“Kolkata Has Always Been My Muse”: An interview with author, Saheli Mitra
By Lopa Banerjee
Saheli Mitra is a journalist, blogger, and internationally published poet and author. She is co-partner and founder of TALESPIN MEDIA. Her poems have been published in several national and international print and online anthologies, including Taj Mahal Review, Asian Signature, Piker Press (USA), Random Poem Tree (Trinidad), Iamnotasilentpoet (Spain), Love and War Anthology, ShetheShakti (Authorspress, 2017), Minds &Work, etc. Her debut novel, Lost Words (Partridge, 2014), where she portrays the emotional journey of a strong woman protagonist, is an amazon best seller. Her short stories have appeared in print anthologies including Half Baked Love and Knitted Narratives. Mitra primarily writes on women’s issues. Currently, she has been curating and editing content emphasizing on the cultural heritage of Kolkata and its hidden gems for GetBengal, a portal published from Kolkata. Apart from her writing and editorial initiatives, she also runs her own Nature Group, ‘To Trees With Love’.
I have known Mitra since 2015 through her poetry and short stories, and in Kolkata, we have also met on a number of occasions, where our discussion centered on poetry, writing, and the present-day media. We have also collaborated on a couple of anthologies, including ShetheShakti, where we were co-authors and Cloudburst: The Womanly Deluge, where I have been a co-editor, and she, a co-author. In this candid conversation, we talk about her writing journey, her novel, Lost Words, and also her muse and her passion.
Lopa Banerjee: It has been such a pleasure being acquainted with you and your work, Saheli! Apart from being with leading media houses over two decades, many of us know you as a wordsmith, weaving poems and stories for numerous anthologies and journals, both print and online. Now, with ‘Talespin,’ your independent media and content enterprise, you have turned an editor, too. How do you juggle these roles and responsibilities? Do you think being an editor complements your identity as a writer?
Saheli Mitra: For me, any job, be it editing or weaving an original story or poem, starts with words. Thankfully, I love expressing myself through words and not much through actions. Every feeling for me is complemented through my words. Handling different clients on a creative forum across the country is indeed a demanding job, as there are many out there who consider an enterprise like ‘Talespin’ or the kind of work I do as ‘just another business,’ completely side-tracking the creative aspect of it. But then again there are many who show ample respect to the creativity and for a person like me, who has been doing this kind of job for last 22 years. Thus, juggling the roles becomes easy. Poems and stories come out during my ‘me time.’ Primarily when I am alone, and my brain is somewhat lazing, or may be as a reaction to some incident. They de-stress me, the stress that builds up from the other kinds of work I handle on a professional front. So, these two complement each other, and balance my life and creative space.
LB: How do you think journalism has changed, or evolved over the years, with the advent of the online media?
SM: It has not just evolved, but I can pretty well visualise the era of print media coming to an end. Look out in different states of India, and you will find most print media houses are in a pathetic shape, either retrenching staff, downsizing or moving on to online platforms. With the smartphones and other gadgets making inroads even in the lives of students, one has no time to sit with a newspaper in the morning to read. Its unfortunate, but that’s the truth. Also, current news is always available at the drop of your ‘App,’ just as it is happening even on electronic media. So, who would wish to read the ‘stale news’ next day in the newspapers?
LB: Many of your poems have an element of wistful longing and a deep, abiding sense of melancholy that linger within the folds of your verses. How early did poetry come in your life and how would you describe your journey with it? Would you say writing poetry has been cathartic to you emotionally?
SM: Yes, poetry is completely cathartic for me emotionally. I write poems not for publicity, but purely to bring out my emotions and vent it out to feel better. It is more like shedding tears, bursting out in anger, it is more like shedding your emotional load through words. I have grown with Tagore, Jibanananda, Satyendranath Dutta, Madhusudan, and so many Bengali poets. I hardly read English poetry before 23, because my subject of study was not English literature. I was exposed to it only after I joined my job as a journalist. Tagore has always deeply moved me, especially the way he has expressed his love and loss of almost all his children and even grandchildren through poems. After losing my only brother to a simple fever when I was 21 years old, I took to writing. Before that I hardly wrote. Poems were born much later, consciously. That was more because of time constraint. Writing a story needs time, writing a poem doesn’t. I often wrote it on my WhatsApp while returning from office in my car, or may be even while teaching my son.
LB: Poetry and fiction, many of us have contended, are different from each other as genres, keeping in mind their style, presentation, narration, and the overarching sensibilities they represent. Which of these genres come more naturally to you? Are you poetic in your storytelling or do your poems convey stories?
SM: Yes, my prose, most readers feel, is very lyrical and also has deep imagery, it’s almost like a visual tale. However, poems come naturally to me. Prose needs a lot of time to pen down, and I am such a person who loves writing things in one flow. I can’t write one chapter one day, and then start writing the next a week later. Because when an idea goes on, I can already see how it will end. So it’s like the whole story is in front of me.
LB: Tell us about your experience of penning your novella, Lost Words (Partridge India, 2014). How did the novella shape up in your mind and how has been the journey of publishing and sharing it with your readers?
SM: I started writing Lost Words when my mother was ill and almost every night turned a challenge. Being her only child, I stay with her and had to keep myself awake at night to attend to her. To keep myself going, I started writing and it finally took shape of Lost Words. Also, one of the prime characters is of someone I know, not in the totality, but in the portrayal of the North Indian vs Bengali household. As for the journey of publishing, again, I was clueless and was not interested to turn it into a book. But being a journalist then and working with a media house, I had known people in the publishing industry, who encouraged me to get it published.
