sensual stylist and an even more unapologetic campaigner of a set of
ideals that is at odds with the domineering mores of Malayalam’s political
lexicon, Latheesh Mohan’s poetry is characterised by a penchant, bordering
often on the absurd, for the riddles and spectacles of a reckless loneliness.
Described by Balachandran Chullikkad, one of Malayalam’s finest poets, as a
“test pilot of our future poetry”, Latheesh is the author of two groundbreaking
antholgies: Pulp Fiction and Chevikal/
Chembarathikal (Ears/ Shoeflowers).
Latheesh’s blog www.junkiegypsy.blogspot.com has a cult following and an equally raucous set of detractors whose constant gripe is, “what does this poem mean?” His poems are also part of various university curricula.
The stylistic idiom of his ouevre has changed dramatically from an angst ridden rockstar sensibility that marked Pulp Fiction to a more complex, ruminative and almost enigmatic sensibility that characterises Chevikal/Chembarathikal. He holds anarchism and feminism as the two philosophical ideals on which his literature is premised; the fierce anti-Hindutva and anti-CPI(M) traits that define the more explicit facets of his politics being inevitable consequences of this fundamental orientation. The latter in particular is an anomaly in Malayalam where CPI(M) is not just a dominant political party, but also an enforcer of the prevailing hegemonic literary sensibility that it preserves and perpetuates through the massive legion it commands.
Presently pursuing his PhD in Philosophy from I.I.T Delhi, his third collection of poems, KSHA Valikkunna Kuthirakal (Horses that draw KSHA) will be published soon. The poems of this collection reflect yet another stylistic paradigm shift with a more pronounced emphasis on elaborate theatrical settings to stage the verse. Latheesh also writes and performs English poetry.
Latheesh speaks on his poetics and politics.
In your relatively short career, you have carved out a space for yourself on account of the stylistic wizardry of your idiom, for the intensity of angst that you bring to your poems and for an unequivocal commitment to a set of core political ideals. Can you trace the trajectory of your journey?
The trouble with my life started when an upper-caste Hindu lady and a lower-caste Hindu man fell in love 36 years ago. Because they both possessed very high intensity and because the caste system is an oppressive device against all kinds of love, they had no choice but to elope. First they went to Mangalore where I was born in 1982. Being neither emotionally nor financially prepared for a long-trip, they had to soon come back to their native town, Thiruvalla, in central Kerala, where they decided to live for the rest of their lives. They never managed to own land. I spent my entire childhood in rented places—a gypsy in his ancestral town.
My parents were by-products of the anti-endogamy politics that took flight in Kerala in the first half of the 20th century. It’s another matter altogether that they never realised this. They were too poor to know that.
My parents were by-products of the anti-endogamy politics that took flight in Kerala in the first half of the 20th century. It’s another matter altogether that they never realised this. They were too poor to know that. Now I see them as orphans of a social revolution. The anti-endogamy movement created a theoretical base for social change but nobody really cared about cultivating a structure to support its quixotic by-products. Those affected by and who ventured with the theory were branded romantic fools and promptly outcast.
How significant an imprint has this “gypsy-in-hometown” state of being left on Pulp Fiction, your first collection? The idea of home and the torment of leaving the physical manifestation of that idea is a recurring image in many of those poems.
Even though I was born in the Eighties, I got my perspective right only in the Nineties. During vacations my sister and I stayed extensively with the families of our parents. Both families believed in the same mythical gods. But they prayed to different political gods. On the walls of my mother’s house, there hung pictures of Vivekananda, Paramahamsa, etc. But my father’s family had only Narayana Guru’s photo. I think I somehow developed a personal critique of both these systems in my childhood.
My parents had no other option but to force their children to study well. And so they forced me through the ruthlessness of a missionary school where I studied for ten very long years. For a games-loving and rebellious kid, there could not have been a worse hell than a missionary school. When I think about all the hells I have been to, the image of that school appears first. It was not loneliness that I felt, but angst against a system that so viciously prevented even the possibility of a serious friendship.
I started making friends only after 10th standard, mostly in communist circles. I spent almost my entire teenage days with the SFI crowd. But they were terrible. Even though they have relatively better systems of friendship, the nature of their politics is so exclusionary and normative. You must keep in mind that communist society in central Kerala is led primarily by upper-caste Hindus and upper-caste Christians. In my opinion both are preservationists to the core. The moment someone proposes words like ‘change’, ‘freedom’ and ‘free speech’, they go hysterical.
The 90s were full of contradictory streams. On the one hand you had the effects of liberalisation: MTV culture and other light and sound businesses, and on the other hand the emergence of a rabid Hindutva politics. I was stationless at that point. I had lived with and got bored with Hindus, Christians and communists and was already tired. That’s when I decided to hit the road. Leaving home was the biggest risk I took. It was a painful decision too. It is easy for the Siddharthas of this world as they leave behind no hungry souls; for the single male child of a wretched household, it is a cruel decision. It hurts like a needle left on the nerve forever.
