Sola Osofisan interviews Dr. Amitabh Mitra, a South African poet and artist of Bengali roots. The author of poetry collections Ritual Silences, A Slow Train to Gwalior, Mdantsane Breathing, and lately, co-editor of ‘Splinters of a Mirage Dawn, Anthology of Migrant Poetry from South Africa,’ among others, is an orthopaedic and trauma surgeon at the Accident and Emergency unit of Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, Mdantsane, South Africa.
Sola Osofisan: Dr. Mitra, who came first – the writer, the photographer, the artist or the physician?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: I think it’s the writer. Way back at the medical school in Gwalior, India, I was enthralled by the emerging Indo-English Poetry Scene and it’s clashing with the Victorian Poetry that is still being taught in our colonial curriculum. It was difficult then to comprehend the writings of V.S. Naipaul with my Indian background. Only many years later (did I) I understand fully the lifescape of the migrant Indian to South Africa and the West Indies. Medicine and Creative Writing fused with one another. The cobbled streets of Liverpool, Hugh Owen Thomas, the bone setter from there, the sheer poetry of the lyrics of John Lennon and an emerging India all became one; poetry and love just came gushing in a wonderful new arena.
Sola Osofisan: I watched the poetry shorts, A Slow Train to Gwalior and Do you remember those caves? Why are they shorts and not longer movies? Are you working within the perceived attention constraints of the Internet audience?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: They are all part of a single film. ‘A Slow Train to Gwalior’ documents the life of a bygone era and love that once blossomed there. It has poetry, art, Afro-Asian music and animation. Gwalior lives in such memories perceived in this film.
Sola Osofisan: Since you’re making poetry movies, can you share your thoughts on poets exploring alternative ways of presenting poetry to the public?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: The written poetry format needs to be further explored. I have understood that poetry can be far more acceptable if it is presented linked to visual art, dance, music and cinema. Three of my books are devoted to visual arts playing with poetry.
Sola Osofisan: In your poetry, you paint a loving and sensitive picture of your childhood. Talk to us as only a poet can about that period in your life. What was the hardest thing about leaving your hometown?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Leaving was unloving. Leaving was going into a stranger’s exile. Falling in Love was the greatest emotion that can ever happen and leaving all these with a tin trunk of memories was the hardest.
each word you spoke
each word I thought
each word building
those ramshackle years
plays the constancy
of a very dry season
gwalior cavorted in
In shameless rivers
is a single gunshot
in colorless skies.
Sola Osofisan: When was the last time you visited the old neighbourhood? Are the kids growing up today making memories similar to the ones you and your friends made growing up in Gwalior? Or time has changed everything?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Times have changed. I was back home about 3 months back. It’s an urban jungle there and kids don’t dream anymore. The city and the fort embrace me, the skies look different and breathing becomes more of heaving.
in the night a dream creases you against
like this unfolding bird in a suspended
storm on a bending tree. you brush beside me,
the caress feathering my back. i smell of spices
sweat and the first
in a scorched indian summer. you look at my mouth
tracing your nipples
and this merging of
souls in unfamiliar grounds
Sola Osofisan: You were in Bhutan, I believe, when someone asked you why you wrote poetry in “such grim conditions”. Who was it and was the grim conditions in reference your accident/emergency medical work at the time? Did the same person call you “The Mad Man of Bhutan”? Talk to us about that period of your life…
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Bhutan was different. I was chasing a utopia from the book, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. I believed in the Shangri-La and went to far lengths looking for it. I used the map described in the book and went in illegally into China and Burma. Working in High Altitude Hospitals under extreme conditions was fun. I was fortunate to meet some Buddhist Healers who opened my vision to a different and better form of healing. My thoughts on Shangri–La were further strengthened by such incidents. The Royal Government in 1985 bestowed the highest civilian honor, the Druk Namgyal Award, on me for my work in the health field. Kushwant Singh, the celebrated journalist from India visited me and only after listening to me he understood that there must be some madness that can bring me, my poetry and this search for a utopian Shangri-La to the mountains of Bhutan.
Sola Osofisan: You were in Niger in West Africa for a while where you studied some French…
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: There was a civil war there. I was a volunteer Orthopaedic Surgeon for 6 months.
(Prose poem on Niamey excerpted from a forthcoming book, Stranger than a Sun) “Somebody told me, you are a shadow of what you were once. I would never believe that. The fort has never changed and so has been our subterranean mind. As days gushed in with the speed and alacrity of life and living, for us evenings never changed. Our nudging voices continued to overshadow our many lives. In Niamey I once saw a girl whose eyes directed me to a nomadic sun. She was tall and ash burnt with many hurts. In a sudden barrier of a desert fleeing a rabid sun, she showed me, you are still there where we had once lived before; she showed me shadows of a vantage life from the roof of a burnt sky. She showed me suddenness that can only be you and nobody but you. And only then I rushed to drop in the closeness of oceans meeting our once long thought closeness of life itself in many of your spoken words, closeness in a narrow breath where we still belong, closeness of shadows mingling in people and people with life. We both still live in many such shadows.”
Sola Osofisan: Do you write in any language other than English?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Yes, I have written poems in Hindi and translated the poetry of Hindi poets to English
Sola Osofisan: You arrived in South Africa before the demise of apartheid. What took you to the place at a time pretty much everyone was isolating the country?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: I arrived in 1993 to the then Bantustan, Republic of Transkei. I worked as an Orthopaedic Surgeon at Umtata General Hospital. The apartheid era was in its full strength and I had to take permission to enter East London which was largely a white dominated area. I came from Zimbabwe where I was working as an Orthopaedic Surgeon at the Mpilo Central Hospital at Bulawayo. I felt the gradual rumblings of the fall of Apartheid and wanted to be there when the country celebrated its first ever democracy.
