Interview and words by Shristi Jaiswal
Nothing lasts forever. It is one of the foremost laws of nature. No matter how tightly one holds onto people or even things, no matter how much we crave their presence, things break, people leave, eventually everything dissolves into the oblivion, reminisced only by the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. However, persistence is human nature and we, the most tenacious of all species have developed ways to find a loophole in the most rigid of all laws. We like to preserve- to create things that last in order to give us a sense of meaning in our fleeting mortal lives.
Art promises us forever. This is one of the reasons why the love an artist has for their art is something that is considered pure, untarnished, almost sacred. Every form of art has this, if I may, magic, that takes place of a significant being all the while providing love, meaning, maybe more to its creator. It is the one thing in our transient world that may sometimes flicker, but is present evermore.
Megha Rao, a Mumbai based writer (who more than often spends her time in Kerala especially while in the process of writing her book), is one such artist who has found her true love in writing. Voicing her thoughts through beautiful verses, she has captivated the unwavering attention of many. Churning moments from her past coloured by the fragrance of nostalgia, she writes compositions that would leave you sitting on your bed staring at the wall for hours on end. From feminism to self-love stretching all the way to instances where we find ourselves unloved or forgotten, her poems come as a comforting truth to prove to you that you are not alone or in the words of Megha herself, you are “still a person even if you’ve forgotten how to live.”
Did you always have a vision of turning writing into a credible profession or was it something serendipitous?
I think almost every little kid has this one unambiguous dream of growing up and doing something that they enjoy and love unconditionally. They don’t really think beyond that or even care what other people might think of it. It’s a dream untouched by the fundamentals of society. Becoming a bestselling author was one such dream of mine. However, after I graduated from college it hit me that I won’t be able to become a full time writer anytime soon because, as enticing as it sounded, it was tremendously difficult. So for a while I stayed home, I wrote, I painted and soon after, I joined a media company for a year. One day I got an unexpected DM asking me to perform my poetry. I was a really shy and an introverted person so at first I declined but then they asked me if they could get my permission for someone else to recite my poetry. Instantly I answered, that isn’t happening. I didn’t want anyone else to perform something that I had written. Spoken poetry was something very new to me but anyways I decided it was at least worth a shot. Eventually with time I realised that it had its own opportunities and was indeed quite glamorous! Soon- though it was risky- I quit my job to pursue my passion full time. Therefore, I would say that I never intended for things to happen this way but I also didn’t completely discount it. I never saw this coming but I am glad that it did.
Is writing for you an outlet to make sense of the world or rather an escape?
For me it started out as an escape because I was dealing with a lot of trauma while in college. Writing was definitely my coping mechanism at that time and if I could say, my only friend. In hindsight, I still occasionally wonder about how I managed to get through college, but it was definitely writing that helped me through and for sure what changed my life. I would write my own narrative of things happening and that itself felt very powerful because it gave me the ability to tell my own story instead of reading someone else’s distorted version. So writing started out as a coping mechanism/escape for me when reality itself felt hard but now, it is also a portal to connect with like-minded people. To conclude, art and I have come a long way and we know each other very well! I share a very sacred and personal relationship with it and I don’t think I can ever be in love with anything else- be it a person or a place- as much as I am in love with writing. I don’t expect anything in return from it and I think that’s really important for an artist.
“I don’t think I can ever be in love with anything else- be it a person or a place- as much as I am in love with writing.”
What in your view would you say holds deeper roots and is ever lasting, platonic relationships or romantic relationships?
Honestly for me, I find platonic relationships to be more lasting. I think people give a lot of weightage to romantic relationships but I feel friendships can be romantic too. For instance, I buy my friends flowers, I treat them with love and respect by making time for them and letting them know their importance in my life. Friends and family are so important but sadly underrated. I feel romantic relationships have their beauty and I truly believe that both these relationships are beautiful and precious in their own way.
Your writing includes several nostalgic references, so how do experiences from your past help you write poems as an ode to a future uncoloured by the vices in society?
