Dr Mini Alice in conversation with Dr M. Leelavathy: Critic of the Critics

Dr Mini Alice in conversation with Dr M. Leelavathy: Critic of the Critics

in Interview
Published on: 23 December 2020

Dr Mini Alice

Mini Alice is a faculty of the Department of Malayalam at Union Christian College, Aluva. Having gained her PhD from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, her interests lie in the fields of Women’s Studies and Malayalam poetry.

M. Leelavathy in conversation with Mini Alice

Prof. M. Leelavathy (b.1927) is an eminent literary critic, essayist, speaker and teacher of Malayalam language and literature. She taught at various prestigious in the state and has published numerous books while actively participating in the vibrant intellectual discourse in the vernacular around various textual and contextual aspects of literature. Some of her outstanding works on themes as varied as modern and classical poetry, epics, novels, criticism, classical Indian philosophy and biography include Kavitharathi (Pleasure for Poetry), Malayala Kavitha Sahitya Charithram (2011, The History of Malayalam Poetry), Varnaraji (1980, Spectrum of Hues), Kavithayude Vishnulokam, Amruthamashnuthe (1984, May We Eat the Nectar of Immortality), Navakaantham (2012), Balamaniammayude Kavithalokangal (2009, The Poetic Worlds of Balamani Amma), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (2003, Biography of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad), Kavithadhwani (2009, Echo of Poetry). She has won almost every prestigious awards in her field including the Odakkuzhal Award (1978), Kerala and Kendra Sahitya Akademi Awards (1980, 1886 respectively), Lalithambika Antarjanam Award (1999), Vallathol Award (2002), Basheer Award (2005), Guptan Nair Memorial Award (2007) Vayalar Award (2007) and the highest literary prize in Kerala, the Ezhuthachan Award (2010).

Following is the edited transcript of the interview with Dr M. Leelavathy conducted by Dr Mini Alice, Kochi, 2018 (translated from Malayalam).   

Mini Alice (MA): It is rare to find such eminent personalities in Malayalam who excel at both teaching as well as in literary criticism. Dr M. Leelavathy is one of the most distinguished names in this regard. When you left your medical studies and started pursuing literature, how did your family and friends react to it?

M. Leelavathy (ML): I didn’t actually take up medical studies, I only wished to study it. Therefore, I cannot say I left it. It was just a dream. We did not have the financial conditions for that. Though my father was rich, he was not ready to spend on my education. Moreover, I did not even know anything about higher education. It took us a month after my class 10 results was announced to realise that I had come first in the Cochin state—that I was a rank holder. Teachers came home and persuaded my family to send me for further studies. That’s how the idea of higher education came up. Then I joined Maharaja’s college, Kochi, for Intermediate. Science was my optional subject and, so, after completing the intermediate course, I wanted to study science. Medicine was not possible, so the next plan was to go for B.Sc. But our principal, Nambiar sir (Prof. P Sankaran Nambiar), was totally against it. He said I should take up literature instead of science. I took up literature only because of his insistence. Not just that, he also offered to find me a job the next day, if I passed my BA. That was a huge temptation. He almost bullied me into it. That was how I turned to literature.

MA: You began your college education in a pre-independent Kerala. How was the status of educated women then?

ML: There were several educated women in Travancore (one of the princely states in pre-independent Kerala), and also a few in the state of Cochin, but in Malabar, the state of the women’s education was not good at all. Because there were no institutions for them in Malabar. There was the Zamorin’s College in Kozhikode and the Brennen College in Thalassery. From the Thalassery region, those who were extremely keen on getting education would go to Mangalore or Madras. But there were only a very few, especially in the central Malabar region, who could afford this. Northern Malabar was slightly better off as there the people were more forward-thinking. I was the second woman who ever graduated in central Malabar, where I lived. Before me there was only one woman who had chosen a career.

MA: As a woman who embarked on a career, have you ever faced any problems or restraints?

