The Resplendence of Being a Woman
Nandini Sahu (b.1973) is an important voice in contemporary Indian English literature with ten books to her credit. She is an Associate Professor of English at the Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi. She has designed academic programmes/ courses on Folklore and Culture Studies, Children's Literature and American Literature for IGNOU. She is the Chief Editor/Founder Editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature and Language (IJLL). A more detailed profile of Dr Sahu can be viewed by clicking on her name at top left. Here she is in discussion with Sutapa Chaudhuri about her concept of poetry on the occasion of the launch of her fourth poetry collection, Sukamaa and Other Poems.
Sutapa Chaudhuri: When did you first start writing poems?
Nandini Sahu: It's rather challenging a question to answer, specifically in terms of time. The writing of poetry has been to me both a sporadic and a spontaneous activity from very early on, in the sense that thinking, imagining, rehearsing and expressing poetic thoughts have always been with me, much before I consciously became a poet. Yet, the earliest reminiscences go back to when I was perhaps a girl of six or seven, and composed my first verse in Odia. Well, if I were to look back at compositions of such an early phase today, I'd perhaps blush at my own immature self, but then, for the record, that's it!
SC: Who or what has been your inspiration/influence in your poetry?
NS: Poetry comes to me as an incessant mode of expression of the innate self – both its highs and lows. On careful introspection, I wouldn't use that 'either-or' option between inspiration and influence. The inspiration, I'd say, emanates from the necessity or even the urge to express the innermost human mind, both as a self contained vessel of thoughts and emotions, and as a self in communion with my milieu and my surroundings. And in this, I include all things and all objects material and non-material, animate and inanimate. Most of all, my inspiration comes from the transactions that keep on happening with people around me, the infinite vignettes of nature – both human and cosmic, and of course the different strands of thought and feeling that all these arouse in me.
As for influence(s), well, my reading of both classical literature and the classics of literature as a student (by the way I still am a learner) have in a big way, shaped me. This is something that I realize as I look back at the years now from a vantage point; the understanding that generations of immortal literary thought, philosophy, myths and their representation – both in Eastern and Western studies-- have made me whatever I am . Nearer home, the direct influences have been of poets/writers like Jayanta Mahapatra, Manoj Das, Bibhu Padhy and of course my erudite teacher and guide, the late Professor Niranjan Mohanty, from Santiniketan. Besides there are a galaxy of contemporary Indian English poets and writers, with whom there are often fruitful exchanges of thoughts and feelings.
SC: What does it mean to you to be a poet?
NS: Well, that looks more like a question put to a theoretician of poetry than one who writes simply of her own volition! Anyway, I will try to answer that by delving within myself anew. Being a poet means simultaneously having two selves. The first is an intensely impressionable private one that has inimitable personal responses to life, and the other is, the one who thinks, feels, records and registers such feelings in compositions. The identity that is created by the reader/audience when the thoughts of the poet are there in print is a totally different one. The readers' responses not only recreate the poet in me in manifold ways, they also create bridges one too many. In that sense, I feel fulfilled as a poet if and when the reader finds points of assimilation whether with my experiences/emotions or even embellishes my repertoire with his/her unique ways of responding to it. Both the poet and the student of literature in me then bow down in humility to the idea of a poet as 'a man speaking to men'. How true, how simple and how inclusive Wordsworth was! A poet to me is one who can initiate a meaningful discourse with fellow human beings.
SC: What kind of poems do you write? Are there any themes which particularly attract you as a poet, things that you feel you would like to write about?
NS: I would rather use words like 'belief' and 'conviction' than any particular 'theme(s)' as being the mainspring behind my poetry. Having come to my fourth collection of poetry, and with a few more taking shape in my study, I feel my sincere perception of the world as a subsisted experience has mostly been the staple of poetry for me. This means myriad things – the ecstasies, agonies and the resplendence of being a woman – celebrating the power and questioning the occasional powerlessness of a gendered identity, a heavily eco-feministic leaning, fusion of classical art with a poetic personal-social consciousness, probing existential absurdities and issues of alienation at multiple levels, the cycles of life-death-suffering and redemption, folklore as a very important representation of life forms, particularly in a land of rich traditions like ours, and of course concern for subalternity of any kind…to broadly mention the aspects that both haunt and enthuse me most as a poet.
SC: Do you write with any particular reader in your mind?