I definitely borrow a lot of personal experiences from my past. I do that quite subconsciously but also because it is something I could never do if, let’s say I was sitting in a room talking to a bunch of people. I can be both vague and honest about my personal experiences through poetry. Referring to instances from my own past- firstly, helped me cope through my trauma and secondly we can’t expect people to go through something and not deal with it after. I think writing is the healthiest and the safest coping mechanism and I can vouch for that. I guess this feeling definitely contributes towards my own growth in the future. As far as society is concerned, a lot of the experiences that have happened to me are because of this world and you can’t hurt somebody and then shut them up. For me, therefore, writing and thereby healing is something that is extremely very raw and real.
“I find platonic relationships to be more lasting. I think people give a lot of weightage to romantic relationships but I feel friendships can be romantic too.”
Your poem ‘Don’t compartmentalise me’ voices how women are subjected to change themselves to fit into society’s definition of the so called “ideal women.” What message would you give to all those reformed feminist who have previously suffered from the hands of misogyny?
Don’t beat yourself up because of it. I think a lot of us have this pressure to be perfect feminists. We are all growing and we sure make mistakes along the way. For instance when I was trying to fit myself into society’s definition of an “ideal women” I was still a feminist, but back then I didn’t realise that I was being a bad example of one. In the moment when you have fallen for someone you don’t stop to think “oh this is wrong!” One just thinks of ways to make them like us. If they like someone who is independent we try to embody that. There are moments when you cannot help it. Eventually there comes a time when you stop and realise that “Wait, I’m not being myself!” For them to like you they should at least get to know the real you and not some filtered version of what they would like us to be. I think learning about your own identity is a journey and a process that a lot of feminists still undergo. When you realise that you’ve been a bad feminist through the years, one goes through a lot of pain and some very necessary changes. So I would just like to say that don’t be ashamed. The key is to never stop evolving and to accept and learn from our mistakes along the way.
Apart from writing what other art forms do you practise?
I paint a lot. It is therapeutic for me, especially body painting. My parents hate it but I really love it! I can’t promise anyone anything when it comes to my art. I tell people that they can ask me to change anything about myself, but when it comes to my art it is entirely my own. It is very beautiful for me to watch the paint being washed away. I read somewhere that even destruction is creation. I found that to be very profound. Even during my college days I would spend days painting murals. Sometimes I would stand on a bench all day or even all night to paint something only to see it being white washed after a while. So body painting gives me this sense of control that only I can wash away my art whenever and however I feel like. It’s a very cleansing process for me as it helps me deal with things that happened years ago. That, I think is the purpose of art, not to make things that are lasting but to make things that make you feel better or even feel worse! You feel worse just so you can feel better after.
Currently as the whole world in under lockdown, how or where do you find the inspiration for writing?
I read a lot. Every time I feel like I cannot write I stop, I don’t force myself, I shouldn’t. Art is something that, as Charles Bukowski said it should be bursting out of you and if it doesn’t don’t do it. I stand by that. When I force myself to write, it always sounds repetitive like something I’ve written before, especially during this time. I understand that travel really helps gain a new sight and learn about new experiences but now that I cannot do that I’ve being going through episodes of writing well or not writing at all. I’m leaning more towards reading. I enjoy reading poems written by other artists; it opens my mind and gives me a set of my own ideas. Apart from that I am easy on myself; I know my art is never going to leave me.
“That, I think is the purpose of art, not to make things that are lasting but to make things that make you feel better or even feel worse!”
Your debut book ‘Music to Flame Lilies’ had the theme of magic realism. What made you connect to this genre of writing?
I always connect with everything that I write. Fantasy is a genre that stands on creating a completely different world but for me, I always had one foot in reality and the other in my imagination. That definitely led me toward this genre of magical realism. I read everything but magical realism is this one genre that stuck with me. That way I still get to talk about existing places and situations but I can add a little colour of my own to it. I think that’s really important when living in a grey world.
What do you love most about being a writer?
