A renowned linguist and one of the great Malayalam poets of the modern era, K. A. Jayaseelan’s ouevre is characterised by his trademark juxtapositioning of dense philosophical ruminations and their almost playful rendition. 

Although he started writing in the Seventies, the high period of Malayalam modernism marked by literary works that serenaded political and existential angst, it was in the Nineties that he was recognised as a modern master. For poets of the Nineties seeking a rupture from the politically charged and exclusively anthropocentric aesthetic framework of the modernists, the intriguing idiom and eco-centric sensibilities of Jayaseelan’s poetry had much to offer. Though sporadic in output, Jayaseelan has always been poetically active, and his works have had considerable influence on the later generation of poets. He is widely regarded as a poet’s poet.

Formerly a professor at the Central Institute of Foreign Languages, Hyderabad, Jayaseelan is an exponent of Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar approach in linguistics, and is considered one of the most important contributors to the linguistic study of Dravidian languages.

Jayaseelan here speaks of his experiences and experiments in poetry.


Your work resolutely stayed away from the politically charged tone of Seventies poetry in Malayalam. What were the poetic impulses that led you down that path?

An obsession of my inner life even from a young age was: what is this natural thing that we call ‘life’, i.e., being a living thing, as opposed to dead matter? One of the first things the human infant has to do is the sorting of living things—things that move on their own, things that behave in a certain way when you touch them, things that react to you, e.g. bite you—from inert things, non-living things. In my poem Kadathangal I say that this is our ‘first classification’. I spent my early youth thinking that if I could understand this phenomenon of ‘life’, I will have understood everything. Related to this question was my other obsession: what is this sense of ‘I’ that all living things have (including I believe plants).

Unfortunately, I was a student of literature—specifically English (I read other literatures on my own)—not of biology. So I had to learn biology the hard way, by myself. In the six years I was at Madras Christian College, first as a student of B.A. (Hons.—English) and then as a tutor, I read every book on biology I could lay my hands on in the library, including (by mistake) Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution which is pure philosophy and has little to do with the theory of evolution. I am still an avid reader of authors like Stephen Jay Gould.

But I am wandering far from your question. Society and, as a part of it, politics, were far removed from my world. (Let me confess, I never used to read newspapers until 34 when I got married, and my wife taught me the bad habit.)


How does your poetry envisage a non-human centric view of the world?

As I am so focused on this phenomenon of life, I can see the human condition only as part of the condition of all living things. It is narcissistic to bewail the human condition without extrapolating it to other creatures. What is it that we don’t share with animals? We are born, die, and procreate the same way. We share the same sensations of pleasure and pain. Our salvation in this world can only be a salvation shared with all forms of life. This is why I am out of sympathy with religions that ask you to work for your individual moksha. That cannot be. What difference did the birth of a saviour or of an avatar make to the fish in the sea? Our only way is to immerse ourselves in the sea of life, be a part of it. Get outside yourself. Many of my poems are enactments of doing just that.

The almost scientific rigour of your idiom eschews emotional and melodramatic notes for metaphysical explorations.

What you call the ‘scientific rigour of my idiom’ is an impression created by my insistence that I should say only what I really want to say. It is a matter of being honest—above all with myself. I should say nothing for effect. Don’t pretend to an emotion that you don’t have just because it is a socially approved emotion people expect you to have. In other words, avoid clichéd attitudes and emotions.

Take a word like ‘dreams’ which much (bad) poetry affects. What are dreams? They are a continuation during sleep of the associative story-making activity of the mind that goes on all the time in our waking hours. There is nothing that justifies the emotion the word is charged with. I guess I am a dyed-in-the-wool realist.

A good example of avoiding words charged with emotion is Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by woods on a snowy evening’. There is not a single adjective until the last stanza, which begins: ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep.’ The sudden piling up of adjectives, the relaxation of the poet’s self-restraint, is immensely effective. But the poem immediately returns to its prosaic tone: ‘But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.’

I guess cliché comes into a writer’s language (and thinking) because of a kind of mental laziness, a letting-up of effort and alertness. It is always a temptation, once you have mastered the ‘technique’ of writing poetry, to let the technique carry you along and produce more poetry that has all the stamp of your personal voice. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in one of his letters to his literary friends, spoke of Tennyson’s ‘Parnassian poetry’—because of the ‘high’ tone [after Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses of Greek mythology] Tennyson always kept it up—that was the output of (what we may now call) this auto-pilot method of writing poetry. Hopkins said much of what the poet laureate Tennyson was writing contemporaneously was Parnassian poetry; and he contrasted Tennyson with Shakespeare who never wrote Parnassian.


