By Ila Ananya
Kala Krishnan Ramesh’s first book, He is Honey, Salt and the Most Perfect Grammar, is to me a book about writing poetry. Ramesh begins her preface by saying that the god who lives in her book is Murugan, son to Parvati and Shiva, and known for his playfulness with language. Her poems have something distinctly Tamil about them — Ramesh writes that even though she was born to Malayali parents, she has always felt more comfortable wit Tamil, ever since her father took her to watch Tamil movies as a child. When I talk to her, she tells me that while she can’t read Tamil, she likes to read Tamil poets in translation, and listen to their audio recordings.
I got talking with poet Kala Krishnan Ramesh, who also works at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, where she teaches writing and a module on Indian literature. Here’s what she told us about her first ever book, her writing life and her teaching.
How did the idea for He is Honey, Salt and the Most Perfect Grammar come to you?
There was no idea for the book, it didn’t begin as one. I wrote one poem, another, and then another, but as I was writing, it began to seem important that I write more, and that I put it together. Then I worked on it, and at the same time, an older friend of mine who is a much published author, insisted that if I didn’t do something at this point, he would approach publishers, and he did. He’s been regularly saying for the last 20 years, when you going to publish, when you going to publish. So then I put it together.
How long have you been working on the book?
All together it took me three years, I think. But it was easier, because I wasn’t thinking of a book when I was working, so there was no rush, no hurry.
Is there a reason you chose to write about Murugan?
Murugan is a god that I find more interesting than other gods. Wherever I’ve read of him, or seen him, he has something to do with words going on all the time. Either he’s teasing some poet, or he himself is sitting in judgement over some poem. There are these popular film songs or devotional songs where whenever they talk about language, poetry, and singing, it’s always Murugan who’s in the vicinity. Also, my father is a Murugan devotee, and from when we were very little, we’ve grown up with him.
They’ve been called modern bhakti poems.
Bhakti is a word that the publishers have put to the book, I wasn’t thinking of them as Bhakti poems. They were only poems about Murugan that I wanted very much to write and that I enjoyed writing. I don’t think of bhakti as modern and non-modern, bhakti is bhakti. I guess ‘modern’ would be in terms of the things that are in the poem, like the idea of a publisher.
Then, does calling them bhakti poems work for you?
Left to me I wouldn’t have used the word bhakti there at all, because it’s evident that it is, right? I guess that labelling is part of the whole publishing thing.
I’m curious about this relationship between faith and writing that these poems have. Could you tell me about it?
I’ve come to a point where everything is in terms of words. That sounds pretentious, but I can talk about this without embarrassment now, because I feel that I’m able to translate this into words. In the crucible of these poems, there is that relationship between the poet and the god, and what it implies — faith, or whatever you want to call it. Had I not been able to find the words to put this across, I would’ve been embarrassed, but now I really don’t care. The test for me is in this translation into words. That has to work. I do this all the time; with all my life, there’s a scripting, a constant putting into words.
What about the title for the book?
The title came much, much later. That was an accidental poem, the one that has the title [What His mother said to Him, when He had brooded three days over withholding a word from the poet]. Some poems I had ideas for, like the poems where the poet is talking to the god about being miffed, or where the god is miffed with the poet. Those began with ideas, but this one, like some of the other poems, came out of nowhere and shaped itself. The line just happened. I’m really bad at giving titles; I’ve never titled anything in my life. One of the things I was worried about while writing was the title for the book. But this line came, and it fit.
A lot of the poems are shaped in particular ways. Was it instinctive? Do you have an explanation for the shape of each of these poems?
A lot of it is chance. But one of the things I was trying to do was to somehow see the poem as material. In the poem about the mother that begins with ‘O’ [What her mother said to the new neighbours] for instance, she begins with one thing and then comes down, right? So Murugan sits on top of a hill, so that’s one of the reasons it’s shaped like a hill. But the mother also ends with, ‘Let him have it all’. The thing is that the beginning of the poem is the last line. She has to realise that this god wants everything; say let him have it all, and then climb all the way up to the top. That’s what I mean about seeing the poem as material.
These poems are also about writing about writing.
