Dr. Amitabh Mitra interviewed here by Sue Tordoff of WAH2 online magazine.
Sue: Amitabh, let’s get this out of the way – what exactly is Aviation [or aerospace] Medicine and how did you come to specialise in that?
Amitabh: Aviation Medicine is an aspect of occupational medicine that probes the environment and its interaction with man, whether professional aviator, passenger or a space traveller who may be well or unwell. At first it was a minor branch of medicine, confined to a small group of mainly military doctors with a preponderantly physiological interest. But with rapid strides in Space Sciences, Aviation Medicine or Aerospace Medicine took for a big leap. I did my postgraduation in this discipline from the University of Pretoria. I had a close interest in high altitude medicine having served in high altitude hospitals in Bhutan and India for a long period. The Royal Government of Bhutan awarded me for my work in 'high altitude areas under extreme conditions'.
Sue: Where were you born and who were your parents? Where did you spend your childhood?
Amitabh: I was born in Lucknow, India. My father was a Defense Scientist specialising in Chemistry and my mother studied in Shantiniketan started by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. I grew up in Gwalior where my father worked in the Defense Research Laboratory and the Ministry of Defense. We lived at the foot of the great fort and as a child dreamt of galloping British cavalry officers, beautiful maidens and secret passages, whispers in the dark and forbidden walls.
Sue: Reading your poetry I am impressed by your great love of Gwalior and Delhi. What took you away from them to Bhutan and Africa ?
Amitabh: Gwalior was changing and I could not cling to seasons and its spell.
Sue: Do you present a romanticized idealized view of Gwalior and Delhi, and the women and life in those places? Do you often return there or do you write from memory? Could you go back to live there or would that spoil the romance?
Amitabh: Sue, Gwalior and Delhi happen to be in my poetry because I was lucky to grow up in an environment which has such historical significance. Gwalior is one place which has forts, palaces, havelis, all scattered in architectural decay. The Gwalior, Delhi of the old with its heritage and grandeur finds difficult to keep pace with modern, industrial India. There were princesses and kings, feudal strongholds, love in changing times. Love finds constrained by an era of beliefs and it grew more beautiful in restless images and words.
Yes, I go home to Gwalior, nearly every other year. I often think of going back, streets and summers that grew up with me often beckon me.
Sue: You often seem to use the image of a raindrop or rain – often to beautiful effect as in the poem Far. In India a raindrop can herald the start of the monsoon; what does it mean in your work?
Amitabh: Rain is a respite from the blistering summers in north India, Indian poets have used rain in their love poetry since long.
Example – Another time we meet as strangers/ friends or who knows as lovers again/ Turn, turn, turn to the rain again.
In my Hindi poem on monsoon in Gwalior, I talked about the water streaming down the fort to my home and the gurgling peacocks dancing in our yard after the first rain.
Sue: How did you come to add African rhythms to your poems?
Amitabh: South Africa is the most beautiful country, a rare beauty of vibrant colors, truly a rainbow nation. I am lucky to experience the period of its freedom and basking in a shower of fragrance of its culture and heart beat. South African concepts and themes are slowly trickling in my poetry. It’s natural for African rhythms encompassing my poetry, a blend of both the great cultures and creed.
Sue: You seem to be interested in expanding the effect of the written word using other media – sound on your CD A Slow Train to Gwalior [click here for sample tracks], and currently preparing your exhibition of poems and images using charcoal drawing, collage and screen printing?
Amitabh: You will have to admit that poetry doesn’t sell; poetry on personal tragedies, tsunamis, 9/11 rarely finds a reader. It’s a waste of word craft if I can’t find somebody who can enjoy it. I write love poetry because the feelings are the same, the thread that runs through the golden blue tapestry of the universe is the same. It is the poetry of the university coffee house, it’s the poetry of your first stolen kiss, it is the poetry of your loneliness. It is just to enhance the effect, a poem that you would remember for long.
I have a desire to make a movie based on poetry, dance and music. I still consider film to be the most powerful media for projecting ones creativeness.
Sue: Let’s go back a bit – how did you first start writing and was your first writing also poetry? Did your family support your writing?
Amitabh: Yes, I started by writing only poetry. The 1970s saw a lot of Indian poets writing in English being published by western publishers and the Indo-English Poetry Movement picked up from its confinement. I read the poetry of Arun Kolatkar, Eunice DeSouza, Dom Moraes, Imtiaz Dharkar, Gieve Patel and found myself more and more entranced in the magic of words and imagery. The very idea of a medical doctor writing love poetry has never been palatable to a lot of people.
Sue: Were there any writers, musicians or artists who particularly influenced you? What are your favourite lines of poetry?
Amitabh: Ananda Shankar brought fusion music in India . He experimented with music, dance and poetry. He remains my favourite. Pritish Nandy, poet, translator, filmaker, graphic artist has influenced my poetry. EE Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Erica Jong, I read them again and again. Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, their works are every inch of poetry.
tonight when the sunflower cries
i shall unopen this gypsy love
and ride the midnight river to your eyes
where an autumnal lust will declare
your absence in my skies
from " Riding the Midnight River " – Pritish Nandy
Sue: With your obvious love of romance, the arts and poetry, and with your skills in screen printing and charcoal drawing, what made you choose to become an orthopaedic surgeon instead of something romantic and arty?
Amitabh: Yes, I do love writing love poetry and illustrating my poems but I couldn’t have pursued it as a profession in a developing country. There are times when each of these realms clash causing despair for a while. Medical Science is based on principles and has no place for romanticism and mysticism.
