Mani Rao

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:26am

WORLDS IN TEXTS It all comes together in religion for me: history, sociology, psychology, communication, mythology, anthropology, neuroscience ... and poetry: for all the religious texts, the Koran, Bible and Vedas ... are poems. I have tremendous respect for the intimate and intense testimony of religious experience. I find no other word, idea, figure or experience as awesome, complex, mysterious or worthy of attention as 'God'. As a writer, I am interested in the expression of the ineffable. And I am attracted to texts that stand as witnesses and records of human contact with this mystery.

Because of what we know today about processes, we are less prone to awe. The 'subconscious' has entered language and seems to have explained everything away, but it has really explained nothing. If you consider what the Vedas seemed to know, 2,500 years later, one wonders, have we moved backwards, are we slowly reconstructing what we have forgotten? There are worlds buried under texts.

HAPPY DAYS My childhood was [spent] in suburban-style colonies around nuclear-power projects; my father worked for the Indian Department of Atomic Energy. My memories are idyllic; swimming, table tennis, casuarina groves, an open-air [cinema], to school on a bicycle - and safe streets in which to attempt bicycle stunts, a local library, a monthly drive to big city Madras, where I spent my whopping pocket money of 25 rupees to buy books. An outhouse appropriated to conduct secret-society meetings ? la Enid Blyton novels. Gardens laden with fruit and, naturally, snakes and monkeys. I began writing when I was 12 years old. It was where I could think and say things I couldn't say to anyone else. I read fiction but wrote poetry.

My close school friends went on to [study] engineering and medical sciences; I chose literature. My mother was disappointed - her son was an engineer and she would have liked her daughter to become a medical doctor. Dad asked, 'How do you plan to make a career out of that?' I responded I'd have to figure it out but literature it had to be, for writing was what did it for me. The girls in college were chic and sophisticated - they'd studied Shakespeare in high school whereas I had plenty of catching up to do, coming from a background of science subjects. I was a goodie-good front-bencher and bookworm.

MOVING ON After college, my only career options were journalism and advertising. I knew I'd be a hopeless journalist, so I became a copywriter. I worked in Madras and then Bombay. The anonymity of the city gave me the space for conducting my rebellions.

I love Hong Kong's energy [Rao moved here in 1993]. I was impressed by and felt at home with the work ethic and sense of professionalism, speed and focus. I found it compact and peculiar, a city-nation. I felt 'local' quite quickly and saw myself as a Hongkonger. I freelanced writing promos for MTV then for Channel [V], and joined Star TV as an advertising director in the print creative department. Nine years and some seven different job functions later, my role in the company was as the senior vice-president for marketing and corporate communications. As my career took off, my spare time and personal happiness reduced dramatically.

THE PRACTICE OF TRUTH Some time in 2003, my marriage went bust and my career lost motivation and meaning - I was confused. I quit my job in 2004, began to write more intensely and got into meditation. I was meditating eight to 10 hours a day and entertained thoughts of retreating into an ashram, but couldn't go all the way. I wanted to get into the practice of truth, which also meant no returning to the only profession I was qualified in: advertising and marketing. What I still had left was writing, so I went deeper into that. I spent some months in Vancouver and London - living next to libraries, reading and writing. [New book] Ghostmasters includes much of the writing done at that time.

I [studied writing in the United States] then thought I could buy some thinking-time and stay ostensibly occupied by getting a [master of fine arts degree] in poetry, for it would also qualify me to teach and support myself with a harmless profession. I studied translation theory [and] Sanskrit and began translating the [Hindu scripture] Bhagavad Gita - stylistically somewhat different than previous translations [and soon to be published]. As I am about to join a PhD in religious studies, it seems my interest in literature and religious studies now converge.

I'm still a Hong Kong permanent resident, I just have had one reason or the other to keep coming back [to the US].

A SOOTHING TONGUE I am not at that level in Sanskrit [where I can write poetry] but poetics is a major area within Sanskrit. Sanskrit soothes me intimately. I feel at home listening to mantras and articulating them. Its alphabet is systematic - pronunciation and script not divergent. It is a root language and fascinating in many ways. At first glance, it would appear as if the language is passive: walking is done by her, the is-ness of the chair. Weird when literally translated into English but the apparent passivity of Sanskrit hides a hyperactivity; what is highlighted is the action. The subjects are the instruments or agents, not the initiators.

WORD FLOW Writing is a constant. I consider myself as writing even when I'm not physically writing. All experience is 'material' but first it is sublimated into oneself. As for the actual physical activity, if I am in the throes of a text, I'll be at it for hours, or days, and my attention is unavailable for anything else that is demanding. I jot ideas on a notepad as they surface. As a young writer, I used to write daily and even kept a notepad under my pillow so as to not lose a single idea in case I dreamed of one. Now I'm more relaxed and let ideas that come in the wind also blow away in the wind. I feel a more realised self is more important than the writing as activity, for writing is only as radiant as you are.

Mani Rao will give two readings this week from her new book, Ghostmasters (available from and Bookazine); on Wednesday, 8pm at Fringe Club (2 Lower Albert Road, Central, tel: 2521 7251) and on Thursday, 6pm, at Bookazine (Prince's Building, Central, tel: 2555 0431).