As Good As Her Word - Ushi Kak

Brought up in a household where academic excellence was an important goal, Ushi Kak shares that she imbibed the work ethic of thoroughness and diligence from her family. She’s a graduate with a Master’s in English and American literature from Northeastern University, Massachusetts, and taught English literature at Miranda House at the University of Delhi. Also an Air Force wife, her interest lies in writing and editing.

Tell us a bit about your early life.
I grew up in the beautiful valley of Kashmir when it was synonymous with peace, tranquillity, and nature’s bounty. Though our family had a preponderance of doctors, my interests always veered towards humanities. My interest in languages was perhaps kindled by the cadence of multiple languages being spoken around me. Kashmiri, Urdu, Dogri, Hindi and English jostled for my mind space. Growing up in a world without high-tech connectivity, reading was always an obsessive engagement. Ever since then, my interest in words and their etymology has persisted. Since I can read and write Urdu, the finesse and depth accomplished through such simplicity of words in Urdu lyric poetry is very moving for me.

Though I went on to study and teach English literature, I’m still interested in other languages and ethnolinguistics. Having been an itinerant Air Force wife, I wasn’t able to have continuity in my teaching career. But what I learnt in terms of camaraderie and life lessons from the Air Force is immeasurable.

What drew you to studying English and American literature?
We were fortunate to have some very inspiring English lecturers in college in Srinagar. They nourished our imagination through a study of the classics in English literature. From poetry and drama to essays and novels, one was exposed to a world of vibrant imagination expressed in the most exquisite language. It was this interest that made me opt for postgraduate studies in English literature and take up teaching at Delhi University. My interest in American literature was aroused because of American poets like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, novelists like Norman Mailer and Steinbeck and dramatists like Henry Miller. So I did a Master’s course in American literature at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.

What do you feel are the most important qualities an editor should possess?
An editor’s task is onerous! You have to accept the bouquets along with the brickbats. If you have total command over the language with all its nuances, know your subject matter well, have a gimlet eye not to let any errors fall through the cracks, you will be on a successful trajectory as an editor.

Of all the genres you’ve read/edited, what’s your favourite?
Although I’d put poetry on a higher pedestal for pure reading pleasure as opposed to prose, editing poetry is difficult. Poetry is words chiselled to perfection, and if it is good poetry there is not much room for editing. I like fiction and non-fiction on diverse subjects. I do have a minor touch of information anxiety syndrome.

Who’s your favourite writer? And your favourite book?
Well, that’s a tough question! I’ve had different favourites at various stages of my life. But if I have to confine myself to choosing a single writer, William Shakespeare would win, hands down. I’m amazed by his richness of language and the insight into human character in his plays and poetry. Even after more than four centuries, the Bard of Avon is relevant and reigns supreme. I like his entire oeuvre. A book I have a sneaking admiration for is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Its combination of fantasy and nonsense verse is full of fun.

What’s most rewarding about what you do?
Basically, I’m a writer and I love being a wordsmith. To write and express your ideas in a voice and style that comes from your heart is a reward in itself. I love playing with words and the use of puns helps me lace my writing with humour even on serious social and political issues.  I run a Wordpress blog under a pseudonym Kashpundit; the word shows my provenance from Kashmir and that I am a ‘pundit’ in more ways than one! The writing skills come in handy in my editing tasks also.

What are your hobbies and interests?
Music and reading are my all-time interests. From Western and Indian classical music to jazz and ghazals, my interest in music is very soul-satisfying. As a college student, I learnt the sitar. Hence, Indian instrumental music also appeals to me. Reading sustains my mind and soul by giving me a window to immerse myself into other writers’ ways of looking at the world.         – as told to Sumana