“All poetry is political”
By Lora Tomas
27 August 2018
An interview with poet, writer and editor Nabina Das.
“So much was happening around me when I suddenly wrote this collection because I was angry and couldn’t contain my anger any longer,” the poet Nabina Das tells me over an email conversation. “Of course, the incidents of rioting, lynching, verbal attacks and social discriminations etc were not something that India was experiencing for the first time, but under the current government, all levels of tolerance seem to have been demolished. I didn’t have to pick my theme – of anguish and anger, as well as hope – for it just came crowding to me. The poetry prodded me and I wasn’t surprised that it took me only about six months – I’m a notoriously slow writer and reader otherwise – to write this book and get it published with Red River in December 2017. The political events and issues captured in the poems are a product of rage, haplessness and the desire to shout out for a remedy.”
Although Sanskarnama: Poetry for our times is her first book of poems informed almost exclusively by politics and burning social issues, Assam-born Das has exhibited a keen eye for the subject in her previous works, too. In fact, her debut book, Footprints in the Bajra (2010), was a novel about the intertwining of the lives of a Bihari Maoist girl and a Delhite student and activist. Das’s first two books of verses, Blue Vessel (2012) and Into the Migrant City (2013), along with her short story collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the mapped and the unmapped (2014), were marked by her moving across continents (before she settled in Hyderabad), and combined both the personal and political. Her poetry has been consistently musical, flowing between themes, registers and languages. It is poetry steeped in references and cues, literary and otherwise.
The book’s title, Sanskarnama, Das explains, is a parody of all that sanskar, meaning tradition in Sanskrit, upholds – respect, plurality, coexistence and compassion – that is in jeopardy today. She continues: “The title is a mix of Persian and Sanskrit lexical items. And while I was writing the poems, I was painfully aware of the immediacy of the poems. ‘Poetry for our times’ these were, but I was conscious of the ‘our times’ bit. We use time as punctuation or as highlights in a text. While normal tidings punctuate our lives, and our chosen paragraphs and passages give us delight, the ones that struck me in ‘our times’ were all rude punctuations – Najeeb’s disappearance, Junaid’s murder, Narsamma’s caste discrimination, women being oppressed, rivers being choked, protests being muffled and the like. These struck me like electrical shocks, and perhaps I’m not the only one who felt affected. All I could do is write. That’s how Sanskarnama came to be.”
As for the subtitle, it’s a no-brainer, she says, while admitting there’s a little more to it. “The idea of time/s, here, corroborate to what Paul Ricoeur referred to as ‘fault lines’ – a complex map of the perception we have of our society. The material world influences us, our body, our organisations and institutions, and, most certainly, our minds. These intertwining tensions hold us together and familiarise us with ‘our times’, the poetics that become the framework for our innate sense of self and life. Hence, this subtitle,” she explained.
Blending text with background illustration and opting for a stylised font in the poem titles, the book itself is a piece of art. It is divided into five untitled parts, which are separated by illustrations executed by Das, and made up of free and rhymed verse compositions of varied length and arrangement. In some poems, the sense of playful yet controlled cadence is intensified by the poet’s use of words and phrases from other Indian languages besides English. Her verses are perfect for reading out loud.
It was a very conscious decision to embrace a political framework for her poetry this time, Das tells me. “All along, I’ve been alert to my work being diverse although I have swayed towards politics,” she adds. “Nature, nativism, pastoralism and romanticism – all that we wear on our sleeves – is a result of our human condition, choice, and denial of love and happiness, human frailties and, ultimately, hope. So, in a way, nothing much has changed. Sanskarnama is a collection of political poems that also speak of love and beauty, and the latter is achieved only when we speak out.”
In Das’s view, the personal is political and vice versa. “How do we fall in love, how do we choose to write in a language, how do we select our diet, how do we even categorise the newborn and the dead – the way we name them, bury them? All very personal acts and still political. That’s because we are given or dictated choices. Either we accept them or challenge what is being thrown at us. We dream, we woo, we cry, we long. To do all that we also fight, go against the grain, resist all odds. And even saying ‘I don’t care’ means, ultimately, we care or are too privileged to say we don’t.”
