Updated: Feb 9, 2022
When I first met her virtually the previous year in 2019, I had a chance to talk to her over a phone, and the moment I heard her voice coming from across the other side, her guffaws and effortlessness in connecting with me as a newcomer made me understand in that stance that she is a person who is not only rooted to her grounds but also more accepting and supportive to the newcomers. And as destiny had planned, my work gave me the opportunity to meet her in person the same year and my assessments turned out not only to be correct about her but more than that I saw a sweet, buoyant, full of knowledge, the most plausible scholar whose company was so much more assuring and warm towards me and those around her.
Nonetheless, within this period of being connected to her I not only came to know about her various books and her literary works, still yet to understand her journey better into the literature world and to know her more as a person I desired to do this exclusive interview of hers, which got fulfilled as she took out time from her busy schedule and was happy to do it with me.
Dr. Santosh Bakaya is not only a brilliant writer, poet, and author but the recipient of many national and international awards. An academic - poet -essayist- novelist - biographer – editor -Ted Speaker – creative-writing mentor, Dr. Santosh Bakaya has been internationally acclaimed for her Poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi, [Ballad of Bapu]. Her Ted Talk on The Myth of Writers Block is very popular in creative writing Circles.
Some of her books are:
Where are the Lilacs? [Poetry]
Under the Apple Boughs [Poetry] Songs of Belligerence [Poetry].
Flights from my Terrace [Essays]
A Skyful of Balloons [Novella]
Bring out the tall Tales [Short stories with Avijit Sarkar]
Only in Darkness can you see the Stars [a Biography of Martin Luther King Jr]
She runs a very popular column Morning Meanderings in Learning and Creativity.com. Her International Reuel award winning long, narrative hundred page poem, Oh Hark! is about to hit the market in a new form with illustrations by Avijit Sarkar.
CC. Let’s talk about your book, ‘A Skyful of Balloons’. Why did you choose this name of the book, as after reading it, I noticed that the title did not symbolize the content or the story in any way?
Santosh. Well, I have always been a very positive person, perennially looking at the bright side of things. A Skyful of Balloons is symbolic of colors – vibrant and bright. The protagonist Preeti, if you remember, is an artist, madly in love with colors. Due to the vicissitudes in her life, at one stage of her life, she becomes detached from colors. The cover is symbolic of a transfusion of bright hues in her life which had suddenly lost all brightness and flamboyance and had become mundane, sad and colorless.
CC. I know that you have a doctorate in Political Science, but your literary works are mostly influenced by English literature and we see the clear dominance of fiction, prose and poetic form in your writings. How did the transition happen or why didn’t you choose to read literature instead?
Santosh. Well, I have always been a student of literature right from school. Even now, I am forever immersed in literature. One does not need to have a degree in literature to be a student of literature. My father was the head of the English department in Rajasthan University, and an idealist to the core, he did not want me to do my post-graduation in English, afraid that if I topped the university, allegations of nepotism would be leveled against him.
I had read all the classics by the time I had left school, reading some of Dickens’ novels thrice, and not one book in my father’s massive library went undiscussed in our house. Since my father had a doctorate in the Dramatic Monologues of Robert Browning, Browning also figured a lot in his discussions. And of course, I studied literature in Honours.
CC. About your book ‘Ballad of Bapu’ which is a national bestseller. How much time did it take to write the book in aabba rhyme [Limerick] scheme? Why did you prefer to write it in verses instead of prose?
Santosh. It was the result of a challenge thrown by one of my M Phil students, who claimed to be a poet. “Why don’t you write a poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi? We are fed up with prose – I know you are a poet too …Do try, madam …” that set me thinking.
Right from school, I had been fascinated by the limericks of Edward Lear – [rhyme scheme, a a b b a], and had written more than 200 limericks in school, which are still lying somewhere. So, when the idea of writing a poetic biography of Bapu crept into my mind, the thought of writing the biography in the rhyme scheme of limericks, also took birth, because I was very comfortable with the form. Initially, the idea looked far- fetched, but soon it started getting sure-footedness. I wrote it in sporadic bursts and at one point almost dropped the idea, but it was once again my publisher who egged me on.
CC. Your book O! Hark is a long poem book with illustrations. What was the inspiration behind it?
Santosh. It was written on a lark, there was no inspiration behind it, merely the result of my insane passion for writing, which propelled me on. I used to write these stanzas in a very vibrant Facebook group, The Significant League in the year 2014. Soon readers got hooked on to it, as it was a very spooky, surreal, scary narration with a lot of humor thrown in. The readers were so involved in the poetic narration that at one point when I killed one of the characters, there was such a storm of protest that I had to resurrect him from the dead.
This poem later fetched me the first international Reuel Award for literature , and was published in The Significant Anthology. Now it is coming in a new avatar, with illustrations by the multi- talented genius Avijit Sarkar.
CC. Talking about your birthplace, Kashmir, do you remember any such particular incident that you feel has stayed with you till now? How was it growing up in such a paradise and now living in a completely different land? Do you miss being there?
Santosh. Of course, I will always miss Kashmir till my last breath, although I was neither born there nor did I stay there. I did not grow up there, but yes, I do hail from Kashmir, the land of Sufi saints. My parents were born there, so were a couple of my siblings, but I was born in Agra, UP. It was Kashmir that we always headed for during the summer months and sometimes during winter holidays too.
One incident which seems to have been etched in my mind is our snowman which we had painstakingly built during one such winter vacation. With pieces of walnut branches as arms, dad’s muffler, his old discarded coat, a pair of mittens, two marbles [for eyes] from brother’s marble collection, and a carrot for a nose. It stood in the garden for almost a month, a mute witness to our pranks, and one dazzlingly bright morning, when we peeped through the window, it was not there! It had disappeared from the face of the earth. We raced out to salvage the chunks and pieces of our shattered dream – we got back all the garments, but could locate only one marble, the other was lost.
