I remember this exact moment. I was on the terrace, lying down to soak the winter sun on a mattress. I was reading Franz Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 while a Ray LaMontagne song played in the background. One of my little quirks is that I need to listen to a song playing on a loop while I am reading a book or I get distracted by my own thoughts. Both the book by Kafka and the song playing had so much to do with the emptiness of life, yet in that moment I felt so full. Full of calm. Full of hope. It sounds Romantic but it wasn’t. I felt so full because of the simplicity of that moment, realising how little I needed to feel that way. It was an uncomplicated feeling and yet it evades language.
Only a few weeks later, the sun became too much, a deadly riot took place in my city and my college was shut down because of the pandemic. That feeling stopped feeling simple anymore. It felt distant, a thick veil of fog kept it out of my reach. Unable to read anything new because I felt so overwhelmed, I searched for comfort in the familiar. I decided to read Kafka’s diaries on my phone again. Unexpectedly, it felt like I was reading a completely different book. The bleakness of a single month transformed the way in which I perceived Kafka’s diaries. Kafka’s iterations of his loneliness, his frustrations, his anxieties and his oddities came across in a completely different way. Sentences that I didn’t even register in my first reading stood out now, louder than any song playing in the background.
If I was asked to tell a single thematic concern of all of Kafka’s writings, I have to say estrangement. Several months after 2020 has ended, several of us are still trying to process the events of the year. The estrangement is multidimensional- estrangement from the people we used to meet everyday, from the world which we used to experience and the worst of all, estrangement from ourselves. Kafka writes, “ A segment has been cut out of the back of his head. The sun looks in and the whole world with it. It makes him nervous, it distracts him from his work, and moreover it irritates him that he should be the very one excluded from the spectacle.” Shut within four walls and stewing in our thoughts, having no option but to confront things we successfully evaded before the pandemic. I feel these words scratch and gnaw my insides as I attempt to digest them.
After having been in the pandemic for more than a year and a half now, having gone through the traumatic second wave where I and my family got infected, I am sure that if I read Kafka’s Diaries again for the third time — it will be unlike either of my previous readings. I will hold off on that though, I am carrying enough scratchy words under my skin for now.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the way water distorts everything when we look through it. Pristine, clear water scrambles straight lines into deep curves and breaks the continuity of an object into unaligned fragments. This got me thinking how much do we distort when we perceive the world, even with a supposedly clear state of mind.
We also know that color isn’t inherent to an object, that it absorbs some part of the light and reflects the rest. What it reflects is then translated into what we perceive as a certain color depending on how it interacts with our eyes and brain. We don’t even perceive the colors in the same way- what appears red to me could appear orange to someone else. Neither of them is wrong when they argue that the object is definitively red and orange.
Perception changes from person to person, even from time to time. To someone, clouds can seem like explosions happening in slow motion in the atmosphere and flowers can be seeds bursting at snail’s pace. I once read somewhere that since our perception of reality is constructed through the five senses, there could be so much around us that we are incapable of perceiving because we lack the sense to perceive it.
In the Ptolemaic system, the Medieval man would look at the farthest stars in the sky and believe that he was looking at the edge of the universe. Before Galileo, just because it seemed like the sun travels across the sky, the Church was insistent on believing that the sun revolves around the earth. The Little Prince believed the flower on his planet was one of a kind in the universe. What represents Hamlet’s father’s ghost will differ from reader to reader.
In the times we live in, when most people state their opinions as if they were facts, it’s worth reflecting on the ignorance of people who fail to notice how much gets distorted when we perceive things. We are limited most by our own perceptions and confusing them for the truth. We often believe with all our hearts that our inner and outer turmoils are unique to us, that no one before us has felt a particular emotion with that intensity; that our predicament, our ennui, our thoughts begin and end with us. Our ego fools us and we can spend all our lives in this illusion. While we all may perceive things differently, we’re all the same in essence, with essentially the same restlessness. Past our differing perceptions, we all just want to feel heard- which is why I think people shout their perceptions at the top of their voices these days. This similar loneliness in all of us might make us a little less lonely if we perceive it differently: if everyone is lonely at the end of the day, maybe no one really is, maybe we’re just supposed to feel this way, maybe this is the cost we pay for being able to think and feel and love.
Aryama Sen is a final year student of engineering living in Kolkata. Her interest in a lot of things all at once led her to begin ind.igenous. Good films, books, and music are three of her most important driving forces in life.
What motivates you to write about the Indian Subcontinent? Besides personal affiliations, what is it about the region that speaks to you?
I have grown up with a lot of exposure to Indian art and culture. Music, literature, cinema, dance – all forms of art from the Indian subcontinent have shaped me into who I am. While I’ve continued to discover brilliant work from my country, I haven’t seen a lot of people around me being as attract- ed to it as I was. I started writing about things that are close to me because I wanted them to reach more people, and microblogging on Instagram felt like a good start to it. I wanted my 20-something friends to be as excited about a Shyam Benegal film as they are about the latest episodes of Game of Thrones, to have Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee on their playlists, and to appreciate Abanindranath along with Gogh.
