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.

Then what happened is I found that from obscure places like a post office in Phulwani I was posting a poem. I was posting a story from Koraput. Those days there was no email or anything, only speed post or ordinary post. My writing has evolved like this. I had nobody to criticise it, or an editor who could advise. Hardly anybody knew me.

There were editors in Calcutta who published me without knowing me or having seen my face ever. So that probably gave me a great deal of freedom because I was out of ‘civilisation’ and it left me free and I had nothing to achieve through writing. That is what made me free from bondage. Writing is one thing in my life from where I have no (material) expectation.

Pure pleasure…

Pure pleasure, this is the only thing I can do. I have mentioned in the Bhumika of this book that children have many ambitions in life, I always wanted to be a writer. So my relationship with my writing is, in a sense, absolute, and it is not based on any kind of result or whatever there is to be gained out of it.

But considering that you began as a child writer with Sandesh, which year did you publish your first piece?

When I was five, in 1961, I composed my first poem. But I could not write then. I could not write full sentences and so I recited the poem, spoke out the poem, my parents wrote it down for me and they sent it to Subhas Mukhopadhyay.

When they revived Sandesh.

Satyajit Ray and Subhas Mukhopadhyay used to edit Sandesh, then. So it was written and sent to him. He wrote a very nice letter to me on a postcard, those days they used to write postcards, and he said that it was a very nice poem, I would have been very happy to publish it but as per policy we only publish articles by those who actually subscribe to Sandesh.

Since you are not a subscriber, I can’t publish it but I hope you grow up to be a writer one day, etc, etc.  The postcard was kept and I continued to write. When I went to school it was published in  the school magazine. In 1968 my elder brother became a subscriber, then one member in the family meant everybody was a subscriber. Then it struck me arre, he (Ray) had told me this, now I could also send contributions.

Dada used to send his poems, short stories, etc, so I started sending my stuff as well. In 1969, my first poem came out in Sandesh. After that I never looked back because I think they pampered me a lot. Whatever I wrote, I used to send to Sandesh and they published everything. I never saw Satyajit Babu, I don’t know why, probably because I was very shy.

You wrote continuously through your BA and your MA.

I used to write poems published in the college magazine, then a little bit here and there in a Little Magazine, but I did not have the drive to go to some magazine’s office and give them what I wrote. I think after my marriage I started writing prose consciously and then gradually started writing poetry and prose together. Work -life has been demanding but it has also allowed me to think the way I do. I have travelled through the country. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed only in Calcutta. Maybe a very different kind of writing would have emerged. People also say that I used names of characters or things which are very difficult for Bengali readers to handle, like I have a lot of Oriya names and Marathi names, of food, and events which makes it very difficult, I think.

You were a student of Economics. You then went on to England.

It was after I joined the Service. We are sent on a sabbatical after some years of service but it had no meaning. I don’t think I was cut out for Economics. I wanted to study English but in our days, children’s opinions didn’t matter. My father was apprehensive that I might  not get a job studying English Literature. He said, why don’t you study Economics? So I took it up.

Surprisingly, in England, where I did my Masters much later, I got a distinction! It doesn’t mean anything, but it helped me to understand certain concepts. Later, for example, I wrote Unnayan-O-Prantik Manush for a group, basically a book on demystification of development in early 2000. So this was maybe my interpretation of formal Economics!

Many seemingly disparate things appear in your stories, not in a didactic way, they are integrated artistically: in the sense of history, in the sense of sociology, and psychology. There are some stories which are very dramatic and there are some which are not…. For example the story Anna, it begins in one way, it meanders into becoming another. It is fully realised.

That means that you like it. When I wrote Anna, my guru, my mentor Bimal Kar was very upset with me. He said, what have you done? Who will read this? Who will read pages and pages of your blending of history and geography? I was very upset, too.

But it was there because there is also characterisation, there is Anna, his wife, their daughter-in-law, Nemi’s friend and his wife. And there is the blind singer.

