Guyanese poet Rajiv Mohabir’s first book of poetry, The Taxidermist’s Cut, was chosen for the Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books. His second book, The Cowherd’s Son, won the Kundiman Prize and was published in May 2017 by Tupelo Press. In The Cowherd’s Son, Mohabir explores the roots and the trappings of migration. We are introduced to an India that has been transplanted to other countries. The people in this collection long for their homelands like shadow limbs. They sing for them, they remember them through myths and fables. Sita is a woman lured by the East India Company to leave her shores for work.
Mohabir’s grandmother, referred to as Aji, is a woman with a story and a song for every facet of life. In a language that draws upon Bhojpuri and Hindi, Mohabir creates a world whose symbols are familiar to the Indian reader but whose interpretations will be a revelation to them. He spoke to Scroll.in about what poetry means to him, how it helps heal the scars of linguistic insecurity, and what he derives from a life lived in near-constant motion. Excerpts from the interview:
In an interview, you said about The Cowherd’s Son, “I was inspired by my Aji’s songs and stories. My poems are a kind of translation of her poetic.” Can you talk a little about what you call her “poetic”?
I come from a very oral tradition: one of Calypso, Bhojpuri folk music, and storytelling and see this as my poetic inheritance.
My Aji’s poetics and her life were very much informed by the Ramayana, but not the Ramayana of Valmiki or the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas. She understood her world through the songs that she learned in diaspora with divergent story lines and caste reckonings – Bhojpuri folk songs that celebrate every aspect of life. There are songs for every geography of life: for the birth of children, grinding grains on a chakki, planting rice, every second of wedding rituals, death, cremation, and for all things spiritual. These songs stand in the place of Sanskrit mantras, replacing the Brahmanical with the vernacular. My Aji’s poetics, unlettered though they were, were anti-Brahmanical and invested in dissent – not very tuned to the tenets of the Ramayana.
Her poetic also centred dis/relocations as she sang in New Amsterdam, Crabwood Creek, Toronto, and Orlando. I hope for my poems to echo my Aji’s trajectory, questioning who we are, having left India over 125 years ago, facing the future while recounting the past. I want them to question religiosity and fixity.
In the same interview, you mentioned visiting India for the first time 120 years after your ancestors left it. How did that visit influence your writing?
I lived in Varanasi from 2003 to 2004, where the language on the street is Bhojpuri. While I was there I studied folk singing and “alternative” plot structures of the aural Ramayana. I was astounded to hear at the Ram Ashram, on the outskirts of the city district a song sung by an ancient babaji with the same exact words as my Aji.
My writing has been transformed by connections I make between myself, American culture, India, and my Caribbean connections. I am not Indian, I am Guyanese. I do not see my work as an attempt at preservation but rather as cultural creation in the United States with an Indo-Guyanese accent, another point on the map to where I have migrated.
What role, in your experience, do stories and myths play in the diasporic poet’s attempt to connect with their ancestral culture?
I like to think of stories and myths as templates for understanding the contexts for my parents’ and ancestors’ lives – as well as my own. For me, myths show me what I need to change in this world through my own unique gifts and perspectives. To be clear, I mean complete disrespect for any and every kind of religious fundamentalism that teaches us that we are not equal and each worthy of living fulfilling lives. This means casteism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and misogyny are on the chopping block.
Myths also lend themselves to extended metaphor and lyric flight readily. A poet can plug into the imaginations of many by manipulating a bowstring, a chalice, or a white stallion. I see this “connection” between the poet and their ancestral cultures as one of radical possibility. It all depends on what we do with the stories that teach us who we are. Do we make connections between people or do we use these stories to divide us into categories? Do we use our own set of privileges to build communities with others who face oppressions? Can we learn from Ram’s actions against Sita and learn to treat women equally?
In the poem Gift from a Grandmother you write, “There is no shame/ in surviving anyhow you can…” What role has poetry played in your survival?
As a queer immigrant in rural Central Florida, poetry was the vehicle of my survival. I am reminded of Audre Lorde. I am reminded of my Aji. Our songs and stories have survived and adapted to their new contexts and were not a luxury. In the cane field of Skeldon women sang sohars for the births of the children. In New York, I wrote a sohar poem for my niece who was born. I also write biraha against homophobic violence. I write to remind myself and my family that we are alive, that we have a deep history of oppression that we are even now working through. Poetry allows me to wade into treacherous waters and to bend driftwood and seaweeds into vessels to bear me to the far shore.