ML: Like Nambiar sir promised, I was able to join the faculty of St. Mary’s College, Thrissur (first women’s college in Kerala). There were no issues. Life was very smooth. Also, in Thrissur people were more progressive. Many people invited me for speeches at school anniversaries, etc. I never felt any discrimination when I worked there. But when I joined the Government College of Victoria in Palakkad, in 1952, the situation changed. There, the people were conservative. For them a woman giving speeches in public functions was unacceptable. So, in Palakkad, I faced disapproval from friends and colleagues as well. Also, there was a daily published from Palakkad in those days called Thaniniram (The Real Shade). They threatened to publicise the ‘secret’ behind my journeys to deliver speeches. It was my mother who stood by me, telling me not to bow down to the harassment. My mother was very progressive in outlook. She was independent and courageous. She said we should not budge before these threats. She was also my first guru in literature. She used to scribble poems in notebooks and I grew interested in literature by reading them.

MA: Could you recall any special memories of your childhood?

ML: The atmosphere in my house was not peaceful. My parents did not get along well from the beginning itself. So, I cannot say my childhood was comfortable. As a girl growing up in a conservative family, I had to face a lack of freedom and plenty of restrictions. But as my mother was progressive thinking, I did not feel the lack of freedom very keenly. My father worked in a school, teaching and managing it. I studied in his school itself. Though I had the freedom to study, life was not peaceful. Moreover, it seemed like my mother was giving birth every year or so. So, I cannot say that my childhood was spent in a happy atmosphere.      

MA: How did you begin to write?

ML: I cannot say really. When I was studying in Maharaja’s College, I used to contribute to the college magazine. Nambiar sir took particular care about that. Aikya Keralam (United Kerala, as in the formation of the state merging the three princely states of Malabar, Kochi and Travancore) was a hot topic for speeches and essays then. Times were such, right? I was in my intermediate during 1945–47. One of my essays won first prize in a state-level competition. That was the first one that got published in the college magazine. It happened quite accidentally. I had written another essay while I was in high school on ‘Kerala Women’s lingual scholarship’. There was a magazine called Balamitram, published from somewhere in the south, I can’t remember from where exactly. I sent this essay to that magazine when I was in class 9. That was my first published essay. This issue of the magazine with my article was read in the class when the Chemistry class was going on. The teacher appreciated me very much after reading it. That was my first experience in literature! Then I did not write anything for some time. Later, after joining the intermediate, I wrote in the college magazine. I was asked to write regularly for the magazine published by the Samasta Kerala Sahitya Parishad. Mahakavi G (G. Sankara Kurup, the recipient of the first Jnanpith Award for literature) was the editor of the magazine. He was also my teacher. He firmly insisted that I had to write in every issue of the magazine. If you check the issues of the Samasta Kerala Sahitya Parishad magazine, published between 1947 and 1951, you would find my article in each of them. They are not included in any of my books. 

MA: What are your memories about your first speech?

ML: The first public speech that I ever gave was when I was working in Thrissur, I guess. Most probably at a function in some school. I don’t remember exactly where. I remember when I was in class 8, I gave a speech for my school anniversary function.  

MA: You have written in Kanneerum Mazhavillum (Tears and Rainbow) that how much ever progress was achieved in science, it cannot erase the rainbow in poetry. When did your special inclination towards poetry began?

ML: Why I wrote the book Poetry and Science is because I came across a work in English titled Science and Poetry by Ifor Evans, and I thought I could carry out a similar analysis in Malayalam as well. I was always interested in science, right. When I was studying for my BA also, I would read popular science a lot. Though I took up literature because of Nambiar sir’s insistence, I could never abandon my passion for science. I read as many popular science books and retained my interest in science.

I used to read books like the Mysterious Universe by Sir James Jeans and The Expanding Universe by Sir Arthur Eddington. When I read the book by Ifor Evans and since I had a general awareness of science, I wanted to analyse the impact science has had on Malayalam literature. That’s how I came to write a series of essays. This was not my first work though. Kanneerum Mazhavillum was a work on elegies. And the quote that you mentioned came not from it but from the book titled Kavithayum Shasthravum (Poetry and Science). There used to be a magazine published from Ernakulam called Thilakam edited by one Vasudevan Pillai. They asked me to write regularly for it, and that was how I wrote this series on poetry and science.

