Like the quintessential poet, Anamika wears all her learning – her many degrees in English and Hindi literature – lightly, reserving her intensity for when she talks, passionately, about narratives and the craft of language. While she works as a professor, and has published acclaimed novels, essays, multiple volumes of literary criticism and some of the finest translations from world literature into Hindi (she works felicitously in two languages), it is poetry that remains her first love.

Our bookish conversation began with “playing hopscotch”, reflected on the breast-feeding versus bottle-feeding debate, touched upon the power of oral accounts handed down from grandparents, delved into Hindi readership, and ended with Anamika’s spirited selection of five must-read pre-modern texts in Hindi. Excerpts:

I have been absolutely charmed by a phrase you once used in the context of your bilingual writing life: you said that you “play hopscotch” between your two worlds
[Laughs] That is right.

Because that’s what you do. You teach English literature to graduate students [in Satyawati College, Delhi University] and you write in Hindi. You are in a unique position to be a bridge between the two literary worlds.
That is, in fact, what I have been trying to do all my life. Building bridges. Between genders, classes, castes. Between the classical and the popular. And between the languages I work in, especially English and Hindi.

Are there any other languages you know?
I know many of the dialects of Hindi, and I know Bangla. Ektu ektu. Having lived in Delhi all these years, I know some Punjabi. And of course, Sanskrit. I’ve learnt Sanskrit. But chiefly, Hindi and English are my two homes. There is the story of this little squirrel in the Ramayana, you know? All the animals help to build the bridge from Rameshwaram to Lanka, and the little squirrel, too, wants to help.

So she runs around with some little material – a few strands of straw perhaps? – balanced on her whiskers! I am convinced that there is this little squirrel inside me. And I really want to build bridges. That’s my primary instinct. In families, too, it is women who build bridges and link generations to each other.

In any English literature classroom in India, there are students from so many different linguistic backgrounds. My aim is to get them to think about the sources – the way you are asking me about the books that shaped my psyche – in their own languages. What folktales, what lullabies, what stories have they inherited from their grandparents? Could they retell these in the classroom? That is usually my first exercise in class. Write about anything you can remember from your own language.

Unfortunately, now most of them are no longer able to write in their mother tongues. That has gone, since, thanks to the telephone, there is no longer the need of writing letters to their parents or grandparents. My primary concern, as a teacher and a writer, is to send them back to their ethos, and enrich English in the process.

When Raja Rao writes, he brings the rhythm of Kannada into English. Some people are bottle-fed, some are breast-fed. One doesn’t make any distinctions because there are various conditions in life that shape people. People who are breast-fed by their mother tongue are different; people who are bottle-fed English work differently. [Laughs].

I love this analogy!
At least most of them still speak in their mother tongues. They also hear their mother tongues. Films, serials, songs. So at least they learn to build these inter-textual dialogues...

In their heads. Right.
I encourage them to transplant what they remember to a modern context, and re-tell it in another language. English or whichever other language. A lot of those from migrant families, who might have studied in government schools, still want to write in their mother tongues. They’ve kept their contact with the mother tongue still live. These are the ones who are also connected to the working classes more. Because one of the disadvantages of knowing only English is that you can’t chat freely with someone from the working classes, your street vendors or fellow travellers in the local bus.

You are trapped in the ivory tower of English.
These [strangers you speak to in the Indian languages] are the people who will give you the raw material for literature. What I am saying is so what if your mother language is not your first language. It can still feed you.

That’s a lovely, inclusive thought. Taking off from there, would you like to share with our readers an essential list of must-read books in Hindi – books that will, to carry forward our analogy, feed and nourish them? Even when read in translation!
Oh yes.

Meanwhile, who are Hindi readers? People who retire from the different services, women (all generations!), and people who are under-employed or unemployed...

That would include students?
Yes, right. These are the people who really read Hindi literature.

This is an interesting grouping. I wonder how this might compare with readers of Bengali, Marathi or Tamil literature...but if you must pick out five must-read texts, which would these be?
Actually, I want to talk about some of the older texts, my favourites, though, of course I have a great deal of love for contemporary literature too. But hardly anyone talks about these. So, here goes.

