Interview with Ashwani Kumar
by Anindita Bose
Ashwani Kumar is Mumbai- based Indian English poet, writer, and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His anthologies “My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter” with a prolegomenon by Ashis Nandy and ‘Banaras and the Other’ have been published by Yeti Books and Poetrywala. His poems-translated in Indian languages and Hungarian, are noted for ‘lyrical celebration’ of garbled voices of memory and their subversive ‘whimsy’ quality. His “Banaras and the Other”, first of a trilogy, was long listed for 1stJayadev National Poetry Award 2017. Award-winning Hungarian poet, Gabor Lanczkor has translated his new poems on Tagore in Hungarian for a special volume “Architecture of Alphabets” (forthcoming). Select cantos of the Hungarian translation of 'Banaras and the Other' were performed by iconic Hungarian band Kalaka at the Times Lit Fest 2017 in Mumbai. He is currently working on Ayodhya, second of Banaras trilogy and his non- fiction book ‘Biharis’ (forthcoming, Aleph Books). He is co-founder of Indian Novels Collective to bring classic novels of Indian Literature to English readers and curates popular TLF (TISS Literature Fest) and Rajni Kothari lecture series in Mumbai. Ashwani is also a visiting fellow at leading global universities and think tanks including London School of Economics, German Development Institute, Korea Development Institute, University of Sussex, etc. He writes a regular book column in Financial Express. His other books include “Community Warriors” (Anthem Press, 2008), “Power Shifts and Global Governance “(Anthem Press, 2010) and “Migration and Mobility” (forthcoming, Routledge, 2019). And he is one of the chief editors of LSE’s prestigious publication “Global Civil Society: Poverty and Activism” (Sage International, 2010)
What travel means to you - a physical entity or spiritual freedom?
I fear travel yet I travel frequently to shed my fears. Every time I travel, I experience a brief death, instant execution at the hands of imaginary death squads from my previous births. Sorry if it sounds grim, a neurotic excuse not to travel. Let’s do something fancier, a dream-travel . Try climbing wooden step-ladder in your building, I am not sure you will ever reach shoe closet of Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis, the famous Brazilian writer who lives on the ground floor. Unlike Machado who dislikes travelling far away lands, I travel. And when I travel I am often unclean, and smell like dead parrot fish. I don’t hear a hush of rustled leaves or see faint early- morning shimmer from the snow -capped mountains. I see nothing when I travel because my eyes sockets are often filled with toxic lead and mercury. No wonder, my travels are neither orchidaceous botanical experiences nor rustic-glam geographical wedding parties for spiritual freedom. I don’t travel to a new place, see bountiful landscapes, eat exotic foods and meet gorgeous people. For me, travel is a fantasy collage of histories, myths and memories of volcanic ash painted forbidden pictures of naked powerful men and rogue women I have never met; it’s actually an autobiographical journey into a new language of words- monosyllabic to polysyllabic words arranged in rows of pink, red, violet, toothbrushes in my bathroom. Ah, you feel like brushing your dirty-crooked teeth!
What Literary Journals would you recommend ?
New Yorker, Granta, Times Literary Supplement, Yale Review, Postcolonial Text, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Wasafiri, Indian Literature, Coldnoon, The Little Magazine, among others are quite immersive and illuminating read. Being a poet-professor, I enjoy reading journals -major and minor ones. Sometimes, footloose minor journals print daring, unconventional literature and expose us to brilliant new voices, often from the social margins. Also, it is exciting for both senior and young poets to read forgotten journals from the local archives as well. For instance, Poetry India , Imprint, Quest, Bombay Duck, Opinion, Dionysius, Blunt, Volume, Fulcrum, The Bombay Literary Review and others not only set new literary and aesthetic standards but also introduced the next generation of powerful writers and poets in Mumbai and beyond. In this era of hyper- social media age, there are also many start- up literary journals with differential editorial quality. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to some of the most creative journals from the non-English speaking worlds. We urgently need subversive hybrid/ khichdi journals in forked tongues, imitating and mimicking material and symbolic expressions of power.
What people or experiences have helped you to arrive where you are?