You have been active as a poet across five decades despite never being prolific. What does longevity mean for a poet? 

Longevity for a poet is a matter of keeping the inner life alive. But how does one do this? A thing that one should not do, a thing that enfeebles one’s inner life, is saying things when you have nothing to say! Doing this repeatedly makes you inwardly tired. Don’t flog a theme that has ceased to excite you just because it was the theme of some of your earlier successful poems. Allow yourself to change. Think of the difference between Aśan’s early poetry, all of which was in Sanskrit meter, and the more relaxed tone of his later poems which were in Malayalam meter. Think of the change of themes: the great early poems were about romantic love, but the later poems had different themes. Or consider the paradigm of change, the early Yeats and the later Yeats, how the poet sheds his romantic image in his middle years and begins to speak with an everyday voice. A writer should have a fine sense of boredom—especially with himself!


On your childhood and youth in Kerala.

In a sense I had a peculiar childhood. I had an older sister but she did not live with us. She was in the house of my aunt (my mother’s younger sister) who had two daughters of her own, so the family thought it would be nice for my sister to go to school with her cousins in Kozhikode (which had better schools). My father also did not live with us during my early childhood. He was a brief-less lawyer in Thrissur, trying to establish a practice (without much success); later he went to Kozhikode, trying to revive my grandfather’s newspaper Mithavaadi (again without success). So my mother and I were by ourselves in a rented house in Feroke, where she had a school teacher’s job; and we had two servants. (Her salary was the family’s only income.) Most of the time I was in the care of servants since I initially refused to go to school; there was an abortive attempt to admit me in class 1, but I cried. I was admitted two years later in class 3.

This first school, ‘Basel Mission School’, had classrooms with thatched roof, mud floor, and no walls—a minimal affair. Two years later I was admitted to my mother’s school, Govt. Ganapath High School. (She was a high school teacher there.) But I was often ill and missed school. I would be alone at home, reading. I learnt English simply by reading. But my favorite reading was a children’s re-telling (in Malayalam) of the Mahabharatha stories. I grew up on those stories. My mental horizon was filled by them. My hero was Arjuna; I would enact his deeds with great noise and vigour, with my improvised bow-and-arrow, under the indulgent eyes of the servants. But to cut a long story short, I was alone most of the time in my childhood. And that was the greatest gift I could have asked for.

When I was in eighth standard or so, my father finally decided to take up a regular job; he became a lecturer in a newly opened college in Feroke, called Farook College. So the family now had two salaries. After finishing school, I did two years of Intermediate at Farook College, and then went to Madras Christian College; this was in 1957. Now that I think of it, after that I have been most of the time outside Kerala, either as a student or working. I came to Kerala only during vacations. The exception was the one year I was a lecturer in St. Thomas’s College, Thrissur, academic year 1964-65. 


Tell us about your Santiniketan days.

They were great days. I was young and the place was unimaginably beautiful. Santiniketan was perhaps the most beautiful university campus in India (I was there from 1966).

I joined as a Ph.D. student in the English department. I was allotted a room in the research scholars’ hostel; but I was determined not to stay there because of my need to be alone. Most of my friends were students of Kalabhavan (the school of fine arts); in fact I had a plan to learn painting simultaneously with my Ph.D., but university rules did not allow it. Together with a painter-friend of mine, Raj Dassani, we rented the large empty house of Abanindranath Tagore called “Aabaash.” (All the heirs of Abanindranath were in different parts of the world and the house had only a caretaker.) 

In this house and its run-to-seed garden, I tried to write poetry and Raj tried to paint. But I guess each of us wanted to be alone—although we were the best of friends. So I moved to another place, the upstairs portion of a house offered for rent. Besides two rooms and a bathroom, this place had a terrace which looked out on open rice fields. Here I was able to perfect—or rather continue—my practice of (the type of) meditation that culminated in poetry.

