Meet the Enlightening:
Kamla K. Kapur
Author of the new book:
The Singing Guru
Tell us a bit about your new book, The Singing Guru.
The Singing Guru is about an unhappy man’s journey from conflict to joy and peace. Mardana, who was historically the rababi, or rabab player (a medieval stringed instrument also called a rebec) of Guru Nanak, (1469-1539) the founding father of Sikhism, traveled with the master on his extensive journeys from India to other countries. Mardana’s odyssey, full of many dangerous adventures, parallels his spiritual and psychic journey from the animal end of the human spectrum to a man in the process of transformation and liberation.What inspired you to write a novel about the life and travels of Guru Nanak?
My father always wanted me to write this book. I grew up in a fairly traditional Sikh family. My mother is one of the many sixteenth generation descendants of Guru Nanak and I heard a lot of the stories that are embedded in the larger narrative arc of the book. I am eclectic about spiritual wisdom, and glean it from all sources. I have written two books from the Hindu and Muslim traditions: Ganesha Goes to Lunch (now reprinted in India as Classics from Mystic India) and Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road (published in India as Pilgrimage to Paradise: Sufi Tales from Rumi). This eclecticism and egalitarianism is an integral part of Sikhism. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, contains the songs of seven Sikh gurus, including Guru Nanak, who composed and sang, and the songs of fifteen Hindu and Sufi saints. Guru Nanak’s definition of a religious person is “one who looks on all as equal.” Brotherhood and sisterhood of all on this planet is Sikhism’s basic tenet; music is at its heart. What better subject to write about than one I resonate with?Who do you think would most appreciate this book?
Sikhs, obviously, because the old, hackneyed stories they grew up with have become uninteresting clichés. My book shows Guru Nanak in a new, modern light, highlighting his spiritual relevance even today. I hope it will be of particular interest to the younger generation of Sikhs who will be able to relate to their roots in a new way. It will also be of value to those interested in Eastern spirituality and the oriental tale. The book comes from a different, an unknown tradition whose nondenominational approach to spirituality and joyous acceptance of all aspects of life is particularly relevant in today’s fragmented and conflicted world. The book will also appeal to any spiritual seeker who wishes to know about a wonderful new (yet obscure) religion and to learn very simple truths that make the difference between suffering and joy, between living life blindly, or with awareness. The word ‘Sikh’ means a devotee and disciple of the ultimate Guide of all Guides, a student who is always eager and passionate to learn how to grown into his or her full potential as a true and conscious human being. Guru Nanak’s definition of a religious person is simply someone who treats all as equals. This is a lesson we all need to learn, over and over again.Thomas Hoover, author of “Zen Culture and The Moghul,” compares “The Singing Guru” to “The Odyssey.” Did you set out to write a novel with such an epic scale? Or did it just develop that way as you wrote?
It was a combination of both. When you begin writing a book you don’t really know what direction it is going to take. It is still in an inchoate state. At least, that’s how I work, not with a plan, but with a vague idea that then becomes amenable to a plan. After a lot of trial and error it begins to take form, and it is at this stage that your knowledge of works that have influenced you comes to your aid. Thomas Hoover’s response pleased me tremendously and I am happy that he made the connection. But the epic scale is inbuilt into the book. The Singing Guru is the first book of the Sikh Saga. I plan to carry the story through another nine generations – which, in fact, is how it panned out historically. I did not realize while I was writing The Singing Guru that I had stumbled on the mother lode.You have written in other genres. What is the primary difference between writing for the stage and writing a novel, for example?
I write in all genres – plays, poetry, essays, fiction. The subjects, ideas, feelings, characters that interest me, come with their own forms. The subjects with the most psychic or social conflict come to me as plays. Conflict lends itself well to dialogue because there are two or many more opposing points of view. This is not to say that plays are only about disembodied opposing points of view. Characters, embodying the conflict, are central to what happens on the stage. Since plays progress through dialogue and action, and since their performance has a communal interface, they are pared down to something that can take place in a few hours. Plays are much more time-bound, dense, and compact. Fiction, on the other hand, can ramble, something I like to do. They can include description, thoughts (which can also be expressed as soliloquies in plays), meditations, cogitations, philosophizing in addition to dialogue and character. Fiction is the most capacious of the genres and I love it for these reasons. But of course, you have to be careful not to abuse its freedom to the point of boring your readers. Art, above all, is the imposition of limits on nature, and you have to be aware of this if a project is to succeed – by which I mean, find its audience. Matters of the heart and soul are best suited for Poetry, which goes deeper into the human spirit than the other genres. It is a soliloquy of the soul with itself. Having said this, though I have never had to debate about whether a particular subject should be expressed in a play or fiction or poetry – like I said, they come clothed in their forms – I use the strengths of each genre in the others as well. Dialogue is an integral part of my fiction because dialogue, more than any other technique, propels the story into the present, makes it come alive in the Now. My last book of poems, As a Fountain in a Garden, is one long monologue, comprised of smaller ones, and is in the form of a dialogue between a woman and the ghost of her husband who committed suicide.How was the process of writing “The Singing Guru” different from that of the other books you’ve written?
The subject is different, the process remains the same. Having said that, I have to admit that initially there was a lot of anxiety in me about writing it. A writer above all must have no allegiances except to truth as he or she sees and experiences it. “Truth,” (I wish I could remember who said it), “has no moorings.” Having said that, I have to admit that my survival has depended upon just such a mooring, my faith as I practice it: gurbani, the words of the Sikh Gurus and Bhagats in the Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Words have been my salvation, whether the ones I write and explore through the process of writing, or the words of the Gurus. When you have two competing loyalties of two equally important allegiances, there is bound to be conflict. It was this: do I write this book as an idolater? Though this was never an option, I did mistake it for one frequently while writing this book. It was made more complex by the knowledge that Sikhs, like upholders of any other religion, can be quite possessive of their own canons and do not brook disagreement or other interpretations. I have to admit that there was some fear. I had to finally accept and acknowledge to myself that I am a writer, first and foremost. My primary allegiance is to the God of Writing, and I belong (in my husband, Payson R. Stevens’s words) to the Nation of Writers. Guru Nanak also conceived of God as the Arch Writer, the Playwright of the drama of life.Where can potential readers learn more about “The Singing Guru?”
I will have a website for the book shortly where I will do blogs about the book and related areas. In the meantime, there is a lot about the book, a sample chapter, the introduction to the book, on my website: www.kamlakkapur.comWhat do you have in mind for your next writing project?
I am currently finishing up the first volume of a fantasy, Malini in Whirlwood that has been in the making for forty years! I have also written about half of the next book of the Sikh Saga, called The Dancing Guru.Is there anything else you’d like potential readers to know about The Singing Guru?
I would like to talk a little bit about Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhs. He reunited mankind with the forces of nature. He said of himself that he had no more caste or race than wind or fire; he blasted through the petty, parochial, limited, superstitious, and encrusted version of God, cut through the delusions and ignorance that separate humans from each other, saw through the skin of appearance to the light that informs every breathing thing, shattered the prescriptions and constrictions of rituals and idolatry, and sought at the source the transcendent and immanent energy infused through the micro- and macrocosm. Nanak’s is a personal, direct, and unmediated Way that places no barriers between the lover and the Beloved. In his songs, Nanak rends the perceptual veils that blind us to the truth that the Lord of the cosmos and the human heart are one. His message is very relevant to us today.