Read To Win

Eight stylish South Asian poets in the diaspora you must read for their striking ideas

They navigate what it means to carry with you your family’s story, habits, preferences and attachments across borders.

In a poem about eating fried fish for breakfast as a child, Aimee Nezhukumatathil says she used to “wonder why we can’t/ have normal food for breakfast like at Sara’s house –/ Cheerios, or sometimes if her mother is home:/ buttered toast and soft-boiled eggs/ in her grandmother’s dainty blue egg cups/ and matching blue spoon. Safe. Pretty./ Nothing with eyes.” With limbs in both worlds, their homeland and hometown, these poets navigate what it means to carry with you your family’s story, habits, preferences and attachments across borders. Their poems are textured with shades of South Asia, though not limited by it.

The fiction of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has long familiarised us with some of the experiences of our compatriots after they leave their home countries, and these poets add a vital, rich layer to our understanding of what it means to occupy the South Asian diaspora.

Reetika Vazirani

Born in Patiala and raised in Maryland, Vazirani published two books of poetry to critical acclaim before tragically committing suicide in 2003. She won a Pushcart Prize, a Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and many others. She was on the editorial team of two leading literary magazines of our time, Callaloo and Catamaran. Yet, her work is little known in India. Her poetry is eerie, full of ghosts and haunting, as seen in her poem “Lullaby”.

I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.

A third book of poems, Radha Says, was posthumously published in 2010.

Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia Faizullah, who is from Bangladesh, wrote a collection of poems, Seam, based on the lives of the birangona (Bengali for brave woman/war heroine) – Bangladeshi women raped by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War of 1971. The award-winning book is harrowing in its straightforward intensity, taking the form of interviews with these women. Based in Detroit, Faizullah travelled to Bangladesh to speak with them. One of the women narrates:

Are you
Muslim or Bengali, they
asked again and again.
Both I said, both.

Her next book, Registers of Eliminated Villages, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2018.

Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil is a poet of endless reinvention. What has she not written about? Her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, is a culmination of four years of travels between the country of her birth (England), ancestry (India), and residence (America) where she asks strangers the same 12 personal questions. Hunanimal: A Project for Future Children is inspired by the true story of Amala and Kamala, two girls living with wolves in West Bengal in 1921. Of that process, Bhanu writes:

To write this, the memoir of your body, I slip my arms into the sleeves of your shirt. I slip my arms into yours, to become four-limbed.

Kirun Kapur

Turns out, I never was a girl, I was all
those girls, a girl statue, torch raised, you know the one –
standing in the harbour, wearing a sari.

Kirun Kapur’s description of the Statue of Liberty takes one’s breath away in this poem. Her work exists at the intersection of her two worlds – North America and South Asia. She says in the same poem, “I am proof nothing is lost.” Her book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist, won the Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and the Antivenom Prize for first book.

Alok Vaid-Menon

“Where do all the sad girls go”, asks Alok Vaid-Menon in a poem where they go on to say:

tried to love myself,

but went outside and

they punished me for it.
tried to heal myself

but went inside and
i punished me for it.

As the work of a gender non-conforming performance artist and writer, Vaid-Menon’s poetry investigates the body, society’s response to someone who doesn’t adhere to norms, race, and transmisogyny. Born and raised in Texas by Indian immigrant parents, Vaid-Menon has performed at over 400 venues in 20 countries.

Vivek Shraya

In “#notallwhitepeople”, Vivek Shraya points out,

you are a good person

your parents laboured
you grew up poor

many truths can be true
at once you can be all
the above
and you can be racist.

She wrote her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, in response to lived experiences of racism in Canada as the child of Indian immigrants. The book won a Publishing Triangle Award and is currently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

Imtiaz Dharker

You are good at this,
recognising happiness when it comes
along the track. You acknowledge it,
say it out loud. There it is.

— The first sight of the train

Imtiaz Dharkar’s powers are difficult to distill into a few words. Everything from the simple observation of a person’s ability to see the happiness in their life to the idea that slippers piled outside a holy place are “like a thousand prayers/ washing against the walls of god” is within her reach. As a Pakistan-born British poet, she writes about home, geography, displacement, and conflict amongst many other things. Her poetry has not only won awards, it is taught as part of the British GCSE and A-level syllabus.

Aimee Nezhukumutathil

I promise dark gatherings of toadfish and comical shrimp
just when you think you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.

Aimee Nezhukumutathil recited these lines from her poem to her students, whom she teaches environmental literature and poetry. She was born in Chicago to a Filipino mother and Malayali father, both of whom are scientists. She credits her parents as the first poets she knew because of their deep love and respect for the natural world. Her work is a celebration of landscape and various species, as well as of relationships and family. Her books have won numerous awards, and her next one, Oceanic, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2018.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.