NS: I understand that there is both a positive and a flip side to this question, and in a sense that links this one to the previous and the next question too. Maybe I should thank you for these questions and will be as honest and candid as possible in responding. It is not that I write with any particular reader in mind, but yes, there is the positive belief that my poetry would appeal to any sensitive person who looks upon poetry as a vehicle for expressing simple truths that, however, intrigue us over and over again in life. The choice of English for my poetic voice on the one hand defines the readership base and on the other, it helps reach out to a pretty large number of people, both at home and abroad. In fact, I do have a steady readership among the diaspora and they are mostly such people who are away from their roots, but only physically so. My poetry often helps them connect with home, to retrace roots and most importantly, revive psychic connections with their yesteryears. So they say. Back home, my readers look upon my poetry as something that often lets them get a feel of realities beyond the obvious – in areas like human relations, issues of class and gender, explorations of humane emotions in these hurly-burly times, and often a validating response to nature from an eco-feminist perspective.
SC: Why do you choose to work in English?
NS: Well, there is no rigour of post-colonialism attached to what you call my 'choice' of writing in English. Odia is my mother tongue and I have been conversant in reading, writing and speaking in English since when I don't even remember now. Maybe, because I have intently enjoyed my training in literature, first unconsciously as a child growing up in a family that has always valued understanding of art, aesthetics and literature that the bridge between Odia and English was built very early on in life. Then in College and at University, both of which I have completed at my native place, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of growing up to understand the nuances of a rich literary tradition of which, maybe I too am instinctively becoming a part by virtue of my thought and expression in verse. In fact, this tag of Indian English for my creed often seems a baggage, and I mean it sincerely when I write:
"I write in English to free my words
lying imprisoned in the arms of the heart
Be it Odishan or Indian, but it's out of this earth and wind."
SC: Does writing allow you to have moments of understanding?
NS: Oh yes, I am aeons away from any idea of art as a mechanical form of production. Writing to me, is often not the last stage in a process of mechanised linearity; it is not like one first prepares well for an examination and then guzzles out all of it on the answer script! Quite often, there are moments when in composing, not only is a premeditated idea reversed, but an entirely new train of thoughts, almost certain revelations, have happened that have kind of taken the composition to an altogether new direction and a commensurate high. Similarly, there have also been epiphanic moments when, in putting down on page an idea that was yet in a semi-nebulous state, I am myself surprised at the full import of what has come out and how much it means to me in the real individual life. In that sense, poetry has often unravelled new selves that have taken by surprise, the conscious self of Nandini!
SC: As a poet, do you have a keen sense of the historic?
NS: I must say your questions have wonderful sequential logic! Having spoken about my phases of poetic epiphanies, it feels wonderful to think of a poet's perception of the historic. Any student of literature worth his/her salt will swear by Aristotle's categorisation of 'Poetry' and 'History'; and T.S Eliot's insistent determination of the connections between 'Tradition' and the 'Individual Talent'. I am no different in my assimilation of these two master theorists. One stands nowhere without clarity of understanding of what constitutes his or her historicity – of literature, of nation and society, and yes the personal too. I am therefore an offspring of all these cumulative histories, both as a person and as a poet. Similarly, my poetry too is culled out, consciously or unconsciously, of these shaping histories. It would suffice to say that I am seeking my place amidst these parameters.
SC: Do you believe that the pen is mightier than the sword? Can poets influence people's views? Would you then describe the act of writing as a sort of 'activism'?
NS: In an era of global consumerism, the fact that poetry is written, volumes published and bought by readers is, to my understanding, proof enough that poetry has an abiding influence that draws people to it. Rather than looking at it from any comparative view point, I'd put it this way – poetry in particular and liberal arts in general have a therapeutic effect to redeem us, irrespective of time or place. I'm not sure how you define activism, but my feeling is that both the writing and the reading of poetry are a matter of volition. Just as social networking is a site for interaction between like minds, similarly poetry too is something that connects kindred souls. From this perspective, the beauty of poetry is the beauty of truth: ever renewing itself, being forever relevant simply because it has the capacity to address the widest possible range of human thought, emotions and actions. If this comes across as activating the soul that is weary, if this means lifting a sunken spirit, if this means stirring one to positive thought and action in whatever sphere of life, or if it means adding to the joy of a blissful moment – then well, activism it is.
SC: What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice and/or the voice that appears on page?
NS: They are one and the same, for speech and writing are both acts that emerge from the same wellspring – the mind. The difference, if any, might just be that of intensity that is induced by thought, for the page in print undergoes revision and chiselling while speech act is much more spontaneous. Yet the difference is only that of degree, neither of quality or content, nor of essentials.
SC: Elsewhere you have said that your poetry reflects your life. Then how personal or political is your writing?
