From the Editor’s Note

Nabina Das

They say memories make our art and writing. But all along the pandemic of 2020 and now into 2021, my personal experience has been of gradual memory-less-ness. Even attaching pre- and post- to talk about our experiential accounts of the Covid-19 scourge, it has not illuminated much of my memory.

Every day I tried to think hard of the times I’ve spent in the blue-green open, among joyous milling crowd, in sweet love-locked positions, holding and cooing at young ones, speaking and singing even with strangers, marching in rallies, and travelling to see faraway dawns and shores. But my memory failed me, or let’s say, failed to spark any spontaneous creativity in me.

It became a task for me to imagine a blemish-free disease-free period in my life and the visual frames seemed to fade away. I write about these personal hurdles here as my dissent, a political stance.

In this stark period, I also lost people I trusted from two decades ago, those that unfortunately could not sense my bodily and intellectual anguish. As the editor of this significant anthology, my journey therefore has been painful. I felt unless there was an empathetic environment of kindness and unquestioning support that has our backs to regain creative balance, there would be no point in continuing as a poet or editor.

True, I merely wrote poems about garlic pods, the constant sky from my balcony where I was confined, and sanitiser swipes all over surfaces. And finally, in that, I have found the slow path to love, the biggest dissent!

It is true then, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master!” Amid this haplessness, one thing did not fade out for me, whether in the framework of memory or of immediate happenings. And it was seeing people’s reactions to structural oppression, discrimination, injustice, and violence inflicted all around, all of it institutionalised for centuries. That consciousness never withered from my senses.

Not for a moment I could let the overwhelming sense of rage, love, and healing subside from my head. One might say, these feelings are archival. Although, what I’ve seen first-hand, living in these times fraught with aggression and denial, is that even archives of history and culture and coexistence are being plundered by the powers that be. Poetry was not to be lost in this inferno: ik aag kā dariyā hai aur duub ke jaanā hai...

From the Introduction

Nirupama Dutt

Chop off every tongue if you may
the words have been uttered...

Words reach out with a rare rage, urgency, indignation, and angst as poets turn witness to dissent across the length and breadth of the sub-continent in contemporary poetry in this colossal anthology containing 250 poets. Penned in different languages and touching a wide range of subjects, words rise out of the despair to mark a dissent with the scheme of things.

These words are not mere words but the anguish and despair of a people with whom poetic dissent has been a way of life for thousands of years. The rhythms of doubt, debate, and resistance date back to the Vedic times, move onto the medieval times, and are prominently present even now when the popular perception of the poet as the witness is reaffirmed in no uncertain terms.

Amid the vast array of poems from different nooks and corners of the country, those declared and other undeclared disturbed areas, from the Brahmaputra in the Northeast to the Liddel River steaming forth through the Kashmir highlands, this book showcases striking voices that arrest the ears.

From the lilt of the Adivasi tea-garden dialect of Assam, to Dehwali Bhili, Santhali, Kokborok, and several Indian languages rendered in English, as well as Englishes from diverse poets, this anthology captures the essence of many registers in India. The strident tones and images draw the attention of the complacent middle class and the privileged as a reminder of what tragedies have been wreaked by the enablers upon the people of the land.

Whether it is the cries of starving children, or digital blockades of a people calling for azaadi, bullets to the head and heart, blood stains and tears, women battered and erased, or choices of love and food, the poets turn witness to the times in this vast collection to the events that have been unfolding before us day after day on themes related to oppression.

Be it religion, gender, caste, creed, mental health, diversity, as well as pride and prejudice of all kinds that enveloped the sub-continent like never before in recent times, the poets in this collection have come together like never before, their voices united. While some of the major names of contemporary poetry grace this anthology, there are several new and emerging names from different parts of the country – new poets who usually are swept away by the tide of hegemony even in literary arenas – who have had the courage of standing witness to the atrocities of the times.

Poet Parul Khakhar’s “Shav Vahini Ganga” (Ganga the Flowing Hearse) which we read when this book was already completed, resonated with our inner cry of O Ganga tumi, Ganga boichho keno (O Ganga why do you flow on). Memory indeed fights forgetting in Witness by Red River through poetic testimonies, exactly as poet-anthologist Carolyn Forché had compiled in her anthology, on which Nelson Mandela showered these pertinent words: “Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality – thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard.”

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Editor’s Note’, by Nabina Das, and the ‘Introduction’, by Nirupama Dutt, from Witness: The Red River Book of Poetry of Dissent, edited by Nabina Das, Red River.