In Conversation with Vivek Sharma

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by R.Y.

A Pushcart-nominated poet who writes in both English and Hindi, Vivek Sharma grew up in Himachal Pradesh (Himalayas, India) and moved to the United States in 2001. His first book of verse, The Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper, was shortlisted for the Muse India Young Writer Award 2011. His work in English has appeared in Atlanta Review, Bateau, Mythium, The Cortland Review, Muse India, and Reading Hour, among others. Vivek Sharma is a student of Thomas Lux—who taught poetry at Sarah Lawrence College for 27 years. Vivek published translations of his teacher’s poems in Lumina’s print journal (Vol. XVIII).  

R.Y., Lumina’s multilingual editor, reached out to Vivek to discuss his writing.

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RY: Tell us about your background.

Vivek Sharma: I was born and raised in the Himalayas, in a state called Himachal Pradesh. My father was a civil servant, and hence, he was transferred to a new location every 3-4 years. This allowed me to live both in the valleys and in the hill stations—as we call them in India. I believe I was never more than a mile away from villages, and all my vacations were spent visiting my grandparents in the villages. I got to know rural life very well, and it has inspired many poems.

My mom was a housewife, entirely focused on the education of my sister and me. I decided to become an academic while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering in Delhi. As an idealistic undergraduate, I wanted to dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge and enjoy the freedom to choose my research areas. I moved to the U.S. in 2001, earned a PhD in polymers, and eventually became a university professor in 2012. 

RY: Tell us about the languages you grew up with. 

VS: My parents sent us to English-medium schools run by missionaries, and I was taught Hindi, my mother tongue, as a second language. We spoke in a fairly advanced level of Hindi at home. My parents didn’t allow us to speak in the local dialect—known as Pahari—for fear that we would have an accent in Hindi and English that could make us sound less educated. They only spoke in dialect with their own parents, or when they were angry at us or each other. 

I’ve studied Sanskrit at school. I come from a family of Sanskrit teachers—a profession that, in modern India, doesn’t get you much value or respect, except in religious ceremonies. I grew up with stories of daridra brahmin, the dirt-poor brahmin or teacher.  

My father is an Anglophile. He loves the English language and had a decent library. I think and write mostly in English because that is the language I’ve spent the most time studying. However, there are many strong feelings that appear only in Hindi, especially when it comes to family relationships. But if I want to reflect on science or philosophy, I am better equipped to do it in English. 

RY: Do you have a feeling of cultural dispossession because of your westernized education? I’m thinking of the “Letter to the Editor” you sent to the Poetry magazine in 2007, in which you mention how Indians access their own heritage through Western literature, how “Pound leads us to Tagore, Eliot to the Upanishads, and Max Muller to ancient texts.” This seems to be a widespread phenomenon among westernized intellectuals in the East. 

VS: You’re hitting the nail on its head. The most important step towards my reconnecting with Indian literature was my meeting with Thomas Lux, who encouraged me to read much more than I used to. On dutifully following his advice, I discovered that many luminaries of Western literature were referring back to Indian books that I was aware of but hadn’t read. After I started reading them consciously and carefully 10 or 15 years ago, I’ve realized that we access our own heritage through a Western lens: exactly as you said. It’s not just a personal loss but a loss for us as a society and a culture. There is a big gap between how we would have perceived ourselves had we gone through an education that would have involved more Hindi and Sanskrit—or more Urdu and Farsi for that matter—and how we actually perceive ourselves by reading everything in English, and by reading texts that give us a very Orientalist viewpoint of India (and the East).

RY: The result is a kind of auto-Orientalism. You start perceiving your own culture the way the West perceives it. 

VS: Yes. The problem is that it is only after you cross a certain threshold in the process of westernization that you start discovering the influence of ancient Indian writings on western writers and philosophers. For example, Panchatantra’s influence on La Fontaine’s fables or the influence of the Upanishads on Schopenhauer. Most of the westernized Indians who haven’t crossed that threshold often completely reject the Indian traditions and languages. After reading a great deal of Western literature, some like me approach the Indian literature with more appreciation, curiosity, and wonder. In my own writing, I began to mine memories of growing up next to those hilly villages. 

Once your writer’s self starts connecting with common people, you realize that their religious faith has always been very strong. To write well about Indian masses, you have to first shed your Western lenses to organically connect with many of the traditions, idiosyncrasies, and customs that are centuries old. You must also realize that not everything written about India by westerners is as unbiased as we are made to believe. When I read Edward Said’s Orientalism a few years ago, every page hit home.

RY: You’re an engineer by training and now serve as assistant professor at the chemical engineering department of the University of Illinois. How did you become a poet? 

VS: Growing up, I was always as interested in poetry and literature as in science and mathematics. I wrote poems all through school and college. My undergrad lecture notes have poems interspersed with engineering calculations and derivations. 