What is your opinion on the decline of Urdu and how do you think it has affected Indian entertainment? Does it retain its essence through cinema and pop culture?
I cannot read or write the Urdu text, so I do not know if it is my place to comment on this. All I can say is, most of the Urdu I’ve learned and loved has been from films made a few decades ago – be it Gulzar’s Doordarshan series on Ghalib, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan, or Merchant-Ivory’s Muhafiz. I haven’t come across a lot of films in recent times that have delved deep into the language, and there definitely should be more. On the plus side, however, there’s more online content than ever today, and websites like Rekhta make Urdu accessible to people like me who haven’t grown up learning the language. The anti-NRC-CAA movements saw the return of Urdu in protest songs and poetry. Perhaps there are brighter days waiting for the language.
Hindi and regional cinema have in the recent decade started exploring the values of femininity and the way we define it in mainstream culture. From your perspective, how has the female character arc evolved in films over time?
Strong female characters in Indian cinema of earlier times had emerged mostly from the parallel cinema movement – be it Mirch Masala or Mahanagar. The woman in mainstream Indian cinema was mostly portrayed as the wife, the mother, or the sister, with no agency of her own and blatantly conforming to a patriarchal mindset. That situation has definitely improved a lot. There are more women-centric films even in popular cinema, female characters have found voices of their own. This is perhaps also because the makers today feel answerable to an evolving audience.
India is a diverse country with cultural and communal identities varying from region to region. We’re interested in knowing the variations that different language’s cinema produces in “human behavior”? Is it true that some cultures portray human characters with more depth, more cadence than others?
I wrote about Satyajit Ray’s ‘Hirak Rajar Deshe’ a while ago – a children’s film which is inherently very political, and someone commented, ‘I think such a film could only be made in Bengal.’ Being a Bengali, as much as I would love to be happy hearing this, it isn’t true at all. In India, language changes every twenty kilometers or so, but the basic human emotions, experiences, struggles of the working class aren’t very different across the subcontinent. Watching a Telugu film may feel different from a Marathi one, but that is because of the language and culture of the region that the film portrays. I do not think there’s any difference in depth. Brilliantly poignant and powerful films have emerged from every Indian language.
In India, language changes every twenty kilometers or so, but the basic human emotions, experiences, struggles of the working class aren’t very different across the subcontinent.
You’ve taken quite deep and resilient takes on cinema. We’d like to know when and how your tryst with Indian regional cinema began?
I grew up watching a lot of films in my mother tongue, Bengali, and to me, that wasn’t ‘regional’ cinema, but simply an introduction to the beautiful world of films. Calling Bollywood films Hindi cinema and labeling films of every other language as regional cinema is one of the saddest things that continues to happen. It was my love for cinema as a form of art that gradually led me to discover Marathi, Telugu, Assamese films. Only when we carry on with the Bollywood-regional divide, we limit ourselves as an audience.
Referring to musician Suman’s songs, you’ve mentioned “these were songs that one could play at a protest march or on a first date, all alone in the middle of the night or with an old friend at a coffee shop.” We’d like to know more such gems, do you have any recommendations for our readers? (Any language, any genre of art will work)
So happy you asked this because I’m at my happiest when I give recommendations! You may explore the music of artists like Moushumi Bhowmik and the band Mohiner Ghoraguli from Bengal. A very different genre of music, but with this question I’m also reminded of Iqbal Bano’s renditions of Faiz – beautiful songs of love, freedom, and life.
Megha Rao is a performance poet and surrealist artist from Kerala. Megha’s work has been featured on platforms such as Penguin Random House India, Firstpost, The Open Road Review, New Asian Writing, The Alipore Post, Spoken Fest, Why Indian Men Rape and Thought Catalog, and trended at #1 on Spotify podcasts in India. Megha has also been interviewed by leading newspapers such as The Hindu, New Indian Express, Business Standard among some notable others. Megha is a postgraduate in English Literature from the University of Nottingham, UK, and when she’s not writing, she’s either facilitating workshops for young poets or working on her upcoming poetry collection, Teething (HarperCollins India).
How would you describe your relationship with literature? Was it a tryst or did it take a particular event for you to know that you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been writing since I was six, but up until high school, I only saw it as a hobby. And then one day I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I had a bunch of brilliant ideas I liked but didn’t love. I’d walk around saying I wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot or something, and then one day at a social event, my father’s friend said something along the lines of, oh, I know what you’ll be, you’ll be a writer. Obviously. I couldn’t believe I’d never considered it before, I think I adored art so much I never thought beyond creating it. But suddenly, the prospect of choosing it for college felt very real. Suddenly, I just knew.
We’ve noticed that a lot of your poems are anecdotal and deeply personal in nature, how was it navigating your own identity through poetry?
