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Johannes Manjrekar - on haiku and photography

An interview by Raamesh Gowri Raghavan

My interviewee is a person I share much with - a biology education, a stint at TIFR with K S Krishnan, a love of nature and now haikai literature. Though his association has been much older and much richer than mine, to emerge over time as one of India's leading haiku and haibun writers.

As he describes himself, "Johannes Manjrekar grew up mostly in Mysore, South India. Childhood love for mucking around with insects and birds eventually led to a PhD in molecular biology. Has been teaching at the Microbiology Department and Biotechnology Centre of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda for many years. Speaks six Indian languages (counting English!) and one non-Indian. In addition to haikai style writing, very enthusiastic about photography."

Interspersed with the questions are Johannes' haiku and haibun (reproduced with his kind permission).


RGR: Firstly, Dr. Manjrekar, let me ask you the obvious first question: what brought you, a practitioner of science, into haiku?

JM: The first time I heard of haiku was in J.D. Salinger’s books about the Glass family, which I read in my undergraduate days. But the first time I actually held a book of haiku in my hands – a beautifully illustrated slim volume of Basho poems, in the days before so much become accessible via the the internet – was when I was doing my Ph.D. at TIFR. It left me awed, but it was only years later that I began writing haiku, when I was already teaching in Baroda.


night walk
i slow down
near the jasmine bush

    — An Anthology of Indian Haiku


RGR: You have a particular affair with Mysore, having grown up there. Is it just because you grew up there, or can we believe there is something special to it? What of Mysore (where you've had an exhibition) lingers into your identity, and your expression?

JM: Well, we all have special attachments to where we grew up, but I think apart from that, Mysore was also a good place to spend childhood years in. It’s changed a lot, of course, but it’s one of the cities in India that still retains much of its old charm, not (so far) having completely undergone the crass, unaesthetic and citizen-unfriendly kind of “development” that most of our cities have experienced. I spend a couple of weeks there every year, so I get to rekindle old memories at regular intervals. Here’s a haibun I wrote about my earliest acquaintance with the city:

Mysore was a new world, where I saw my first out-of-zoo elephant padding down a tar road with unhurried elephantine grace and the tinkling of a brass bell. But even in Mysore elephants were not an everyday sight on the road, and there were other things to occupy one’s attention on a more routine basis. One of these were the termite hills that sprouted like little red-soil plants on the empty plots in our outskirt of the town. Determined to keep the cobras reputed to live in them from coming out and swarming all over the overground world, I took to stuffing the holes with stones. It wasn’t always easy to find stones of the right shape and size. Eventually I was dragged away by a horrified passerby, who came all the way home with me to warn my mother about what I was up to. Strictly forbidden from going near termite hills after that, I always made sure there was nobody around before continuing with my mission of keeping us humans safe from cobras.

nuptial flight –
crows and kites pick off
the winged termites


slanting sunlight
two mynahs ignore
the peacock's display

    — Temps Libres, 2007


RGR: You've published a number of haiku on insects. To me, that's very reminiscent of Kobayashi Issa, who was also fond of these little lives. Has this to do with your Ph.D. with KSK, where you must have worked with the beautiful Drosophila melanogaster? Or is it something else about them?

JM: I did work with K.S. Krishnan on Drosophila, and while fruit flies can be cruel taskmasters when you’re working for a Ph.D., that experience certainly deepened my appreciation for these little flies in particular, and insects in general. But I was already fascinated by them in childhood, and used to be an avid insect collector for a while. In high school I was convinced that my destiny in life was to be an entomologist. Here’s another haibun in which I tried to capture a bit of that childhood fascination:

On my ninth birthday I got a book on the Wonders of the Plant and Insect World. Notwithstanding the cunning ingenuity of pitcher plants and orchids, I could take or leave the plant world, but the insects had me completely in their thrall. One of the featured insects was the cicada whose unique song, the book informed its readers, was produced by a vibrating diaphragm in its abdomen. Only males had this gift, but the price they paid was that they exposed themselves to cicada-hunting wasps that would locate them by their sound, paralyse them with a sting and cart them off to serve as live food for their babies. Rough on the male cicadas, but exciting stuff for a nine-year old.

The cicadas announced their arrival every year at the same time that the gulmohur trees caught petalled fire and summer vacation began, and their shrill song persisted into the monsoon. The gulmohur flowers had uses aside from their incandescent beauty. Their stamens were edible, with a faintly sour tang. They were also good for contests in which you engaged the stamens of your flower with those of your opponent, the loser being the one whose flower was stripped of all its anthers first. Cicadas too had their practical applications. They fitted snugly inside an empty match box from which they could be extracted in class. With the lightest of squeezes they would emit a satisfying squawk that was very difficult to locate.

Decades later it seems to me that there is less cicada song in summer. Or am I not hearing it as clearly?

monsoon clouds –

the ground aflame with

gulmohur blooms


night breeze –
dogs break the softness
of the cricket’s song

    — Chai Leaves Multilingual Haiku, 28 July 2012


RGR: Your photostream chronicles nature, daily life and even the absurd. While photography may have an influence on haiku by providing subject material, I want to ask the reverse question: has the sensibility of haiku influenced how you see the world from behind the lens?