In many ways, Pulp Fiction was also a manifesto of sorts for the teen rebel angst of those who grew up in the 90s.
Pulp Fiction, in my opinion, didn’t really succeed in fulfilling its intended objective. I was trying to bypass the obscenely patriarchal framework of modern Malayalam poetry but I couldn’t make it happen in Pulp Fiction. The boy who wrote those poems was pre-occupied with using anger as his primary poetic device. There was too much of it: anger and angst. But Pulp Fiction did work, as you said, like a pop manifesto of teenage poetry. There was a flood of teenage poems after the publication of that particular book. Even now, eight years after publication I see crude imitations of poems from that book. I really don’t know what to make of its aesthetic validity. But I cannot deny that it did offer me a strong foundation from where I could build brick by brick.
Was it a process of arriving at a deeper awareness of your own political philospohy that led you to a poetic world vastly different in its tone and tenor from that of Pulp Fiction’s?
In a sense, yes, though it’s never as simple as it sounds. There was a period when I roamed around south India almost aimlessly for years. Worked in many newspaper offices that paid peanuts, and resigned from more jobs than I committed to. But in that period I found out the three things that would become the binding ideals of my poetry: feminism, anarchism and Dalit politics. Almost all the friends I now have are either artists or feminists or Dalits or anarchists.
Even though I started writing poetry from my early childhood, I think I found my idiom only after I was welcomed by these four groups of people. My poetry—the politics inherent in it—is a by-product of all these structural and situational complications. My poetic thought is pro-feminist/Dalit/anarchist in nature and essentially hates Hindutva, Christianity and the patriarchal and the apologetic Aadhunikatha (“modernity”) idiom that was so dominant in Malayalam poetry in the last decades of the 20th century.
predecessors, the poets of the Puthukavitha movement were
extremely keen on a lucid, very direct, and primarily a minimal style.
It is from them and their style that you seem to have broken away the farthest—in terms of developing an elaborately circuitous narrative language and reclaiming a long lost tradition of philosophising the immediate political context of the poet.
I have followed the Puthukavitha tradition very keenly and many poets from that tradition are close to me. They created, as an immediate response to the rhetorical style of modernism, a language that was clear and precise. But they somehow ended up making that trait a motto of their collective effort. Saying things directly became the norm. And it was followed in a very particular fashion. Over-indulgence in the idea of poetic-democracy somehow forced them to adopt a style that is everyday and devoid of philosophical complications. They also cultivated an ambition to get back to the roots.
Though I was fascinated by their ability to create images that dwell deep, I got bored with the idea of depth. Depth was everything they were chasing. I was interested in the river and rain than in the idea of digging deep. They shied away from philosophical engagement, though they kept the political stream alive in their corpus.
The classical tradition of Malayalam poetry—Narayana Guru, Kumaran Asan, Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, Balamani Amma, etc.—was heavy with philosophical meditation. Also there was a stream in the avant garde tradition—Maythil Radhakrishnan, Kalpatta Narayanan, K. A. Jayaseelan, etc.—which kept its links with philosophy even though they were more into the everyday deliberation compared with the classical meditation. I think close reading of all these people helped me to break with these traditions.
While angst remains a primary subject in all three of your collections, you have moved away from the restlessness of Pulp Fiction to a sort of volatile stillness in Chevikal/Chembarathikal, and from that to a theatrically staged flow of both ideas and rhythm patterns in your recent poems.
I was an avid swimmer in childhood. When I think about childhood, it is about the rivers I think. The idea of flow was ingrained in me that way. The teenage gypsy life further helped to fuse that childhood idea of flow with the Hong Kong-lighting you get from the night life of metros. Then there were all kinds of drugs. These jumbled circumstances led me to formulate a different idea of rhythm after the publication of Pulp Fiction: Rhythm that also takes into consideration the play of light along with the flow of water. A couple of broken love relationships helped to intensify the mixture of colour, flow and freedom. Especially the torment of a long relationship made me think a lot about rhythm and relationships.
One break-up and you are nowhere. All your sense of direction is lost. Down and out one realises that what keeps you going is your ability to form rhythmic repetitive engagement with the other. During those long stream-of-depression and sleepless nights I kept a diary and noted whatever I was thinking about the flow. I think that was the turning point. When I came out of that dark room I had a different poetic style ready. No more boastful, no more down-and-out, but a container of violent flow. From a teenage rebel to a more settled but still violent person who takes the third person seriously as against his previous preoccupation with the melancholic first person.
And then came the Internet.
It was the Internet that gave me time to experiment with form. The political content was already formed but without publishing regularly it was difficult to come up with a unique form or a rhythm-pattern. Internet helped in this regard. My blog in Malayalam had a fair share of readers. Even though the poems I published on it created public uproar—for reasons related to morality and intelligibility—it gave me an audience for whom I could imagine I was creating a new poetic style. The majority of my defenders on the online space were women. It helped to maximise the feminist-side of my poetic intentions.