If you see that place the story is written on, Dharangaon, a small village which was a village even in the early 16th century.  Aurangzeb with his troops passed through in his journey south. It is this dilapidated place, with open drains and skeletons of buildings made of burnt bricks from Aurangzeb’s time. And this is the place where the Bhil revolution took place. I could sense all that in my mind in the quiet hours after work.

You said Bimal Kar did not approve of your writing poetry and fiction side-by-side.

Bimal Kar was a great guardian for me; two things he never liked, one was my not giving up poetry. He said you can’t do two things.  I didn’t agree. And when I used to go on like this, for example, I have a story which is there in Chandan Rekha, Kalprotno Bisho Jol, a man, basically a caretaker in a place which is going to be submerged. He said if you write this kind of thing, I remember I was told by the editor, he would not be able to publish the Sunday page if more and more stories like mine came in. They were supposedly difficult to understand.

I was young then and I would start arguing saying if we find something tough, we don’t give up, we read twice, we read four times to understand. People will also make an effort to read. Why should we always spoon-feed the reader? I have no obligation to my reader that way. If they read fine, if they don’t read, fine, it was their choice.

Two strains in your writing move simultaneously, one a classical strain, and the other experimental. So whether you handle time, for instance in that story about that boy who disappeared and reappears again in the Grand Hotel, Calcutta….there are gaps in the narrative. But not for once does the reader feel, where did this fellow go to all this while.

At the same time I know I’m not a truly experimental writer like many Bengali writers, for example, Nobarun Bhattacharya, a truly, truly, experimental writer.

There is a musicality in the way you frame your sentences, the way you lead one idea to the next.

That I am not very conscious of, and my understanding of music is very basic. I was trained in Rabindra Sangeet and in reading  a lot of Rabindra Sangeet as poems. So in a very simple sense, in the way Bengali families introduce their children to music. And of course later when I grew up I listened to standard classical music like Bach or Beethoven and Mozart, but nothing more than that.

One got the distinct feeling that this meticulousness is more than meticulousness, it is a sense of melody, in your prose. Not many people have that.

No, I think one reason is Bengali is the only language I know, and am confident about my ability to deal with the language. My writing is spontaneous and this is surprising to myself, too. I write everything only once. Even my novels are written in one go, nothing is corrected, rewritten and then sent. Because I have no time, if I have to again modify, change, then it will probably never go.  Once something is written, I can’t look at it. I feel all my fault will come out. So next day I just fold it and send it off.

Poetry I go through drafts a number of times. But prose I am very scared of touching. I feel the entire thing will collapse if I look at it again.

I think writers of the 1950s, Sunil, Shirshendu, and Samaresh Majumdar, because of their monopoly in Desh, the Bandopadhyay group, they overshadowed a lot of people. And they also say things like “after us there is nobody”, which is not correct because they hardly read anything.

When you were growing as a student, that was a difficult, a turbulent political time. Naxals were coming up or had come up… in what way did it affect your thinking or your writing?

I think this is very interesting because when this Naxalite movement just started and Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s time, police was extremely active, I was in school. I remember those days because though we were not actively involved in anything, police used to come at night searching, looking for people. One night we were sleeping and they told my father, we want to search the house. They lifted each one’s quilt to see his/her face, and all those heavy patrol trucks used to move about in the night, and I couldn’t sleep till late. Later when we went to college some of us traditionally, our family, which had migrated from those days from East Pakistan, we were always with the Left, not the Naxalite Left but the establishment Left.

Not the old CPI?

No, CPI(M), my parents were ardent fans of Jyoti Basu. We used to go to Brigade Parade ground to listen to him. So we had a healthy disrespect for the rightist philosophy. Because of this I suppose, student union activities, writing, and the rest would happen. Later, Nandigram happened, and when I was posted in the state, whatever little price I paid, I felt quite thrilled when I wrote to the chief minister of West Bengal on the Nandigram killings.

Like me, many other people protested. I mean, I pushed the whole range. The only reason we did not want to, we thought as voters we would continue with the Left is because the rightist forces ought not come back, that was the great fear. And ultimately when we had to see that the police and the party, they got together in firing on the people, so I think that was the end of the dream. Many of my friends later told me, people who believed in different leftist philosophy, they said why did you have any illusions at all, what did you expect?

