Writing is One Of The Few Ways I Know to Express Myself: An Interview With Chintan Girish Modi

Photo Courtesy: Chintan Girish Modi
He asks me to be melting snow.
To wash myself of myself.
I heed the call,
cast off my garb,
walk into the hammam, 
and wait.
The stone’s hot,
my skin burns.
Aeons of tears and sweat,
Centuries of waiting
Now’s the time.
He’s here.
Yes, he’s here.
Finally, he’s here.
Cook me!
Cook me!
Cook me in your fire!
Get me ready for the feast.
He says nothing.
He smiles. Only smiles.
And asks me to lie -
eyes shut, skin on stone
eyes closed in prayer.
The hands are firm and loving.
They know what they are doing.
My muscles relax.
My nerves calm down.
His fingers make mandalas, erase them.
Suddenly, my spine is a column of light.
And he’s everywhere.
I’ve been washed.

Ishaan Jajodia: Why do you write?
Chintan: I write because that is one of the few ways I know to express myself, apart from singing, speaking, dancing, hugging, crying, laughing, retreating into silence, and getting angry. But, moving out from the gut, I also write because it allows me to participate in the world of ideas, to play devil’s advocate, to encourage the despairing, and to be an advocate of friendship, hope and peace. I enjoy the power words give me. They make me feel that I have an ability to comfort, and heal — something I must manifest more often. This conviction comes from my Buddhist practice, which emphasizes ‘Right Speech’ and ‘Right Livelihood’. Though writing can fetch me handsome amounts of money, I would be reluctant to write something I do not believe in.

Ishaan: What is the source of inspiration behind your poetry?
Chintan: It is usually some kind of emotional churning that takes me to poetry. I do not write as a regular discipline, and that works for me. What distinguishes my poetry from the other kinds of writing that I do is quite simply this: it is not written on demand. It is the purest form of writing that I know because I do not chisel, shape or sculpt it to make it likeable. This is not to say that craft is not important in poetry. It is for people who identify as poets. I do not. I write poetry just the way I offer prayer, and walk on the earth with gratitude. My identity is not built around the metaphors I bring to the page or the screen. I am, at best, a conduit. I cannot avoid using this spiritual vocabulary while talking about poetry because most of what I could call my most profound poetic work is not mine. It has taken birth in those moments when my identity has not been limited to my body, age, and biography; when I have felt one with the universe.

These garments are stained.
They’ve seen too much of this world.
Take me to the forest of love
I’ll shed them for you.

Ishaan: How has your poetry transformed over time?
Chintan: It has grown more intense, and less cluttered. I do not write as much as I used to. And when I do, I hardly ever save it for later reference, or to compile it into a book. I do not know if this is laziness, or just a feeling that the poems are as ephemeral as the feelings. There is something that I find interesting. Earlier, I wrote to earn appreciation, and I did not find much. Now I write only when there is an urgency to, and somehow this has brought more integrity to the writing. And more people who find resonance.

Ishaan: What is your fondest memory of (a) Bombay and (b) your work?
Chintan: It was July 26, 2005 — the day Bombay was hit by this endless downpour, which quickly turned into a nightmare with floods taking away the lives of people who never reached home after setting out from work. I too was stranded. I remember walking from Bandra to Santacruz, with tremendous difficulty. The water was almost up to my waist. The phone lines were not working. I had no way of contacting my parents. I thought I was going to die. Tears began flowing, and I found myself prepared to transition. I kept walking, and somehow, I ended up in front of a building that looked like the one my friend Navaneet lived in. I went upstairs. He and his family took me in, gave me food and kindness, a bed to sleep, and clothes to change into. I will never forget that night. That is my fondest memory of this city.

I assume that, when you say ‘work’, you mean the process of poetic creation. It was in 2015 while I was living in McLeodganj, and spending some of my time in Dharamkot as well. These places hold special value for me, not only for the mountain air and the lush green trees but also the opportunity to confront my fear, shame and guilt in ways that I would never be able to in Bombay, purely because of its pace. My relationship with this part of Himachal goes back to the time when I was offered a five-week fellowship by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2013. I have kept going back for sustenance. And, when I was there in 2015, I experienced inner shifts that I can hardly articulate to you now but I could back then only because I had the language of poetry. I would cry endlessly because I had no way to explain what I was going through in a rational manner. Metaphor came to my rescue. It told me that I was not going insane, only experiencing a different reality that I had shut myself from. I felt strangely at home among others who were pining for home: Tibetans hanging on to a future that would restore the past, Israelis escaping the memory of their life in the army, and Indians looking for distraction in a weekend vacation.

I’d walk naked
In a town of truth-tellers,
Not this one:
a marketplace of make-believe.

Ishaan: What role have mentors played in your poetic practice? Can you name one, and elucidate on the impact that they have had on you?
Chintan: I have never approached anyone to learn the craft of poem-making, so I consider as mentors the people whose poetry I have had the fortune to read or listen to. I am drawn to the poetry of Kabir, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Bulleh Shah, Lal Ded and Amir Khusrau. I know most of them only via translation, but I am able to comprehend Kabir without as much linguistic assistance. Though I was introduced to Kabir in childhood, thanks to school textbooks and my mother who studied Hindi literature, I grew to love and learn from him only after I began to work closely with filmmaker Shabnam Virmani who founded the Kabir Project at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. Thanks to Shabnam, I got an immersive experience of the poems, their meanings, and their significance in the lives of communities that have been singing them for several generations. The way I experience a sung poem is very different from the way I experience a poem on the page. Singing invites my participation at not only the intellectual and emotional levels but also in a physical way. I can feel the gooseflesh, the tears streaming down my cheeks, the difficulty involved in singing certain notes. The metaphors are more grounded and relatable because they are desi in a way that makes sense intuitively, and does not demand a knowledge of literary and critical texts from European or American contexts. Kabir resonates with me mostly because I receive him via folk and classical music. When I do not have the words to articulate something, he does — whether it is despair, confusion, surrender or exhilaration. Since he urges human beings to have a fierce inward gaze, and embody a way of life that emphasizes love beyond all boundaries, it is difficult for me to not find him inspiring.

Ishaan: What role does poetry play in your life?
Chintan: It offers healing and friendship when I seek the company of words and silence instead of people.

Ishaan: How does your poetry connect with your multiple other talents and skills, like that of peacebuilding?
Chintan: My work in peacebuilding began with my association with the Kabir Project, so that strand is difficult to miss. Dialogue about peace and conflict can often become too verbose and literal. Poetry is able to cut through a lot of stuff that is either ornament or hot air, and go to the very heart of an idea and break down walls. I saw this most clearly at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine, USA, which hosts Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Americans over three weeks. Our dialogue facilitators, Peggy Smith and Tarek Maassarani, were able to create through the use of poetry a sacred space that provided anchor even in the most painful moments. The one that made a deep impact on me was Yehuda Amichai’s ‘The Place Where We Are Right’. We also read Mahmoud Darwish, Jelaluddin Rumi, Naomi Shihab Nye, and many others, apart from writing our own poetry. Here is an example. In the peace education workshops that I facilitate, I do tend to draw on the work of poets like Kabir, Lal Ded, Bulleh Shah. I am keen on doing more with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Walt Whitman, Tenzin Tsundue and Agha Shahid Ali. Some things can take a while to churn.

Ishaan: Is there anything not included in the above questions that you would like me to consider while writing?
Chintan: If I had to name only one person among my contemporaries whose work I value for how magnificent, beautiful and humbling it is, that would be Amruta Patil. There is tapasya in her work, and that is rare. My pranams to that.

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