The Poetry of Vidyapati

Considered the wellspring for not only Hindi, but also early Bengali and Maithili literature, and – to a lesser extent – Odia and Nepali, the poetry of Vidyapati has been one of the most powerful influences on me. For me, specifically, his writings on women who are left behind. That is the perspective, for instance, of the gopis, who have been left behind by Krishna (we’ll come to the same theme in Surdas’s Bhramar Geet, again).

In fact, the whole world of women who are left behind, whether in war or peace, is very important. Consider this image: the return of a lame horse. That is such a powerful metaphor for a husband who has been lost. Or, a deserted bazaar. One of Vidyapati’s lyrics, “Piya moraa baalak, ham taruni geh”, is still sung.

At eight, once a girl became “Gauri” she would have to be married off. If her father was not wealthy, it could be to a young child or even a plant! Even a baby could be her husband. This girl, who’s been married to a baby, says, how can I raise you? I don’t have the right kind of resources. And when you begin to play with the nuances, you can say that women must “raise” their husbands to new spiritual heights. That is the import.

But Vidyapati’s deeply sensuous verses about the love of Radha and Krishna in Braj, in the tradition of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, continue to surprise, with the beauty and tenderness of their imagery.

The Bijak of Kabir

One of the greatest Bhakti saints of the sub-continent, the weaver-scholar Sant Kabir left behind a legacy shared by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. While his songs are still popularly sung and widely read, even in schools, the Bijak text is the most sophisticated, and very difficult to translate.

Considered one of the foundational texts in early Hindi, the Bijak, divided into eleven segments, is replete with Hatha Yoga symbolism. Beautiful images, as rich and complex as in John Donne’s Divine Meditations abound. Donne talks of “the bride of Christ” in his Holy Sonnet (no. 18); Kabir says, “ghunghat ke pat khol re tohe piya milenge”.

There is also the deep mysticism in the playful ulat bansis, the pithy wisdom contained in an upside-down language that seem to suggest the very opposite of what they really mean. In short, delving into the works of Kabir, especially the Bijak, is the exercise of a lifetime really. Every year added to your life will reveal a new layer in the text.

Bhramar Geet, Surdas

This is a very lively, chatty text where the gopis are hooting at Uddhav, the “man of wisdom” as it were. He is smugly preaching to these gopis – that there is no point whiling away your time, waiting for Shri Krishna to return, he’s busy doing better things in Mathura, he’s not going to come back to dance with you or engage in leela again, forget him, go home, get busy with your own lives.

Now, in India, our tradition is to not be rude to a guest. So, the gopis don’t exactly tell him off. But what they do is, they summon a bumble bee, a bhramar.

They address the bhramar, but are really replying to Uddhav’s charges and unnecessary advice. A very witty conversation follows, full of repartee and jokes. Humour, after all, is a great leveller. At one point, saying, “Aaye kaun bado vyaapaari?” they call Uddhav a merchant, one who comes with a scale in his hand. All the women speak in one voice, so it’s a very interesting chorus. They come up with different narratives, recording their individual moments with Krishna, collectively.

The other reason this is one of my favourite texts is that gopis are still in deep viraha; however, while responding to the stranger, they use their minds and their wits. So, in a sense, they are also responding to the allegation that women don’t use their brains, that they don’t display a logical bent in framing narratives. So on and so forth. Bhramar Geet is a very rational text, and thus is a response to that entire school of thinking that women are too emotional.

Vinay Patrika, Tulsidas

Everyone knows about Ramcharitmanas. Instead, I’d like to choose Vinay Patrika by Tulsidas. It’s a very genuine sort of utterance, where Tulsidas speaks to Sita.