It is within your right to be disillusioned. You bounced back, writing of boys and girls who were lost.

Maybe I have seen too much. I have written a novel, Jara Bhalobese Chhilo, in  which  the ethos of the time appears as an epiphany. It was about two children who grew up in the 1970s without any mention of the Naxalite kind. I remember it was severely criticised. How can one, being in the 1970s, write a story so oblivious of the political reality? But that is just another kind of life. Later in Akalbhoodan, I wrote a very personal story of people who got lost. Again this was thought to be not political enough. So not being political enough has been something which has remained with me.

Out of all the people, on the one side you have this boy who wants to model images of Gods and Goddesses.

Pratimashilpi.

But he comes from another caste, he is working on leather. That is one story. Then there are stories of other people.

In fact, I have seen these people from very close quarters because once upon a time I was in Calcutta I was working on the lives of the potters, maati pratima (image-makers in clay), and I came to know these people intimately. Their quietness, the way they work and the way you see their work. Later I wrote a book called Kolkata Pratimashilpi on the lives and livelihood of these marginalised people. Not only Kumhor Toli today, but little localities where these artisans lived in Calcutta, all these came out in the book.

Other things came back to me, especially the search for people who had been completely forgotten. I remember my brother had a teacher who had two sons, both of whom were picked up by police and they never came back. I used to see him, a lonely old man walking alone, lost. It still is so traumatic. There is nobody who will explain why, and where, they had gone. Who was to bring them back safely? This is a personal story that has come in Akalbhoodan, of the people who have lost all that is precious to them.  I remember people actually in the Movement, I don’t think they were very happy, because they feel that I made it very, again, very personalised.

It is strange that you should sacrifice everything for the cause, for the party, which, in a very ironic way, is also what the religionists say.

Individualism has to vanish at one point of time otherwise philosophy does not prosper in that sense. Even religious leaders also say that.

Given the current government situation in India, would you agree that a writer has to be aware of changing times and that they should feature and become an integral part of the work without sacrificing the flow of the narrative?

It is again somehow a question of individual choice. I know my contemporaries, many of them are writing about various things happening but without a single reference to the changing socio-economic reality. If you read those highly successful novels, highly successful stories, you will find they are not rooted anywhere. This is one way of writing.

But I cannot write like that because I am completely rooted in my surroundings. This is my limitation and this is my reality.  So whatever I am seeing it comes in, for example when we talked about the liberation of the early 1990s, which has come in Akalbhoodan, we couldn’t imagine that the advent of capital would be 100 times stronger, 100 times engulfing everything. This kind of thing was not imagined then.

So it is bound to come in my writing and I cannot dissociate myself from these things because I constantly think of whatever is happening. That way I would say that I do have a personal self but my existence in society is seeing whatever is happening. I cannot dissociate myself from it at all, but yes, I have noticed the trend which is becoming very obvious in Bengali now.

Strangely, there is a lot of talk about women’s sexual emancipation, for example, and there are dozens and dozens of things being written, not a single story focuses on the present condition of society. There is not a single word about economic independence of women, that there is a great economic struggle going on in the lives of thousands and thousands of women who have to literally survive. How can I turn my face away from this reality? It is not very pleasant to say this, because then, you are misunderstood by the readers, too. But then I think it is also a conspiracy to understate the economic and social aspect so that you are entertaining in a very different sense. I am not an entertainer.  I don’t have to ‘succeed’ as a writer, either.

You have always written in your mother tongue. Your artistic outlook has been  expressed in your mother tongue. So what is it that every writer writing in a language that is his or her own language, finds in it, while often being fully aware of the wider reach of the English language market?  And, on occasion, also possessing the required fluency in it. What does writing in your own language mean to you?

I think it is as important as breathing, or drinking water, or just being comfortable with your environment. “What shall I do with the market, what will it give me?” I remember once, U R Ananthamoorthy was saying this in an informal discussion in Bangalore.

He said that there are some people who talk about translation, that is, into English; if you translate, you will get so many more readers. He said, “My own mother tongue readers, I have not been able to reach out to them. What shall I do with the translation?”

