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Usha Kishore, Jaydeep Sarangi

Usha Kishore: In Discussion with Jaydeep Sarangi

Usha Kishore

Indian born Usha Kishore is a British poet, writer and translator from the Sanskrit, resident on the Isle of Man, where she teaches English at Queen Elizabeth II High School. Usha is internationally published and anthologised by Macmillan, Hodder Wayland, Oxford University Press (all UK) and Harper Collins India among others. Her poetry has won prizes in UK Poetry competitions (the most recent being the winning poem in the Exiled Writers Ink Poetry Competition), has been part of international projects and features in the British Primary and Indian Middle School syllabus. The winner of an Arts Council Award and a Culture Vannin Award, Usha's debut collection On Manannan's Isle was published in 2014 by dpdotcom, UK. A second collection, Night Sky between the Stars, has been published by Cyberwit India in January 2015. Forthcoming is a book of translations from the Sanskrit, Translations of the Divine Woman, from Rasala India.

Jaydeep Sarangi: Will you please tell us about your childhood?
Usha Kishore: I was born in Trivandrum, Kerala and grew up in a traditional South Indian Tamil Brahman household (my ancestors were migrants from Tamil Nadu to Kerala). As a child, I was fed on a rich diet of stories from Mahabharatha, Ramayana, Shiva Purana, Devi Bhagavatha and various folklores and legends, which re-incarnate in my poetry. I went to a Roman Catholic Convent and discovered English Literature. The combination sealed my fate!
My mother was a Hindi teacher and she introduced me to Hindi poetry. In my formative years, I was reading Maithili Sharan Gupt, Jai Shankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant and Harivansh Rai Bachchan. My mother also pointed me in the direction of Indian poets in English like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu.
I was caught between two mother tongues – Tamil, the communal language and Malayalam, the language of Kerala. I consider myself Malayali, like many other Kerala Iyers, who speak a mosaic language, a dialect of Tamil and Malayalam.
Another striking thing from my childhood was the chanting of Sanskrit shlokas in my household, especially among the patriarchs. All these influenced my writing and translation in later years.

JS: When did you discover your talent for writing?
My writing took shape when I was doing my MA in English Literature (University of Kerala). In those days, postgrad Eng Lit students pretended to be literary genii. I started emulating Tagore a lot and modelled my work on his poetry. My first poems were discovered by a well-known Kerala art critic, writer and editor, Padmanabhan Thampy and he published my work in his magazine, Southern Chronicle. This was an art and literature journal, which was published in the 1980s from Trivandrum. Southern Chronicle had an international clientele, and among the pages was the renowned Egyptian born Israeli poet, Ada Aharoni. I didn't know who she was then. Now, I am grateful to the late Sri Thampy for the great favour that he had done me. Sri Thampy usually delivered the journal to my house, during his early morning walks; I would be fast asleep then (I was a late riser). Then Trivandrum was a city-village, where everybody knew everybody else.
Sri Thampy used to complain to my mother that I was not writing enough and not reading enough and that I was lazy. Now, when I feel lackadaisical or fatigued that writing becomes a chore, I hear Sri Thampy's voice spurring me on: Madiyanu, Ezhuthila(She is lazy, she won't write). I was also greatly encouraged by the Malayalam poet Karoor Sasi and his late wife, the eminent Malayalam novelist, P R Shyamala.

JS: What are the preconditions for a good poem?
UK: A good poem is thought provoking and has a wide appeal. If we revisit Wordsworth's formula: a good poem would be an interweaving of sensory images, emotion, reflection and imagination.

JS: Is there any specific significance of the titles of your collections?
Yes, Myth. I have two published collections and a book of translations on the way. My first collection is called On Manannan's Isle and takes its title from the Celtic Sea-deity Manannan Mac Lir. The Isle of Man owes its name to Manannan and the islanders believe that Manannan protects the island with his cloak of mists. This collection contemplates the themes of assimilation and marginalisation, displacement and nostalgia, loss and reconciliation, through symbols of myth and legend, through migrant metaphors.
My second collection is called Night Sky between the Stars. The title is from the Bengali Shyam Sangeet and is a reference to Kali, the dark Mother. True to the title, the collection draws heavily from Indian myth, challenges patriarchal texts, renders new voices to female mythical characters and creates an alternative dimension for Indian womanhood, articulating my concerns on a marginalised gender identity. I have tried to voice a determined diasporic engagement with the motherland in lyrical images of goddesses and women.

