FIVE is a first-of-its-kind publication in India, which is selling five chapbooks by five contemporary Indian poets in a bundle. The poets Arjun Rajendran, Manjiri Indurkar, Mihir Vatsa, Nandini Dhar, and Usha Akella worked as a collective for two years, reading and critiquing one another’s poems. Keeping in mind that their work was written and edited in solidarity, their chapbooks can be bought as a set – or not at all. Each chapbook spans between thirty and fifty pages.
Dhar and Vatsa are poetry editors of the Indian literary magazines Aainanagar and Vayavya, which conceptualised and published the chapbooks. FIVE was the culmination of their conversations exploring how literary magazines could contribute to India’s literary landscape. As Dhar says, the questions they found themselves drawn to were these: “Is it possible to build a culture of poetry-writing and art-making that isn’t based on corporate publishing models? What kind of writing and art can we produce when we step away from these models? What happens when we critique one other’s work with an eye on solidarity?”
Scroll.in spoke to the five poets about their individual process and obsessions. Each interview is accompanied by a poem from their respective chapbook.
In recent months, Indurkar’s essays on mental health and trauma have found a receptive audience for her honest and nuanced storytelling. She brings the same commitment to emotional truth to her chapbook, Dental Hygiene is Very Important.
Don’t sleep like that, with your book open on your chest. Don’t read till very late in that library, it’s haunted, my grandmother used to say. She was a woman of many stories; a woman of many beliefs, my grandmother. Her library, she said, was a place where all the characters came to life. If you listened carefully at night, she said, you could hear them talk. She believed that they were conspiring against her. One time, she said, my grandfather left one such book open. Anna Karenina, that lonely, miserable witch, stepped out of the book that night, and took my grandfather away. My grandmother read the book every night, searching for her husband, Karenina’s alleged lover. Karenina was the other woman, I wasn’t allowed to like her, or go near her. She knows black magic, that evil Russian, she will cast a spell on you, and take you away too, she would say. Karenina was always locked in my grandmother’s cup-board. The day my grandmother died, I set her free. That lonely, miserable witch, she lies open on my table now, stripped off her covers, her naked arched back faces me. I long to touch her; hungrily, I wait for her to step down from the table and drag me away, too.
The collection is dedicated to your mother, and, “grudgingly”, to your grandmother. The latter makes for the subject of some of your most emotionally complex writing. Can you talk to us a little about that?
My grandmother and I shared a complex relationship. There were things that went down between us that I understood only as an adult. So, I grew up loving or hating her depending on what time of the day it was. Which is why she features so heavily in my works. She was also a paranoid woman, and I think that is her inheritance for me. She left for me a lot of insecurities, and a lot of illnesses that I struggle with every day. While that doesn’t make for great living, it makes for decent poetry. It’s why I had to dedicate the book to her, however grudgingly.
Cleanliness, the proximity of washrooms, home-made pastes for your skin, dental care – the daily upkeep of one’s body is a key concern in your chapbook. Why is this the thread that runs through these poems?
I like to think of myself as a poet of domesticity, which is to say that the domestic space is my primary obsession at the moment. The body, the way I explore it, the bathrooms, the home-made pastes are all part of that space. My mother would often hand me these pastes, to fix my skin (colour and quality) and it was a constant fight for me. It began as inconvenience, I didn’t want to sit with all those pastes on my face, waiting for them to dry, and with age, it turned political. The more I wrote the more I understood the complexities of our daily lives, inside the kitchen, inside the house. And as far as the body goes, as someone who suffers from hypochondria, the body will always, always be a primary concern. I am just turning my fears into poetry.
Vatsa’s debut collection of poetry, Painting that Red Circle White, published in 2014 explored his roots and his hometown Hazaribagh. In Wingman, we’re presented with an older voice that tentatively forges a language of loss and absence in the context of still having one’s whole life ahead of them.
How We Leave
for Rahil Ghoshal; 1991-2015
It was not until you left
that shock made sense.
We were many things –
including disappointments -
but never stunned at each
other. Never imagining
a life to freeze the next.
It snowed last night
& today the sun rose
like a memory.
I am too dumb to spell
your loss on my face,
friend, regardless of how
long I stand in the light,
the surface of my skin
is blank under the sun.
It’s interesting to me that you chose the name Wingman for a collection centred on absence and loss. Talk to us a little about how you made that choice.
