If the phrase ‘been there, done that’ is said aloud, without making concessions to the force of its clarity or its bon-vivant abandon, then that best describes Pritish Nandy. But his being there and doing that is not fraught with the usual clumsiness of the itinerant busybody. A poet, painter, journalist, columnist, filmmaker and even an MP on a Shiv Sena ticket, he has treaded the world, sometimes softly, sometimes in disagreement with it, that lie between the disquiet of the ‘70s Calcutta and the hullabaloo of millennial Mumbai. But his restless soul has succumbed, time and again, to the allure of poetry, has been teased by words to drift into the unknowable; a fact borne by the classy re-publication of Tonight This Savage Rite (Harper Collins) — a book of love poems by Nandy and Kamala Das, illustrated lavishly by Manu Parekh. Nandy spoke to Sayandeb Chowdhury about his unending search for beauty and love, why he never rests and why he keeps coming back to poetry.

This book is a rare occasion when a prominent publisher has published a book of poems with care and certitude. Will this mark a change in Indian poetry publishing? Or is this just a one-off event to mark two very well known and urbane poets?

I am hoping that more publishers will take a cue from Harper Collins and publish poetry as they did in the seventies — and very successfully. In fact, a few months ago, Rupa brought out a book of my poems called Again. It was a new book of my poems after two decades. It had an incredible launch. Hopefully, if this trend continues, we might see a revival of Indian poetry in English. Not as an esoteric pursuit but as part of mainstream publishing, as it was in the seventies when most of my books of poems appeared.

You published Again after a long time last year. What has changed in Nandy and his muse since his last book of poems in 1981 (The Rainbow Last Night) and his new one? 

Many things. And you will see these changes reflected in my poetry. Since most poetry (and almost all of mine) is autobiographical, it follows one’s life. My life has seen many changes over the past two decades; since 1982 in fact, when I left Calcutta, a city I never wanted to leave. My poetry evokes those changes, it reflects my life and times; like poetry everywhere.

You are a man for all seasons and have seen the world perhaps from many more sides than we associate with a poet or storyteller. Do you still believe in the love of the fantastical, the illuminating, the transcendental kind? Or is it just a poet’s self-fashioning?

For me, love is everything. In life. In poetry. In whatever I do. But no, I don’t fashion love. Love fashions me. It makes me who I am. That is the magic of poetry. It has to be honest, truthful, passionate if it has to work. You can’t fake it like an orgasm. It either happens or it doesn’t.

You have been perhaps the best translator of many of the Modern Masters of Bengali poetry. Anyone you consider talismanic? Like Jibananda Das? Has Bengali poetry of the Kallol, Krittibas or Hungry generation influenced you?

Yes, it has. It was the poetry I grew up with. So it naturally influenced my work even though I was writing in another language. I was lucky. Those were the early days of Indian poetry in English and there was great curiosity about us who wrote in English. What kind of poetry would we write? How different would it be from poetry written in English by those who were born into the language? I think we made a difference. I think we pushed back the frontiers. And that was possible only because we brought our regional sensibilities to our poetry. I was writing English poetry as a Bengali. Kamala Das was writing English poetry as a Malayalee. AK Ramanujan was writing English poetry as a Tamilian settled in the US. Nissim Ezekiel was writing English poetry as a Bene Israeli settled in Bombay of that time. We were all unique, different, special. So was our poetry. None of us wrote like the boring British poets of the seventies. We experimented with language. We were colourful. We did things no one dared to do. That’s what made us different. I always loved Bengali poetry and I still do. That is why I translated so much of it. It was the poetry of my growing up years and it left an indelible impact on my life. I think any literature that can produce poets like Jibanananda Das and my friend Shakti Chattopadhyay has everything to be proud of. They must be two of the greatest poets of the last century. And I think Banalata Sen is one of the finest love poems ever written.

Why did Indian poetry in English fizzle out after the brilliant generation that you belonged to? What happened to it and why?

I moved on to Bombay to become a full-time journalist. There was a clear conflict of interest between my life as a poet and my life as a prolific journalist churning out thousands of words every day. So I chose to abandon poetry. I had no real option. It was a matter of integrity. A poet’s struggle with language is vastly different from a journalist’s pursuit of truth. I made my choice. I have never regretted it. But now that I am no longer a full-time journalist, I have returned to my other passions. I write a weekly column that also appears as a blog and is translated into many languages. I paint. I make movies. I travel all over the world. And yes, I am writing poetry all over again. With two books in quick succession and another one on the way (also from Harper Collins) I am hoping Indian poetry in English will find a new and young audience all over again.

Prof P Lal expired recently. His work in the sphere of Indian Writing in English, especially poetry, is seminal. He published your early work too.

Without Lal and the Writers Workshop, I would have been nothing. Lal discovered me in the truest sense. He persuaded me to publish my first book and gave me the confidence to go out and write many more. I am who I am because of P Lal and the encouragement he gave me when I was barely in my teens. I must have been barely 18 when he brought out my first book, Of Gods & Olives. The very next year he brought out another book, On Either Side of Arrogance. But he was not just my publisher. He was a person I looked up to and admired. Yes, I moved on to other, more mainstream publishers and he discovered many other poets. But I always felt I owed him.

You have been a poet, editor, politician, TV and film producer and in most ventures a pioneer. Is there a search for something? Or is it just a fancy, just a movement from one to the other?

I see my journey through life as one, continuous process. One thing always led to another. It was my way of discovering myself and trying to come to terms with who I was and what I wanted to be. I have loved everything I have done, some well, some not so well. But one thing I know, if I hadn’t done this journey I would have felt incomplete.

In a world increasingly comfortable with straight-jacketing identity, is there a place for a free-floating intellectual?

I did not set out to be a poet or a journalist or a film maker or a politician for that matter. Life took me down a road that had many side alleys that I wanted to discover. Every discovery enriched my life and made me feel more whole. The journey was always exciting, always fulfilling. What more could I have expected? And the truth is: Nothing stays forever, nothing goes forever. I have returned to my poetry. I may return to many other things or I may go ahead and discover new things to do. It’s a bit like love. You can never quite predict where it will take you. But you will surely not shun it because of that unpredictability. In fact, you will embrace its madness and find joy in the adventure.