You have always
been a staunch critic of the celebrated and much
romanticised Malayalam modernity’s poetic and political projects. Could
you elaborate on that?
I have never liked the word modern, especially in the context of Malayalam poetry. It is difficult to create the notion of the modern without presupposing the binary primitive. In my opinion the human condition is static. There is a general tendency to transcend but it is evident that the human animal will never transcend its condition. If the cat is always a cat, the wo/man is always a wo/man.
Modernism is actually a supra-claim that holds the view that technological advancement transcended us from the human condition. It is important to note that western modernism is so closely linked with the advent of the printing press. It’s like claiming, ‘Look, I have developed some technical toys/tools, so I have somehow transcended the condition of my father’.
What I see here is just a clever son branding his father primitive and himself modern. It is easy for the grandson to play the same trick. He proclaims himself post-modern (another illusion of transcendence) and pushes his father (post-primitive) back into the level of primitive. This is a nice game to play but it says more about the father-and-son game and maybe about Id and Ego, if you prefer, than about the basic spatial human situation.
Modern Malayalam poetry was unashamedly tripping on that binary. They positioned themselves over and above everything else by just conceiving the other as primitive. This trend was dominant for over three decades, considering post modernism as an essential part of modern theory based on the rhetoric of rupture. A departure from this trend happened when Dalit poetry arrived in the 90s.
In my opinion, Dalit
poetry is the best thing in recent Malayalam literature. They collectively
claimed the domain of the non-primitive-and-the-non-modern and problematised
the notion of agency. Before Dalit poets, modern poets were speaking for
everyone without really bringing anyone to the stage. They wrote Marxist
poetry, subaltern poetry, feminist poetry, Hindu poetry and the Jesus Christ
superstar stuff without really bringing any character from these areas to the
stage. For the modern poets, women or Dalits were simply issues that demanded
sympathetic engagement. The upper caste Hindu male—the modern poet—stood on the
stage like a solitary crusader and claimed the agency of everyone else.
In that process they also worked as agents who blocked the entry of others onto the stage. Patronage was their bread and butter. And their poetry became
One criticism often levelled against you is regarding the cryptic nature of your poems, some dismissing it as gimmickry masquerading as high art. On the other hand, your style has also spawned a legion of imitators who pay scant attention to the poetics of your idiom.
I understand the poetic activity as a process that aims to create a language for future generations. Poetry is the laboratory where you try out better versions of language for future use. I subscribe to Martin Heidegger’s idea here (only here, only in lit-crit) that postulates ‘everyday language as used up poetry’. When you see future generations as your target audience it’s normal that you have trouble with the current crop. People don’t like the idea that their language is temporal. When you suggest a change in the use of language it is normal that they resist.
I don’t know why my poetry gets imitated in this scale. I was furious at one point. Now I am cool with it as I see people using it as only an entry point. People read you and get into poetic activity and then break away from you. I hope that process of breaking away happens with the people you are mentioning.
What do you think could be the reason for the widespread popularity enjoyed by your poems like “Pala Upamakalil Manjukalam” (Winter in many similes) that engage with sexuality?
My poetic engagement with sexuality is a conscious political act. Malayalam poetry is still driven by a ridiculously regressive code of morality. Even after practising the rhetoric of free sex and stuff like that you get very little poetry on this theme. Usually, you get a lot of things on the idea of sexual frustration and then it gets theorised as sexual poetry. My poems on sexuality are an attempt to cultivate a new language for sexual use. Like a clear language useful for phone sex, language that can be used for foreplay, etc. There is a criminal lack of clear sexual language in Indian languages. The Malayalam that is generally used for sexual needs is either heavy on English or the normal lexicon of sexual language is very male-centric and offensive. It is difficult to change the gender hierarchy without changing the language used for romance and sex. I think that project will be taken forward seriously by the future generations.
You are now writing and performing poetry in English too. Any specific reasons?
There were many attempts to translate my poetry. Many people tried that and I liked none. I tried to translate them myself and then figured out that is not an easy job to do. The rhythm in Malayalam poems is drawn from the images you get in Kerala; in translation it goes up in smoke. If you want to translate the rhythm you need to translate the landscape. This is why I gave up this whole idea of translation and decided to write original poems in English. I had a real struggle with the language in the beginning. I was so deeply involved with the technical details of Malayalam that whenever I tried to reproduce the flow in English I found myself lost in the syntax. I think my English writing started working after I encountered theatre. Two years of performance studies really helped to understand how a language performs, especially English. It also gave me a fair idea of the relationship between page and stage. I really enjoy performing poetry. I hope I will grow in that area.
In times like these when writers like N. S. Madhavan says that the art of 21st century is suicide notes, how would you locate poetry?
N S Madhavan can say anything. I usually don’t care much about what people like him say. But what he did here, terming Rohith Vemula’s suicide note as literature, is cruel. Irrespective of what people like him say, the literature of our times is still literature. Suicide notes are written with blood. One cannot write literature with blood. You don’t produce literature with blood, even if you take romantic metaphors seriously.