JS: You have written fine poems on Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Is there any specific reason behind this?
Thank You Jaydeep. I am pre-occupied with multicultural myths, more so with Indian myth. To me, myths are more than irrational constructs of reality. In another interview with Sunil Sharma, I had defined myths as: disguised histories or allegories, re-interpreted on a personal level. In India, we grow up and live with Hindu Gods and Goddesses. As practising Hindus, our 33 million gods become part of our life, our identity; they structure our beliefs, our values and our ideologies. To me, they signify transitions in life; the life of an NRI, living away from home, clinging on to Indian Gods.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses are part of my identity. I re-invent them on a personal level; they are re-born in my poetry as themes, metaphors, allegories or motifs. Many poems in Night Sky between the Stars employ gendered myth, folklore and legend to convey my dreams of emancipation and equality. I have used Goddesses as personifying conflict in socio-political systems, especially in poems like "Dakshayani", who challenges Daksha, the patriarch of the heavens:

Thirsting for the sky, I let warring Gods wrestle
on sacrificial fires; I challenged the patriarch
of the heavens. Upstart, Dakshayani, destroyer
of Daksha's yagna - let my fables float like lilies
on the lakes of your penitent prayers.

and in "Descent of Ganga," who breaks bounds of heaven and surges forth in strewing, sidereal spate:

Can meek earth subdue heaven's flowing force?
Her perfumed tresses, cascading from heaven
to astral zone, drenching planets, satellites
and star spangled milky way, she swirls
on the neck of the sky like a twisting, writhing
torsade of pearls. With twin moons for breasts,
sun for smile and virginal might, she carves
her seductive elemental path, raining down
in streams as if to drown the earth.
Aweless, arrogant, avid to devour the world,
she unleashes her power that no man dare aspire.

The goddesses are allegories symbolising gender subjugation, especially in a patriarchal community like mine. The coming of age of Brahman women in Kerala can be traced in these two poems. "Dakshayani" is a Dramatic Monologue; the poetic persona being the spirit of Dakshayani after her self-immolation at Daksha's Yagna. "Descent of Ganga", inspired by Raja Ravi Varma's painting, elicits the force of Ganga, a metonym for female energy, as she falls from the astral plains into earth, only to be bound in Shiva's locks.

JS: A large part of our identity is rooted in nationality. How has migration from one nation to another affected your identity?
I became postcolonial, after I moved to the UK. Consequently, the postcolonial narrative and issues of language, nation, culture and identity have invaded my poetry, .As a diasporic, I feel that I have to hold on to my roots; at the same time, I have assimilated a whole new socio-cultural system into my life and writing. In my work, I historicise both India and Britain. From a theoretical perspective, I feel that my poetry is diasporic, postcolonial and hybrid, synthesising an idiolect that oscillates between India and the UK. My work is also syncretic because I, often, find myself traversing the East and the West and fusing many aspects such as thematic concerns, verse forms and literary devices. Holistically speaking, migration has presented me with a hybrid identity and poetic voice:

The mornings are white,
lit up by a grey sky
and Shakespeare.
The evenings are dusky,
enchanted by oil lamps
and the fragrance
of Kanakadhara…
… I take up
my pen and fall
into the rainbow realms
of the diaspora.
My aesthetic is neither
here, nor there.
{"Diaspora", On Manannan's Isle}

JS: How did you come to the Isle of Man?
My husband Parameswaran Kishore is a doctor and we have moved around the UK, as and when he changes jobs. I have moved from Kent to Sheffield, back to Kent and now to the Isle of Man, where I teach English in a Secondary School.