When I wrote the poem “Wingman” in 2015, I hoped that the book which contained this poem in the future would also bear its title. A loose wish – forgotten and shelved for two years. But when the manuscript was done and the poems finalised, I remembered that wish. For a brief period, I tried going for a more elaborate title but it didn’t work for me. Absence, loss (and hope, whenever it appears) – these are not elaborate phrases, and I wanted the title to testify to that. And while it is true that the chapbook ends on a note of loss, I also hoped that with Wingman as the title, a reader might return to the poem after finishing the book and quietly understand that love can always be resurrected.
The poems about your mother are some of your best-known work. One of these poems finds itself in an updated form in this chapbook. “It’s beyond comprehension, but she desires a meaning. I sit beside her, irritated, unwilling to hear the noise of those line-breaks I had put months ago.” As the second poem in the collection, the distance and misunderstanding exposed in this poem seem to foreshadow the following poems that explore deeper and more lasting differences and estrangements.
I must thank my peers for asking me to shift the mother poem to the opening pages of the chapbook. Structurally, it made the transition from Painting to Wingman appear seamless. Personally, the year 2015-16 was one of transition for me – from university to industry, the lull after the first book is out, people leaving (“How We Leave”) & people entering your life and making a mark (“My Friend Maintains His Love Story is Better”). I have also tried to root these poems in my own Delhi/Hazaribagh space, its geography and atmosphere (“That even in Delhi the sun still manages to rise through the dust” & “I remember what they say/ about dreams in the sun/ coming true”), the presence of wrappers both at Haus Khas Lake in Delhi and the Siwane River of Hazaribagh and therefore the negligence towards our crucial friendship with the landscape around us. The metro in Delhi taking people to places, and the friends on the bank of Hazaribagh Lake waiting for the migration to halt at the surface of the water. These were some of the few ideas with which I approached Wingman. I’d be glad if someone told me that they were able to identify these nodes of connections.
Dhar’s chapbook, Occupying My Tongue, follows her acclaimed collections of poetry, Lullabies Are Barbed Wire Nations (2014) and Historians of Redundant Moments (2016), in its attentive portraits of domesticity, caretaking and familial responsibility and love.
What My Mother Wipes Away Has No Name
She thinks of wiping off the vermilion
on her forehead, as she touches the brown patches of her
unusually pale face. Nice it would be I
f she could get back her girlhood countenance I
f only for half a day.
It wouldn’t be hard to smash the mirror, either.
Taking revenge for being so diligent I
n showing the red.
A little trace of her undoing,
that cannot be easily erased.
She does neither. Instead
she picks up the dishrag. Wipes
every teacup saucer bowl spoon
clean. This moment, too, will be wiped dirtless.
Swept away with what has no place inside
the whiteness of the teacups
the golden-brown regularity of tea
the crystal sweetness of sugar globules
gasping inside their ceramic orderliness.
Your mother is the hero of this chapbook. In some sense, the chapbook becomes a space where she can tell her story in all its expansive contradictions. Was that one of the motivations behind writing Occupying My Tongue?
Actually, my mother is not the hero of this chapbook. “My mother” is a rhetorical device in this book. The “I” is a very specific “I”– middle-class, Bengali, Hindu. If there is a voice that narrates a story in “expansive contradictions”, it is this “I” – the daughter. It is her voice that towers over the mother’s. She is the one who is telling the mother’s story, and, obviously, from her partial perspective.
There are moments when we get to read the mother’s voice in the chapbook, but it also appears filtered through the daughter’s voice and gaze. For example, the moment when the daughter finds her mother’s old poems in the trunk. Even then, they appear through the daughter’s quest for her mother’s voice, and because of that very nature of that quest, the mother’s voice is limited in this chapbook. You can also read that limited voice as a metaphor of the mother’s life, the history of her disrupted creativity. So, I am not sure if the mother uncurls her toes in this manuscript. What has been done, though, is an attempt to show the process of that curling in its mundane atrocities, in its everyday horrors.
What was my motivation for writing these poems? Seeing many women like the mother in these poems around me, knowing them personally. That’s a very, very immediate and emotional motivation. There is also a deeper political motivation – to engage with the politics of maternity and the domestic space, to engage with the allegorisation of maternity that forms the very basis of the national project of India, in our collective allegorisation of the nation as mother. I am engaging with that by bringing in concrete realities, material aspects of motherhood and domestic space. If you consider it carefully, you will find that the mother of this chapbook is the kind of women who are allegorised in our notion of the nation-as-mother – upper caste, middle-class, Hindu, educated, yet confined within the domestic space. What does it mean to speak back to this political mother allegory, championed by the Indian state, by bringing in the mother’s domestic labour, her rage, and the violence she often commits on her daughter?
