(For the sixth post in this series, for which I have interviewed people I am close to, I emailed Uma Shankar Pandey a set of questions. His responses have been reproduced here. I hope that you would like the idea and enjoy the conversation. The series is to be continued with other friends as and when possible. Sincere thanks to all readers who commented on and appreciated the earlier posts).
Uma Shankar Pandey is my newly found friend on the blogosphere. What initially attracted me to his blog was a kind of poetic prose that is so characteristic of whatever he writes- short stories, reminiscences or book reviews. I find him to be an avid reader, a fiercely attentive writer who has all the concern possible for details and above all a very gentle and endearing individual, interacting with whom can be a real source of joy and inspiration. The vocabulary he employs in his expression is rich and classical to the core, to say the least. In this interview, I plan to dig slightly deeper into the person that Uma is. He says on his blog page that he is a “A banker by profession and a writer by confession” and that he shoots when “…the sordid pursuit of livelihood condones such indulgence”. A minute more with some of his lines that linger in my head each time his blog comes to mind should be in order here.
Reviewing a book he says about the author: “She is a quiet writer of the human disquiet”. Describing in fascinating terms one of his childhood visits to a temple in the city of Varanasi, he writes : “There was no priest in sight and we had to deal with the Goddess without the luxury of a bailiff.” Goes Uma at another point in one of his short stories: “A month passed and the April suddenly started getting intolerably hot and stuffy. I fell to my old habit of pulling out a mattress on the terrace, fixing up a mosquito net on sticks and sleeping under the open sky. The nights were hot to start with but once past the midnight, the wind would pick up thick with the fragrance of night jasmine.” For more of the lovely stuff he writes please do visit uspandey.com. I promise you would not be disappointed!
With that glimpse into the world of his words and musings, on to him directly!
Personal Concerns- Benaras to start with- I wanted to know of your take on the charm and mystique that this ancient city is sort of emblematic of.
Uma Shankar Pandey- I have conflicting memories of Banaras.
We used to live in a house on the riverbank. I remember peals of bells, many, many of them, ringing, every morning and evening. Then I remember a boat ride where I almost drowned. It was a serene evening and the wind was picking up. People had started scrambling into the boat and I tried to make it on my own and slipped into the river. I was retrieved quickly and someone took off my trousers. I believe I was embarrassed but I was quickly enraptured as the boat pulled into the river, merrily swaying to and fro. Soon, all that stretched out from the boat was rippling water. Ghat after ghat slid past and the chanting grew louder. Beating of drums and cymbals grew and faded as we closed in on temples and then moved away. The women in the boat started singing.
I grew up with the perennial awareness of the huge river in which I could drown and on which stood a distant bridge. And all the meandering lanes invariably led to temples milling with people murmuring with half-shut eyes and bowing and falling flat in front of idols. I was more conscious of monkeys gliding across ledges and rooftops than the cows with menacing horns. What hounded my thoughts often though were the human shapes being carried away on bamboo stretchers, the quartets ushering those chanting dully. As a child, I soon learnt what it meant when a group of grim looking men from our paternal village stood at our doors, refusing to come in, demanding to see our father urgently. Draped in shrouds shining red and orange, someone surely awaited the final fire at a ghat nearby. The river of life was filling me with shivers for life.
People visited us when they wanted to take a holy dip in Ganges too. I was told about Kal Bhairava, an incarnation of Shiva who in a fit of anger had severed one of the heads of Brahma and the head had clung to him and accompanied him everywhere. The skull dropped off his hand only when he visited Kashi, or Banaras as it was known then. It is the legacy of deliverance that prompts the sinners among Hindus, and who isn’t a sinner among Hindus, to trudge their way to the holy city by the river ever so often to drop their baggage of misdeeds. And the Ganges has remained a mute witness, a perennial cleanser of the physical and mental excretions of the sinners.
Those are the thoughts that sweep my mind when I think of Banaras. Death, because that is what humans fear but actually succumb to; deprivation, because that is why humans pray but to no avail; hope, because that is what humans pray for and their success may vary; delusion, because that is how humans pray and there really isn’t anything out there.
PC- During one of my conversations with you, I got to know about your unfinished Ph.D at Lucknow University. I was interested in knowing more about your research.
USP- My guide, Prof R N Srivastava, had a mysterious brush with T. S. Eliot. He’d get dreamy talking about it, breaking into a vicious American accent. He had a book gifted to him by the towering litterateur and he cherished it like his life. During my stay in Lucknow University as a student he had taken a liking to me and would trust me immensely and that is why I was once lent the very same book which I went on to possess for an unduly long period. I was never truly forgiven for the sin.
Professor Srivastava was a man of honour and a man of words who clung to what he professed come hail or high water. He was kind enough to take me under his fold and suggested ‘Comic Apocalyptic Fiction with Special Reference to Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon and John Barth’ as a topic for the doctoral thesis. Of all those names, Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Catch 22 readily rings a bell to many. I was done with reading Heller and had started writing my critical interpretations. Prof Srivastava, however, wanted me to consult certain tomes even before I put my pen to the paper. I, on the other hand, feared reading other’s works about the genre may perchance sneak in a bias in me or worse, nip my original ideas in the bud. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed. I did express my apprehension to the professor but he would not budge. It was not that I was adamant or I was sworn not to check out the works my guide wanted me to, much as I was in awe of him anyway. But, it being American Literature, the British Council Library at Lucknow would yield nearly nothing on those authors. The other libraries in Lucknow claimed never to have heard of those, whatsoever. It was the early 1990s and Internet was not yet born to us. My only option was to go to Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), Hyderabad., down south. It was a long way off, Hyderabad, two nights away, not earth shattering but a deterrent nonetheless. That, I was a Research Assistant associated with a critical project at IIM Lucknow didn’t help matters much. Eventually, the impasse became insurmountable.
