“When you see a bird, do you think of me?” This is a question once asked by Nitoo Das, whose photographs of birds and poems about birds have built a genre of their own. Indian birds find themselves an enthralled audience in Nitoo’s readers. Over the years, she has pointed to the unlikely beauty of the wet crow, and to the secret of photographing an Oriental White-Eye. Her poems lap other visceral, visually arresting worlds too. Her hometown of Guwahati inspired poems on etiquette like “How to Cut a Fish”.
Das’s first book of poems, Boki, was published by the Visual Artists’ Collective in 2008. Her second book of poems, Cyborg Proverbs, arrives nine years later through Paperwall Publishing. She teaches English Literature at Indraprastha College for Women in the University of Delhi. Das spoke to Scroll.in about the joys of translation, the invisible labour of bird photography and writing, teaching and more. Excerpts from the interview:
“You taught us/ …/ how herons can be sunburnt.” When you share a bird fact like this in a poem, you’re teaching the reader what you’ve been learned. Is that intentional – the sharing of little-known bird secrets?
It is a kind of teacherly-ness, I guess. The sunburnt heron in this poem is a guide-like comment that was made by a boat-boy, Samay. The Indian Pond Heron in breeding plumage looks very different from its regular browns and yellows. Samay, whose life was one with the beach, said that herons became sunburnt in the summers. I remember being awestruck by the precision of the image. During the same boat-ride in Palolem’s backwaters, he compared the mangrove roots to Bob Marley’s hair. I believe Samay is a poet. He was sixteen when I first met him; he is twenty-four now. He has his own motor-driven boat and calls himself Captain Sammy.
Bird secrets: I like the way you word this. Many birds are secretive, shy, “cagey”. They do not reveal their secrets at first glance. They require long periods of observation in the field. The textbook tells you zilch. There exists, indeed, this desire to share a familiarity gained after much labour.
“Jesus-like, a cormorant sits/ in surrender: wet, alone, /meditative.” This image seemed to really represent your poetry – the way it respects the specific identity of each bird. How do you nail down a perfect image for a bird?
I do not believe in arriving at a perfect image for a bird. An approximation will do. Photographing birds is akin to the process of writing poetry. You must wait for the bird to emerge, hunt for the perfect light (so that it nets the flash in the bird’s eye) and look for the finest perspective in order to make the ordinary seem momentous and the spectacular seem universal. At other times, you simply rush in with your camera and hope that the bird is there, right there, waiting for you. So also with poetry. You rush in with nothing, not even experience, and expect a poem to emerge out of leaves and large flowers.
An aspect of birding and bird photography that has troubled me for a while is the location of the bird as an animal other. What do I see when I look at a bird? What do I do to it when I magnify it beyond recognition and make it more sharp-edged, clear-eyed? “Nailing down” a bird-image seems violent to me, but that’s what I do.
When you were at Sangam House, you photographed a bird every day. Why’d you choose to pursue that activity during a writing residency?
I need the patience, silence, and humility that birdwatching demands. The rigour of waiting for birds is primarily about coincidence. It teaches you nothing can be taken for granted. Yet, everything is possible if the time is right/ripe. Writing, for me, is also about coincidence. The right light, the right dust, the right flapping of wings, the right touch of words...
Many of these poems are inspired by your frequent travels. How does travel shape your writing? Is it foraging for content? Is it the relative quiet?
Nowadays, I usually travel in search of birds. Any writing that happens is peripheral to the main purpose. I prefer travelling alone or with one other person – usually my partner, or an old friend. My first trip to Ladakh in 2010 was overwhelming in all senses of the term. I have now been to Ladakh four times and each trip feels like an expansion of skin. I have written a travelogue about my first journey – some from that series are in Cyborg Proverbs – but I have several more poems gestating within me.
For many among my friends, birding is made visible only as a final product: a photograph of a bird on a perch in a pretty setting. Sometimes, because it involves travel and equipment of a certain kind, birding also appears different, exotic, fantasy-filled, “sexy”. To me, birding may mean all the above, but it is also a lot more. This “lot more” translates primarily into issues of physicality, of birding as body.
Birding is the struggle to wake up before dawn. It is the weight of several heavy objects on my back, shoulders, around my neck. It is concealing every inch of my photosensitive skin. It is eyes and ears in a state of constant and extreme alertness. It is hours and hours of study. It is mind-in-flight while the body stays grounded, pulled down by the gravitas of metal and glass. My constant effort is to see that this effort is made invisible. Some may say poetry will result through this toil. It is not so for me.
The poems about your father’s dementia are very different from the rest of your work, which isn’t personal in the conventional sense of the word. Was it challenging to write or include these poems?
There are two poems on my father’s dementia in Cyborg Proverbs. One was written a while ago and the other after he passed away in 2015 following almost a decade of slow deterioration. Both were difficult to write and crushed “the method in my syllables”. Strangely, the one titled “Dementia” arrived almost fully formed. It did not require edits. I wanted to include these two poems to counter the “non-personal” mode in this collection.
There are poems in this book, exploring sexuality as a young girl, which are a sort of rejection of what is appropriate to feel at that age.
“At age eleven” is a poem that discusses the menstrual taboos in the place where I was born: Guwahati. An eleven-year-old girl is already an instrument of societal control. Her needs are summarily erased and destroyed. I can’t say I subscribe to the Blakean notions of innocence and experience. A child is also a desiring person and should be compassionately understood as such.
You translate Assamese fiction into English. Talk to us a little about that process.
I translate only short prose fiction. This choice itself says much about my process. People usually talk of translation as a lonely course of action. However, I feel intensely connected during this act. I feel connected to the writer, my first language, I feel symbiotically joined to each word that I translate. Translation is closest to poetry, in that sense. I keep Walter Benjamin in mind, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information.” This, he says, is “the hallmark of bad translations”. Translation is not transmission of information. It is much, much more.
In “How to teach Jane Eyre”, you write “do not tire/ of the routine/ of a decade/ in one afternoon.” How does teaching literature mould how you read and write?
This is a homage poem and, therefore, almost all the words are direct quotes from the novel. Interestingly, Jane Eyre, when she decides to leave Lowood and move to a new place, says, “I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon”. She decides to give up teaching in Lowood’s sad classrooms to look for the well-paid job of a governess. I cannot imagine giving up the classroom space for anything. All my passion derives from the day-to-day interactions with students. My teaching of Pandita Ramabai resulted in an epistolary series on her life, Robert Browning was responsible for a long phase of dramatic monologues. Many impromptu things I say in my lectures turn into poems. Once, while teaching Lyotard, I spoke of the hackable self. The phrase found its way into a poem. In almost twenty years of teaching, I have also learnt a lot from students’ interventions.
If you could teach books of contemporary poetry that aren’t in the syllabus, what would they be?
It would be wonderful to teach the poetry of my contemporaries writing in India at the moment. These are such exciting times for us: there is so much subversion in language, thought, subject matter. So much wit!
Is there another book in the works? What’s next?
I have been writing poetry sequences for some years now: a couple of travelogues, and a series on Assamese cuisine. I think they will be completed in a few months. I am not sure whether I will publish them anytime soon, though. It took me nine years to shift from Boki to Cyborg Proverbs, so any promises I make to myself about being practical as regards publishing, may result in frantic eye-rolling. I do want to publish a few copies of my exam-thread superhero, Tagman. That’s definitely next.