Has your mother read the poems?
My mother is not very comfortable with English. English has remained for her a language of bureaucracy. But she is an avid reader of Bangla, and possesses a complex, critical lens through which to understand Bengali literature. I do have a concomitant series of “my mother” poems in Bangla. My mother has read them. In fact, she reads anything I write in Bangla. In terms of writing deeply personal poems, and I do have a fair share of them, I don’t usually share them with anyone. They are not published anywhere either.
Rajendran’s Your Baby is Starving draws from the story of the first Indian to be sentenced to death in the US. Raghunandan Yandamuri kidnapped and murdered a baby and her grandmother. These characters, coupled with the poet’s own anxieties, create a vivid tapestry of fear, profiling and crime.
The muteness of a smoke alarm in a dog’s vicinity
Did the hailstorm damage your car?
There was a Doctor in my school whose last name was Akula. She failed at swag,
and carried bags of acne. So they rechristened her to Dracula.
My ma said all you need is love and tamales
After the root canal, she was haunted by surgical masks
take your time
I was in Washington, before Obama’s inauguration, before his drones scrawled
“Still lovin’ it?” across Afghani skies
A website showing sex offenders in my area; Uncle Sam pops up in a new window.
“Your baby is starving” is borrowed from a brutal ransom note. Why did this story speak to you?
I am not sure I can say for certain. Why did Truman Capote pick the story he did for In Cold Blood? This isn’t the only story that spoke to me, however. For instance, the Indian girl who was slain during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007; I’d try to see her coffin being lowered from the plane through the eyes of her mother. In this case, the murderer happened to be an Indian who was eventually sentenced to death. I thought I could tell a story by pitting myself against him, by inventing a persona who could act as a repository for my paranoia and life experiences.
A single poem spans twenty-two pages. However, a single style isn’t sustained throughout. Talk to us about how you chose the various forms your words would take.
I really didn’t plan for the poem to take on the narrative shifts it did. It begins with a brief allusion to the last meal of a man who asked for a single olive, believing he’d sprout into a tree from the grave. The olive was an important symbol/anchor for me, and is stylistically used as a footnote in the beginning; it returns in a congratulatory letter in the end. The form shifts throughout (from psychiatric to accusatory to polygraphic) as the narrator’s worst fears come true. The structural experimentation was imperative to weaving the shroud.
In Ordinary, Akella identifies mosquitoes and termites, massacres and brutality, eating mangoes, and reading poetry as all part of the everyday and the ordinary. As a poet with four books of poetry out in the world, Akella casts her net wide for the subjects of her poems from a celebration of South American poetry to the prolonged captivity and rape of Karla Jacinto.
This is Just to Say
(to William Carlos Williams)
I have not eaten the plums
nor has my daughter.
The mangoes win, gluttonous yellow,
plump with scathing summers,
of dead grandmothers,
the sweet homesickness,
a sticky dribble on the chin.
The plums are prudish,
slow to ripen, a bit stiff,
in the back of the fridge,
they are not delicious or sweet
though cold, I admit.
Your plums Carlos,
Where do they come from?
Your poems engage with current events, media reports, canonical poets. There is a lot of reaching out to the external world, and resisting and protesting in the form of poetry. Can you tell us a little about that?
The poems in this collection do look outward for thematic inspiration. But as a poet, I am inspired in different ways. My next chapbook is Sufi in spirit as was my second collection of poems. Poetry to me follows the arc of breathing –- inward, outward, inward, outward. So, in some poems, I engage with the outer world, fulfilling and satisfying my engagement with the world and also, look within, taking the journey within. ‘Ordinary’ the title poem for me was an important poem casting an eye on our contemporary world and its drift; at the heart of of it I was looking for grounds of hope though not finding it within the context of the poem.
Food is an important negotiation in your poems. As a poet in the diaspora, you have to explain curry is not a spice, and you bring mango into a poem to counter the plums in a famous William Carlos Williams poem. Why is the connection between poetry and food important to you?
Food is integral to all of us, the most ordinary unconscious baseline of our life. Yet, loaded with economic, cultural and political issues. I like to go to the ‘ordinary’ to unravel hidden dynamics. That poem brings up a lot of things like who defines the canon. I reclaim my culture in the poem and so on...