JM: Yes, I certainly think so. While I feel that the importance of the “moment” in haiku has probably been considerably exaggerated in English language haiku (and often enforced by editorial diktat), much of haiku is indeed about the fleeting nature of things, about the transient experience of the here and now. Photography is (or should I say was, before Photoshop?) inherently about capturing a moment in time, or a narrowly focussed-on segment in space. But photography is, after all, a different medium that engages different sensory and mental responses in the viewer, and can encompass a far wider range of styles and “applications” than haiku. (For instance, I don’t think haiku journalism would work too well. I’ve seen it attempts at that, but they left me unimpressed).


checkerboard paddy fields
two squares
without herons

    — Temps Libres, 2007


RGR: You have also been an activist for social causes, especially liberalism and environmentalism. While this is not the space to go into that aspect of your life, nevertheless I am tempted to ask whether this seeps into your haiku outlook too. Or do you keep them in tight silos?

JM: That’s a difficult one. I’ve had the desire to write about not only the natural world but also the social and political world, but it’s not easy. Haiku is not a form that lends itself readily (senryu notwithstanding) to social comment, leave alone polemic. I haven’t really found a way of writing “social” or “political” haiku that don’t feel stilted or strained. There is Basho’s famous warriors-and-summer-grass haiku which manages to do this, but I don’t know of all that many other haiku like that. Perhaps haibun is a better vehicle for it, and I try now and then to write haibun of that sort.


monsoon sky
the white cow
chews a milk carton

    — haijinx II:1, spring 2002


RGR: Your day job is of a professor of biotechnology at Maharaja Sayajirao University, exploring the molecular world of proteins and DNA. Does that seep into your sensibility as a writer of haiku, often associated with the countryside and open air?

Would yes and no be an answer? Thinking about the “mechanics” of life does shape your view of the living world, and makes you less inclined to see it in a completely mystical or romanticised way. But it certainly doesn’t take away the sense of wonder and beauty of life, and I think that is what lies at the heart of haiku too.


rumble of thunder
a sunbird comes darting
through the wire fence

    — Troutswirl, August 31, 2012


RGR: Alongside haiku, you have also been interested in haibun (prose + haiku) and haiga (art + haiku). How was your interest piqued in these? Your haibun, in particular, stands apart from the craft of others. As I notice it, you focus on the proximal, human picture, rather than the abstract, reflective approach preferred by others. Would you disagree or agree?

JM: Before I had ever written a haibun, I once posted a haiku that I thought made a social comment, and got some crushing criticism for it. Someone then made the suggestion that perhaps the idea could be better explored and expressed in a haibun. I didn’t sit down right away to write a haibun, but the idea stayed with me.

Eventually I did get around to trying to express things through haibun that I was unable to say in a haiku. I think haiku is at the same time a very accessible form in its simplicity, but also a very difficult form to “really” say something in. And the simplicity shouldn’t be an escape from the ability to use language well.  Basho is supposed to have said that it took him forty years to learn to write like a child. This seems similar to me to the attempts of some painters to return to child-like simplicity in their art.  But that has to be a stage that comes after mastering the craft of writing or painting, not bypassing it. I see too much of haiku that seems to fall in the latter category, and consequently I often get the feeling that haiku is vulnerable to too much over-interpretation. It’s a tricky issue, but nevertheless I’m inclined to feel that the more convincing way to haiku is through longer forms of expression which one learns to pare down to the starkest essentials, rather than to straight-away attempt to master such a highly condensed form of expression.

And of course, I think there are limits to what can be expressed in a haiku, and that is why there are longer forms that many haiku poets also resort to, tanka (still rather limited) and haibun being two such. My (strictly personal) preference with haibun is for a tight form of prose that doesn’t stray too far from my understanding of haiku aesthetics, and just as I find it difficult to relate to excessively abstract or surrealistic haiku qua haiku, I also tend to try to write haibun in a style that steers clear of too much abstraction or overt reflectiveness. If there is a great deal of disagreement about what haiku “is” or “should be”, the situation with haibun is even more hazy. Editors of haibun journals seem to be fairly open-minded, which I think is a good thing. There is a lot of experimentation with haibun, particularly because editorial rules haven’t become as narrow as with English language haiku. I don’t think it matters a lot whether you have one or more haiku in a haibun, or maybe even none at all, or whether the haiku is tangential to the prose or a direct “summary”. My own taste runs towards prose that is sparse to the point where you feel that each word pulls its own weight, and removing it would take something away from the haibun. I suppose the practice of haibun will keep evolving, and hopefully it will remain less constrained by rigid editorial preferences and prejudices about what constitutes “true” haibun and what doesn’t, than in the case of English language haiku. But haibun is both more easy than haiku in that it gives you more room and freedom to say something, and more difficult in that it places greater demands on how well you use language. With haiku written in English we can argue endlessly about whether, for instance, articles or upper case letters matter because they’re alien to Japanese or even Hindi, but if you’re writing haibun, such questions disappear; either you handle the language with skill, or you don’t.


Dusk faintness

There is just the faintest tinge of blue in the grey evening sky. The drizzle is so faint that I have to wait for a few more miniscule stabs of coolness on my skin before I’m sure it’s real. The movements of the black and white cat in my neighbour’s garden are so slow and deliberate that it’s tempting to think it too is under the spell of this crepuscular timidity.

But there’s nothing faint about the bee eaters. Though their trills are not loud, they have a bell-like clarity. Flying in purposeful squadrons, they flit back and forth across the sky in their untiring search for insects. And now the rain drops have become a little bigger and make a soft sound on the leaves…

an early cricket
announces itself

    — Ardea, Issue 3, October 2013

(Published in GLO-TALK)


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