Music has been a constant, powerful influence in my life, and I love the poetry in lyrics. I love simple writing, so anything that sounded beautiful and relatable was immortal to me. I didn’t come across poetry I enjoyed until college when I was introduced to Sylvia Plath and Yehuda Amichai, and Arthur Rimbaud. Most of my influences write with a brutally honest voice, and that’s exactly why I gravitated towards them. For me, art is about being raw and cut open.. It’s about spilling. I believe all art is in some way, confessional. I remember starting out as a naive, clueless child, and then transitioning into a powerful, indestructible force – writing has been my vehicle of metamorphosis. I’ve discovered things about myself through it. Every time I write, it’s like marking a new entry in a diary, and in a way, it’s a record, an analysis of a past event. I’m reclaiming my narrative through it, and that’s intensely empowering. The sheer amount of personal growth that poetry offers is astounding, and I’m in awe of it, to say the least.
How would you describe the relationship between your writing and that of your culture? Our theme for this issue is “Homeland” and we’re curious about how your own remnants of home and culture shaped your writing?
It’s scattered, yet fiercely loyal. I’ve drifted a lot ever since I was a child, and there are many cities and countries I’ve almost called home. When we settled in Kerala after my fifth grade, there was a lot of adjusting, a lot of cultural shocks. Time has been kind towards my relationship with my people and my culture. I’m from a place that’s ferociously communist in its ideology. In my state, my people are extremely political, believe they can create change, and wake up early to go vote. We are simple and empowered. When I’m home, I’m usually accompanying my mother to the coconut oil mill or helping my father pull out the edible parts of ripe jackfruit when I’m not taking work calls. There are so many amazing artists here. The singers are extraordinary. My upcoming poetry collection with Harper Collins titled ‘Teething’ has a Kathakali artist in it, is sprinkled with Malayalam words, is rooted in my culture. I secretly write Malayalam poems and it feels so liberating. My experiences from my roots are an integral part of my work, and I’m proud of that.
In a larger context, is poetry a medium to romanticize life? To maybe pick up fragments of trauma and create something beautiful out of it?
There’s a difference between romanticizing life and romanticizing trauma, I believe. The first one makes you look at life from such a beautiful lens, makes you love and live it to the fullest. The latter is a dangerous affair. For me, trauma isn’t beautiful. Pain isn’t beautiful. People who fight their trauma like warriors, people who despite falling show up in front of life willing to be a part of it – their courage, their determination, their resilience, their zest – that’s beautiful. That’s what I want to make art on, that’s what I want to tell the world about. After all that life’s put me through (and I’m hyper-aware that though I’m only twenty-five, I’ve just spoken like an old woman), I still hunger for it. I salivate over new experiences, over blue skies and freshwater lakes. I crave new connections, but also the gentle comfort in solitude. I want it all. I think life is romantic, I want to romance life, I want to be a part of it all. It’s truly as simple and complex as that.
Don’t complicate it, use words people understand. Remember they’re listening to you, they’re not reading you
We love that a lot of your writings are from a feminist lens, who are some female artists that inspire you?
I am hopelessly, desperately, obsessively in love with Frida Kahlo. I love her letters, I love her undaunted passion. Audre Lorde is my idol. I took up her collection, The Black Unicorn, for my university dissertation. Anna Akhmatova is just as precious, and so is Margaret Atwood. And did I mention Plath? Yes, I guess I did. How about Kamala Das? She’s from home. And even Sugathaku- Mari is rather lovely. They’re my favorite artists, but they’re also my muses. Does that make sense?
How was the transition for you to go from the written form of poetry to the long-spoken form? Are there any tips you would like to give?
Initially, terrible. I’d memorize my page poems and go up on stage. And you know, written poems are read well, but with performance, it’s different. Spoken word poetry is all about the senses, all about auditory details and even body language. There’s a focus on repetition, and when I create spoken word poetry, I turn to the goddess of rhymes. Word-play helps. Don’t complicate it, use words people understand. Remem- ber they’re listening to you, they’re not reading you – they’re not going to sit there analyzing your work. They’re not going to hang onto every word, so time your punch lines, fit your pauses where you truly need them, and enunciate. Get ready to get emotional, you’re exposing the vulnerabilities of your heart. Go rage and grieve and be swept up in a maelstrom of euphoria on stage. Not that I knew any of this at first. I remember being super lame. I also remember growing, adapting, and learning fast, I remember loving the process through it all. It’s been a thrilling, chaotic, and absolutely gorgeous journey. And I know I did right by my art. Always.
Anindita Sengupta is the author of Walk Like Monsters (Paperwall, 2016) and City of Water (Sahitya Akademi, 2010). She was a Charles Wallace fellow (Kent) and has received awards from Muse India and TFA India. Her work is in several anthologies and journals such as Plume, Feral, One, Ice Floe Press, Perhappened, and others. She lives in Los Angeles, California. Her website is aninditasengupta.com and she tweets as @anu_sengupta
Describe the relationship between your culture to your writing. How is your identity a navigating mechanism for you to write your pieces?
