Monthly Archives: February 2011

Book Review: Bhimayana by Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam (illustrations) and Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand (text)

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Midway through Bhimayana, the upper caste man whose complaint about not being able to find a job thanks to the quota system asks the woman who has engaged him in debate, “How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?” The question throws light on this graphic novel on the whole: a deeply polemic text in the guise of a beautiful comic book, its primary impetus is the construction of pedagogy. It’s tempting to forget this, and lose oneself in the many little joys that Gond tribal artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have brought to its pages – a water tank that grows eyes and becomes Ganesh-like on the next page, the assortment of animals and trees pretty as fabric prints, and the much-praised dispensing of the conventional panel/box format altogether. It’s tempting, but also difficult, because it’s not so much that Bhimayana tries to rectify history than that it tries to reinvent a decontextualised present. Its overarchingly simplistic, almost absolutely dichotomized narrative of heroes and villains may suit its physical form, but not its purposes.

The trouble begins with the nature of the discussion that leads into the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Rather than open with the iconic activist’s life itself, he is introduced to us via a difficult contemporary question: affirmative action policies. The setting is an Indian city of the present day, and the frustrated job-seeker and his bespectacled companion are waiting for a bus. One assumes that the target audience for this book is an Indian one, then, and that the practical complications of imagining an India free of the hideous hegemony of caste will be addressed satisfactorily.

This isn’t the case – by the end of the book, one is left not stirred by hope, but disturbed by the vocabulary of the struggle. This includes everything from the use of a phrase like “India’s hidden apartheid”, which suggests that casteism is an institutionalized, legally sanctified segregation in our country rather than a socially abetted one, to the vilification of Gandhi as someone who “could afford a first class ticket in a foreign country” without a counterpart explanation of how Ambedkar went from not being allowed to drink water at his school to studying at foreign universities.

And the explanation is necessary, as the book is clearly for a foreign audience, and while caste is an indubitably evil system, it plays out in Indian society in ways that are more complex than this book chooses to deal with. But this also makes it quite suitable for children, with its very basic writing, and an odd mix of occasional rhyme and incongruent speech patterns that does strike a charming and whimsical chord. The intriguing artwork, of course, is a major plus point.

But the ultimate lack of political sophistication when dealing with such loaded subject matter remains disturbing. Bhimayana’s end result contains just little too much vitriol, a little too much victim vogue. And just not enough vision to live up to the story of Ambedkar himself – a hero who deserves celebration not as a divisive force, but as an example for everybody. And therein lies its fundamental problem: it’s not enough to say that casteism exists and to recapitulate newspaper reports and statistics about this fact. The fact is not in doubt. The solution is. Bhimayana neither posits nor inspires one. Its methodology of hero-worship as a means of engendering change smacks of party propaganda, while missing in all of this is a sense of the one thing that will truly eradicate the problem in the long run: compassion, love and respect for all humanity.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Hemant Mohapatra: Place and the Page

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You won the 2010 Srinivas Rayaprol Prize, one of the very few accolades available for English poetry in India today, and it catapulted you out of obscurity. In some ways, this is a comment on the “low ceilings” of the Indian poetry scene, in which it’s difficult to get published, but relatively easy to ascend to celebrity. Can you say a little about this landscape itself, and the trajectories available to poets in India?

I am not a very prolific writer — I write in spurts, and take time with my pieces. I also publish very infrequently, but I don’t think it is difficult to get good poetry published in India, what with so many online and print magazines sprouting everywhere. Publishing a full-length book is another story I hear – no personal experience here either. The situation isn’t unique to the Indian literary scene, but poetry is especially marginalized in India (who can recall 5 contemporary Hindi poets under the age of 40?). Moreover, established literary journals are very risk-averse; I see the same 20-30 names whichever Indian lit-magazine I choose to read. Given this limited crowd, the path to ‘celebrity’ is short, and perhaps not as satisfying. We cannot expect to see these trajectories expand and diversify till we are ready to bring poetry into the mainstream academic curriculum.

Has your recent notability within India had an effect on your reception abroad?

Not really. Somehow, the Indian poetry scene seems disconnected from the rest of the world, though I’d like to see this change in my lifetime, and also participate in that process.