“Born amidst neither illusion nor ambition, / I came to the world like the rusted rumours of a riot”. (from “My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter”). With no family or social and literary connections to anglophile post-colonial India or any sort of privileged background, I literally came to the English poetry ‘like the rusted rumours of a riot’. I am a rustic creature of scattered circumstances, odd geographies and live without any fixed locale in life, literature, and also in academic world. This morsel of my bio only partially tells you, how I accidentally and also unintentionally arrived in Mumbai- ‘this traffic island or trisland’ as Arun Kolatkar called it, like “New refugees, / Wearing blood-red wool in the worst heat”. (From ‘Sea Breeze’ of Adil Jussawalla) Honestly speaking, I am a rank outsider to Mumbai English poetry scene, but admire the open, bohemian, inclusive literary and cultural spaces and flows in the city. That I enjoy affinities and affections of leading English, Marathi and Gujarati writers and poets in the city is a testimony to the sparkling humanism of Mumbai. Mumbai since the demolition of Babri mosque has of course become more insular, and parochial but its literary world still remains opulently inclusive, and differences in writing styles, aesthetic temperaments, and individual idiosyncrasies accepted, and celebrated. Journey, literary or otherwise is rarely individual travel; you travel with your fellow pilgrims, good, bad or ugly. Must confess my formal entry into English poetry won’t have been possible without the support of Ashis Nandy and K. Satchidanandan. Together and separately, they re-burnished my creative energies and re-furbished my ‘political unconscious’ for irreverential expression. With her extraordinary sensory perception of literature, Shinjini always shadow my verses. Amitava Kumar graciously turned the pages of ’ My Grandfather’s Imagianry Typewriter’ and saw my poems as ’precious photographs preserved in an album’. Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya, Hemant Divate and T.P. Rajeevan- friends, editors and publishers- helped my poetry reach wider audience and recognition. Vinay Lal at UCLA has unfailingly supported my turn to poetry. Bina Sarkar Elias and Anjali Purohit have gifted me their precious joys of curating my poems and extending my circles of poet-friends in Mumbai. Adil Jussawalla and Gieve Patel’s homely affections help me walk back, a bit limping, to memories of blonder, bolder days of Mumbai poetry. Ranjit Hoskote generously shares with me his appreciation of my whimsy verses and my fictional journey to Banaras. Lately, Jayanta Mahapatra and I share uncanny epistolary friendship of travelling together to unknown locations of poetic imagination. Without Hungarian poet and novelist Gábor Lanczkor, my poems won’t have travelled across diverse traditions of poetry in Europe. And thanks to Manglesh Dabral, Anamika, Manu Dash, Bharat Majhi, Subodh Sarkar, Mritunjay Singh, M.R. Kamala, Manini Mishra and others, my poems find new addresses in other Indian languages. Many friends from non-literary backgrounds have also inspired, encouraged and kept me going.
But more than the support of individual poet or writer, my poetry journey is largely shaped by arbitrary circumstances and memories of geographies- real or fictional. I was born in a lower-middle class large Bihari family in the border areas of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. Due to my father’s transferable job in the local police bureaucracy, we spent most of the time migrating from small towns to smaller towns in old Bihar. Must say father and mother were generous and siblings affectionately mischievous and quarrelsome but the brutal environment of living in the police camps left permanent scars on my soul. Attracted to wild beasts, half-humans and gauntly ghosts, I spent my days mostly as unruly, wild, and fearless child among the tall silver grasses with shape-shifting snakes around my home. I don’t remember having schooled regularly or achieved grades of any significance. I remember the first day in the class with a dhoti-clad master saheb in the school. I was so freighted as if I saw “a lion in my living room” and “rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion, Lion! (Ginsberg’s poem “The Lion for Real”), Years later, I ‘ran away with Spanish-Fly-Woman/ I had met at the coaching center/” and learnt English “language skills/from rats, reptiles, insects and part time/teachers with plastic accents”, (From ‘Banaras and the Other”)