Culture is hydra-headed; sometimes it affects my work insidiously. I am obsessed with the place and often use it as a lens, a way of looking, a way of entering a poem. If stanza means ‘room’, I often step into that room with a particular place in mind. My identity is somewhat hybrid: I was born in Kolkata and grew up in Mumbai. In my twenties & thirties, I lived in Bangalore. I moved to Los Angeles about five years back. A hybrid identity is a way of moving in the world. It is like stranded colorwork in knitting. You have to maintain the tension between various strands just right or the whole thing goes off. I am finishing a full-length collection that talks about this tension, the invisibility one can feel in different spaces. Because to be part of many groups is to also not be part of any of them. For a while after moving to the US, I felt disembodied. The book explores how I embodied myself by making things with my hands, specifically through yarn crafts. It was a way of healing, of fashioning myself anew.
In terms of my ancestors, my father’s parents moved from (then) East Bengal during the Partition. That resides alongside my own pre-occupations with home, migration, and alienation. Themes such as poverty, colonization, and post-colonial trauma affect me. I write about them to understand and navigate. Sometimes, to argue. Because there is a dominant culture that surrounds me and I must be in an argument with it. I have a poem coming out in a journal later this year that deals with global inequity in waste management.
I draw on natural imagery from places but also from books, movies, science journals. Beyond the identity of a nation-state, we are affected by the common world we live in, the one inhabited by bears, salmon, geese. Reading about that world and bringing it into my writing is almost an act of defiance, a refusal to be bordered by narrow expectations of what I “should” sound like.
Describe your thoughts while writing the piece.
As news of the second wave of Covid-19 in India started coming in, like most Indians in the Diaspora, I felt a mix of grief, rage, helplessness, and survivor’s guilt. I was spending all day on Twitter, glued to the news, and having nightmares when I slept. Watching family and friends in India deal with loss and grief, wanting to help them, not being able to visit—these have been common experiences for so many of us who live far away. At the same time, people in the US are being vaccinated. They are feeling cheerful and optimistic. Things are re-opening. The contrast is almost unbearable sometimes. Inhabiting two different worlds can split one at the seams.
It is not that I grudge the happiness of one set but how I wish, some of that was available for others. The global inequity in terms of vaccines is being discussed widely. The US recently agreed to back a vaccine patent waiver so production can be scaled up but a few countries are still blocking this waiver. This happens even as people die en masse in several countries around the world. The pandemic is not over because rich nations decided it must be so and sealed their borders.
Separately, I was reeling from the Indian government’s abject selfishness and utter, malignant incompetence. I did not have high expectations of this government—they were responsible for genocide in Gujarat—but I had underestimated their appetite for carnage. Overcome by the horror, I started writing a series of poems to sort through the images, to put them down somewhere. It became a way of bearing witness, of documenting all the different aspects of this trauma. I can’t say it helps me “make sense” of it. There is no way to make sense of such devastation. Some things must remain beyond comprehension. This is an attempt to record and remember.
Urooj is a Freelance Graphic Designer and owner of @gupshhup. Her online space is all about sharing her creative journey with her audience and her personal goal is to grow as a creative, whilst inspiring women who can relate to her art based on societal issues and stigmas we face daily.
Describe the relationship between your culture to your art. How is your identity a navigating mechanism for you to create art?
The illustrations question stereotypes and stigmas within the South Asian culture whilst exploring attributes such as gender equality, race, personal issues such as marriage/career, and cultural heritage (e.g., norm and the way of living developed by a community passed on from generation). A lot of societal issues within the South Asian culture aren’t spoken about for example a women’s menstrual cycle or the tradition of dowry. Before I started my platform, I wasn’t half as aware of these issues as I am now and that’s due to seeing powerful pieces by other artists which challenge these stigmas. The more these issues are spoken about the better, as art is something most people enjoy looking at visually and combining it with societal issues can make it a powerful method to spread awareness. There are a lot of amazing things about my culture, however, there are more issues that need to be spoken about instead of being hushed and that is what I aim to do in order to make a positive impact within the South Asian community.
Describe your thoughts while creating the piece?
I like to be quite flexible when creating my pieces, as long as I can visualise the outcome and what I want from it. My main focus is the message and that has to be supported by the illustration itself. Factors like their body language and facial expressions play a big role within the pieces. When it comes to choosing colours, I like to keep the pieces vibrant and colourful as it reminds me of my culture. It also adds a hint of playfulness as I don’t want my pieces to come across as being too ‘serious’. I can be a bit of a perfectionist as there have been times where I’m halfway through a piece and have decided to scrap it and start again, just because the message doesn’t fit with how I’ve portrayed it. However, I see it as part of the learning process so I don’t mind as long as I’m happy with the end result!
I have always wondered about the last seven minutes of a person’s life. It is believed that their entire life’s memories dance before their eyes in transient glimpses. All memories from their childhood until their final breath. Every breath of human life seems like a tiny, insignificant blip in the Universe’s time. That is what I thought too until I saw my grandfather battling for the same, insignificant breath as his lungs were befriending the Oxygen cylinders which were also sinking with every second. I held his hand and watched him struggle when I realized that those were the last seven minutes of his life. In an attempt to immortalize his Eighty-Five years of life in seven minutes, I wrote “A few moments before Death”. It’s a brief account of his complete life in transitory moments, from age to age and from memories to memories. Writing even a word about his life is akin to tampering with the freshest of my wounds but his existence stays eternalized through these very words.
