“I can write more if I can read more”

An Interview with Prayag Saikia

Interviewed by Bibekananda Choudhury

Prayag Saikia, a physician by profession has in his credit twelve books of poetry, a collection of stories, three novels, two novelletes in verse besides an anthology of lyrics. He is the recipient of Kalaguru Bishnu Rabha award, 2020 instituted by Asam Sahitya Sabha. Saikia writes in Assamese and his literary works have been translated into English, Bengali, Kannada, Sanskrit, Uzbek, French and Spanish. Library Of Congress (Washington DC), Russian State Library, Moscow have kept his books for preservation. Besides an approved lyricist of All India Radio, his poetry has featured in Best of Indian Literature.

Prayag Saikia

Which literary figures have influence you mostly or have motivated you? Please consider Assamese literature, English literature and world literature – all three while putting the comment.

My poetry school commenced with Navakanta Barua’s Mor Aru Prithivir (My and my world), Hiren Bhattacharya’s Mor Desh Mor Premar Kabita (My country my love poems) and Sukanta Bhattacharya’s Charpatra Ar Ghumnei (Release letter and elusive sleep). Gradually the horizon widened – fell in love with Sagar Dekhisa (Have you seen the sea) composed by neighbourhood poet Devakanta Barooah, moved closer to Mahim Bora the poet of ‘Ranga Jinya’ (Red dragonfly). My elder brother late Pranjal Saikia, uncle Late Nanda Saikia, my late elder brother’s friend Ranjit Nath one of the editors of Mahekia Kabita (Monthly poetry) published from Cotton College stood by me like a guide. This journey commenced from 1972 continued, many became my inspiration, my mother who liked Sangri-la turned my inspiration, my mentor Suwagmoni Saikia a great devotee of Buddha, my soulmate Rasna Hiloidari, a follower of philosophy of Vivekananda, Pranab Barua, the creator of silent poetry with afternoon hues and many others. Coleridge said that he is the true poet who converts other people to a poet. I would put all these people as my revered poet who had become cause of my inspiration. Of course, out of these I put two people in a special position – one is Navakanta Barua who set his foot in the world of poetry with calligraphic handwriting and the other etching poetry in the easel artist Pranab Barua. These two people are most influential in my life. Going out of geographical periphery of Assam I must speak of Buddhadeb Bose. I feel the writings of the like of Pratham Partha was the guiding light of my Suryakatha

As I traverse to world literature I have to speak of Leo Tolstoy and Hermman Hesse. I am enlightened with the light of the duo. My Misiko has been created from the thoughts of Tolstoy. Siddhartha of Hermman Hesse is guiding me along even today holding onto my fingers.

Continuing with my earlier question, please tell us about your favourite litterateurs. All of them may not have inspired you.

There are countless writers whose writing I enjoy. I like those that triggers a thought process.

At which stage your literary journey commenced in the true sense.

I still remember the first poem of my life. Year 1972, the year of medium agitation. I think that day as the day of preparation in the school of poetry, followed by admission in the school with four books gifted by my elder brother a few weeks later and an endless journey thereafter.

Which were the editors or prominent persons that you received encouragement from at the early stage?

My poetry got published in little magazines since my school days. The first one was Nabajyoti edited by Khalequz Zaman. The poetry page started with few limericks by Navakanta Barua, the last couple of poems were mine. It was in the year 1974, I was in class IX. Simultaneously, my poems got published in school magazine Uday and Amar Alochani edited by Rabindra Bora and Kabita Dutta.

In 1982 while studying in Medical College my poetry got published in Prantik edited by Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia. I received love and affection of many editors. But the one especially encouraging me is Binoy Mohan Saikia, editor of Bandhab. It was only for him that I had taken up for translation a good number of poems of other countries.

Navakanta Barua used to say, if I do not have a poem from within, I write poem of others – means I translate some from other languages. In the same manner I too wrote many poems of others.

Which of the three identities you prefer most – poet, story writer or novelist?

I don’t know whether I fall among those poets as prescribed by Jibanananda, but I like when someone introduce me as a poet. I think my stories and novels are an extended form of my poetry only.

A number of poems composed by you in English have been included in The Best of Indian Literature. Yearning for Dawn is your English compilation of poetry – but thereafter you appear to have stopped writing in English. Why?

I don’t think I have good command in English. I could not get the grip on it after a long effort. I feel I am still weak in grammar. I started writing in English prodded by Pranabda. I showed the products apprehensively to my friend Krishna Dulal Barua. He played the role of the editor by making necessary changes in the structure. After the book got published, I said in a programme ‘writer reader’s face to face’ that I would discontinue writing in English, there is too much labour. It is much easier to create in mother tongue. Hearing this Mahim Bora sir present in the meeting, said – I feel prayag should continue with his writings and I firmly believe some of his poems would be translated to some languages of realms beyond the boundary of our country. It was prophetic. A few poems from Yearning for Dawn got translated into Uzbec language.  With due credence to Sir’s words I composed a poem with the title ‘Between the sleeping and the laughing Buddha’ that was published in a festival issue The Statesman. But I could not continue. I got the chance to read a book – Power of Subconscious Mind a couple of years back. The book roused me up. I composed six more poems and sent them to an overseas magazine of my dream. It did not materialize, however. These have now been included in Blue Brook—the new extended compilation of Yearning for Dawn. It is now available in Amazon Kindle book. I feel proud to say that it has been preserved in the ‘Library of Congress’ in Washington DC.

One finds philosophy of various religions in your literary creations—the readers get enlightened through these. When did you get exposed and fell attracted to these philosophies? Which of these philosophies has much similarity with your personal philosophy?   