The study on elegies (Kaneerum Mazavillum) was written even before that. We had elegies to study in BA, both Milton’s Lycidas (John Milton) and Shelley’s Adonais (P.B. Shelley). We studied elegies for MA too. We got some study material from Madras University on elegies and I was very much influenced by it. I wrote a series of essays on Western and Malayalam elegies. That was the first series. The first single essay was written in 1951 on G. Sankara Kurups’s Nimisham. It was a review of the poem. The poem was prescribed for the BA course. So, I wrote the article in a manner of explaining it to the students. Kuttikrishna Marar had also written about that poem but he had missed out on its scientific aspects completely. Maybe it was because he was not aware of scientific principles. Marar wrote that G has tried to create a metaphor merging the images of a moment and a butterfly. Metaphorical descriptions have been there always. The idea is that when a moment flies, fluttering its wings, the universe too moves forward with it. Marar considered it just as a metaphor and nothing more than that. I wrote about this in my essay.

Pinnaale thottu thottanngane vannidum mugdha chalanangale

Ningal parathum chirakin nizhalallee njangal than albhuthamaaya vaanam

Moments, when you fly forward, fluttering your wings, the shadow cast by the span of your wings becomes our sky. The spatial-temporal bearing in these lines was a new idea even in science.

Teacher (G) had a grasp of this idea. He had read books like Expanding Universe and Mysterious Universe. Moreover, in our Indian philosophy as well, the term brahmam denotes the expansion of space. It is mentioned in Upanishads like Bruhadaranyakopanishad. The time and space are not separate, the passing of moments is experienced by us as space. Then G writes that the universe itself moves at a tremendous pace due to the wind caused by the fluttering of little wings… The universe propelling forward on the thrust of the minute wings of a moment…?  Marar considered this idea as a preposterous exaggeration.

But G’s imagining is based on the idea of the expanding universe. Our universe is expanding each and every moment. This idea is used in the poem only that the poet has imagined the moment to be a butterfly. This idea of the universe moving at the fluttering of the little wings of time is scientifically correct. I wrote the article elaborating on this idea. It was in March 1951. N.V. Krishna Warrier was the editor of Mathrubhumi. He published the article with some importance. His famous poem Kochuthomman was also published in same issue as G’s poem. The publishing of this article created some momentum in the field of literary criticism, one could say. It was my first article in a mainstream magazine. A rumour circulated that a woman could not write like this. I also heard another story that G himself had made someone write this article. Such accusations were flying around. So, it was my first article. When it came out, G responded very harshly. He angrily said that I did not have the stature to criticise Marar. I did not include it any of my collected volumes later. Also, I stopped writing such articles. If you write about elegies no one has any complaints. All the authors are dead. No one is alive. Also, I am interested in elegies. I had studied Adonais and Lycidas for my BA very well. All the elegies in English are influenced by the Greek tradition of pastoral elegies. I had also done a study of pastoral elegies. It is there in my book titled Paschathya Vilaapa Ganangal (Western Elegies). This series received much appreciation from people. There was no criticism as I was reviewing poets who were no longer alive.

MA: Criticism of the criticism is hardly done in Malayalam. That’s what you have done in a work like Sathyam Shivam Sundaram.

