Anita Agnihotri, a senior IAS officer, she has discharged her professional duties
with as much sincerity and responsibility as she has to her writing. Both her
poetry and prose are distinguished by a delicate but acutely observed response
to nature, genuine commitment to social issues and a love of people who have
faced existential difficulties with dignity and grace.
Your description of
nature, of things, is so graphic, so reminiscent of Bibhutibhushan
Bandhopadhayay and WH Hudson. Surely there must be a reason.
Ekta kaaran (one reason)… lonely childhood, myopia. I was born with a congenital eye problem. I used to spend a lot of time alone. There was a park near our house in south Calcutta, Hazra Park, which was not vandalised or dug up by the metro till then. It was a very nice green park, with some empty cages, so I used to go there from the age of four or five, I used to keep moving alone in the park talking to trees, touching every leaf, then basically watching each and every thing. I think that kind of made me feel some sense of integration I would say with nature and I felt that if I have nobody, no friend or anything, at least there is a companionship with plants, trees and flowers.
I have written about this. I have a novel called Mohuldihar Days, where there is a chapter on this. But I think it is also developed with the kind of literature I read as a child. One is, of course, Bibhutibhushan and then Rabindranath’s short stories. You don’t feel inhibited when you see that there are other writers who draw so much from nature.
Rabindranath’s short stories, those that I have read, and in your stories, there is such a detailed description of flora, fauna, flowers, trees, crops, the season, the angle of light, it is almost like watching a film. It is graphic. That is why I thought of those students of Bibhutibhushan.
And also another thing is, when we were staying in Calcutta, it was in a flat on the second floor and we had virtually no greenery around us. Our only outlet was the terrace in the evening and that too if the owner’s darwan agreed to open the door for us. That man was absolutely miserly.
So we used to request him. He would open the terrace door for us for half an hour or so to see the beautiful sunset. But before we could enjoy the sky turning purple and then dark blue, he would come up and say, “Come, come, come, it is time, I have to lock the door”.
I was compensated adequately in my early service days in Bihar, that was Jharkhand, and later in Odisha. So I felt “My God”, now I can have my fill of nature-watching. I have spent days in Palamo, in Ranchi, in Hazaribagh, later in Odisha, watching the river flow, looking at fields just for the pleasure of it. As a child I was not good at anything, I couldn’t play games, I couldn’t play a musical instrument, so observing and watching was something that came naturally to me.
Reading your stories one gets the feeling that you have the acuteness of a botanist and the sensitivity of a painter. (Bengali) It is almost as if you are equating your characters with natural phenomena.
Yes, you are right, because I felt it is not complete if I don’t see the entire thing, I mean life, the livelihood people earn, the way they live, everything in unison with nature. It is not stated, it cannot be stated analytically, because it comes to me spontaneously. And there is another thing I can tell you because you are a sensitive reader, that I never do plotting in my stories. I start with something and it may end up going somewhere else.
One got the feeling, reading your stories, at least in certain cases, that in the conscious sense, you are not creating characters but they get created in the process of writing. I am only a reader, but I think “organic” would be a fairly accurate description of your work, you are able to create moments, even with gaps in time in the narrative that hold together. How does that happen?
I have never consciously thought of all these things. One thing which happened which explains my genesis as a writer is that I always wrote in isolation. If you see contemporary Bengali writers in Calcutta, which is essentially the seat of writing in Bengali, there is a process involved, people have Addas (sessions of serious literary and political discussions spiced with gossip), they read to each other, then they visit each other’s homes, they have a very close-knit existence with everyday reality. I did not have that. I was first of all an only girl and the youngest child. Then, too early in my life, I could not stay in Calcutta because I had to make a choice. I did not want to teach, so the only option I chose was the civil services, started travelling. I loved meeting people, travelling to places.