Love, for Das, is political too, as that’s how the personal is political at its best. The poets she was reading much before she even thought of writing this book, and whose lines she quotes at its beginning – Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska and Agha Shahid Ali – are also her poets of love and longing. In her words, the Kashmiri homeland of Shahid Ali is where love always overshadows bloodshed and boorishness. In fact, of the two rubaiyats in the collection, one is for Kashmir. Together with the ghazal ‘Forever Rain’ – turned sideways on the page because of its long lines – it reads as a nod to Ali.
Love, bodies and bodies of water
“As mortal individuals, the body is our ultimate love, our own and others’,” Das tells me when I ask about the poem ‘Body Perennial’. Her way of examining the body – as actuality and apparition – makes me think of Jack Gilbert’s mandate to go for “the body within the body” (in his poem ‘Tear It Down’), while the body as tree is an affirmation of self-renewing life and abnegation of violence at the same time. ‘Body Perennial’, for example, insists:
but I offer you now — here, this is my body
take it and plant it
with its neat folds, crisp desires and smooth
geographies of softness
make it a tree you covet and nurture before
the smile dies unwatered…
“What I tried writing here is a reflection on our body’s involvement with the circumstances it has to countenance, the choices and compulsions it faces, and the other bodies it experiences,” she continues. “When I thought of using the line “You explain death to the clothes like that dream” from a poem by Emily Fragos as epigraph, what struck me is my own perception of the body as a conduit, as an instrument of love and rebellion. What happens when this body dies? Are we done with love, protest, desire or struggle? Hence, the wish to become planted – make it a tree – and nurtured. (I was also conscious of Bengal’s bhakti tradition evoking the image of a gourd for the body – shadher lau). The body should be spun, hewn, tucked away and unfolded again to ring new tunes. Form, for me, is a boardgame here. It has its shifting rules and a very nonconformist way of achieving the craft of the poem. When I wrote this, I had in mind all that a human can achieve. This way, the theme of the poem is very personal. Still, I’d say that the body perennial is nothing but our own senses, the way we record minute experiences on the body, thus making it specific.”
In the collection’s eponymous poem ‘Sanskarnama’, the body’s potential to be that instrument of love and rebellion, as the poet calls it, is thwarted when it comes to women:
In this land, praises are only for goddesses
sanskar only for the pious. No scope for flesh
Yet, flesh is voice, flesh is volition, she remarks. “The more I look at this mortal body of mine, I’m able to understand how flesh and its acceptance in its cycle of decay and dalliance is important for understanding the way we dissent. Once women are raised on a pedestal, made a goddess, she is denied all agency and volition. Let women be flesh, like everyone else. Let flesh be the canvas of stories, as it always has, from birth to death. Let the body be the bearer of our rage and love.”
Das’s poems make obvious how the political is tightly interwoven with the everyday. They also reveal the mechanics by which an idea can be inflated into kitsch, or twisted and turned into various shapes, like origami paper. Can a neighbourly tête-à-tête ever feel unencumbered by our political stances and silences? What when acting civilised is simply a shortcut for condescending?
There is blatant display of parochialism, racism, casteism, segregation, gender crimes and blind nationalism resulting in militarist posturing, and all in the name of patriotism, Das tells me. She adds: “Is there another way I could say I am patriotic without saying I hate your nation, your attire, your skin, your history and your agency? The ‘other’ thrives well in a patriot’s imagination because of these barriers. Nation states are built on human blood and tears. Kitsch for collaborators and crime for the rest of us who won’t wrap ourselves in state propaganda. If I’m asked whether that means I do not feel anything regarding being an ‘Indian’, my answer would be, I do and I want to, because I want all of us to be human first.”