It was 1952. I was 14 years old. My classroom had a long wooden bench for the mathematics teacher to keep his briefcase on while my friends and I sat down, gaping at the blackboard. I was exceptionally good at Mathematics. Halfway through looking at an equation, I would solve it in my head and raise my hand to answer the question. My teacher’s name was Devarajan; he wore a loose beige cotton shirt with a dhoti to class and he adored me so much that he used to wait for me to solve all problems in class alongside him. I often heard my family say I was their Einstein. My friends, Ranga and Anand, were bailed out of answering questions because of my spontaneity. After school, we would take out time to go around our town’s biggest park where stray dogs were always looming around in crowds. Ranga’s father soon transferred to Madras and he left. But, I heard Ranga died of old age 4 years ago. I’m as old as him, in fact, I’m four years older than him now. I guess it’s just the way it is. Ranga’s father was directly involved in many events pre-independence. I had barely seen him six times since he was always working in Bombay. Ranga would have stories about how his father had seen Mahatma Gandhi render his speeches to warm hundreds of people’s lives with purpose.
I was only 9 years old when India got independence but my father recalled that he took me to a public speech in Kakinada on his bullock cart when I was 5. Naturally, I had seen Gandhi but I don’t remember it. When I told you for the first time that I had seen Gandhi when I was your age, you were baffled. As you grew up, you told me you were reading about him in your history classes and that it shocked you that I met a man so old that he was being taught to you about.
On bright days full of various delicacies and relatives jamming into the house, I would lay gently on my mother’s lap. Even if her leg hurt, she would caress my hair, graze her calloused fingers from the heat through my hair. It felt like the safest place to be on Earth, when she would slowly rub my ear lobe with her index and thumb, I was induced into the softest sleep. She slowly moved my head from her lap to a pile of her sarees near the steel cupboard. When I woke up, I would find her outside the house blowing into a pipe to heat the sticky brass cooking pot. Pattamal, Amma.
It feels like my life is an ocean now; with every wave, there’s a new memory but it disappears before I can live through it. Some waves are so big, some so small. Every wave takes me to a different age and to different people.
The year is 1968. My wife, Saranya, is the most beautiful woman on the planet for me. People tend to never know if their partners truly love them, but my wife, she loved me. She loved me more than anything or anybody she had ever laid eyes on. I would come home late at night, sometimes drunk and she would sit me down, not to feed me her food that our neighbors swooned over but to pour buckets of the coldest water straight from the borewell onto my head. I loved her, sometimes out of fear, but I truly loved her. She would wait for me to return home at night, however late it took. On certain days, she would fight with me and not cook or eat for a day and a half in a row. Those days meant she needed me to stay with her, talk to her, give her the attention that she deserved. What more of a connection could two people share? She’s loved me now for fifty years and not once has she eaten without me by her. She could die right in my arms and I know she would be happy.
Back when I was 35 years old, I wasn’t a happy man, I had terrible debts that I could never clear and two children to fend for by now. I brought two girls unto the face of the earth while I had meager money to raise them at all and very meager money to raise them happily. There were small-time loan sharks by the end of the streets and I borrowed money from all of them. It would feel as though bitterness flowed through my veins every time I borrowed money, tripling the amount I had to repay. At the end of the street we were living in, there lived a few small-time loan sharks, and I borrowed money from all of them. Every time I borrowed money and had to repay thrice the amount, it felt as if bitterness coursed through my veins.
A few hateful nights, these men from whom I borrowed hundreds would walk fiercely towards our house demanding a return. When we spotted them from across the street through our small broken window, we switched our lights off and pretended like nobody was home. I couldn’t repay the baleful debt that I had plundered myself into when I had no money for next month’s survival. But even on these nights, Saranya never complained. We would just occasionally laugh at how we named our second daughter after our favorite character from a soap back in the day. Those felt like the days of my lives, the days I had some purpose to live for. What purpose do I have now? Your parents take care of me, they feed me medicines every morning, afternoon, and night and spend extensive amounts of money to keep me sound. My mind is in complete turmoil now; I’m budged around so many different parts of my life and although I never stay in the memory long enough to relish it completely, it feels peaceful.
I wasn’t rich enough to provide for my family, I wasn’t capable of giving them the best of their lives but the days I felt I hit rock-bottom were also the happiest days of my life. Do you remember how I said I worked at the theatre? As a manager. Devi Theatre. A simpleton like me, from a small town, fled all the way to Madras and led a life as a manager at the most pristine cinemas of the day then. I had immense pride and was respected by everyone. I worked there for so many years, it was always bustling with an excited crowd, regardless of day or night. I’ve seen all of your favorite actors there; they would stop by on the first day of their releases and sign tissues and t-shirts of men cheering.