CC. I know you write in the late hours of the night, but a writer/poet’s mind is never at rest. How do you salt away the thoughts that keep brimming throughout the day?
Santosh. The thoughts are always there, buzzing relentlessly. I write them in my head, where there are different compartments for the storage of my different projects. I also keep a diary handy and have often jotted my runaway thoughts in it during odd midnight hours with a loyal owl on the tree outside keeping me company, cheering me on by its hoots.
CC. Last year, you wrote a biography on Martin Luther King Jr . What kind of research did it involve and how much time did it take you to finish the final draft?
Santosh. Since I was teaching King and Gandhi in my M. Phil classes, I had already done a lot of research and had become hooked on to the topic. It took me two years of sporadic writing to finish the final draft after I had poured over more than 200 books and articles, in the American Centre, Delhi, apart from online reading. Here I would like to mention the impeccable work that Vitasta Publishers have done, and under the constant prodding and timely reminders of my friend cum publisher, Renu Kaul Verma, the book has come out pretty well, enriched with some rare pictures of his India Visit, [February– March 1959], which we managed to get from the American Centre, Delhi. The book has almost completed one year of publication and has received very good reviews.
CC. Talking about your popular column, ‘Morning Meanderings’. They are mostly based on your observation of the mundane things about people, places, and events. Would you agree that this has made you more agile and a great learner of life?
Santosh. I have been a learner all my life, picking up nuggets of wisdom from all around me. Yes, it has definitely made me more agile, and I cannot afford to miss my morning walks, as they give me food for thought which I liberally use in my column in learning and Creativity .com. If I skip writing my morning meanderings, even for a day, there is a barrage of questions from the readers, ‘where is today’s morning meandering?’
Let me quote a few lines from my author’s note of Morning Meanderings, which will soon have a kindle version.
‘Well, every morning has something new to offer, new perspectives, new images, new scenes that spell sheer poetry, shaking us out of our dull, mundane grooves. Many a time I have seen birdwatchers armed with cameras and Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds, spending hours looking for birds, listening to the squirrel’s heartbeats, going into raptures over the royal splendor of the kingfisher, or hunting for the melodious koel trilling, well - hidden in some tree.
Many a time, I have reached the park piercing a blanket of fog, stopped in my tracks to trace the painfully slow journey of a snail, sometimes picking one and placing it out of harm’s reach and eavesdropping on a stranger’s mute soliloquy.
There is such a lot of ugliness, bickering, hostility, resentment, bitterness, petty jealousies, ego tussles, rising lawlessness, and intolerance all around us. An hour of morning walk can rejuvenate and reinvigorate us and make us addicts.
Yes, I am an addict.”
CC. I know you read a lot and there must be many favorites of yours if I have to ask you a few names. But if you have to suggest the aspiring writers read some authors/poets that would hone their skill of writing who would those be?
Santosh. Every writer has something different to offer, if it is the succinct prose of an author that enchants at times, at other times, the lyrical prose of someone else might influence and inspire. Ernest Hemingway’s short, crisp sentences have a charm all their own, so do Dickens’ long, descriptive paragraphs. His characters have always fascinated me, and I keep going back to his books, which make you laugh, cry and introspect. I must have read David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers countless times, and every time I read them, I come across newer insights and find myself doubly enriched.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, published posthumously in 1964, is a scintillating memoir about his struggling, poverty-stricken journalistic days in Paris –1921- 26 , bringing back the vitality of Paris of the 20s. One of his most loved works, it mesmerizes by its brilliance. Written in his terse, lean style, brimming with humor and wit, it is characterized by certain timelessness. We even get to read scathing, unsparing portraiture of fellow writers, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pond, Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce, among others, who were present in Paris then.
I seriously think that this is a book that should be on the shelf of every aspiring writer, if for nothing else, at least for his tips about the craft and style of writing. I am not in the habit of dog-earing books, but there are certain parts in the book which I immediately transferred to memory. He says, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is to write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence and go on from there.”
I am still waiting to pen that one truest sentence. Hope I am able to pen it soon. One has to be a die-hard romantic to enjoy the simple majesty of this memoir. And this, no matter what others say, I confess, is an addiction \ affliction I am not ashamed of.
I have read David Baldacci with the same passion as I have read Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse, and I believe that every writer has something different to offer and aspiring writers should try to read as much as possible – as many writers as possible, and eventually find their own voice.
CC. What kind of role did your parents play in your becoming a writer?
Santosh: My father was himself a very good writer, writing in Urdu, Persian, and English. Although he never asked me to write, I unconsciously picked up his writing habit. In many of my talks\ essays\ interviews, I have mentioned how he flung away my essay on Dickens, which I had written in the tenth standard, saying that it lacked style and that I needed to enrich my vocabulary by reading - reading – reading. So, this is what I did – read – read and read. In fact, in the massive library in our house in the University campus, Jaipur, I read every book that was there – plays, essays, novels, and books of poetry.
My mom had a good command over Hindi and Urdu and she would be very excited when I received a prize in some writing contest, which, needless to say, was, very encouraging. My flights of fancy were never discouraged by them, although none had the least idea that one day I would become a writer because I was a restless brat always up to some prank and forever in and out of escapades.
My mom was very excited whenever a book of mine was launched, and she would be very effusive with her praise and blessings. She was keen to be present for the launch of 'Ballad of Bapu', but she left us the same year that the book was published . The book has been dedicated to her.
It was a pleasure interacting with you. Thanks for this wonderful opportunity. May your magazine go from strength to strength. Here is wishing you all the best for all your future literary endeavors.
The above interview has been conducted by the Founder & Chief Editor of Chrysanthemum Chronicles.