Yes, I think so. I wanted to write about writing because that is my relationship with writing. It’s the thing that bridges, let’s say, my relationship with the god, and my relationship with the world. It comes through the writing, so writing is an important part of this whole whatever you want to call it.
When did you start writing?
When I was 15, I think. A friend of my parent’s asked me to write him a poem; I think he was running a magazine at the time. So I wrote a poem, and god knows why, but it turned out well. So he translated it into Malayalam, and there was a bit of a celebration. But after that I couldn’t write at all, for a very long time. I mean, I was writing, but I was writing rubbish. If you ask my sister, she’ll tell you about this poem in which the first line was, “Roses from my soul”. So that was the general tone of what I was writing for many years. It was agonising, and I sort of struggled, and then in college, when I came to degree, because of all the practice, something began to work. I had teachers who encouraged me — there was one particular teacher called Annie Chandy. She was encouraging; she made me go for poetry competitions which I seemed to win effortlessly. She also told me to get a notebook, in which to put my poems down.
And when was the first time you called yourself a writer?
I’ve called myself a poet for a long time, like 25 years? But with this collection I’ve sort of begun to think of myself as a master poet; I know that I’m good, without false ego.
Do you write every day?
I don’t know, does this come under the category of trade secrets? I do. I write every day, I like to write every day.
Do you have a schedule, a specific time to write?
I wake up really early, so I like to write in the morning. I like the idea of writing at night, but I’m usually very tired.
Are there days when you simply can’t write? Does it bother you?
There are other days when I sit down and one thing sparks off another thing. But there are also days on which there’s nothing happening, and I have no ideas. Then I worry a lot about not being able to write, I worry and I try to work myself into writing. I feel inadequate when I can’t write. Either way it’s a lot of hard work, but I enjoy that work.
How do you get out of not being able to write?
I listen to music, or I go for a walk; sometimes I stay up at night — not sleeping helps. I don’t eat sometimes. I’ve stopped reading a lot too, and that really helps. I don’t read very difficult things, now I find that I don’t have the patience for long books. I like a good thriller, or humour.
Do you show people your work when you’re in the process of writing, or talk to someone about your writing?
This is something I was thinking of. Recently, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, also a poet, was in town. She called me, and we had a conversation. We’ve never met before. I like solitude, but I’m not usually lonely or wanting company, I haven’t registered loneliness except when something is happening, and then you feel lonely. But after this conversation with her [Priya Sarukkai], I felt a very slight lightening. For the first time I realised that I was registering what I call a poet’s loneliness, because I don’t have friends who are poets.
Do you usually begin writing with a sense of what your poem will be about, and what structure it should take?
I have no idea about the structure, but I usually know what the poem is about. But the shape it takes is just its own. Sometimes I’ve worked for months on a poem, finished it, and then found on a revision that the shape and structure need to be changed.
Do you re-work your poems a lot?
Yes, I re-work a lot. There are poems that I’ve reworked over a year, but I also know when a poem is done. Once that happens I just read it later. I’m a careful re-worker. Since I re-work a lot, and I re-work carefully, there are very few poems that I’m unhappy with when I revisit them. That’s because of the amount of work and the nature of work that I put in.
Do you have a lot of poems you’ve just stopped working on because they didn’t work out the way you wanted them to? Does it bother you to let go of them?
I do, but it rarely bothers me. Sometimes it does. It bothers me particularly when I plan a series and can’t finish it. Usually it doesn’t, though, because I try and try.
You also teach writing. Has this affected your writing in any way?
It did affect my writing when I was teaching print. I used to do a bit of freelance journalism, and teaching print affected by writing because I started sounding like a much younger person. So I stopped teaching print. But with other writing this hasn’t happened. I think it helps me stay curious and alert.
What are your writing classes like?
I’m really careful, because I don’t want my students sounding like me. So I don’t usually share my work with them. I think what I am good at, is showing people how to look at their own work to find what’s not working, and also to show them how to re-work. So it’s more about teaching them to rework, rather than a style, or any of those things.
And lastly, do you identify with the poets you are writing about in He is Honey? Are you any of them?
The poets in the first half were a mix. I could see some as men, and some were women. Some of them had my moods, but I don’t think any of them were me, in that sense. In the latter section, there was a lot more identification — with the crazy poet.