Sola Osofisan: What was witnessing that transition close up like for you as a writer, as an artist
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: The transition was immense, there was freedom. I continue to work at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, a hospital of the former Bantustan of Ciskei, situated in Mdantsane, the second biggest black township after Soweto. But with freedom came challenges. Hopes dreamt remain unfulfilled.
and the one legged man dreamt at
his prosthesis may perhaps be repaired
he probably won’t get pressure sores anymore
some socks …
he remembers a phantom leg
and the excruciating pain
more than that day
he still doesn’t understand
why they didn’t kill him
why they shot him, a black pastor
why they laughed at the end
why is liberation so precious now.
*(APLA was the armed wing of Pan African Congress)
Sola Osofisan: So, what keeps the immigrant away from the home he obviously misses so much, it almost hurts? You once said restlessness made you leave India. You’ve been in South Africa for 20yrs now. Are we to take it that your restless phase has run its course? Or a more powerful force is binding you to South Africa?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: I live in two worlds. I was associated with the African National Congress even during 1979 onwards when I helped the ANC and its Representative’s Office at New Delhi through the then Indian Government. I am passionate about politics of both these countries which bear so close a resemblance to each other. Sometimes as a mediator, I help each of them understand the socio cultural influences in political exchanges.
Sola Osofisan: Langston Hughes says “I pick up my life, and take it with me…I pick up my life and take it on the train…” You’re widely travelled. Is that the fate of all immigrants? To just pack it all up and move on to the next train station?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: That is the saddest part; an immigrant will always remain an immigrant. This triggered me to edit, Splinters of a Mirage Dawn, An Anthology of Migrant poetry from South Africa.
I remember these lines of Leonard Cohen:
And then leaning on your window sill
he’ll say one day you caused his will
to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
an old schedule of trains, he’ll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger.
Sola Osofisan: Do you plan to retire back to India?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: No, I don’t think so. I will continue to work in the field of Art and Culture in both these countries.
Sola Osofisan: You’ve been in trauma practice from the start of your career, right? Currently accident and emergency, as well as adult and pediatric rape cases? What is it about treating trauma that drew you to the field?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Trauma is our bread and butter. Treating extremes of trauma is my speciality. This comes with my military training too. I have worked with Tutsi rebels in the borders of Rwanda and Congo.
Sola Osofisan: I know things have to move quickly to save lives in the emergency room. Does that quick thinking translate to your creative work too? Do you write and paint…quickly?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Yes, I have a sketch book at my place of work where I use charcoal for quick drawings.
Sola Osofisan: Have you ever had cause to talk poetry with your patients, maybe to explore its soothing and healing qualities?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: It’s like wearing different hats. Medicine is linear yet there are proven researches where post-operative pain has been significantly reduced with soothing music as compared to opium alkaloids.
Sola Osofisan: You’ve been in South Africa for so long, you’re telling the country’s story in books like Mdantsane Breathing. Is there something about a hospital that makes one tune keenly to the pulse and people of a township like Mdantsane?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Cecilia Makiwane from Alice was the black registered nurse in Apartheid South Africa. The hospital has been declared a heritage, named after her. The township of Mdantsane is special to me as anybody and everybody knows. It’s my other home. I brought the focus of international attention by my book Mdantsane Breathing, a coffee table book of my poetry and art, to Mdantsane.
Sola Osofisan: I’m sure you’ve considered how your experience as a doctor influences the poetry and painting. What conclusions did you come to?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Poetry, Painting, Art and Medicine, they all have a common streak and that is lateral thinking. Creativity within Medicine is the demand of the day.
Sola Osofisan: As a poet and artist, it is natural to constantly think of different ways to say something, to be innovative, adventurous. Isn’t the exact opposite the reality for a physician who has to operate wholly and walk strictly within a peer-tested and approved path?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Yes, you are right. (As Doctors), we can’t operate by a different procedure but surely we can spend more time with the patient before and after the surgery. This again is a creative approach to healing. The science and art of healing depend largely on the mind and how creatively we can manipulate it for a faster healing.
Sola Osofisan: You probably will disagree, but I think the upper echelon of the medical world can be a closed, detached, stuffy circle. Did you ever receive strange stares or comments when some of your colleagues became aware that you were both artist and scientist? Where you an anomaly?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: Absolutely stuffy and belligerent to the extreme. They oppose any form of creativity within and without medicine. I don’t blame them because medicine was taught to follow a certain path. If one refuses to follow such a well-trodden path, the path itself rejects you. Eras are changing. There is a Chair for Literature and Medicine at Harvard and the University of Warwick hosts annually the Hippocrates Award for Poetry involving Medicine.
Sola Osofisan: Your footprints on the web are visible everywhere. How did your love affair with the Internet and social media get so pronounced? Is there a philosophy or strategy behind it?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: I started writing poetry from 1970 onwards. There was no internet then. I could read only a few poetry books of Indian poets published by Oxford or Cambridge. It’s important to read as much poetry as one can to keep abreast of the contemporary trends in global poetry. With the present Internet and social media, the concept of the global village applies to poetry too. One can publish and be exposed to great poetry from different countries.
Sola Osofisan: I’ve also noticed your by-line on a large number of interviews and articles with/on other writers. How do you make out time for this?
Dr. Amitabh Mitra: It’s of dire importance that up-and-coming poets need a platform for the exposure of their poetry. Interviewing them makes me understand the mind which is involved in creating such great poetry. Joining their socio-cultural backgrounds to their poetry makes their poems far more revealing to the public. I always have time for any creative phenomena.