ML: It was done only in Sathyam Shivam Sundaram. I wanted to include all of the five critics who I refer to by the term niroopaka panchakam (five critics). Kesari (Kesari Balakrishna Pillai), Marar (Kuttikrishna Marar), Mundasseri (Joseph Mundasseri), M.P. Paul and Kuttipuzha Krishnapilla. These five were the most eminent critics of the time. In the next generation, I call them collectively as niroopaka shalkam (six critics)—N. Krishna Pillai sir, Prof Guptan Nair, N.V. Krishna Warrier, Dr K.N. Ezhuthachan, Dr M.P. Shankunny Nair, Dr Raghavan Pillai. They were the six critics. If one more person can be included, it would be Dr Bhaskaran Nair. So, these seven critics would come right behind the first five. I wanted to write about each of their works though I didn’t plan it as a single book at first. I had written the essays at different points of time. One of the essays was not included in the collected volume. The essay on M.P. Paul was lost at NBS (NBS Publications).  So, it happened. To safeguard the book was their obligation. The article was with them and they lost it. It was their book. So, it did not come in the book. Also, I had begun writing the essay on M.P. Shankunni Nair but could not finish it. So, two are not there, the rest of the critics are all there in that book. No one knew well about Dr K.N. Ezhuthachan’s works—even today. Kerala Sahitya Akademi has brought out a series of books on movements in literature, and there is hardly any mention of K.N. Ezhuthachan. He was never even accepted and recognised as a critic! What a pathetic condition it is! His criticisms were profoundly reflective. He had a slightly left-leaning approach. He has written appreciations of the Vedas. I have touched on that in Sathyam Shivam Sundaram. He had knowledge in Sanskrit as well as English and he knew the crux of literature. But he did not generate any controversies. He did not make any ruckus. He did not seek fame by critiquing anyone vehemently. His criticisms are well-balanced. I felt it was unfortunate to see the works of such a scholar being ignored. That is why I wrote on his works. Of the 12 critics I mentioned earlier, essays on Paul and Shankunni Nair could not be published. The first one got lost and the second one was not completed.

Later, I also wrote about Sukumar Azhikode who came in the later generation. But I didn’t give my real thoughts about Azhokode’s study of Chinthavishtayaya Sita (poem by Kumaran Asan). Sukumar Azhikode evaluation of the poem is titled Asante Sitakavyam (Asan’s poetry on Sita) in the book. If it was included, people like Kurup sir would create a problem. Later I wrote about some contradictions in Asante Sitakavyam. I have written it clearly in my recent book Bharatha Stree (Indian Woman). How are female epic characters presented in Malayalam literature? That is what the second section of the book deals with. There, I have written about Asan’s Chinthavishtayaya Sita and its studies by P.K. Balakrishnan, Sukumar Azhikode and some scholars before them, also Nithya Chaithanya Yati, and my personal opinions about them. In this work I have frankly talked about the weaknesses of Sukumar Azhikode’s approach to Chinthavishtayaya Sita. This I didn’t do when I first wrote about his works. In that I had only talked about Azhikode’s Thatwamasi and the good aspects of his take on Chinthavishtayaya Sita. In P.K. Balakrishnan’s study on this poem, he says it presents the thoughts that are emerging from Sita’s subconscious mind and not from her conscious mind. But, the poem’s narrative is not like an outburst, rather the thoughts are well-deliberated. They are the poet’s, Kumaran Asan’s, reflections being presented as that of Sita’s. The thoughts presented in the poem are in order, structured and have a clear cause-effect rationale. In this sense, it is absurd to say the narrative is coming from the subconscious. Moreover, Balakrishnan says one’s truth is always the truth of his subconscious. Even if Sita’s criticism of Rama is submerged in her subconscious, she will not be free of it. What Asan has done in Sita is that first Sita recognises the inconsistencies in Rama’s acts and speaks frankly about them.  Inconsistencies and flaws. For Sita though Rama’s desertation is extremely unfortunate, for a king his servitude…. A king is not completely at liberty, on the contrary he is severely held at the will of his subjects. He is subjugated to his subjects. This limitation, in fact, forces him to abandon his wife.