You don’t shy away from using Hindi and Bhojpuri phrases in your poems. How do you make the choice of whether to include another language?
So often I have been told to stop speaking Hindi and Bhojpuri – that we are now in an English country and that I should speak English. I am not a native speaker of either language but do believe Bhojpuri is my mother tongue. All my grandparents spoke it but due to colonial pressures in the Caribbean, it died in my parents’ generation.
My Aji never spoke “English,” as such, but Creole and Guyanese Bhojpuri/Hindi. She had no option. In the United States, people hear all kinds of accents when I speak – some hear India, some Britain, some the Caribbean, some Florida. It gives me pain to be misunderstood and placed my history erased for a simple migration narrative.
My Aji’s language was derided by the missionaries, Canadians, and Americans. We have been told that our languages are “broken” and that we are a “broken” people because of our mixed-caste, mixed-religious, and sometimes mixed-race identities. My using Hindi and Bhojpuri is political. These languages are understood by some people. I write for them as well as for myself. I write to heal the past scars of linguistic insecurity. I rely on the music of our languages and remember that my family used to speak by mixing all the languages they knew.
Colonialism is a recurring theme in The Cowherd’s Son. Sita is reimagined as a woman lured by the East India Company into leaving her shores. The Thames mirrors the filth of the Ganges because it is “fouled with/ loot, blood and black death.” I don’t think I have seen many contemporary poems about India’s colonised past. Can you tell me a little bit about where these poems came from?
I wrote the poem Sita to name my women ancestors whose names we do not remember. I can recite my genealogy for six generations with only a handful of my grandmothers mentioned. I thought to use the name “Sita” since it is a name that represents great suffering and agency, diaspora and rescue, abandonment and proliferation. My women ancestors were fierce and brave. They sailed across the world leaving their fates to the maddening sea, to sugar cane, to adventure. My ancestors were promised return passage to an India that did not want them back.
As for the Thames, this poem responds to the shock that white Westerners reveal when I tell them that I bathed in the Ganga. I did it because my Aji’s name was Gangadai – gift of the Ganga. I did it because she could not and because she would have wanted me to. A white man with blue eyes who never once left England, certain of its superiority, asked me, why would you ever bathe in such a filthy river? As though the Thames (read Western values) were beyond reproach.
I have heard so many white Americans who feel this same way voice their disgust. I wish that in moments like these I could say that their arrogance led to colonisation, dehumanisation of bodies of colour, slavery, indentured labour, and the postcolonial situations/economic dependencies of the Global South. I wish I could have looked fully into their eyes and said, white culture is not superior to brown cultures. You are not the only people in the world.
In one of my favorite poems from the book, A Prayer at Nauraat, you write “Mata, / I have left again across the sea/ you’d never dream was mapped, I am/ even further from India than you.” There is constant movement in this collection. How has relocation broadened your practice?
I wrote this poem at Navratri thinking about the Japanese and Okinawan festival of Obon Odori that happens in the summer in Hawai‘i. It’s a time of remembering and thanking the ancestors’ spirits. The Okinawan and Japanese diasporic people dance in a circle, much like I’ve seen Gujarati American Hindus do, so I thought the connection resonant.
Relocation has me in a state of constant negotiation of self to place. I live in constant motion. Even as I write this now I am currently in California transitioning to a new home in Alabama. Yesterday I left Hawai’i. In Hawai’i – an island nation illegally overthrown by the United States government – I have learned how my own community’s struggles are similar to the ones there. I wonder about how I can use my voice to speak to power, learning from the brave activists I have met. I am excited to learn about Auburn and more about myself as I move back to the American South. Migration is my dharma.
In this collection, the poems take a number of forms. Could you tell us a little about how you go about shaping your poems on the page?
I have sonnets, ghazals, and chutney poems (my own invention) in this collection. The play with space on the page results from my editing process. First I write and overwrite by hand. Some of my shortest poems start out as three pages of free writing. From the handwritten freewrite I transfer my favourite lines or ideas to a Word document and experiment with line breaks. It’s easier to manipulate text when it’s on the computer. I ask myself, “How can I break lines in service of sound and/or meaning?” sometimes opting for what looks better (or worse) on the page itself.
I have a very difficult time reading my own couplets. They are too neat and I love pairs. It’s easier for me to be critical of my poems written in tercets. There is an entire psychological deconstruction one can extrapolate from this. Some could say that it reflects a queer impulse to say screw binarism. Some may say it’s heteronormative to expect beauty to occur in pairs. Whatever the case, expect to see more couplets from me in my next collection.
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