Bengaluru-based author and poet Mani Rao has one of the most unique writing styles in the country. Her passion for poetry and words can be felt in an intense, almost tangible way when one meets her. Spending time between the US, India and Hong Kong, Rao is one of the most prolific and stylised writers of our times, with a special leaning to mythology, which she rewrites, retells or responds to myths in her work.

Self-taught, Rao has been writing poems since Class 6, back when she was just 12 years old. She studied at Kendriya Vidyalaya, where she was forced to study science in high school as humanities wasn’t an option. But any free time that she got was spent reading voraciously from the Reader’s Haven library in her colony or writing poems. “I had notebooks full of poems those days, and some of my early poems were published in the school magazine,” she shares. “I hadn’t read much poetry at this time apart from what was in the syllabus. It was only during a BA that I really became educated about literature”. Everything changed when her English professor Dr Seetha Srinivasan suggested she send her poems to Writers Workshop.

“When the founder P Lal wrote back to me saying ‘your poems are too good for Writers’ Workshop,’ I wept uncontrollably – it meant the world to me. Then, during my third year BA, I found a friend who became my reader, which was an enormous boost as he gave me honest marginal comments for every piece I wrote and I fed on every squiggle of response,” she recalls.

Asked about her writing routine, Rao says that all she does is write and write till she’s done. “I may write pages and pages and trash all but a phrase or line. Sometimes, it is a process – like warming up to get to a point when the poem begins to show itself – its germ, form, reason to be. An ideal writing season is usually full-on and not much else goes on in the mind.”

Elaborating the process behind it, she breaks into poetry:

“The void is the plate
Engraving zigzag
Fire the flare of sound through it
Voice ashen

Is this writing
Then where is my tongue
I’ve abandoned the pail and pitched my tent on seesaw water

What if I am my own witness
My ears believe each other”

With eight books of poetry and two books in translation to her name, Rao has come a long way, and experimented with different literary techniques to arrive at her own style and voice.

“There is a specific measure for each poem, and to discover that, you have to read the poem (aloud or silent), not just look at it. Line breaks are often irrelevant – I can revise the document margins for many of my poems and they will still work fine, because it’s how they roll on your tongue that matters, not how they sit on the page. I create punctuation through sound,” stated Rao, whose influences include cinema (Rainer Fassbinder, Yasujirô Ozu); French art and literature, especially surrealists; and contemporary poets like Jam Ismail, Tomaz Salamun, Robin Coste Lewis, Anne Carson, Adrienne Ho, Bhanu Kapil and Don Mee Choi.

Mani Rao's desk by Gérard Henry
Mani Rao's desk by Gérard Henry

Asked to describe her relationship with words, Rao contemplates, “Writing is most absorbing and I thirst for it. Reading I enjoy like dreaming.”

But when it comes to translation, the relationship takes on an entirely different meaning. For Rao, whose translated works include Kalidasa’s Meghadutam and rewriting the Bhagavad Gita as a poem, “the pleasures of translation are in the restraints”. “It’s like mastering a stylised dance form and yet animating it with your own body and mind, or playing or singing someone else’s musical composition and only you can do it in your particular way,” she said.

Peace Treaty

What if Helen died
Cuckold crows
Husband recalls
Body face rites

Once broad Trojan devils
Now cower in the shadows of walls
Fearing skywitnesses
Quaking at birdshit

Our boy came back
From overseas with a
Souvenir egg that ticked

A runaway wife’s a rotten prize
Unwanted alive
And dead

So how does she achieve accuracy in representing someone else’s work? “I approach it methodically, and formulate a strategy before I begin the composition – this helps me stay consistent,” she said. “For instance, the Gita translation took a year and a half. The preparation was wide: translation studies, finding my style, reading the Gita and consulting commentaries, etc. I kept aside three days a week to work on this. Kalidasa also took me a year to write.”

One would assume that with the repeated reference to mythology in her poems, especially in her ongoing collection Gods R Us, that Rao would have delved deep into Ovid, Homer and Hesiod as well as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the puranas in her growing-up years, but Rao says that on the contrary, she was uneducated in mythology. “My only exposure to Greek deities was a Pears Encyclopaedia in some mouldy shelf,” she said. “I read a translation of the Rigveda in high school and thought it absurd. My interest in Indology, mythology and early sources came much later, in my 40s.”

Iliad Blues

I like battles out at sea
Hot spur
Cold water
Blood swimming both ways
Salty meetings
Sharks due
At the end
Level blue

Her latest book, Living Mantra: Mantra, Deity and Visionary Experience Today – “an anthropology of mantra” based on her PhD dissertation research is expected to be out in November. “A project that is ongoing, slow but steady, is Bhagavad Gita – A Translator’s Notebook. I have some poems on scraps of paper here and there, but undeveloped,” she wrapped up.