Sounds strange but I was deprived of a mother-language or a singular home language in the conventional sense , for my mother spoke Magahi, a dialect of Hindi. She was neither educated in Hindi nor English, occasionally wrote in now extinct Kaithi script. But she was a great story teller and memoirist. And she often relished gossips and tales of infidelities. In contrast, my father was conversant with Hindi (official language of the state) and he gradually acquired a smattering of working English. He was also more stern, formal and ambitious who never accepted his inherited place in the society. The family environment was largely non-sanskritised, rural and vernacular. As my father made progress in the local pecking order, the family eventually became more urbane, still more of small town urbanity. When we landed in the capital town of our native state, we were still non-English but fed a heavy dose of translated literature from Indian language novels and also Moscow-literature as it was called those days. Here in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, my initial exposure to the art, literature and music especially classical music during Durga Pujo began. After a brief but intense teenage flirtation with all sorts of revolution including ‘Sampurna Kranti’ ((total revolution) and student’s politics, I moved to Delhi University campus (with a ghostly existence on the side-lines of JNU)- where I was re-shaped, re-made, breaking out of feudal past, caste hierarchies etc. and started licking dollops of creamy mouth-watering left-radical politics. But never formally joined any political outfit or sold the soul to any ideology or political patriarch for partisan or opportunistic career interests. I joined Delhi University quite young and started teaching political science and eye-witnessed major political upheavals - like Mandal agitation and demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya. In this phase of life, I tried to make popcorn -poems in Hindi but burnt most of them in the microwave heating. I don’t remember how I landed up in the bible belt of the US in the 1990s. I suspect my fears of travelling without monkey Gods brought me to windy “barren Oklahoma” of Derek Walcott. I did not even know Oklahoma was land of violent tornados. Geographies often eluded me. I remember I suffered from the cold, liquid rage simmering inside me. I know why. I was intoxicated by my terrible mistake of visiting Mrs Quandary’s striptease bar. So, in part, a dangerous and unlucky combination of timing, metrology, topography and geography led me to writing poetry in English . It might also be possible that when I hid into the claustrophobic tornado shelter on the campus, I became a poet. That’s why I often imagine I sewer for a living in my poetry. Thanks to Vinay Dharwadker who was on my doctoral committee, I secretly journeyed into the many lives of AK Ramanujan’s poems. Knowing AKR was ennobling and mystifying too. It helped me overcome my routine language-failures. But I remained un-tutored and migrated to English poetry in schizophrenic fits. It might shock you but when I heard on the phone in the unshaven chilly winter in Oklahoma that ‘my mother died’, my mother -language also died the same moment. And when I returned home, I found my father struggling with dementia and dying remembering ‘only his first bribe from a poor widow’. (‘Alzheimer’ in “My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter’) This is how I arrived at English poetry; an intimate and frightening journey!
What are common traps for aspiring writers ?
For younger and aspiring poets writing in English: drown yourself in the turbulent sea of the Indian language poetry and cacophony of global voices but in the sequential order. Some poets or writers are often obsessed with technical virtuosity, treating writing a cyborg experience. They fear exchanging buffaloes for goats and cocks. Also, you can’t write wearing sacred threads of your life and languages. Look for sounds of meeting, mating rivers in the imaginary words. Listen to the music in the forbidden hymns, without meters or fractals of mathematics. Writing poetry is like bringing water to a boil, waiting for the tea leaves to brew in coppery autumn flush. Poetry is a way of happening. Don’t bother about the missing articles, relative pronouns or auxiliary verbs as W.H. Auden famously did in his writing. Medieval bhakti saint poets have taught us to use riddles, enigmas, parables, and metaphors to subvert the language of ordinary experience. Never write for the narcissistic virtual magic mirror or for instant fame or celebrity status. When you are done with a poem, taste it as if you are eating potassium cyanide as Namdeo Dhasal said. In short, we need to become more liminal, visceral, unconventional, and occasionally blasphemous too. Also, never be innocent of the darker sides of poetry; it could lead to auto-annihilation if you torture poetry to tell the truth. Any search for a pure, authentic or ideal kingdom of language is infantile and often tyrannical. ‘Only She: Banalata Sen of Natore’ is real. Stay true to yourself!