NS: Among other things, a large part of my poetic oeuvre is a sublimation of personal experiences, feelings and responses to happenings in life and issues around me. So, the personal has often been a main stem behind much that I have written. It has been an eventful journeying through life – there have been highs and lows, there have been enriching influences and the not so good moments too; there have been hours of solitude and struggle just as there have been tests of fortitude and resilience. You see, incidents come and go – they cannot be the material for representation in art, but the experiences one acquires through them, the realisations that dawn and the convictions to life that are renewed through every single happening, big or small – these find place in poetic expression and gradually move on from the personal to the universal. In that sense, I would prefer 'social' over what you call 'political', because I have never needed a mask to camouflage and present thoughts. Yes there are issues like the question of subalternity, equality of gender, concerns for the differently-abled, for children and aged people, accommodating alternative sexual orientations, realising the importance of a pantheistic creed for our own survival and for future generations of humanity – a range of such thoughts that fill my mind and find expression out of me. Not that every act of composition happens very consciously too…there are times when writing just flows out of the mind and at such times, my only 'task' is to make myself available at my desk!
SC: As a woman poet and mother, how much does gender influence your writing?
NS: Oh this question on my dual roles as a 'woman' poet and mother almost lets me begin from where I left off your last question! Yes, both being a woman in the household and mothering an adolescent child are full time activities that I thoroughly enjoy. My child Parth is the best happening ever in life, and his understanding nature often makes me wonder if I myself had as much of it at his age! He is my constant companion and we share a great camaraderie; matching togetherness with the necessity of individual space that he requires as a growing up lad and I require for contemplating in serenity. I connect the beauty of womanhood, among other things, with the ability to procreate, and so I attribute my creative urge in a big way to my womanhood. This is no gender bias, but there is, in support of my line of thought, the long line of dramatists from Shakespeare to Shaw who have felt that the quintessence of creativity lies with the woman. Without the least disregard for men, I could vouch that the ability to balance home and work is a natural inclination that a woman grows up with, at least my humble upbringing has imbued me with that. Besides, my woman self responds to situations and happenings with a characteristic keenness, that I think fosters certain responses within and without, which in turn aid me in the creative impulse. In all, I am happy with my identity and given another life, would not exchange the present with any other.
SC: How important is your Odia identity and background in your poems?
NS: "Odia is to think, feel, dream and
be my funeral pyre. English, to me,
is my garland and my sword, my sole refuge."
Guess that is the most honest replication of my identity as an Odia, an Indian and a creative writer!
The Odishan landscapes, the people, the folklore, literature and the myths, the culinary delights et all are part of my growing up and I carry them within the core of my existence, feeling no need at all to flaunt any of it. The Odia identity defines me, it has shaped me and is both my cradle and desired grave; and (not but) it does not in any way delimit my space either as an Indian or as a global citizen. I am proud of my roots, there is intense feeling for the deprivation that still prevails in my part of the country and I try to address that within my limited means too. My latest volume is perforce an ode to my Odishan childhood and of all that has nurtured me. Not only has my native land nurtured me, I also began my professional career there itself and in innumerable ways, whatever I am today is a lot because of the way I have been reared back home. And 'home' as I see it, is indeed an inclusive metaphor for me.
SC: What do you think should be the relationship between a poet and the society/culture she lives in?
NS: An age old question indeed and every representative poet of his/her age has had different takes on this issue. Poetry to me is essentially a spontaneous personalised utterance that is never something like a diktat to contemporary society. So it would be somewhat beyond limits to prescribe or define any relationship between a poet and his/her society or culture. But yes, the relationship is ideally a two way transaction. Just as a poet defines/ formulates a critique or even advocates a way of life, similarly society, at least the section that reads poetry should look upon a poet with an open mind. As I said earlier, the responses to a poet's work are as important as the composition itself. Ideally, poetry should make the society think, feel and the work of a good poet should be able to create a salutary effect in the sense of fostering a better world where the prevalent virtues shall be empathy, assimilation and a spirit of egalitarianism.
SC: What are your views regarding contemporary Indian women's poetry in English? Where do you situate yourself within this context?
NS: Today, Indian women poets, through their articulateness, have created a milieu which is a platform for divulging and affirming their individuality that was denied to them earlier. Indian women poets in English are exploring the female consciousness and often flamboyantly expressing their selves, confidently, counteracting male domination with the contention of their ability and uniqueness. They have thrived in achieving the sovereignty for themselves in innumerable spheres in the contemporary set-up of Indian English literature. In the women's historiography in the Indian poetry scenario, I have created my position on a sound basis.
SC: Do you have a favourite word? What about a poet who has meant a lot to you?
NS: My favourite word/idea is ecofeminism. Some poets mean a lot to me, like Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Jayanta Mahapatra and Late Prof Niranjan Mohanty.