I turned 45 even before I knew it. I realized as a 38-year-old man with threatening debts that if I could survive a week without losing anything, I could survive the next week too. I grew old taking one week at a time like that, never realizing I had lost so many years of my life. I lived the same day for almost ten years. I paid for your mom’s and aunt’s school and college. Sometimes, one of them would want to watch a film with their friends and it would make me the happiest man on Earth to be able to book seats for as many ever and give them everything they needed for those three hours inside the cinema. Before I saw it, they had to get married and they did. You know the rest. Your mom has kept me with her all her life.
Half of my life seemed to be over at the sight of your mom and aunt growing up. When your children grow up, you’re so engrossed with their compelling adulting and growing that you overlook how old you’re turning yourself. Nights were harder to stay up and you started to feel the strain your body was undertaking to get you through a few days.
I know this is all a dream, fragments of my imagination weaving a story out of my life. I can hear you outside these dreams, calling me out loud but I don’t seem to be able to move. I’m really trying to. I want to see your faces pat you on the head once more but I cannot move. I always thought dying would be painful, but this feels comfortable.
When I’ve been with your mom, I don’t think I ever had to work for myself. That’s why I always jokingly said I was going to help you get ready for school so I could pay your mom back for everything she’s done for me.
I turned 60 and then I turned 70 and then I turned 80. I lived all my years loving only your brothers and you. I lived all these years wanting to wrap your school notebooks with brown sheets, make you cereal when you returned from school, walk you to your music classes, and occasionally buy you a packet of chips secretly. Sometimes, I would forget my purpose too, but then you would come in the room and ask me what 753 subtracted from 1921 is. That was my purpose; coffees, brown sheets, and stories. Sometimes, a little mathematics.
I have been standing at the shore of the sea all my life, watching my life and its reminiscences roll over in waves to gently moisten my legs ephemerally. I’m inside the vast, blue Sea now; I’m not drowning, I’m not suffocating but I’m living under the waters of my own life – my own memories.
What awaits me after these few moments is not non-existence but a sea that is calm; a sea that is astoundingly still.
Author: Srividhya Suresh (she/her) is a young writer based out of Chennai. As of 2021, she is pursuing her Bachelors in English Literature and Communications from Stella Maris College. Her passion has always been abundant in Fiction, Films, and music. She grew up in a household always filled with people and an overwhelming number of memories to save. Although her taste and proficiency have improved with time, she believes she is still more of a reader than a writer. Srividhya is especially attached to simplistic stories that reveal the every day unnoticed rather than unfold different dimensions. She had a blog for herself as an early teenager and desisted from writing there as she stepped into adolescence for reasons she thinks are obvious. She doesn’t have her entire life mapped yet, but she is wholly sure that it will always revolve around books, writing, and literature. Also, maybe dogs.
Mathushaa Sagthidas’s photography showcases a strong interest in fine art, contemporary fashion, and styling; she is studying fashion promotion at Ravensbourne University London and fine art photography at Camberwell College of Arts, UAL. Mathushaa’s work often examines her identity – Tamil Eelam ethnicity and British nationality, which is a pivotal part of her work. This complex cultural identity is often reflected through traditions, history, and strongly by fashion photography. Mathushaa feels that her work surrounding Tamil culture plays an important part in embracing the history and heritage. Mathushaa’s work has been featured on Campaign Magazine, Graduate Fashion Week, Fashion Scout, FAD Charity, Anisha Parmar London, MESA Magazine, Asian Woman Festival, and more. Feel free to check it out!
Describe the relationship between your culture to your art? How is your identity a navigating mechanism for you to create art?
I would describe my relationship with my art and creativity as very much intertwined and really connected – within many of my personal projects, it’s sort of like one can’t exist without the other, especially as I use my creativity and process to figure out and express where I stand with my Tamil roots as someone who was born and raised in London. My art and work is very much a reflection of who I am as a person and what has impacted me to become the person today – which is why a lot of my work really revolves around Tamil culture, something growing up in London I had distanced myself from to fit into westernized society. So I guess my work/ creative process is my way of me trying to find my way back to everything ‘Tamil’ that has had such a strong influence on who I am and the decisions I have made too.
Describe your thoughts while capturing your photographs.
My thoughts when it comes to creating my work really do differ and really depend on the type of work that I am creating. When I’m doing collaborative shoots, no matter the location, it’s just my thought process and creative thinking that is taken into consideration but also those around me, so in these types of shoots, there’s so much going but it’s incredible because we either all have really interesting and unique ideas/ perspective or something have very similar mindsets.
When it comes to doing some still life work and self-portraits, there’s just often only my vision involved so I would describe that process as quite easy and quick because at the moment I’m very focused on captured the ideas/ vision that I have in mind; whereas when I’m doing shoots with my mum (something that I started doing during the third lockdown in the UK), there’s this slight tension but in a really good way because my mum’s ideas have more a traditional take whereas mine have more fusion type perspective, but I feel that’s more because of our own lived experiences as Tamil women.
Irshaad Poetry is an anthology of poetry. Their aim is to inculcate a culture of poetry and reading among their followers and everyone who comes across their page.
You both are poets yourself, when you chose a poem to post on Irshaad, what makes you think that this is the one?