Can you comment about poetry in public spaces, and what role readings play in increasing the public appeal of poetry? On that note, is the public appeal of poetry important, or is it best left to flourish as a niche artform?

My goal, with my poetry, has always been to demystify the craft, and poetry in public places may play a role there. I don’t fully grasp the necessity of  poetry readings, but I can appreciate the curiosity of a reader to hear the poet’s take on his/her own piece. There is a need we all have to connect personally with artists that inspire us, and poetry readings achieve that.

Public appeal of poetry? Absolutely, but there is too much formalization, too much abstraction in much of modern poetry. Sure, a well-crafted, clever poem could be a thing of beauty, but if it doesn’t change me in any way then I am not interested. Poems are not puzzles to be solved; they work with insight, not cognition. As long as this is done right, whether poetry stays as a niche artform or not is of little concern to me.

I noticed that you rarely look up from your text, at the audience, when you read. Is the performative aspect of readings something you think about?

I am hardly the performance poet, preferring to focus on what I express on paper rather than on the stage. I read a lot of poetry to myself, out loud, but that is because I enjoy how a piece tightens or releases my breath; I am interested in exploring that. My early readings likely had a performance aspect: I would look at an audience member at just the right turn of phrase, at just the right moment and make her feel exactly what I wanted to. That sort of attitude can easily corrupt, so I backed off. I want to vanish and be unimportant during a reading, so if the audience stays engaged it is due to the poem not the poet.

You’re originally from Orissa, and are now based in Texas. You’ve also lived or travelled in a variety of other places, including Russia, South America and South East Asia? What impact has travel and geographic movement had on your poetry?

I am some sort of a ‘reverse traveler’. I don’t move around to get inspired, but the other way round. I hear or read about a particular place and that stays with me. A year or two later, if that memory hasn’t left, I start making plans. The sort of poetry I prefer to write cannot be written on a tourist visa, so I much prefer to stay at a place for a month or two at a time. It helps me find stories I would miss otherwise.

One of your significant poetic sequences is called “Letters From Exile”. Can you comment on exile as a concept – what does it mean to you, and in what sense do you approach this word?

I started writing the ‘Exile’ series in the early winter of 2005 at the end of a significant phase of my life. For me, it was an attempt to be inspired by absences and that attempt has spanned over 5 years. By exile, I do not mean just the physical but also the emotional distance I had to put between myself and my life to be able to write about things that interested me in a dispassionate, non-sentimental way. The distance was important to gain that vantage, that perspective.

As a pianist, what influence does music – composing, playing and listening – have on your poems?

Music is just another form of expression, another method of self-exploration. There are things I cannot express with poetry alone, so there is certainly an opportunity to merge both media — I haven’t been very successful at it so far, but I am trying. For example, right now I am working on a set of poems that will read in sync with a few Chopin nocturnes, the narrative, the punctuations, and line-breaks allowing the poems to ascend and descend with the music.

What about your day job as an engineer – does your job or your training have an influence as well?

Absolutely. I find what I do as an engineer very challenging and enjoyable. Also, it pays the bills, allows me to travel on whim, and to take creative risks. I know there are writers who are inspired by poverty, but not me.

You’ve said that as a confessional poet, you feel as if you are running out of material. But all artists, even those who don’t work in autobiographical modes, are limited by their experience and knowledge. What do you do you keep being inspired? Do you see yourself writing beyond the scope of your own life in future?

I don’t want poetry (or the writing of it) to interfere in the living of my life. I don’t do anything to ‘find’ inspiration, although poetry does present a very real and measurable way for me to assess myself. If I am uninspired, it shows. What I do with that knowledge is not always straight-forward. Writing fictional stories is not important to me, so I don’t think I will ever write beyond what I have known, felt, possessed, or lost.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu Literary Review.

A Little News About The Venus Flytrap

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Those of you who read The New Indian Express would have realised by now that the Zeitgeist supplement, in which my column (“The Venus Flytrap”) ran continuously for almost three years, has come to its end.

At the moment, I don’t know what the future of “The Venus Flytrap” might be. I’m very attached to the column and I’m hopeful that this is not the end of the road. This is just a note to thank all of you wonderful people who have read it, shared it, commented, or otherwise been a part of it. I hope you’ll continue to share my journey as I wait to see what’s around the next corner.