SC: As a poet and a professor, what advice do you give to emerging writers?
NS: My identities as a poet and an academic are entirely independent of each other. Poetry always came to me the natural way; yes my training in English Literature which has indeed been a rigorous one, did help hone my skills as a poet, just as it has given me a profession of my choice. Not so much of an advice but just in the way of sharing insights on this issue, I would advocate a thorough acquaintance of classical and world literature for an aspiring poet or creative writer. This is important not just in the Eliotesque way of placing oneself amidst the prolonged tradition; but also to understand analytically where one's true inclinations lie. Besides, one should dare to imagine, to think; without ever posing question marks on one's own ability and magnitude of thought and feeling. Each human being is unique, so is his/her mind and that should be nourished with care and love. It is true that poets or creative writers cannot be made, but then, neither are they born that way. It is important to identify and channelize one's innate talents and top it up with study. And then, there is the all important aspect of being able to feel. Believe me, every human mind has the ability to process all of this, it is just the confidence that needs to be bolstered.
SC: Please tell us about your collections of poetry. What was their role in defining the identity of Kavi Nandini?
NS: I have four poetry collections as of now, and a fifth one under publication. I have shown the makings of an independent mind of my own, right from my maiden collection of poems The Other Voice in 2004. The poems in this volume flash images of alienation and existential absurdity, interfusing classical art with my personal as well as social consciousness. Here, my personae seems to rejoice at the beauty of creation: sometimes ecstatic about being a woman, at other times disturbing the slumber of society on sensitive issues like mental slavery of the human, subjugation of women. Whenever time is ripe, a brainchild, a poem is born from my pen's tongue, setting a living, breathing world that adds fiery fresh flood of poems to the world of Muses. The Silence is my second collection of poems where I have taken care to include poems dealing with the secret chambers of the human heart that is not so silent after all! These poems reveal a complex and rich treasure of emotions. As a sensitive poet, I pour out my concerns, fears and ecstasies through these poems, attempting to trace the contours of the social, philosophical and spiritual environment I inhabit. In my third poetry collection, Silver Poems on My Lips, published in 2009, I pour out poetry that oozes from the secret chambers of the heart, though I know well that in an age of material pleasures perhaps it is difficult for the heart to fit in. Thus, an insecurity and reservation move me greatly in my expedition through life. My moorings, however, rotate around a belief in human values. Love and poetry are my therapy to live, breathe and sing. My fourth and latest volume, Sukamaa and Other Poems has been a long cherished work because it is, in a microcosm, a tribute to those influences that have helped me reach where I have today. It was a debt I was morally obligated to myself to discharge.
SC: What about your current project/s? Which poems are you working on right now?
NS: Having done that, I am presently working on another dream project, which I very unassumingly call Sita: A Poem. My canvas here is the macrocosm of quintessential womanhood, which is a 21st century woman's take on the predominantly masculine form of the Indian epic that has always been viewed in its umpteen variations from a patriarchal point of view. The urge to have an alternative take on the story of the Ramayana from Sita's angle has always haunted me since my childhood when grandma would read out "Sita ma's" plea to Mother Earth to take her back into her fold, thereby relieve her of a life burdened by assaults on her character, purity and chastity. I could never comprehend why 'maryada purushottam' Rama had to castigate his flesh and blood wife and yet make a phoney show of all's well with the State by installing an effigy of pure gold that was to signify her chastity. In mature years, Sita has come across to me not just as a woman but much more as a metaphor of resilient womanhood; I have come to identify traces of Sita-ness in every woman. How potent her power of non-violence could be! Even though she was the icon of rebellion, she had great patience. Her birth from the womb of Mother Earth stood for nature, vivacity and truth. Sita is the epitome of a virtuous woman in Indian cultural imagination and is my icon. I am privileged to be working on her, because I feel this is a debt I needed to discharge to myself and to womanhood at large.
SC: Among your own poems, which is your favourite? Will you share the poem with us?
NS: Oh, there are so many poems that are close to my heart. Sita is the best among all, I guess. Anyway, I would just quote a poem titled "Hand-in-Hand" from my first collection, The Silence:
A man was sitting sad.
I did not know him.
I only knew the masquerading sorrow.
I smiled at him.
He did not know my smiles.
Only knew the sharing.
I extended my hands.
We did not know each other's hands.
Only knew walking hand-in-hand.
I picked a handful of salt water.
I did not know his tears.
Only knew thirst quenched, hearts drenched.
SC: Thank you, Dr Sahu, for your time and for sharing a lovely poem. It has been a pleasure having this conversation.