Essentially it is a feeling of great happiness in the sense that I look at it as a very collective canvas, like when I am born and when I am living in these times, hundreds of Bengali writers with me are writing, as if we are on a long march.  I am travelling with them, and because of my writing in Bengali I have got their company. If I happen to meet a good reader, it is only because of my writing in Bengali today. So I have got my fulfilment.

If somebody wants to translate my work, I am not averse to it but then I renew myself in writing only in the language in which I am most comfortable. I know in English translation from any Indian language, heavy editing sometime becomes necessary.

If you write a book in your mother tongue, then they have to edit it and then you can bring out a book in English. Personally, I find it very synthetic, that process.

Your writings have been translated into English. How do you find them? Are they able to capture what you have written in Bangla?

Well, in a sense, yes; two-three translations that I have seen, like say, Kalpana Bardhan’s, when she brought out Forest Interludes. For me it is not a translation of a Bengali book. She read through hundreds of my short stories, my articles, poetry, essays, and then edited them into a volume. She selected certain pieces, discussed with me and then translated them. That was very rewarding for somebody like me, a very young writer, not known nationally, in any sense.  I learnt a lot from that process.

I don’t know how well the book sold but it got translated into Swedish, later and when in Bangalore it was given to one of the young Swedish poets who decided to translate it. I remember next morning he came down, eyes red from crying, a young boy, he was a boy of 35 or so.  He said I have brought nothing with me, I only have a bottle of honey from Sweden, I want to give it to you to say thank you, and I have agreed, I want to translate this book. So these moments are very important.

Later Nandini also translated my Akalbhoodan into Awakening, I don’t know whether you have seen that. But one of the very interesting translators is Dr Rani Ray who approaches translation very simply.  She has a very free and joyful way of translating. She is one of the first persons to translate my short story, I think Sundar Pottuwa, into English, the story of a potter, chitra shilpi in Odisha into English. That story, later got into German but recently Arunava Sinha has translated this book which is coming out, with 17 of my short stories. I think this is very rewarding for a writer. I am not in a position to judge the a translation because I don’t know English really well, but I also don’t expect that a regional language book or a story is read like a book in English because the fibre is very different. The Indianness is something which cannot be cast in anything. But I have enjoyed the process of translation and working with the translator.

When I am living in these times, hundreds of Bengali writers with me are writing, as if we are on a long march.  I am travelling with them, and because of my writing in Bengali I have got their company. If I happen to meet a good reader, it is only because of my writing in Bengali today

But there are lots of Indians writing in English who write well. For instance, Amitav Ghosh, he writes well, no doubt about it, but I somehow never got any pleasure out of his writing. What do you feel about it?

Actually I would say that my reader in me has really suffered as a result of writing because the way I had to write, first of all I could not stay in Calcutta, most of my time I was out. Secondly by choice, I don’t have a Bengali-speaking ambience at home. My home, we speak all different languages, a little bit of Bengali sometimes. So I had to very possessively guard my Bengali.

What do you speak at home?

A bit of Hindi, Marathi, English. In Odisha we speak Oriya. So the children speak four-five languages. That is good but for a writer it can be dangerous because Bengali is such a language that if you dissociate yourself, like many writers who don’t read their contemporaries, after five years you come back to writing, your writing has got jaded. So that way I have to keep myself alive. I read all contemporary writing in Bengali, I take books wherever I travel, I read. So I have kept myself very well nourished in Bengali but my English reading has suffered.

I am not a very well read person beyond whatever little I read or still read like maybe Maugham or Tolstoy or Chekov, again the classical. I am not a reader of bestselling books because I have to preserve myself very carefully. Whatever little I have got left, I still have a 12-hour work day. And after that whatever strength I have got, I have to think of writing, because thinking is important.  So I do not give much to reading things that I don’t enjoy.

But, then, as a writer I don’t have to really think of the market, because what shall I do with it? I don’t have anything to achieve in life that way. I am not a very ambitious person.

If you have maybe just four or five good readers who understand you, I think a writer’s work is done.