JS: Can you describe an "average" working day for you?
My average working day is quite hectic. I have two teenagers, a busy doctor husband and a teaching job. As you are aware, in the UK, people are very self-sufficient and do not depend on others for any household chores. So, it has to be all - the cooking, washing and cleaning and then my teaching work. Preparation and marking takes a lot of time, especially between January and May, as I am KS5 (Plus Two) Co-ordinator for English at my school. I teach both Language and Literature and this keeps me on my toes with examinations, coursework, in-service training and curriculum changes.
I don't have a set writing time. I write almost every day, whenever I can. To me, Poetry is cathartic; it frees my mind.

JS: You also voyage into dreamscapes as a kind of meta-language of suggested meanings. Do you find this observation justified?
Your interpretation of my work as "voyages into dreamscapes" is a complex and previously unread element. I am delighted that you have come into this reading. My poem, "In-Between Space" is quintessential of your interpretation. I have just re-read the poem and just couldn't help laughing – the profusion of images here perhaps have a certain daliesque influence!! Here is an excerpt:

You have dreamt between distracted archipelagos,
floundering coral reefs and lost peninsulas, hitching
dragon rides in a world of camels and elephants.
You have mapped cultural spaces with crepuscular icons
of demons and demiurges churning immortal serpents
in the misty oceans of the milky way. You have lived
in fear of Jupiter's thunderbolt and Indra's vajra, gathering
gemstone legends from the lands you traversed in search
of a dark eternity. You have inherited the scent of jasmine-
flowers, the loss of womanhood hanging on pomegranate-
trees and the fate of the ever wandering khanabadosh.
Lounging on the peacock throne of in-between space,
you sip cloudy twilight from a tall, slim glass and fathom
the sensuous curve of the sky as it meets the sea…
    {"In-Between Space," Poetry Salzburg Review, Vienna, Autumn 2014}

Dreams are very much part of my writing. Like a lot of NRIs, I often find myself dreaming in and out of India. This draws me into dreamscapes: surreal images of monsoons, womanhood and Indian sunsets juxtaposed with multicultural myth, British autumn and postcolonial angst. I think the surreal images and dreamscapes are an attempt to retain my Indian roots, and at the same time, a concerted effort to assimilate into my new environment. (Strange, I should call this "new", I have been living in the UK since 1989; "back home" is India and "home" is the Isle of Man.) These surreal images negotiate my cultural space. Then there is also the inter-language, the linguistic lines that map this cultural space. The meta-language of my dreamscapes are a reflection of my diasporic, syncretic self; a longing for identity in an in-between space.

JS: Is writing an act of resistance and emancipation for you?
Both. As mentioned earlier, I converted into postcolonialism in the UK. I became a feminist, while confronting Indian patriarchal attitudes that refuse to give way to gender rights. In the UK, my writing is an act of resistance against racial stereotypes and discrimination. It is also an act of emancipation as I can openly write my thoughts, without any fear of political correctness, without any compulsion to be on middle ground. UK race relations are a volatile issue and not everyone wants to discuss them, especially on the Isle of Man, where equality is "new rain." Therefore, poetry is resistance and emancipation as illustrated in my poem, "Yet Another Autumn" (from On Manannan's Isle):

Yet another autumn rains
down in exiled tears. On an
island shore, I stand –
a come-over with no rights –
there is no PC in poetry.
I can speak my mind here
and be read…

My goddesses, as mentioned previously, convey my gendered Indian yearnings in "feisty feminine archetypes"; they are

destiny's rivals who fan fires of revenge in unravelled hair,
tongues of flame, regenerate curse and epic dreams.

(from "Five Virgins", Night Sky between the Stars)

JS: Could you comment on the poetry scene in your place?
I am a member of the Isle of Man Poetry Society. IMPS officials are very helpful and provide valuable advice as regards publishing grants and publishers. IMPS holds regular poetry readings and workshops around the island, providing ample opportunities for members. I do a lot of peer-reviewing with Janet Lees, who is also a published poet; both of us find this very helpful. Then there is a yearly Manx Lit Fest, which hosts poetry readings and panels.
I am a member of Exiled Writers Ink, a London based organisation that provides a platform for immigrant poets. Above all, I am also a member of the UK Poetry Society and the National Association of Writers in Education, which are both very helpful as regards information on publications, competitions and workshop listings.