As in her previous books, rivers symbolise the complex oppositions of life and death, peace and violence, and so on, especially the Brahmaputra. The rivers are present as both concrete entities and strong metaphors – they are the onward-flowing resilience, indignation, verses.
“Water has always overwhelmed me,” Das admits. “It’s like love. At times you have enough of it, at times none. I’ve grown up by the Brahmaputra in Assam. This river is a lifeline for hundreds and thousands. It has enriched the lives of fisherfolk, boatmen, farmers, and village and city dwellers, as it has also ruined lives and livelihoods during devastating floods. That’s how the river embeds itself in our existence, to put it realistically.”
Das thinks of water as a metaphor, too, because “a river, for me, is a lot of things together. Other than the known images we associate with it, the river is also a brushstroke for me, a broad one. I imagine it swiping across the broad canvas of our geographies. Not to simply romanticise the river, but each is a question, carrying forth innumerable churning questions within it. Bhupen Hazarika’s burha luit (old man river, as he called Luit or the Brahmaputra) is a memory-man carrying on its back the accumulated experiences, joys and fears of generations. From an old man, I see the river turn into a woman, too, a vast womb nurturing within it tremendous life force and energy. I evoked Martin Espada’s metaphor in my poem ‘Vivas to Rivers’ to celebrate this constant urge, movement and uprising that a river alone embodies so well.”
Spaces intentionally left blank
In these poems, sons and lovers disappear without wanting to, leaving no trace. It can similarly happen to events – and the void is then filled with (constructed) memories. “Erasure is a tool of the fascists,” Das tells me when I ask her about histories and memories being used as palimpsests in the process of constructing plausible narratives. “They’re enforcing erasure on us systematically as we speak,” she continues. “And this is not new. It has happened since decades ago. I’m nobody to speak for Dalits or Muslims, but look at these segments of population in India today and let anyone justify to me what is meted out to them. And to the marginalised, to the indigenous communities, to women – just by way of generalisation. Whose histories do we read, we must ask ourselves. Especially today, the rightwing Hindutva fanatics are looking for every opportunity to wipe out pluralism and progressive ideologies. While the erasure was already the norm from centuries – enforced by the Brahmanical doctrines and social rigidity – the current process is being pursued with a renewed zeal.” As she writes in ‘Erasure’:
Take a white page. Slowly blow
out the black letters — some
anyway hang by their cursive tendrils — from
(Scroll down for the poet’s reading of ‘Erasure’ and the full text of the poem).
Das believes that the fixedness of ideas and identities, and the desire for an ideal image or perceived qualities (which she calls ‘sanskar’) needs dismantling. “There cannot exist, for a just world, a Hindu Rashtra or any fiefdom of any religious, linguistic or other group. The essence of one’s being is important – any poet will vouch for it – but to take essentialism to an absolutist plane is simply an unacceptable notion.”
Not really out of place, in this context, are the poems for Vijay Nambisan and Eunice de Souza, as tributes to two poets that, as Das says, are perhaps uncategorisable. The last of the lines dedicated to de Souza – “Death is an art too, living is fiction” – is a sort of response to Sergei Yesenin’s famous goodbye: “There’s nothing new in dying now / Though living is no newer.”
Partition and other (hi)stories
“When the divide came, it was sudden and brutal,” the poet says. “A lot of things changed for people on either ‘side’.” Das’s parents are partition generation and, for them, there was literally no country – no nation – to fight and die for until the great divide took place, she tells me. Her father, quite well-travelled in the northeastern part of the Subcontinent and the erstwhile East Bengal, used to tell them stories of individuals who transcended the barriers of caste, religion, language and region, and, in her words, wouldn’t be identified by any particular label. For these reasons, Das didn’t need to do much formal research before composing ‘Partition Stories’ or ‘Deccan Summer or Narsamma Recounts in Sorrow and Death’.
“I grew up listening to also those latter stories of tragedy and suffering,” she says. “The stories were not just stories. They were our own people, own homes, own women. And this was true, whichever side you were on.”