(Quick aside. You remember, in Ramacharitmanas, Tulsidas ignores a lot of the controversial elements of Valmiki’s text? There is no explusion of Sita, for instance. Shambuka-vadh, that is, the instance of the Dalit being hanged because he’d read the Vedas – that story is also rejected. You have it in some versions of the Ramayana. These are the real aporias in the text. The mistakes of our forefathers bear heavy on us, don’t they? One can actually feel Tulsidas’s pain at some of the things Valmiki has ascribed to Rama – so much pain that he edits it all out!)

In Vinayapatrika, he makes up for it by speaking to Sita with great humility. He says, whenever Rama is in a good mood, Sita, please would you give him this letter I have written to him?

You know how wives are always the best judges of the opportune moment to introduce someone to their husbands? That’s the charming entry point into the text.

It has some wonderful lines. My favourite is:

“Daasat hi gayi beet nisaasat/kabahun naath neend-bhar soyo”.

(All night I kept dressing the bed, when did I get to sleep?)

The sense is zindagi beet gayi jeene ki taiyari mein. I spent my life preparing to live. All night I tuned my guitar, when did I get an opportunity to sing?

Tulsidas, the plaintiff on behalf of all humanity, has many enquiries – moral, metaphysical, real-world – all kinds of questions which he wants Ram to answer. But then he also says, if he doesn’t have time, Sita, then maybe you can answer my questions. Alongside the Ramcharitmanas, Vinaya Patrika is a must-read.

Padmavat, Malik Muhammad Jaysi

A sixteenth-century Sufi text written in Awadhi, Jaysi’s Padmavat is an exquisite love story, imbricated in the social practices and mystical beliefs of the time.

Many Sufis came to India along the Silk Route. And after that, we had Sufi texts and traditions in different Indian languages. The element of this civilisational dialogue is very important in Padmavat.

Padmavati is this beautiful princess, said to be the personification of godly grace, the daughter of the king of Singhal Dweep (modern Sri Lanka). She has a pet parakeet, Hiraman Tota, who flies away from Singhal Dweep, travelling across jungles, big cities – there are lively discussions of the terrain Hiraman crosses – and lands up in the palace of Raja Ratansen, the king of Chitaur who is married to the princess Nagmati, a dusky beauty.

A portrait painter comes one day, and the king, seeing a picture of Padmavati, falls in love almost immediately. Hiraman is sitting quietly on a tree, watching the play of destiny. Purvaraag deepens into anuraag, and, the king, hearing more about Padmavati from Hiraman, becomes a yogi, travels to Singhal Dweep, meets her, and eventually, with the assistance of Shiva and Parvati, marries her.

Meanwhile twelve months pass in viraha for Nagamati, as her husband wanders far. Nagmati’s “baaraah maasa” is considered one of the classics of Hindi literature, filled with poignant images from the worlds of ordinary people, mostly, peasants. She might be a rani, but when, before the monsoons, she sees a farmer and his wife thatching the roof of their house together she feels terribly bereft without her partner, rolling from one end to the other of her large empty bed.

Although, in a manner of speaking, Nagmati plays second fiddle to Padmavati, Jaysi’s portrayal of her is marvellous. When Ratansen returns with his new wife, slightly apologetic, smiling broadly, Nagmati tells him:

Kaah hanso tum mohe
Kiyahun aur so neh
Tore mukh chamke bijuri
Mohe mukh barse megh

(After falling in love with another,
Why are you smiling at me? 
Like lightning, happiness glitters on your face
While clouds darken upon my cheeks.)

Later, of course, Alauddin Khilji comes into the picture, and both Padmavati and Nagmati commit jauhar. There is a great deal of philosophy in Jaysi’s text; I would consider it one of the finest love stories in the world, especially because of the complications. It is crying out for a new adaptation.

Anamika’s national award-winning poetry collections are Khurduri Hatheliyan, Doob-Dhan and Tokri Mein Digant, while her major novels are Dus Dwaare Ka Peenjara and Tinka Tinke Paas. Her essays on womanist discourse in Hindi have been translated, along with her poems, in languages as varied as Russian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Punjabi, Bangla, Malayalam, Oriya, Kannada and English. She has translated Rilke, Neruda, Doris Lessing, Octavio Paz, to name a few. She lives and works in Delhi.