JS: Who are some contemporary Indian poets, who are published in the magazines there?
Well-known poets of the Indian diaspora in the UK include Daljit Nagra, Debjani Chatterjee, Bashabi Fraser, Shanta Acharya and more recently Mona Dash.

JS: Publishers often consider publishing collections is a commercial suicide. How do you view this?
Yes and No. Although publishers feel that individual collections are not lucrative, the amount of poetry collections of individual poets from the UK have doubled over the past decade, thanks to small presses and poetry competitions.
Similarly, with publishers like Cyberwit promoting poetry, individual collections have quadrupled in the last decade in India. Don't you think so?

JS: You are a distinguished poet in the UK. Do you consider there would be any difference between a native English poet and a bilingual/trilingual poet from Asia?
I am published in well-known UK and Irish journals like Index on Censorship, The Frogmore Papers, The Warwick Review, Aesthetica, The New Writer and The Stinging Fly. I am anthologised by Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Hodder Wayland. I have also been on the prize-list of a few UK competitions and won Isle of Man Arts Council and Culture Vannin awards. But I don't think you become distinguished until you have a couple of well recognised collections, which are shortlisted for or receive a major literary award.
I feel there is a difference between a native poet and an immigrant poet, because of the cultural narrative. A recent article in the UK newspaper The Guardian has highlighted this. In this article by Alison Flood, the award winning British Asian Poet Daljit Nagra issues a damning indictment of British Poetry. Nagra feels that "too often editors use a euphemism such as 'taste' as an excuse for rejecting black authors" and that "unoriginal and clichèd white poetry finds publishers with dreadful ease whilst unconventional black writing does not."
Recently, a well-known British writer told me to drop conventionality and postcolonial angst and asked me to write about Indian cricket and the space-program. (I am reminded of Edmund Gosse's advice to Naidu, "to consign all that she had written in a falsely English vein to the wastepaper basket and start afresh with some sincere, penetrating analysis of native passion, of the principles of antique religion, and of the soul-stirring mysterious intimations of the East." In fact, Gosse was advising Naidu to look at Indian themes within her poetry and not to write about England. Hypothetically speaking, if Gosse's advice were not heeded, Naidu would have developed naturally, with the possibility of a pre-twentieth/early twentieth century Indian woman performing the role of Rudyard Kipling in reverse, projecting the colonial's view of the empire.) Here I am sticking to my guns: my monsoons, my myths, my postcolonial angst!
It has been an arduous and challenging journey in the UK for me, as it has been for other writers of the Indian diaspora. But it is not an impossible journey; with perseverance, you do get widely published and you do win prizes. I was published, to some extent, in the UK, US and Ireland before being accepted in India.

JS: Do you consider this contextualised English (i.e. Indian English) as the new variety (model) of English now?
Certainly. Indian English is another "english," a language of appropriation as defined by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin. Both speakers and writers create an Indian identity by their use of language. They create their own discursive space by using words from Indian languages, by appropriating the language in the Indian context (like Salman Rushdie et al) and by cultural references. I would like to use the term alternation, here. By this term, I mean that the on-going process of 'indianisation of English' creates an alternative to British English as the Indian writer experiments with language to suit his/her own creative needs. The creation of this alternative or the alternation of British English coincides with the coming of age of the nation that is India. The evolving nation seeks to express itself in the new language, an alternative to British English, which is the language of the coloniser. Thus the politics of the nation becomes the politics of language.
The 'nation in the forming' seeking a new identity, away from the label of the former British colony, coincides with the Indian need for an alternative medium of expression. Perhaps, this would lead to an accepted alternative form, not unlike American English or Afro-Caribbean English. And like these two versions, there would not be a standard Indian English but a multicultural, multilingual heterogeneous language reflecting the regional, cultural and linguistic variations within India. The emergent language would thus illustrate the intellectual temper and cultural complexity of contemporary India and is reflective of the constant growth and change of the English language in an international context. This process of alternation has already begun as seen in contemporary Indian poetry and novels.