The first part of ‘Partition Stories’ is based on oral accounts of women crossing borders with pillows tucked with their money, gold and small belongings, as the note below the poem reveals. The terse, staccato lines effectively convey the savage atmosphere of nighttime border crossings. But then, Das mellows the verses and lets them run a bit longer only to ram the point home:
Even a dead body can sing
if peace comes in extinguishing
— this body was broken notes.
Narsamma, on the other hand, is a woman in Hyderabad who lives in the same apartment complex as the poet. “She is not just one – she is hundreds and thousands. I will not call her Everywoman though. We have kept Narsamma and her people invisible by the caste and social divisions we have created, although Narsamma’s presence in our lives is ubiquitous. We are implicated in this sort of erasure. Deccan as a region came to my writing because Hyderabad is home now. Summers and winters in Deccan may have been romanticised by poets, especially the privileged ones, but for Narsamma, a lot of questions do not have just answers provided to them.” Das writes in the poem:
Narsamma’s village never in newspapers until hell visits her little house.
We won’t call it hut, for it never figures in any artist’s romantic rural canvas. Narsamma’s uterus cursed for she didn’t pluck fruits of male kindness…
In ‘Em-Bordered’, the real, watermark-like residue of history is grief. The poem seems to be wrapped around a question of whether, or to what extent, that grief has been depoliticised.
Some poems experiment with structure and content more than others in order to defamiliarise and inject new meaning into everyday concepts. In ‘Questionnaire’, a refugee gives surprising and unnerving answers to generic questions asked by officials: “Do you intend to take up work? / Please let me know when you need to be scared, I’m good for such tricks.” Similarly, words like ‘ditch’, ‘thumb ‘ or ‘pond’ are coupled with brief associative streams in ‘Definitions’.
Poetry as catalyst for social change
For Das, while all poetry is political, ‘political poetry’ is also a label we tend to put to narrow down our reading, she explains. “Lorca said that poetry and art is always drawn from the ‘well of the people’ and while we give it all back to the people, to the readers, it must be such a beauty that enables people to understand themselves. People’s lives constitute the social ecosystem balanced by economics. It’s nothing but politics, the way we chose our governments and societies. So poetry invariably will impact society. Of course, it’s not how a supermarket operates with discounts and flash sales. The change comes very slow, nonetheless, steadily.”
Das’s poetry cuts through the convoluted language of propaganda; it’s about saying it as it is and about translating the ideologies for the general public (in other words, incarnating political abstractions into realities). In the end, it is also about exercising “the right to say fuck”, as she says in one of her poems.
Concluding, Das explains that “that last phrase, referring to the poem of that title … you got me there. I was quite tempted to say directly in my poem: If you lose the right to say fuck… then you can no longer say fuck the ‘government’. What made me say ‘power’ is a larger consideration my publisher and I discussed. We were addressing a whole gamut of wrongdoings and the government is only one part of it. The purposes and scopes of such dissent indeed overlap. Art will not be for art’s sake in any geography on this earth for there’s no such vacuum. Even the most innocent of faces and thoughts are a by-product of some kind of politics. Steve Biko had said: ‘The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. Our minds are our own battles. Poetry can, hopefully, help us see this and spur us to fight the just fight. However, propaganda and sloganeering cannot automatically become poetry. I’m telling you this, for I have worked as an activist, and have designed and written pamphlets and political leaflets for action on ground, which, however, has its own poetry.”
By Nabina Das
Take an eraser. See the damage
in the name of corrections. A swipe
Take a white page. Slowly blow
out the black letters – some
anyway hang by
their cursive tendrils – from
A little green a little torn.
I’m talking of books and histories
our heads full of winter’s tales.
I’m talking of children’s faces
that have forgotten our justice songs.
Take the darkest ink and blot the days
Take a pinch of our existence and see
how erasure becomes a norm
~Lora Tomas is an indologist from Croatia. She co-edited and co-translated into Croatian two anthologies of contemporary Indian writing.