PC- How do the profession of banking and the urge to read, write and blog go together? Since when do you blog?
USP- My earlier job at Indian Institute of Management Lucknow was contractual in nature. I was fervently looking out for teaching positions in Lucknow University and its associated colleges. Unfortunately, it was a complex system being controlled by non-transparent machinery. I am not sure when, if ever I would have ended up in the coveted vocation. Meanwhile, the sordid saga of livelihood started gaining the upper hand with each passing day. Calls for cracking the commonly held recruitment tests started getting shrill. Even Professor Srivastava opined that I should be able to sail through competitions such as those for probationary officers for banks. I did write a few of them and cleared a couple of them and joined my present employer in 1994. For many years after that I was a rolling stone, moving from one branch of the bank to the other, forgetting everything about writing. But I did put up a ‘Homepage’ in 1999, when ‘TCP/IP’ Internet connections became common. Prior to that, I had been trying my luck with publications like Pioneer, TOI, Gentleman, Dharmyug and Saptahik Hindustan. But once my own website was up, I started posting sporadic works there. I started dabbling with ‘Blogger’ circa 2004. I have preserved my first post, ‘Soliloquy’ at uspandey.net. I have been writing intermittently on my current blog One Grain Amongst the Storm at uspandey.com since 2007.
PC- Who are your favorite authors? Any specific novel that you wish to talk about?
USP- It is impossible to have just one favourite author. Some of the authors I love to read are as under:
D H Lawrence
Phanishwar Nath Renu
And many more! Hamlet, Jude the Obscure, Wuthering Heights, A Farewell to Arms, Doctor Zhivago, Fire on the Mountain, God of Small Things, Small Remedies, The Immigrant, Boats on Land, Narcopolis are some of my favourite books.
PC- Is communalism ( I am referring to Hindu Muslim animosity/ events of violent conflict in particular) in Uttar Pradesh entirely a political problem?
USP- It is a complex problem. It is impossible to singularly pinpoint at an agent that is at the vortex of the persisting hurricane. I am afraid the seeds of discord may have been sown way back in our history. I do not intend to invoke the communally subversive strategies of many a Muslim ruler of this land, nor do I wish to invoke the ghost of Jinnah, who have been redeemed by none less than the top faces of a party with a prominently ‘saffron’ bias. What I do believe in is that alarmingly low level of poverty and the resultant illiteracy in people constitute a fertile ground for superstitions and excitable emotions. It is the avarice for power that propels the communal, religious and political leaders to perpetuate the status quo of the preacher and the preached. Enlightenment will mean an adverse shift in power in favour of the populace. I find the holy altar of so-called secularism more alarming than the bogey of communalism. These pseudo-intellectuals tend to impose themselves where they are not only not needed but are wholly unwelcome too. They are like the bad conscience that kept egging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. The underlying equations are overwhelmingly common to both Kandhar and Uttar Pradesh.
PC- Tell us something about your plans regarding the upcoming book?
USP- All I can say is that it is a recurring old dream that grips me off and on with varying force.
PC- I have discussed this with you once. What according to you is the strength of the stream of consciousness style of writing?
USP- The Stream of consciousness mimics the human mind at work. Emotions like pain, anguish, love, hate, sorrow and joy have contextual rather than chronological existence. The fabric of memories is woven of people, places, objects, suffering and happiness, free of temporality. It is one of the most effective tools to explore the psychological landscape of characters and render a meaningful structure to the whole as well.
PC- Favorite film/ song of all time?
USP- I cannot have a favourite film/song for ever. Yet, my favourite singers are Mukesh, Ghulam Ali, Paul Simon and Norah Jones. Some of the best films I have enjoyed and still think highly of them are following:
Enter The Dragon (I was a child then, but then still!)
Gone With the Wind
An Officer and a Gentleman
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Ghost and the Darkness
Welcome to Sajjanpur
Khosla ka Ghosla
Well, that is just an indicative list!
PC- A scene from a Shakespearean play that you love. What makes it worth a mention here?
USP- It is from Macbeth’s soliloquy (Act V Scene V)
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Well, the bard has said it all. We are but a small cog in the big scheme of things. Overarching ambition? Greatness? Where am I headed to? ‘Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?’
At the end of the interview, Uma also sent me in writing this added small gift- a short note about Personal Concerns. Just made my day!
“I have recently started reading your blog and am often stung by the breathtaking evocativeness and sensitivity of your posts. I have read ‘Sleepy Men’ several time over and am mesmerized anew every time. I wish the best to your muse and I’d love to see your art blooming into a valley of flowers. That said, I’d like you to write oftener.
(All comments and suggestions about the format and the presentation of the interview would be deeply appreciated. Friends who wish to be included in this series, please let me know. It would be lovely to have you here on my blog. Cheers!)