Bhavalinuum njan kanda kalankkarekhakal

Hence, Sita’s requests Rama to generously forgiver her. Though she criticises him in the beginning, she says it was her anger that made her blame him and begs him to forgive her. That means Sita realises that Rama’s acts are the outcome of his situation as a king who considers his subjects to be supreme and holds himself at their will.  That was the period when the principle yatha raja tatha praja (Like king, like citizen) was considered very relevant. Yes, the emperors are autocratic rulers but they do not do anything out of their own free will. They bow to their subjects’ wishes.  Their rule was more democratic than democracy itself! So, being an emperor means being subjugated to subjects’ will. In this way, Sita recognises the inescapability of the king’s action.

MA: You resort to negative criticism (khandana vimarshanam) when you talk. It is mostly absent from your writings. Was it because of the influence of persons like Kurup sir that you took a decision not to engage in negative criticism?

ML: I cannot say that. When I take up poems for study, mostly they will be by poets who are alive. So, when you talk about poets who are alive, you can’t do severe criticism because it will cause them only pain. Also, what satisfaction will it bring us by hurting them? So, my approach is that let us talk about the good aspects and ignore the drawbacks. It is not just because of Kurup sir’s influence. My nature, too, is concurrent with this kind of approach. But whenever I have written about critics, I have not bothered about such concerns. Also, when I talk about the poetry of the bygone era, I tend to be harsh wherever needed. Like, I was rebuked so much for writing harshly about Asan’s poem Duravastha. I had written that it is only an ordinary work. Not that it is not poetry, but that it is only an average poem. Whereas his other works rise to sublime level. Leela, Nalini, Chinthavishtayaya Sita, Karuna… I said that Duravastha doesn’t have the greatness of these works. I dared to vehemently criticise Kumaran Asan because I belonged to the upper caste (Asan was an Ezhava, a backward caste), that was the accusation that rose at that time. But wasn’t this the same upper-caste woman who praised his other four works to the skies? I have written about all four of them and I have placed Asan right at the literary pinnacle. But that was ignored and this criticism of Duravastha was highlighted.  Indeed, I had given some sharp comments about Duravastha. I would not have written it if Asan was alive then. That is the difference.

Same is the case with Vallathol (Vallathol Narayana Menon). Some of his poems…. I wrote about the drawbacks in his poem Kallanu Sammanam (A gift to the thief) in my book Navakantham. Whether it is Mahakavi Vallathol or Mahakavi Kumaran Asan, if any of their works doesn’t rise up to the standard, I have always pointed it out.

Whereas where the contemporary poets are concerned, if I am about to point out all their problems, there will mostly be problems. Since I do not want to do that, I write only about the good stuff. Nevertheless, in my book Varnaraji there is no need to show such reservations. Because the poets included here are of great standards. Only such poets are included in that. Some other poets had even asked me to write about them the way I have written about the poets in Varnaraji. I am not disclosing any names here. But I didn't write. If I had to write about them in the way I wrote about those great poets, they should be like them, right? That was obviously not the case. One person even asked me in person to write about his poem the way I had written about Vyloppilli’s poem! So, I ignored it and didn’t write about it. He felt aggrieved. Each person probably thinks that his poem is the best. That is why they dare to make such demands. One person wrote me a letter loaded with expletives. He has even authored a mahakavya! He asked me to review it and I did not take the request seriously. When my studies of other poets came out, I received a letter from him that was full of unbearable cuss words. He even insinuated that I had physical relationships with the poets I reviewed. When I hear such rebukes, I sometimes feel, ‘enough, I am done with literary reviews’. In such situations, it was my husband who gave me moral support to carry on. He would say: ‘Ignore such stupidities’. Some letters would be anonymous. He would say: ‘Throw them into the kitchen fire’. He was the one who persuaded me strongly to carry on writing.

MA: In the foreword you wrote for Thachante Makal (by poet Vijayalakshmi), you have quoted Sylvia Plath. ‘We shall inherit the earth’. When Thachante Makal was published, you could count the number of women writers in Malayalam on your fingers. But today, after some 20 years, there are so many writers. What is your take on women’s poetry in Malayalam?  