JS: Who are important reviewers/critics on you?

UK: Debjani Chatterjee in the UK and in India, Atreya Sarma Uppaluri, Sutapa Chaudhuri, Sunil Sharma and you, of course, Jaydeep. I am thankful for their/your acceptance and encouragement.

JS: Is there an anxiety to portray Indianness in your writings?
Yes, certainly. I am but Indian. As discussed, I am anxious to project this in my work. I was born in Kerala and my formative years were immersed in Indian tradition, culture and languages. Hence, long self-exile does not deter me from Indian images, motifs and cultural tropes. Without this exile, I am no one; without India, I do not exist!

JS: How will you conceptualise Aborigine /Maori/Dalit writings these days, in the after-months of so called democratisation of life/society?
Yes, there is a lot of discrimination, still, on Aborigine/Maori/Dalit writings by mainstream publishers and critics around the world, as there are on ethnic writers in the West. However, the recent progress made towards "democratisation of life/society" has created a change in attitudes and there has been an interest on these narratives, be it artwork or poetry. Surprisingly, artwork from these groups has achieved more prominence, be it Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime paintings, Maori visual art or Indian Madhubani paintings and Warli artwork. I am sure at some point in the near future, writing, too, would achieve its due merits. Through books edited by you and Rob Harle, I have been introduced to Aboriginal writing and I found this very enlightening and different. I wish I could read more!
In India, given its linguistic diversity, writing in indigenous languages does not secure a wide audience. Dalit Writing in English and translations into English from Dalit Writing would be more widely read. Meena Kandasamy's recent novel, The Gypsy Goddess has made a significant landmark in Dalit writing and in Indian Writing in English as a whole. I am sure many others would follow.

JS: If you are to prepare a text book for school students, will you include your poems?
Why not? I started writing for my students in the form of model poems, before they went into mainstream press in the UK, encouraged by my lecturer Moira Monteith, formerly of Sheffield Hallam University. I regularly write for Dimdima, the online children's journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. My poetry is already part of the UK Primary (Oxford University Press) and Indian Middle School (Mindsprings, Mumbai) syllabus.

JS: Would you kindly share with us a poem that represents you as a poet?
Perhaps, in view of my second collection, Night Sky between the Stars, I will share the poem, "Vajrayogini", an illustration of my feminist interpretation of myth. Vajrayogini is a female deity from the Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon, considered to be the essence of all Buddhas, with similarities to Hindu Goddesses like Kali, Chinnamasta and Varahi.

    {on a thangka painting}
Altarpiece of a Tibetan thangka painting,
Vajrayogini,flame-haloedincarnadined deity,
adorned in gold, silver and translucent skulls,
you gyrate in nude enlightenment. Ornate clouds
whisper meditation mantras to the blue vacuum
of the mind, where your ankleted feet relentlessly
trample on many-armed humanoid figures,
upon which all of us, at some point, long to tread.
Astride a golden sun, rising from a radiant
rainbow lotus, you, dakini, virgin sky walker,
pirouette to frenzied cosmic rhythms.
Essence of tummo fire, emanating third-world
feminism, you harbour all life in your flowing
blue-black hair; your three eyes spawning past,
present and future. Bearing the bannered weapon
of khatvanga on your left shoulder, you savour
eternity in the sanguine fluid of life that drips
incessantly from a kapala skull-bowl held high
on your left hand; your right hand deftly poised
with a dorje-drigug knife, to cleave my exiled
consciousness. Your beautiful face fierce, your
blue eyes serene, your upraised breasts seductive,
your bounteous womb, the fecund night air.
A consummate female buddhahood, at the heightened
ecstasy of a provocative tandava dance, captured
in ground mineral on the coarse rain-washed cloth
of the orient; renegade goddess, mapping the world
in a mandala of crisscrossed crimson triangles,
you are the ultimate peinture feminine.

Thank You Jaydeep!




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