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Yes. I hide my secrets and wait nervously when you decipher my hidden scripts in my books of poems. Our secrets are like ancient signage language, mostly undecipherable and unrecognizable. I shudder at the thought of my secrets being out in the public and lynched by mobs in Bermuda Khaki shorts and reversible batwing t-shirts. Often poets are treacherous, unfaithful lovers revealing and concealing simultaneously in their squinty, alien way. I would prefer if you don’t ask me to reveal my secrets, rustic colloquial lies. But life is such a mess that poets are often hounded, humiliated, thrashed and also forced to commit self-immolation for revealing their secrets. Not surprisingly, while writing a poem I often imagine I am in the middle of unskinned darkness, and “I burn to ashes in my poetry, /as on my funeral pyre. / I arrange words one over another /in my poetry, like raw wood. / When I get up from the banana leaf, / and climb the pyre, words catch fire”. (‘In Poetry’ by Satchidanandan). In this fire resides our secrets!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
My younger writing self was more primitive, more primal and also more schizophrenic. I remember feeling distant and different every night. I would grow from all sides and suddenly disappear in an invisible rat’s hole every day. You will be surprised to know that while struggling for a decent academic career, and voice in the literary world, I wrote TV jingles and bandish(composition) for private recordings in Delhi. But I wrote in low and timid voice, whispering few audible words. Most of my younger poems got eaten up by caterpillars in my garden. My younger self was more like a dirty love affair between taproots and earthworms. I was also ignored for being a walrus or hippopotamus and making love against the order of nature in the literature. But I recall having written some of my best poems during this phase of life. Now, I am aging fast. I experience pain in the knee, neck, almost every day. I am on medication most of the time. Everyone thinks my culinary powers have declined, but I still use artificial sugar in my tea and you won’t miss the fragrance of wild jasmine. So, the best is yet to come!
When you dream, what language do you use?
Ha-ha. Good question. Dreams are racial and genetic memories of our unconscious past and future, speaking in self-lacerating, bar…bar… barbaric languages. In dreams, I speak the language of wild elephants frolicking in the knife -grass forests. Hairless, slender, linear arrogant languages often desert me in dreams. In dreams, I often hear women talking to women in Arabic, French, Spanish while sipping vodka and goggling over the rippled, chained bodies of handsome writers from my native language in the restaurant. Don’t know if you ever experienced dreaming fossil plants speaking in naturally silver-black, poisonously lizard-like mother -languages. In dreams, I start speaking in English about adult-undergarments in my closet, slowly unzipping one of many pockets in my tongue and ending the conversation with a joyful vibration and piercing sound of aspirating vowels. A perfect accent is a piece of shit, total trash in dreams. So, when I dream I don’t get stabbing sensation in my accent. I lick my lips, let my voice rise, no vice in the accent. You know. It is no secret daughters of Goddess Kali taught me in dreams impossible accents and languages. I am sure you also dream like me!
People are forever travelling to attend events (seminars, summits, conferences, workshops etc), but the media continues to show us variances in terms of nation building towards a peaceful future. Being a well travelled and extremely experienced individual, please do enlighten us on the following:
Why is cross-cultural education a must towards facilitating harmonious and sustainable development?
First thing first. I don’t think travelling is a virtue itself. Who travels to attend global and national events? I have said elsewhere that ‘lazy, infirm, sick, convict, insane, poor don’t travel’. They are condemned to non-travelling insular, morbid existence. These days, travel has become a delusional industrial pleasure — machine for nouveau riche, neo-middle classes, professionals, and artists including writers for a fee. For many, travel is also decaffeinated innocence — a frighteningly narcissistic experience. Travel is not a pure bliss. Colonists, racists, xenophobes, misogynists, scoundrels, pirates, thugs, also travel. And they travel relentlessly and ruthlessly. Travel also masks imperial dreams, hides genocide and justifies ethnic cleansing. Though globalization has made the world more liquid and also obliterated the distinction between personal time and external time, people travel with passports, visa and their nationalisms. In the post-globalized world, the notion of a nation in a territorial sense has become superfluous. Media images, mostly automated, augmented and simulated these days, travel instantly with bondage gear and swastika symbols, emptied of their original meanings, still necrophilic enough. Just think of tagged images on the social media. Real physical spaces- sensuous, earthy experiences- have become meaningless and absurd. There are no such things as bad images or fake images; we have come to enjoy and consume anything, everything. For a genuine cross-cultural education, we need to revert to ancient nomadic travel transcending original boundaries of nations and borders.