But the major catalyst in my becoming a poet was signing up for Thomas Lux’s poetry workshop at Georgia Tech, in Fall 2005. At our first meeting, he asked me whether I wanted to just write poems to show to my friends and family and be happy that they liked them, or whether I wanted to be a poet. “What was the difference,” I asked him? He said that if I wanted to be a poet, I would need to work on it every day, read a lot, be aware of the tradition in my language. He said that a poet must take responsibility for every poem, every rhythm, every sound, every word choice, and punctuation. I said I wanted to be a poet, and he said, “Okay, we’ll see to it.”  Over the course of the next 2.5 years, we met almost every week. We would work on my poems, and then he usually took me out to lunch. He was very generous, generous to a fault, not only to me but to everybody. I call him my Gurudev, my teacher-god, in reference to the classical Indian model of training in which the student lives with his guru, learns from him, and is treated like a son. 

Working with Gurudev, I realized that if I wanted to be a successful writer in English, I had to figure out how to formulate things in a way that would appeal to both an Indian and an American readership, how to describe something that’s obvious to Indians in a way that wouldn’t bore them and yet make it understandable and exciting for Americans, and vice versa.  I once wrote a ghazal called Your Face that started with: “Captivated I sit here; you have a portrait face. / A thousand tasks await me, can’t get off your face.” When I showed it to Gurudev, he started laughing and asked me what I meant by the second line. I said it meant that the speaker couldn’t forget the face of his beloved. He then explained how an American audience would understand it—with sexual connotations unwarranted in that verse. I then revised it to, “Several tasks await me, can't forsake your face.”  

 RY: Some of your translations of his poems are featured in Lumina’s print journal (Vol. XVIII). How did you decide to translate his poems? 

VS: According to Indian tradition, once the training is complete, the guru asks his disciple to do something in return, and the student is obliged to do whatever he is asked, even if he’s asked to conquer the world. Before I left Georgia Tech, I asked Gurudev Lux to give me a task so that this guru-student relationship would come full circle. He laughed and told me to assign myself a task. I told him that I’ll translate his poems into Hindi, and we’ll publish a book with his poems facing my translations. We dreamt of reciting them together and traveling to India with them. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2017, but I’m still working on that book, that dream. 

RY: Along with humor, poetry is one of the hardest things to translate. How do you approach translating poetry? 

VS: Once I started translating his poems, I asked Gurudev Lux for a suggestion as to how to decide whether a translation is good or apt. He said: “you’re a good poet, I’m going to trust you with that. Just write good poems. Great translations can stand on their own as good poems.” I feel one must get the essence—some internal rhymes and music should naturally arise. I suspect any attempt at word by word translation fails to capture the global picture and feel of the poem. 

RY: What were your challenges as a translator? 

VS: Some of the challenges are the standard ones that arise when you translate between cultures and languages, though others are more specific. Gurudev Lux’s language is very conversational, so there’s a wide range of daily-use words that you can pick for the translation. Whenever you translate something into Hindi, you have to make a choice between Sanskritized Hindi words and Persianized Urdu words. Gurudev Lux taught me that the poems written with sounds and images that appear spontaneously are better than the ones composed after intellectualizing about words and meanings. He taught me to resist the urge to intellectualize, to force rhymes or reasons into the chosen words. I hear his voice while editing my poems and translations. If the first draft contains many Urdu words, I keep them there rather than replace those with Sanskrit synonyms.  

RY: Have you received feedback by people fluent in both Hindi and English? 

VS: Yes. Some Indian readers liked the Hindi translations more than the original English. I think that native Hindi speakers read and connected with the poem more affectionately in their mother tongue. Many of Lux’s poems have that ability to go straight to your heart and squeeze it, like “A Little Tooth” or “It’s the Little Towns I Like.” Poems about your baby daughter losing a tooth or your dad going to work in spite of floods or storms are universal. Arguably, such emotions can be felt most strongly in one’s own mother tongue. 

RY: Let’s move on to your own poetry. How do you see your role as a poet? 

VS: My poems are often related to issues of cultural alienation, Orientalism, and East versus West. Many of my poems have been described as pastoral, village poems. They often quote real letters or phone calls between different generations, cross-conversations between modern India and ancient India, between Westernized education and Eastern philosophies. I try to capture some of the universalities that transcend all these apparent divisions. 

RY: I noticed that there’s a lot of humor in your poems, such as in “The Earth is Like an Onion.” And a lot of warmth. 

VS: I do have poems that are very critical of India or express sadness about the current state of affairs. However, many poems have humor that arises spontaneously when I describe family relationships and conversations. My writings avoid the dysfunctional family model that is popular in American literature. When we talk to each other in my family, a lot of smiling happens naturally. There is little bitterness in my childhood memories. You find humor in my poems because they are inspired by real life. Humor, song, and love are omnipresent in our daily lives, but we don’t often know how to tune in to hear the laughter and the song, or see the majestic display of eternal, joyous, and universal themes in our humdrum existence. 

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Learn more about Vivek Sharma and his work on Twitter and Facebook.

R.Y. is the multilingual editor of Lumina.