ML: The reason why I decided to write about Vijayalakshmi’s poetry… Her poems in her collected volume Mrigashikshakan and also Thachante Makal (The Carpenter’s Daughter; based on the legend of a master craftsman who killed his son as he became jealous of his abilities and feared that he would overshadow him), they offer us a very self-touching experience. Vyloppilli has written Thachante Makan (The Carpenter’s Son) and G has written Perumthachan (The Master Carpenter). Thachante Makal, which comes as a continuation of those poems. The master craftsman’s daughter is only an imagination. There is no mention anywhere of Perumthachan having a daughter. The poet has conjured up a daughter for Perumthachan, and makes her leave home thinking she should not face the same fate as her brother did. That is a feminist approach. She feels that she can no longer live with her father and that if she did, she would meet with the same fate as that of her brother. So, she is leaving her house to pursue freedom. At the same time, she is fully aware of the affection and love her father has for her. This conflict is portrayed very well by Vijayalakshmi. In that sense, that poem is at par with the poems I mentioned before. Women are writing such poems in Malayalam. Balamani Amma has written even before that. I doubt if there are any other women poets in Malayalam who thought as freely as Balamani Amma. Her poem called Sharashayanam criticises Bhishma and Valmiki. Both criticisms are from a feminist perspective. Bhishma is criticised for abandoning Amba. As for Valmiki, it is true that he achieved brahmagyan (knowledge of god) but he never bothered about his wife and children whom he should have taken care of. That is Balamani Amma’s approach. To criticise a poet like Valmiki, to criticise a character like Bhishma… Balamani Amma had the conviction and courage in her ideas that it takes. She is the precursor of such a great tradition (of poetry) for Malayali women. I would say there has not been another poet like her not just in Malayalam but even in other Indian langauges. There is no other woman poet in India who has shown such intellectual brilliance like her. Why are we restricting ourselves to India here? I don’t think in any other global languages, which we have known through English, there has been another woman who has written such intellectually deep poetry. But, as she wrote in a regional language like Malayalam, she did not get the attention that she deserved.

She did not gain the fame her daughter (Kamala Surayya/Madhavikkutty) did. Madhavikutty’s English poetry is very good. They are of high standard, there is no doubt about it. But the cognitive and emotional pre-eminence that Balamani Amma’s poetry is not there in Madhavikkutty’s poetry. When you compare Madhavikutty’s poetry with those of her contemporaries, of course the imageries and such are very good, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to Balamani Amma’s poetry. It was Balamani Amma who has shown us the model of feminine brilliance. After her, there are poets like Sugatha Kumari. And in prose, there are numerous women writers. When I wrote this article (about Vijayalakshmi’s poem), there were not many women in literature. I had predicted that the coming decade is a decade of women. That came to be true. So many women began writing afterwards. A large number of poets today… I do not want to name any as there will be complaints that I have missed out names! A lot of these women poets are writing very remarkable works now. It is true that Vijayalakshmi stands right at the forefront. In the new generation, there are many women who are writing significant poetry. Even in other genres of writing, women have progressed considerably, even more than men. Writers like Sarah Joseph, for instance. Her Alahayude Penmakkal (Daughters of God) is not second to Khasakkinte Itihasam (O.V. Vijayan) in any way. I have been rebuked for saying this. But, Khasakkinte Itihasam becomes exceptional because of the exotic manner in which the bilingual nature of a particular region is explored and also because of the portrayal of all characters except Ravi! In Alahayude Penmakkal, we cannot find fault with a single character. All characters are equally soul-stirring. Certainly, it has the potential to be compared to Khasakkinte Itihasam. Similarly, Sarah's Othappu. Sarah Jospeh’s works have risen to the world standards in my opinion. In Malayalam, there are such women writers who are making us proud.

MA: In your review of Kochiyile Vrikshangal (G. Sankara Kurup), you have written about poems that are like vitamin tablets. Poetry of that period was different in its length and themes. You have reviewed modern poetry using eastern poetic principles. Isn’t this route underexplored in Malayalam? What is its scope?