In general I’m a very introverted person but I try not to be when I’m performing and have people coming up to me after the show. Inherently, I do prefer to be in my room in order to read and write. So my favourite part of being a writer is the creative process. I love when I’m writing something new and experimental. I love being in the zone where I’m with my ideas and am in the process of making sense of them while piecing them together.
What are the books that you believe have altered the way you look at life?
For one, Harry Potter! Those books started my habit of reading. I love Crush by Richard Siken. It’s a very beautiful book of poetry. Next, I really like Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. That too is a very beautiful book. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is another book that happens to be my favourite literary fictions of all times. It’s so relevant and calling it just beautiful wouldn’t do it justice. Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut really spoke to me because I understood through that book what I was going through. Everyone else thought it to be depressing but not me! It made so much sense and since then I became a huge fan of Vonnegut. I even started watching his lectures. It was really surprising for me because his books are so serious and ironically, he is a hilarious person!
An artist, living or dead, you admire the most?
Frida Kahlo! Also, I would really love to meet Lorde, she’s my favourite singer.
How have your own experiences with mental health help you write poems highlighting the same?
I would never tag myself as a mental health poet. I read about it sure, but I don’t usually write much about them mainly because I haven’t been through many of the same. However the ones that I do write about are based on my personal experiences with PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder). I think it is a very significant part about me but I never put myself in the position of only writing about mental health, I shouldn’t. Mainly because, though it is a part of me, it doesn’t define me. Having said that I did write about PTSD for catharsis and it ended up being relatable for many- although I really wished that it wasn’t, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to have gone through trauma. I think that’s what poems are about. It doesn’t just talk about what one’s going through but rather, now that I’ve gone through it, how do I take care to it? I think that’s an important conversation. There’s a stigma about it, yes but more than anything you need to distance yourself from people you consider are toxic for you and focus on yourself.
“I don’t think one should romanticise absolutely everything but I do believe a healthy romanticising appetite is good for everybody.”
Do you believe in romanticising life?
Yes. I’m a poet and I don’t think there’s any other answer to that. When you are romanticising anything you are trying to look for beauty in it and mainly that’s good. You can romanticise about flowers, sky, people, friendship and all of that, however it becomes a problem when you romanticise something that’s toxic. Like people romanticising Van Gogh’s mental health issues or people romanticising the tortured artist or them romanticising Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Well, that’s not fair. I think when you do that you are telling people that it’s something great and beautiful when it is definitely not. So I don’t think one should romanticise absolutely everything but I do believe a healthy romanticising appetite is good for everybody because, well, I’m not a cynic, I’m a romantic and I pretty proud of it.
Can you describe to us your publishing process?
I have an agent whom I send my manuscripts too. They write to several publications and submit the query letter along with the manuscript. It usually takes a month or so before they get back to us. About how I got my agent, I sent him a synopsis of my book and he liked it and then we sent it to an editor at a publishing house. That’s how it all started; I was eighteen at that time.
Can you share with us something about yourself not known to your readers?
When I was a little girl, I was a big collector of stamps. It was this hobby that got lost at some point in time but all the same I really enjoyed it. I have a big book of numerous stamps; I don’t think I have ever told anyone about it.
A destination you consider a writer’s heaven?
Mussoorie in Uttarakhand and Barcelona, though watch out for the pickpocketers!
Are all your poems the first draft or do you spend a considerable amount of time editing them?
Earlier, I used to write them without checking again though I did go back once but just to check for grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. Lately, I’m not so impulsive anymore. I take my time and ask myself how I can improve it or to see if it is repetitive or not. Now I edit quite a bit.
Any quote you want to leave us with?
There is this one by Rumi, You have seen my descent. Now watch my rising.
So the next time
they talk about us romantics
tell them we are more than
daydreams about finding soul mates
about wearing our hearts on our
sleeves at first sight like in the movies
tell them we see love in everything
but most importantly, in ourselves
and so every time I bring you fresh flowers,
know that I grow gardens
in my backyard
-Megha Rao (A verse from one of her poems uploaded on Instagram)