Whenever a poem makes us feel or think, we know it is right. Moreover, if it makes us wonder or question ourselves or the world, we know it’s the one.
It’s like what Emily Dickinson said: “If I physically feel like the top of my head has been taken off, then I know that it is poetry.”
Do you think poetry as an art form in India is transcending into becoming a means of performative activism?
We do not think so. We do believe that some of the space that poetry occupies as a form of protest has been appropriated for social media validation but poetry as a medium of protest will always persevere. And it has been so since times immemorial, whether it’s in wars for independence or rebellion against fascism, poetry always has been an expression of the society, and even if some people do partake in it as a means of performative activism, it doesn’t take away from its overall importance of the art form.
How do you think the accessibility of poems over the internet has affected their actual beauty? Is it more of a boon or a bane? Have the traditional poetry recitals taken a backseat in the status quo?
The internet and the issue of accessibility have been boons to poets and poetry lovers, we feel. Similar to how slam poetry as a movement sought to bring poetry to the masses, the internet and the variety of platforms have enabled a movement that is the poetic equivalent of globalization. Poets and readers from all over the world are able to connect and appreciate poetry together and that is beautiful.
While there may be some people who alter the terms of poetry and its beauty for social media validation, that is a con that is outweighed by the pros. Moreover, if a reader finds solidarity and beauty in a poem, the subjectivity of their opinions must be respected, as long as the poem in question isn’t disrespectful.
Traditional poetry recitals have certainly taken a backseat due to the status quo. However, efforts have been made to revive interest in them and the internet has been a great tool in this process. It’s been wonderful to witness, even though it is sad that such steps have to be taken.
Do you think the minorities are appropriately and sufficiently represented through art in our country?
The representation of minorities remains an issue that has to be addressed by the stakeholders of the artistic scene in India. While there are voices who represent their communities, these voices have not been able to find their way into the mainstream. Hence, their art and the representation they aim towards have not been paid proper attention to.
When we search for poetry to read and post, we struggle in finding poems by Dalit writers, or other minorities, and we are pretty sure the reason isn’t a lack of artistic expressions from the community.
These voices and their work should be highlighted and receive due attention. Until that happens, the minorities shall remain under-represented in our countries art.
If we map the trends in contemporary South Asian literature, perhaps the most noticeable feature would be the emergence of a huge number of women authors. How do you feel about women writers shattering the ‘home and hearth’ stereotype, and what do you think is the way forward?
It is not just about shattering the ‘home and hearth’ stereotype but also of developing a newer and more nuanced understanding of the stereotype.
We think that the way forward is for the greater emergence of these women writers and for their art, their voices, and their perspectives to receive the attention and appreciation that have been accorded to their male contemporaries.
Moreover, we also believe that there is no fair way forward without due representation to LGBTQ+ voices. It is only when people of all sexualities or no sexualities and people of all genders or no genders find their space in literature and other forms of art that these spaces would be considered an optimal representation of the people.
A poetry book that you would recommend to beginners so that they can understand the essence of poetry?
Raj- I mostly read poems in singularity but I do have a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems which I love and almost worship! Reading a poet’s anthology is like visiting parts of their lives on a special tour, it’s amazing.
Isha- It’s pretty much the same with me! However, there were books I wish I’d read when I’d started out Selected Poems by Kamala Das, 60 Indian Poets, Selected Poems, Gulzar, and the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.
How do you as poets come up with the theme of a poem? Is the process organic or is there a method/structural process you follow?
Raj- I do not follow any process or structure. Sometimes, a topic stirs me so much that I absolutely have to write about it. Other times, a line comes to me and I know that I have to try and build a poem around it.
Isha- Try as I might, I cannot write on cue. However, I’m always on the lookout for a word, or a sentence, which I might be able to turn into a metaphor. Once I find that I write the first sentence of the poem I’m writing- and let myself go wherever the words take me, for a couple of stanzas or so. That helps me realize the direction which I want to take with the poem, after which I’m able to write it further in a more structured manner. When I conclude my poems, I usually try to connect the metaphor I used in the first sentence, to the last sentence of the piece, so it might help make sense of the crazy. That’s pretty much it, haha!
Meghna is a published poet who has been writing as a freelance journalist for various publications such as Swaddle, Indian Express, etc. She is the founder of Poetry Dialogue and an advocate for mental health.
What impetus made you come up with the name “trigger warning”?
I am a survivor. I find a lot of things in my world triggering; things that other people don’t put second thought into. So, I have written these poems from a really personal space of catharsis, of somewhat processing my trauma. That’s why I came up with the name trigger warning.
With this book it’s like you are entering into my world, you are going to see what triggers me, you are going to experience this roller coaster with me. So, that’s basically how the name came about. I am instinctive like that, and when the name happened, it just felt really right, like yes! – this is the book, this is me, I am navigating my journey with mental health through it, and this is my safe space of thoughts. But this book can be triggering for a lot of people because I am graphic in the way I write. So, it is also sort of a warning.