Sue: Do the two sides of your work balance each other out in some way, poetry and medicine?
Amitabh: Yes, I try to balance, its like living two lives together. Medicine is limited, it has an outline. Forever imprisoned within facts and poetry is limitless, a veiled beautiful lady.
Sue: Your poetry is full of light and a kind of joy. Sometimes there are hints of darkness, for example in the poem beginning ‘it was this road’ –
a spiralling dirt road at the edge of madness
that grew into a walled city
hidden by a fatigued fort at the end of a long
this road ran in pages
of musty years
and marauding summers …
Here we have madness and shadows, and transferred epithets – a fatigued fort, musty years and marauding summers, all hinting at darker events or feelings.
And in Old Delhi Days:
where fables had once been
in the lunacy of a crowded
We have strangling and again, lunacy, both dark images transferred on to unsuspecting fables and moments. Are you writing here about what you perceive or perhaps inner turmoil?
Amitabh: It depicts culture and beliefs and a certain period in Maratha history. The Marathas were a warrior clan who ruled Gwalior supported by the British Raj. Love happening in a modern day Gwalior within this heritage has to include the disdain of age old barriers. A stolen kiss in an old palace is run over by a gust of shadows.
Old Delhi was the seat of Mughals, the icon of art and poetry in India , witnessing much of trials and tribulations during the British Raj and the partition to Pakistan. Falling in love in the narrow streets of Old Delhi has the colourful kites soaring in a Friday afternoon of namaz prayers. Forbidden love with a Muslim girl found refuge in subtle glances in jama masjid afternoons………….
Sue: I don’t want to over-analyze your words; sometimes beauty is best left unquestioned. But as a writer I’m always fascinated in what is behind the words. I feel as if you are very much ‘in’ your poetry and yet sometimes I sense you standing back …… do you write from personal experience or observation? or a mixture?
Amitabh: Well, it’s always a heady mixture. I take a lot of inspiration from themes and choreography of Indian films and am provoked to write after reading and hearing Urdu poetry and lyrics. As a teenager I use to attend Urdu Poetry Festivals and Sufi Music interpretation which use to run for days and nights. I remain entranced till today by the beauty of Urdu Poetry. Tansen, the great musician in the court of Emperor Akbar lived in Gwalior, and his mausoleum there is a centre of an annual international music festival. Poetry and Music haunt for days the marble architectecture of Tansen.
Sue: In A Ghazal I’m not sure if the girl existed or if she was just in your imagination, but I felt at the end that the poem was a mixture of fact and imagination. Is this a conscious blend on your part?
Amitabh: Love poetry always needs imagery in an effort to keep the reader close to that feeling. In the end I still believe that there is a Shangri La tucked away somewhere between Burma, China and Tibet and James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon from his personal experiences.
Sue: In much of your writing there is a sort of ‘other worldliness’; do you strive for this or is it a by product of the way you use images?
Amitabh: It’s always imagery, images that rain down on me to strains of a strangertime music, words that make me live everyday, I live for her, the lamp of distant desires still burns everyday……
Sue: You lived a while in Bhutan and wrote about your stay there in Thimpu, and in a prose account of your meeting with a Buddhist monk. Again in this prose account you seem comfortable with and accepting of strange happenings. Would you say you are in touch with the spiritual side of nature and human nature?
Amitabh: Extraordinary things happen all the time. UFO science has reached a point of acceptance and respectability. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s first elected prime minister is a physician poet who speaks only in poetry in a country ravaged with war. A poet is a dreamer and always spiritually inclined.
Sue: In Far [and elsewhere] there’s an almost unbearable tenderness in the last couple of lines:
letting you know of
the quiver in my
Do you consciously strive for this effect or is it again a by-product of the way you instinctively use words?
Amitabh: Distances and quiver will always reign, Yes, I am a secret within this language of quiver she would always know.
Sue: There is also sensuality, as in Aavantika There… This is I think my favourite poem with many allusions and suggestions: the fort at once protective and restrictive, evening and gates both closing in, night with men and animals huddled in heat and madness, and then the sudden change in the emotional level, bringing a sensuous and personal reality, raising the reader and the poem:
Far beyond a jingle of payals and a
swish of blue adorning your breasts
in a corridor
touched by a moonshine
my mouth hunts
riding your breath
How much do you have to work on a poem to achieve this effect? Do you do many re-writes?
Amitabh: Yes, I do have to rewrite, to merge that image in me with exact words. Sometimes I come back after a week to look at it with a different perspective. It’s important that I convey an Indian imagery of an era perfectly to readers reading in English and from out of the subcontinent. It would make the reader think of visiting Gwalior and Old Delhi where they could feel the poems.
Sue: How would you sum up your writing style?
Amitabh: Poetry has come out of closets, it’s no longer an expression revealed only to a lover, recited over coffee stained tables in a university rendezvous or politely discussed in the drawing rooms of the rich and famous. It is much more than that. In fact it is a massive movement of little known poets, artists, musicians, dancers and filmmakers, all for that common aesthetic experience. I look forward for that day when poets will keep offices and employ people who would generate and transform images into words and colour. I would continue writing, penning down words now and then, caught unaware in a sudden onrush of neonworms, in a Hyde Park sidelane, where I saw her wafting in a cloudburstafternoon.
Sue: There’s a well know series of interviews on American TV which always ends with the question “When you get to Heaven, what would you like God to say to you?” – Amitabh, what would you like your God to say to you?
Amitabh: I wish you wrote more of poetry.