He had me at “Grant me the strength to look at you”. It was the most memorable line I’d found from his work while prepping for this interview – more so because it was the one I’d secretly fought against. Surely he was asking for the wrong thing – surely he meant to ask for strength to look away! I mentioned this to him over our first phone conversation (“You have a way of exciting an old man’s ego!”), as we planned my visit to his expansive home library, composed of more than 7000 books. Walking into the dentist’s clinic, he signed off saying I needed more Janis Joplin and Osip Mandelstam in my life.
Walking up to his home, I murmured things to remember if they were to come up in conversation; Prabodh Parikh – Gujarati poet – film curator – short fiction writer – visual artist – Buddhist philosophy – modernity – “intoxicated by imaginary homelands” – veritable jazz collection, and so on. The moment I entered, however, I realised the futility of preparing “talking points” when conversing with such a person.
Our conversations began with a quiet, unusual proclamation – “I’m good at buying books” – and then traipsed behind boiled-over filter coffees, Rabindra Sangeet sung in elevators on our way out for sabzi-buying errands (“I’ll bet Arundhathi and Sitanshu never had you accompany them to buy raw bananas and yams! But what can I do – my daughter comes home tomorrow and she loves undhyu!”), freshly fried muthiyas, and spontaneous performances of ‘Love After Love’ (made more special after his story about chancing upon a signed Derek Walcott poetry anthology at a second-hand book cart in New York in his 20s) as we walked through rooms wallpapered with bookshelves. Every utterance he spoke seemed to carry the hallmark of phrases from books I haven’t yet read, books that he desperately wants us all to be at talking terms with…
“You’re a young boy from a one-and-a-half-room Kalbadevi chawl – and you’re buying books. Your father says, ‘You are one of four brothers, with one drawer to call your own. Where will you keep them?’ In 1970, for an Indian boy with no money, book-buying meant adventure, hardship, risk. I used to steal books from J. B. Petit library near Khadi Bhandaar. After I moved to America to study, my father returned the whole lot of them, with a letter of apology. That is part of being in love. You do things which are not permissible.
Beginning an obsession is romantic; sustaining it is what makes it significant. Engaging with books is a sensitising experience. This sensitivity comes from learning to read well, converse well, listen well. And yet, I cannot think of myself as a collector – they tend to go after first editions and rare books. I belong to the breed of my Calcutta book-loving friends, who make Rs. 500 and have to spend Rs. 495 on buying books, because they yearn to inhabit those worlds.”
“I wish I could be 16 and tell people about the books I love. I’d focus more and share with nuances – without sounding pedantic! – what I cherish with the world. I’m a cultivated soft target – at ease with the world, and yet often left feeling alienated, scattered, chaotic. I read well, I read little. I listen to Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ every day. Eliot was an imperialist, a conservative, a Catholic. I am not these things, but I listen to him and am at peace.
I was reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s ‘Hope Against Hope’ in line outside HDFC bank the other day – it’s the true memoir on the life of a poet sentenced to death for writing a poem on Stalin in the 20th century. Do I owe it to the world to share this, or do I stay with this rich complexity within myself?
Once, when the social reformer and teacher G. Ramachandran was talking to Gandhi, he accused the latter of being an arasik – someone who isn’t a connoisseur of the arts. Gandhi was in a hospital then, and just as Ramachandran was going to make him listen to some music, Gandhi asked all the other patients and doctors if they wanted to listen too. His enjoyment was not above the concerns of others. How can anyone be more of a rasik than he was in that moment?
I have five saints. They are John Cage, Mandelstam, Kafka, Beckett and Simone Weil. Always be with the best minds. Struggle with them. Start by reading Susan Griffith. Forget everything else I have said.”
“Simone Weil – a demanding young Frenchwoman – is uncompromisingly seeking a god. She knows grace. She recognises the absence of it more than its presence. When I read her, I don’t understand half of what she says – I clutch my head! – but if I didn’t, I’d be the lesser for it. I try to remember that there is Milan Kundera in a gesture of putting chandan on your god’s forehead.”
“There is something crucial to understand – not if you’re a Buddhist, but if you aren’t one – and it’s that we all have limited potential and unlimited ways of exploring ourselves. And so we must be gentle with ourselves. As Eliot wrote, it’s not about the competition, but a fight to recover what has been lost.
Gandhi believed that saying ‘Ram Ram’ fixed illnesses. He could be stubborn and irrational. In being that, he brought out the neurosis of everyone on the planet.”
“John Cage says that the evidence of love you can give to another is getting out of their way. He only writes aphorisms, chhoti chhoti baatein. He says that he has nothing to say, and he says it. That is poetry. Beckett says that he has nothing to say, that there is a compulsion to say, a desire to say, and finally a failure to say.
Poetry is resolved. A poet is unresolved. For me, skills come from the window and leave at the door. I just happened to be in Mumbai reading Mandelstam. I could be in Paris reading Tagore while visiting the Sorbonne, weeping. Did you hear the Oxford Word-of-the-Year? It’s “post-truth”. Humans are always looking for ways to entertain themselves, it’s too funny.”
“The best poets deal with life using language. The best suffering human beings deal with themselves. Poetry doesn’t give you anything; you have to take it. I cannot overcome Tagore. I reinvent him all the time for myself. I wish to get rid of rhetoric and deconstruct everything. But if I give up my rhetoric, what am I left with?
I’ve been obsessed with a line for a while, and it is this – ‘I have a yearning for world culture’. Except I’d replace the word ‘yearning’ with ‘homesickness’. It’s a hopeless idea – how can I ever be at home in a place that doesn’t serve undhyu? Being a parivrajak – being homeless, and thus truly free – is a Buddhist notion, but I don’t know how I’d achieve it. You and I would wander away to Paris – I love that city, it doesn’t cease to fascinate me – and end up building a home there too! We are yet to find a way to be homeless.”
“What is this obsession with an African American expression of art? What does a Gujarati boy from Kalbadevi have to do with jazz? It defined me differently from all the other Gujaratis of my world. I read Sartre, listened to jazz, fantasised about Paris – and waited in line with ten others to use the bathroom of my chawl. Fifty years of listening to jazz began by winning J. J. Johnson and John Coltrane records while gambling with college boys in my late teens.”
“Looking closely at the unexamined parts of you and finding a collision of different poetics – vispot – can make you have a nervous breakdown… or it can allow you a dialectic where fresh permutations happen. The Dravidians and Aryans collided, and this could have destroyed both, but instead created the Indian civilisation.
Yet, we don’t survive like John Cage. We survive half-heartedly. We compromise on dreaming, relationships, visions, risks, calculations, and dealings. I once asked the Dalai Lama – ‘Can you have two lives in one life?’ He took his time, and then retorted, ‘Yes, if you have two brains!’
I constantly suffer from this feeling that I am not equipped. Some of us lead half-hearted lives because we don’t equip ourselves with resources. Is this inevitable? The poet in me says – no! It’s not inevitable.
Fight it, because living half heartedly means giving up enchantment.”
Interviewed and photographed by Tanvi Shah.
Prabodh Parikh is set to regale us with memories, musings and map-less journeys at his Mumbai Local session ‘A Homeland without a Name: Journeys through poetry’ on Dec 11 (Sun) at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, 5 pm. How do we define a homeland? Someplace we grew up in? Someplace we find a part of ourselves in? Someplace that feels familiar and evokes love? What if there are many places that make us feel this way, even if we have never been there? Prabodh will have us traverse many homelands with his poetry while acquainting us with his anchors.
This session is part of Junoon‘s Mumbai Local series, and is free and open for all.
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