ML: There are poems like Nannagadi (by N.V. Krishna Warrior; Burial Urn) where the word is interpreted in multiple ways. Such applications of words, of symptomatic meaning are present in Indian poetics. We could explain it that way. But the meaning of that poem is different from all that. With the dual meaning implied in that term, the poem talks about the consumerist culture that has engrossed us. This is capable of destroying the entire human race. Nannagadis or burial urns are used to bury dead bodies, right? Likewise, the consumerist culture is capable of burying the entire human civilization. Through the small metaphor of a burial urn the poem introduces a huge universe of ideas. This is what dhwani is. To imply a larger idea with the help of a small metaphor. The eastern thinkers conceived the theory of dhwani to denote the two-fold nature of dhwani—the artha dhwani (meaning) and the bhava dhwani (emotion). Rasa-bhava dhwanis on the one hand and the vastu-alankara dhwanis on the other. The latter pertains to ideas and their enhancement and the former pertains to the expression of emotions. When you think of it, there is no literary work in the whole world that does not come under either of these. You take any great work, it will either have emotional dhwani or the dhwani of ideas. The dhwani theory will never be redundant.

In science there is a line of enquiry called the unified field theory. There are four forces and they act together. That is unified field theory. People like Einstein had researched on this. It has not been proven yet. I believe dhwani theory is the unified field theory in literature. It is relevant for all times. For any poem in any language from anywhere in the world, the dhwani theory is relevant. Something becomes poetical when we can absorb something different from what is being said. If we just talk in the colloquial manner, it won’t be poetry, right? It will only be communication. There is no poetry in mere communication of ideas. If there is to be poetry in it, there needs to be a flicker of some bhava (emotion) or rasa in it.  There needs to be an idea that is different from and more important than what is being said. Even in daily conversations when such moments occur, poetry arises. Say, the connection between rumours and sparks. A small spark can burn a forest down. A rumour is just like that. When ordinary people use such similes, it becomes poetry. Or, if a villager says, ‘passengers in a bus are put together like matchsticks kept in a matchbox’, there is poetry in it. Because, the congestion in the bus is depicted in a manner that implies a meaning. In any proposition if we could understand something beyond the spoken sentence, there is poetry. Whether it is a small sentence or a grand work, if it implies something beyond what is on the surface, then it becomes literature. If it is just plain talk it will not be literature.

MA: One of the traits of new-age poetry, especially the ones published in cyber spaces, is their impermanence, I feel. You write, read, enjoy and then leave it, and then write another one.

ML: When you think of impermanence... We cannot refer to epics as transient. As long as mountains and rivers exist, the Ramayana will also exist. It is a prophecy. It is alive till now. Literary works that one might divine to live forever are not to be found in the modern age. But this is true of not just the modern age, but also of the Romantic period, the Neo-Classical period and the other period that went before.  Only a very few have survived the test of time. Wordsworth has written so many poems. But only a few like Daffodils or Tintern Abbey are still remembered. Also in the Romantic period, Shelley wrote several poems but only a few like Adonaïs are still alive. So, like today, in other periods also several works surface and only a very few survive. Of the numerous works that come out today, some might survive the test of time. There is no sense in predicting which will survive or which will not. It is true that good works are created today also. Though we may find them transient now, they contain ideas and emotional structures that may pass the test of time. Like we talked about Vijayalakshmi’s Thachante Makal. It will survive. Probably her Mrigashikshakan also… these peoms will survive, even if her other poems are forgotten. The same way, Sugathakumari’s poems like Kaliyamardanam (Punishing Kaliya, the Snake). Kaliyamardanam is a very old theme from the myth. But in this poem a new interpretation is presented. Kaliyan symbolises the cruelties and venom in our minds. The divine force wins by subjugating these evils. So, the poem presents a new reading. When poetry comes up with a novel and different reading, it might survive for a long time. Not every work will survive, but a few might. We cannot predict which will and which won’t. But we need not be disappointed. It is meaningless to say that the works that come out today are shallow and temporary and the old works are great.

MA: Thank you for a wonderful conversation.