One of the first things I did after moving into the new place was—with the permission of the house owner—to paint the glass panes of the windows with black paint; I wanted a dark room. Besides light, my other enemy was noise. I remember that to avoid a neighbour playing his radio in the morning, I would sometimes get up at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning! I would lock my front door from the outside and get in through the bathroom door at the side, so any friends—I had a lot of them—who came to visit me would think that I had gone out. Towards the end of my stay in Santiniketan, some of them found out my trick!

I had a kerosene stove on which I made a cup of tea first thing in the morning and hot water for a bath in the winter and a breakfast of oats at 10 o’clock. I ‘emerged’ from my rooms invariably at 12 o’clock, to go to the university mess for lunch. (Of course, I always missed breakfast at the mess.) I desultorily worked on my research topic—I was working on ‘the early poetry of W. B. Yeats’—in the afternoon. In the evening I had to show my face to my supervisor Professor Shree Chandra Sen—which I managed to do most days. That was my routine in Santiniketan during the four years I was there.

(After Professor Sen’s retirement, my new supervisor Professor Sisir Kumar Ghosh threatened to cut off my scholarship—all of `150 per month–because he thought I was simply wasting my time. So I had to hurriedly finish my thesis. This was in 1970.)

Most of the poetry I wrote during those days turned out to be meandering and formless and unfit for publication. But I guess I learnt the art of writing; those years were my apprenticeship years. (You must remember that I was approaching 30 years of age: I was a late bloomer). My two ‘Radha’ poems, Gruhiniyude pattu, and some of the stuff that went into Swapanadasha, had their origin in those days—although these poems were given their final shape later.


Your career as a linguist must have had an influence on your poetry.

Yeats talks about ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’. I guess that got me hooked on theoretical linguistics—the mental challenge of doing difficult science. I had always been interested in science, but my early interest (as I already said) was in biology. Even here, I didn’t do any technical reading, I confined myself to popularisations of biological ideas.

When I came to the Central Institute of English (Hyderabad) as a lecturer in August 1970—I got the job just four months after I submitted my thesis at Viswabharati University; my old time friend P.T. George (from my MCC days) was instrumental in getting me this job—I hadn’t the faintest notion of what linguistics was. On the day I joined, I attended a linguistics lecture by a senior colleague who had just returned from UCLA with a Ph.D. I listened with little comprehension.

When we came out of the lecture, I asked George, “Who is this ‘Tomsky’ that this person was talking about?”

George, embarrassed, quickly shushed me: “It’s not ‘Tomsky’, it’s Chomsky.”

Two years later, in 1972, I was selected for a British Council scholarship and sent to do a one-year ‘M.A. in Linguistics for Language Teaching’ at Lancaster University (UK). This was my introduction to linguistics. One of my teachers was Geoffrey Leech, the semanticist. I did my thesis under his supervision. He was so impressed with my thesis that on his insistence, I was awarded a Distinction in the M.A. program.

Back in Hyderabad in 1973, many important things happened in my personal life. I married my colleague Amritavalli. This was in 1974. Amrit got a scholarship in 1976 to do a Ph.D. in linguistics in Simon Fraser University, Canada. I joined her in 1977, and decided to do a Ph.D. in linguistics myself. This was my real induction into the subject. We were apparently brilliant students: we published papers while we were still graduate students. And we were invited to join the editorial board of the international journal Linguistic Analysis—this was a real feather in our caps, considering that we were still just students.

The fascination of linguistics is two-fold. First, there is the problem-solving part. The challenge of solving a difficult problem that you know several people are trying to solve in different parts of the world is exhilarating. This challenge is what drives researchers in all the different disciplines of science. The second fascination of linguistics is that the Chomskian perspective on the study of the human language faculty makes it a deep science: the promise is that in studying the language faculty, we are in fact studying human cognition.

But with regard to your question about the influence of linguistics on poetry, I must say that there was no influence—except perhaps a habit of using language strictly and thinking things through. But this was already a part of my mental make-up.

I compartmentalised my day between linguistics and poetry. Early morning—the best part of the day—was for meditation and poetry. After breakfast (around 9 o’clock), I would go to my office in the department (we had individual office rooms, providentially) and would either teach or do other work. The exception was vacations; we had one month in winter and two months in summer. These months were spent in my village home in Peringottukara; and here I only wrote poetry. I put linguistics completely out of my mind.


Did your life as a poet have an influence on your linguistics career?

Sensitiveness to language is part of a poet’s initial capital, and that certainly is useful for a linguist.