For poet Nabanita Kanungo, words are a way to keep discovering and rediscovering the world as she knows it. Re-constructing memories and writing poetry as an “outsider-insider”, her wistful debut collection A Map of Ruins (2014) delved deep into a sense of displacement and belonging in her home town of Shillong, where she was born and grew up. With her second poetry collection ready for publishing, the poet talked about her life and her tryst with poetry in an interview with Scroll.in.
After studying in St Mary’s School, Shillong, and graduating with honours in geography from the institution’s college, Kanungo gave up studies and took up music for two-and-a-half years under the late Bela Choudhury, a former Indian classical vocalist of All India Radio. “Those remain the best years in my life. Bela was an amazing human being. She taught me to unlearn things, if necessary. Being visually impaired, she sensitised me to the importance of listening to the silence in music,” recalls Kanungo, who later returned to geography and got her PhD from the North Eastern Hill University.
Childhood was bittersweet, full of the rigours of academic and musical training, examinations, performances, and results. Even the kitchen was school for her, where her mother taught her to read and write Bengali while cooking. But it was her paternal uncle, whom she called Jethu, who made her fall in love with the written word. “Jethu was a born teacher: astute, wise and extremely gentle. He made it one of his foremost concerns to develop in me the appreciation of literature and would gift me books on my birthday, mostly world classics. His death in 2014 made me realise how much of my poetry I owe him.”
Being a witness
And so she began to write poems in 2007 at the age of 25, documenting her own realities in verse in her delicately nuanced style. “Each poem is eventually an acknowledgement of witnessing, a communication between writer and reader about a shared world and time, an emotion or a memory. This act of writing is like reaching out to someone, saying, ‘This is what I saw and remember. Do you remember this too? Does this touch you in any way?’”
A Map of Ruins was a love letter to Shillong, helping her express a yearning for home and memories of yesteryears. “The book is rooted in Shillong, though it deals with a sense of rootlessness which spans landscapes of memory, especially in the context of my Sylheti ancestry. So, most of the poems are an attempt to negotiate the peculiarity of this condition: of writing as an ‘outsider-insider’,” she explains.
Since the collection, Nabanita’s poems have gone beyond the themes of identity and belonging and have started to focus on ordinary, everyday realities. Much of this shift, she concludes, has been due to her relocation to Diphu, Assam, where she teaches geography at Assam University. “I didn’t want and couldn’t stick to nostalgia or a specific history for too long. I’m trying and hope to grow it out in my writing.”
Where her love for geography and poetry meet is a special place, a fact clear in the way her poems bring out the landscapes of her mind. Like in the poem “What I’ll Take With Me When I Leave Shillong”, where she writes, “I will carry this helpless bridge/of dark, olfactory roots in my head/by which all such naïve maps must grow/and each time, from anywhere in the world/one is enabled to sniff the way back/to a meaning called home.”
Does it feel like she’s living a double life as a teacher and poet? “Sometimes,” she replies, noting that humanistic components in geography, such as historiography and studies of the visual and symbolic aspects of landscape, which are strongly moored in artistic traditions, have suffered consistent neglect. “There’s this popular saying, ‘If you can’t map it, scrap it’, which unfortunately typifies the geographical practice in India now. So a simultaneous engagement with poetry and an ostensibly ‘academic’ geography often amounts to negotiating two very distinct and mutually exclusive worlds. But yes, geography still informs a lot of my poetry, and poetry, my understanding of geography.”
Kanungo adds that the process of writing goes hand in hand with a sense of place and belonging, making it a personal upheaval nearly every time. “Writing is intensely cathartic for me and depends on how an experience becomes memory and whether it demands an urgent voicing or remains to age in the blood. Certain things don’t want to lend themselves to even thought, let alone words; others just won’t allow you to wait. In any case, writing frees me in many ways. It makes me feel emptied of myself.”
How long does it take her to write a poem? “At times, it takes a year; at others, a few minutes. I keep re-reading my poems, especially those I feel could do with some fine-tuning. Earlier, I rarely re-touched the ones which had a lyrical tone. They came of their own – mysterious and somehow complete. Now, I attend to the craft, to the importance of economy in conveying an idea and balancing the lyrical-imagistic elements with the narrative. A few friends have helped me immensely in this. Their criticism has been vital in helping me read my works differently.”
But while writing is one thing, getting poems published is an entirely different matter. “It may take forever and there’s no guarantee that a poem will get published at all. Lately, it’s been extremely difficult getting published in journals, Indian and foreign. My schedule doesn’t allow me to put in the necessary effort to network and find editors who would consider my work. Also, I have faced many rejections in the past two years, which have made me re-think how I approach taking my work to a larger and more non-specific readership.”
Staying connected with the literary world requires too much energy, and “it’s increasingly about whether you are connected to influential figures, rather than what you write”, observes Kanungo, who believes she has been unable to adapt to this trend. She also feels that there’s a lot of misogyny in poetry circles today, which she experienced at a translation festival in Silchar last year. “The brazen sexism and unnecessarily patronising attitude of certain figures of the literati there was very disturbing in the way it showed how a certain section of the male literary order comfortably denies a woman writer her intelligence.”
Still, there have been instances where people have genuinely engaged with her work, appreciated it and even supported her in getting her work out. “This is something that fascinates and inspires me: the possibility of a better and far more sincere way to stay connected. At the end of the day, I’m happy if it’s a small readership, as long as it consists of genuine readers.”
She’s a lover of poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Khalil Gibran, Pablo Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, Jayanta Mahapatra, Cesare Pavese, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewsky, and Robin S Ngangom, among other. What are her objectives as a poet? Kanungo answers, “Even until last year, I was totally caught up with the idea of seeing my works in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Poetry or The New Yorker. And after about seven or eight rejections in a row, I lost my centre for some time. But I guess this process is necessary to re-discover the relationship one shares with one’s art, explore the often challenging inner domain of our artistic motivations.”
What are the plans ahead for the geography teacher by day, poet by night? “I recently submitted the manuscript of my second collection of poems to a noted publisher for consideration and hopefully, they’ll find it worth publishing. There may be a third book after a few years. Will there be more? I don’t know. It’ll happen the way life wants it to happen.”
The Missing Tooth
There were reasons for which
we had it painfully uprooted
and now the gap of the missing tooth
is an embarrassing memory
in the mouth.
But the tongue is a child,
habitually searching for a world
where it is not.
A Day in Autumn
The sun slants in a muffled haze
of shadows grown longer,
leaves fly about in the dry resonance of wind.
A flock of magpies congregate for a while atop a roof
and beneath our feet, grass is no longer the silence
of its former moist greenness.
We pass the cherry trees’ last plumes of pink,
retrieving ghazals from the oblivion of blood;
death breathes close by in the succour of his nearness.
Nothing under the sky moves
beyond the half-open gates of his eyes.
In a while, we part ways
and they gather in my mouth’s blue hunger,
folding autumn into an old handkerchief of smoke,
with its inerasable tear,
in a crumbling city of dead lovers.
Absence is never too far away
from the body’s naiveté.
The seed breaks out of husk,
grass spreads its story, nude of flesh,
brambles rise from ashes freed of bone.
Love or memory writes nothing upon stones
where it seems as though the last word can come
of thistle, black-berries and wild flowers alone.
Walking up a death-facing hill,
all murmurs and prayers fall into line,
wearing a face that knows but does not want to see
what lies exposed here in the unearthed skull of air.
Busy shovels feign to bury
what gawks from the eyes of wind.
Somewhere, smoke writes this
faithless unease across the sky.