander’s candid expression of pain and sorrow. How would you assess Paul’s handling of Partition as a writer?

As in the case of many other writers, he too did not write “Partition stories” for a long time, nearly three decades, after the experience of Partition. What seems to have dominated his mind the most was perhaps the experience of being a refugee; 1947 meant “leaving home” forever. I don’t think he ever found home again…. His spirit of alienation, deep pathos and indeed compassion (he always said suffering and poverty taught him that) kept translating into short stories. It was only in the eighties and nineties that he directly wrote “Partition stories”. “Dariyaon Pyas”, “Dera Baba Nanak” and “Fakhtaein” are stories that are reminiscent of delicate but charged moments and memories of the past carried from one side of the border to the other. For Deewane Maulavi Sahib of his well-known novel Khwabro [ Sleepwalkers in English], it was best to remain couched in his “madness”, to be totally oblivious to Partition, just to be able to continue living. Deeply experiential yet not merely subjective truths of Partition are interspersed in these writings that portray anguished displacement.

Understatement was a constant companion in the works of your father. At the same time, he could be brutal in his assessment of literary trends around him. How do you explain these two seemingly opposite strands?

I think the deeper his sense of involvement in writing, the greater the meaning in every word he used. He used to be very brutal with himself and his writings. I remember how he tore up the entire manuscript of a novel he had written because it sounded inauthentic to him. The search for authenticity led him to be brutal or “cruel” to any writing that he found “unconvincing”, his own or that of another. But then, he knew he needed to be extremely gentle with his characters… he had to let them have their autonomy by eliminating his own self! As far as understatement goes, I won’t call it that. I think his effort was to create meaningful silences around words, phrases, metaphors.

He earned his bread and butter as a teacher of English. His mother tongue was Punjabi. Yet he chose to write in Urdu.

But it was literature all the way! English literature took him to literatures translated from many languages. He was very fond of French literature. And teaching English really grounded him further in literature, the learning of which, I think, he brought to his writing. As for Punjabi, that gave him his roots, his Sialkot carried by his mother who was with him in Kenya throughout. His language of writing had to be Urdu, a language he was schooled in and a language which has a rich literary tradition. Urdu was closer to Punjabi (which he could not read or write) than English. Did he have a choice then? His pen could work itself from the right to the left on the page with greater ease.

For somebody who guided Gulzar to write short stories, Paul never once talked about it with the media. When did you first realise that he shared a special bond with Gulzar?

Gulzar sahab has always venerated my father as a “master” of the art of writing short stories. I have known this since the late nineties which is when my own dialogues with Gulzar sahab on Urdu language, fiction and poetry began. In fact, I have really been a medium between the two! There has been a quiet dense bond between them. Not too much talking but a mutual respect for each other, with Gulzar sahab always looking for a pat on his back from “Bhai sahab”, my father, for any new story.

As Paul’s daughter and a writer and a poet in your own right, what has been the single most important lesson that you have imbibed from him?

To be true to my conviction in writing and action …but, first, to make sure that the conviction is right. No pretension, no hypocritical compromise.

Recently, you had companion books launched at the same time. It was in many ways a first for the world of literature here. Could you please throw some light on them and how they came about?

I think you are talking about Dream Catcher, a volume of my poems, accompanied by a small book entitled Behind the Poems, published by Vani Prakashan. I did want to be self-reflexive about the creative process I engage in while writing poetry, and in this little book I give myself an opportunity to do so. I am very curious to see how they will be received by the readers. In the writing of this small book, I attempted to identify the nature of my creative journey. The companion volume contains poems that are like half-dreams or some as fully dreamt dreams.

You translated Gulzar’s poetry in the past. Do you see yourself as a translator in the days to come?

I really don’t know. I would like to write more and more and also paint more, which is not to say that I will not translate. When I read something compelling I do feel like participating in the creation of that work. Translation helps me do that. I do not plan the nature of my creative ventures too much. Let’s see. All I know is that I have a lot to do. The calling is loud and clear!