LB: In its essence, Lost Words essays the emotional journey of the female protagonist Geet, who rediscovers the life of her mother after her death and faces some of the harsh realities of her own existence, in a social setting where patriarchy looms large. Would you say it is a love story with a difference, or a story with feminist undercurrents, where there is the juxtaposition of some existential truths in a woman’s life vis-à-vis the society which both gives her wings to fly and tries to stifle her?
SM: It is not a love story at all. I would rather say I brought in an element of a thriller, to make it an easy read and appealing to all ages. But, the primary message was definitely a protest against patriarchy, an evil that plagues India’s society even in the 21st century. Geet’s mother Chand is the silent newsmaker, who brings Geet to this world as a symbol of love, despite her lover asking her to abort the child, while Geet is the voice of a modern woman, who lives life on her own terms.
LB: In the book, the female protagonist Geet Nandi is an emancipated girl with a scientific bent of mind, immersed in her own world of scientific experiments. Her mother, in the letters that she discovers, again comes across as a free spirit with volatile passion, which had dangerous repercussions beyond her own life. What inspired you to give birth to these two characters? Would you say you possess the same elements of strength and vulnerability as a woman or as an individual? Or, are they only figments of your imagination?
SM: To some extent, I see Geet’s mother in me. I have always led my life on my own terms, going beyond how the society defines love and loss. I am not a feminist, but for me freedom of my thoughts, love, and relationships is very important. I do not believe that my husband is the only man, who I have to love after marriage. I can always love another man, too, in fact more than one. For me love and its manifestations can never be and should not be controlled by laid down rules. On the contrary, what should be controlled is patriarchy, violence against women, and stereotyping relationships. Loving a man does not mean cheating my husband and vice versa. Hence, it is all but natural that my take on womanhood and relationships that I follow in my personal life gets reflected in Lost Words and the characters portrayed in the book.
LB: Which poets, authors, and books have fortified you as a writer?
SM: One and only Tagore. And definitely Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Saradindu Bandopadhyay of Bengali literature.
LB: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Thus wrote Charlotte Bronte, in her magnum opus novel, Jane Eyre, many, many moons back. What is the relevance of these lines to you in today’s context, when women still struggle a lot to find their own voices in the firmament?
SM: Even today, any free-spirited woman is an outcast in our society. I have faced this many a time; the worst treatment came from women themselves! They even wrote on my personal column, which I often write for Bonobology (the relationship site), that I am a whore and how dare I cheat my husband, etc. What’s funny is that my husband and I are the best of friends since childhood and he never says, ‘I have given you freedom’ to venture out. I am not his possession, I am his companion. He will not give me, not allow me. I am as free as any free human being should be in a free land. Just because I am a woman and mother, my chastity and integrity cannot be assessed as per how many affairs I had or have! Thankfully, my family is extremely supportive of my ‘misadventures,’ so much so that I have even cried before my husband and mother when a man I loved ditched me and my husband was the first person to help me out emotionally and stand by me. That way I am indeed blessed to balance my family life and love life.
LB: In the ever-expanding realm of social media, how do you see your words and your stories connecting with the global readers?
SM: Most of my friends and followers stay abroad. My book, Lost Words, sold the most in USA and UK. That itself proves my stories connected well with the global readers, especially the NRI population, who could relate to the views that my stories proposed.
LB: Recently, we have seen you being a content partner for the very popular online portal, GetBengal, where you focus on Kolkata and the rich heritage of Bengal. Can you share with us a few of your recent writing projects for GetBengal and how has this collaboration enriched your insights?
SM: Kolkata has always been my muse, so much so that I refused to stay in a couple of European nations, despite a professional chance to do so. I love this city and no amount of allure can ever inspire me to leave the city I love. GetBengal and its owner Indrajit Sen have given me a fantastic platform to explore and talk about that love for this state that has been ignored and never marketed well. Frankly, I have always heard Bengalis living in every part of the world and India always finding faults with Bengal and Kolkata. I have never seen a Marwari or a Gujrati settled in Bengal saying bad things about Rajasthan or Gujarat. But any Bengali settled outside Bengal have always felt this state and city is a piece of dirt, and nothing happens here. They are absolutely wrong and GetBengal tries to highlight the positive aspects of Bengal. The platform’s ethos and wish resonate well with my thought process and I feel honoured that at some point of my career, I have been associated with a visionary like Mr. Sen, who thinks the way I thought all my life.
LB: Any book project in the making which you would want to share with us, apart from the anthologies in which you write from time to time?
SM: A new book on Kolkata and its unknown destinations and history is coming up in a month’s time. This is a very prestigious book for me, not just because I got a chance to pen down on the city I love, but because I was associated in the process with a well-known art historian, Debdutta Gupta, and also a world-renowned photographer, Kounteya Sinha, while doing the book. Such associations come as a blessing in your journey as an author. Another book on Durga is also in the making, other than a collection of short stories.
LB: Would you like to give any message to your readers?
SM: Just one message: Do not give up reading. Books are the best friends that anyone can have at any age; even when everyone deserts you in life, they don’t. So be poetic, be a good reader, and imbibe words into your system.
Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet and editor, currently residing in Dallas, Texas. She has co-edited two fiction anthologies, Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas and Darkness There But Something More. Her memoir/narrative nonfiction, Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey, has been a Journey Awards recipient at Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC and has also received Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Let The Night Sing and her recently released book of translation of two novellas and six short stories of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, The Broken Home and Other Stories has also received critical acclaim. She has received the International Reuel Prize for Translation (2016) for Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Nastanirh’, translated as The Broken Home, and also received the International Reuel Prize for Poetry 2017.
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