Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Merchant of Verses

For him, the world appears the size of a child’s play-board. This is poet Hoshang Merchant for you, who weaves different colours of life in his rhymes that transport you to exotic worlds.

“How can you write a single line unless you first read a thousand books and travel ten thousand miles?” This old Chinese proverb perfectly personifies poet Hoshang Merchant. He is a merchant of verses who brings words from the world of dreams. His words breathe of the many places he has travelled to, be it Iran, Jerusalem or Heidelberg.  With looks of Dumbledore and wit of Walt Whitman he celebrates his poetry.

Hoshang was born in a Zoroastrian family in Bombay. The year of his birth 1947 defines his individuality that he celebrates with élan both in his works and his life. An open gay poet that he is, he used to teach English Literature and Gay Studies in University of Hyderabad. He retired last year. On his would-have-been role as the Director of Poetry Centre that didn’t come up at Golden Threshold, he responds that it’s not necessary that he would be its Director. The VC had casually brought this offer to him on his retirement, and he declined. 

It is more than a love affair that he has with poetry. Poetry has ‘chosen’ him. He is deeply influenced by Buddhism and Sufism. For him these two philosophies flash the light called life, which oscillates between Birth and Death. He avers, “Rhyme, meter and other forms of poetry are the clothes we put on Emptiness which is at the heart of all poetry, out of which we create. All creations come from Nothingness. Buddhism talks of Sunyataa, while Sufism talks of Death: life in another world.” He goes on, “Mohammed, the Prophet said, ‘Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.’ The Sufis picked this up and became the wandering Dervishes. I went around the world and returned like Marco Polo.” In his book ‘Talking to the Djinns’ he writes about Baghdad and Aladdin, and takes his readers to Oriental lands on a flying carpet.

Hoshang denies the role of a poet as Prophet in this world of nuclear threats, terrorism and racism. He says, “The poet is exactly of his time. It’s the others who are behind. So, they have nonsensical terms like ‘avant garde’! The poet picks up the vibes of the times like an antenna. There’s no difference between fact and fiction, except that fiction has to make sense, and poets make that sense.” He wants that the cliques should go. “Bombay isn’t the centre of the universe for Indian English poetry. We need to have more translations and get de-centred from the cities and the universities,” he berates.

For Hoshang the chutneyfication of Indian English literature is not less than a potpourri. He likes the biryanification of the same by Agha Shahid Ali as much as he loves Shobha De’s coinage of Hinglish. A veteran professor that he has been, he takes language as the living thing that grows, “Think of the words Queen Elizabeth’s ships brought to Shakespeare! Why should we be prudish in India?”

He lambasts the nobility of the Nobel Prize, “There’s no nobility in the Nobel or ANY other prize! All prizes are political. Alice Munro won because Canada has not won so far. Whoever heard of Under the Volcano coming out of a Canadian in Mexico? ‘Tagore won because not only was he a great man of nature but also a great man in his society,’ as John Bayley reminded us recently. It would have been impossible otherwise for a ‘Brown’ man to win in 1913. The Nobel Prize for the Chinese Laureate was a slap for Red China!”

He had broken his pen after the death of Whabiz Merchant, his sister and his best friend in 2011. However, he is now re-issuing his Writers Workshop titles as Collected Works in three volumes named Quartet, Quintet and Sextet. He is shipping his own works back to the shores where his readers wait for old and fresh verses to arrive.

The interview appeared in Jagran CityPlus, Hyderabad edition.

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