Our father has been a sort of mystic loving person. I got to learn about Autobiography of a Yogi, T S Lobsang Rampa from my father. I was somewhat amazed to find my father weeping as my father recited religious texts in the prayer room. My mother who taught us to sing ‘Matsya kurma ….’ (The ten incarnation of God as per Hindu philosophy) kept hidden in her bosom Lost Horizon of James Hilton. My mother painted dreams of Sangri-La. I reached near Buddha through poetry of Navakanta. In the medical college our teachers soulmate, my foster-mother Suwagmoni pulled me along to Nichiren Buddhism. The poetic justice in the story of Tolstoy ‘God sees the truth but waits’, through the eyes of Erich Von Daniken Mankind Child of the Star were my bonus being the listener of my bibliophile elder brother. Rasna brought me closer to the philosophy of Vivekananda. Gabriel the angel that uttered the word Icrah (read) to Hazarat Muhammad who said, ‘Go to Kathay to garner wisdom, even if necessary made me feel that no just from religious angle but it is a special tool to glorify the human mind.    

Would you let our readers know about some of your most favourite poetry, short stories and novels?

My favourite poetry book is Mor Aru Prithivir by Navakanta Barua and four other books are Sagar Dekhisa by Devakanta Barua, Phuli Thoka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale by Nilmoni Phukan, Mor Desh Mor Premar Kabita by Hiren Bhattacharya, Ranga Jiya by Mahim Bora. My favourite short story collection Kathanibari Ghat by Mahim Bora. Other three– Golam by Saurabh Kumar Chaliha, Sendur by Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Khojar Shabda by Bipul Khataniar. Assamese novel to say at the beginning Kakadeutar Harh, by Navakanta Barua. Three others– Ananya Prantar by Medini Choudhury, Kalpurush by Devendranath Acharya, Pitaputra by Homen Borgohain. I felt illuminated by these books. There are more books, more would come out if I think. And I must not forget Dhanya Naratanu Bhal by Syed Abdul Maalik. Once I was so thrilled reading Himani Hillol of Kumar Kishor. 

Most favourite poetry and story of your own creation?

As I finish writing I like all of them but gradually the attraction diminishes. Suryakatha is the only creation whose attraction remained so long and still going strong for me.

Which appears to be the most creative period in your entire life till now—from number of creations and also from the point of standard.

I have been writing since 1972 without any break. It is difficult to point at a particular segment of time as the most fertile one, but for me, it is true that since the advent of the smartphone and after having established connection through social media my creativity soared. The credit goes to Zuckerberg. The standard of writing depends on you all and the coming times. 

Exactly at which type of environment your creative mind gets most fertile?

I feel I can write more if I can read more. Good thoughts are nutrition of creative mind. My elder brother was the main supplier of my books, that role was later played by my dear wife and my elder brother friend Manik Das. My creative mind gets more active if I get the opportunity to be a listener with the erudite ones. It is very necessary for a writer to be in a good company. I have many valuable moments with my elder brother who likes to chatter, brother’s friend Ranjit Nath and Gokul Borkotoky. Now in this role there are Prasanta Bora of ‘Book Nook Café’ and Ratul Saikia through mobile connection from a distance. 

At what time of the day most of your literary creations happened?

There is no specific time or place for my creative writings, I write anywhere and everywhere. I defy sordid times

Most memorable incident of your life

The most memorable incident of my life would be perhaps the news of my name getting published in the pages of Dainik Asam for the first time. The news of I being adjudged the best entry in the poetry writing competition organized by the all Assam Students Association just after six months I started composing poems. The certificate I received was signed by Prasanna Narayan Choudhury, Pulakesh Barua and Luit Bora. 

The incident that you remember most fondly.

The most fond incident was on that day, when, my uncle Nanda Saikia returned from Mangaldoi Sahitya Sabha session and clutched my hand and said, Mahendra Bora has liked your poems very much and said that you would become a great poet one day. The poem liked by Mahendra Bora got published in Nabajyoti under the editorship of Khalequz Zaman, which was one of the poems coming in print against my name. The poem was :

My nakedness
A bentdown tree
Defying the wave of a sorrowful feeling
Look crouching down
Your mind

The greatest shock of your life.

On Valentine’s Day in the year 2002 poet Jiban Narah informed me Pranabda is no more; the news of demise of artist Pranab Barua was the greatest shock for me.

What do you enjoy eating most?

Sweet is my most favourite. During college years, at the marriage feast of a sister of our classmates I gobbled more than twenty kaju barfis. Soon after my marriage at Dibrugarh itself, after consuming two savoury good sized sweets as I pointed to a large piece of paneer as my third choice my physician wife looked at me sternly and said, you must have a thorough check up now. I did soon after and the result was four plus. Since then the chapter of sweets got closed. There is a story titled ‘A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg’ of Tolstoy. I like the story very much and the picture brought along by the egg therein. Whenever I see an egg in my plate a smile automatically flashes over my lips.

What makes you feel angry?

I get angry when I see all the negative news in the first page of the newspaper. The short film made by Altaf Mazid based on ‘Bhal khabar’ of Saurabh Kumar Chaliha comes to mind often. I continue waiting in the hope when our society turned seriously ridden with greed would get cured and become healthy… Often recite the line of GBS on the entrance of ‘Bodhidroomar Khari’ of Navakanta Barua… As long as there are fools in the world there will be hope.

Click for the Assamese version of the interview.

Bibekananda Chouchury is an engineer by profession. His writings has been published in Assamese, English and Bengali. Poems of Nilim Kumar rendered into into English by him is being included in the undergraduate courses of English in Bangalore University and Post Graduate Courses of Cotton University and also picked up in the 100 Great Indian Poems published by Bloomsbury. His writings are published in Indian Literature’ the bi-monthly journal of Sahitya Akademi fairly regularly apart from Sahitya Akademis other compilations. He has more than a dozen translated compilations and two edited books.