We’ve noticed that you’re a huge advocate for mental health, how do you think it correlates with your writing poetry since re-living certain experiences while transcending them into your art can act like a trigger itself?
Definitely. It can be very, very triggering, but I think people process trauma differently.
I have written a trauma guidebook very recently, with Kirthi Jayakumar of The Gender Security Project, we released it a few days ago. It’s a free guidebook, and it is going to be translated into different languages. So, I have interviewed multiple survivors to know their perspective, and what all triggers them, and to understand how they process trauma.
As for me, I have been writing poetry my whole life – since I was 4-5 years old. So, it comes to me very naturally. Also, at times to process some things, I write them. Then everything starts making sense because I realize how I feel about things. So, for me, it acts like a healing process.
I have also done poetry performances a lot of times, and people have cried, and they have told me that they relate to my experiences, and that means so much to me, because that’s the whole point of art, right? You can talk about difficult subjects, and you can connect with others while doing it.
One of the leaps in the poetry community in recent years has been of instrumentalizing trauma- Do you feel that there was ever a pressure to out your experiences of abuse or to inculcate them in your writings just because they would act like a relatability factor?
Yes! When I was younger, and the performance scheme had just started out, I had noticed that need for inculcating trauma and I did not want to fall into that trap.
For me it’s not about performances; I write for myself. Earlier, I also believed that I had to be sad to write, or I had to be in a bad mental state to write. But I realized that’s not it. You don’t have to be high; you don’t have to be drunk; you don’t even have to be in a bad mental space to create art. That’s a misconception, and that’s definitely not a healthy way to do it. At the end of the day, the more aware you are, the more energy you will have to put into your art and make it better – without having any feelings of self-doubt crush you.
I have also always personally felt that I write because I must write; there’s just no other way, and it makes me really happy. (And, to know that people like what I create means the world to me, but I won’t count on it.) I just want to create because I want to talk about things, because I feel strongly about a certain issue, and I want to create something that matters. I want my audience to engage with me; I want them to question me, or ask me why are your views this way on Kashmir. I want to have that conversation with them, and I think that it’s very important that we can open up for such conversations and debates. That’s what I like doing with my poems. I like inciting people. I like getting reactions out of them, but I don’t write my poems specifically for them.
What are your views on art as a political expression? Especially considering the recent cases of police brutality and minority suppression in both India and the west, do you think poetry as an art form has the power to cause material change?
I think if you go back and look into the history of poetry, it started as spoken word art before it became a written practice – at least in India. A lot of time it is seen as a way to create awareness around issues, we have always been doing that. It’s just that now when we are living in such difficult political times, where censorship of freedom of speech is at an all-time high.
We live in a democracy where poets are arrested for performing political poems. There’s definitely huge suppression right now, and I think this is a very important time for minority voices as well, to speak up. But at the same time, the majority also needs to talk about their issues, and other issues, because they have the advantage here. They should use this privilege to put their point across. It’s really important now, more than ever.
Your book is described to be confessional, personal, and deeply rooted in childhood trauma and abusive relationships. As a poet, how was the journey to find your own unique identity, accept your trauma and create art through those embellishments?
It is very interesting to put together a collection of poems. Through this book, I was also seeing how my trauma journey has been changing over a period of time. I was able to map how it is changing, and how I was processing the same trauma at the start, and compared how the process has changed by the end of the book.
Talking about poetry, I’ll say I live on poetry. Even withPoetry Dialogue, we curate poems for people daily; we create publishing opportunities for people, and I want to see so many people published. I want to see a lot of Indian names in international journals.
How has the journey of coming up with Poetry Dialogue been like?
It was a little scary initially because we didn’t know how to post; we didn’t know how to share people’s works in the right way. It took time to figure all of that out. But once Poetry Dialogue set into motion, it’s been growing since then.
I also did a little festival for everybody to come together. We had a great audience from all around India perform, and it’s been a phenomenal journey.
Language is extremely malleable and when writing about personal trauma, it’s imperative to weave your pieces in a sensitive, more careful manner- what tipswould you like to give young poets who might be interested in writing about their own experiences?
I don’t think I want to give people tips for writing about their own experiences, because ultimately everybody has to find their own voice and their own style that works for them. Attheendoftheday, it’s just about being honest, reading a lot of poetry, and above all writing a lot of poetry. Other than that, there’s no magic; there’s nothing beyond that.
Other than this, I think it’s also very important to keep sending your poetry to journals. Like, my goal is 100 rejections a year, and when I get 100 rejections, I also get good acceptances. And, with every rejection I learn, I grow. I get to know that this poem is still a baby, and I need to nurture it more, solidify the particular poem. So, you either need to have a dialogue with yourself, or with a group of editors, because the idea is to work on the poem, and then send it to journals. That’s just how I look at my poetry, and so I don’t want to tell people how to write or how to craft their voice.
Lastly, we would like to know some of your favorite poems or poets who continue to inspire you.
I am currently obsessing about Anna Akhmatova, she’s a Russian revolutionary poet. I am also reading Arundhathi Subramaniam, Kamala Das, Mahmoud Darwish.