Talking Muses and Myths with Usha Kishore

Usha Kishore talking to Sunil Sharma
Usha Kishore
A literary conversation with the well-known Indian-born British poet, writer and translator Usha Kishore can prove to be a very rewarding intellectual and aesthetic experience. It can be a very stimulating exchange of notes on the dominant ideas that have a direct bearing on, among other things, current notions of identity, post-colonialism, English as a language and its relevance in a globalised world, nostalgia, Sanskrit texts and their rich translation, poetry-writing and teaching, and, creative transmutation of inhabiting two diverse realities as an Indian poet writing in English and settled in UK as a citizen, through the interconnecting modes of writing, reading, translating, memory and teaching.

Here it goes, the interesting multi-level dialogue, done through e-mail with her by the author.

Sunil Sharma
Q: While re-visiting some of poems for this literary dialogue with you, I could hear a distinct echo of a hovering Keats in them: melancholic; sweet; nostalgic for a pastoral life; Hellenic in yearning; direct and very moving. I suspect you are being haunted – at least for me as a reader – by the great Romantics or, the Unconscious of your poetry carries such faint traces. Agree with this radical revaluation?

To begin with, this is a highly complex question. Let me try and discuss all the points raised. The Keatsian influence is indeed a radical evaluation.  As a teacher in the British Secondary Sector, I teach a lot of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps the Keatsian melancholy and the Romantic haunting has filtered into my poetry, quite unconsciously.  I grew up reading Keats and Shelley. As a teacher yourself, you would agree that the best teachers leave lasting impressions.  From the Trivandrum of my past, Professor Kamath’s lectures on “Ode to Autumn” linger in my consciousness.  The love of the British autumn was engendered then in my MA Literature classes.  I write a lot of autumn poems or refer to autumn in many of my works.

 Continents dissolve
in autumn shades - a bridge
across two worlds  —  (Simply Haiku Quarterly, 2006)

The various elements that triggered your reader response can be justified, if examined in detail.  Yes, you are right (It does seem difficult to try and analyse my own poems!!) - I try my best to get into a dialogue with the reader by addressing them directly.  I am glad you find the poetry moving.  I think the direct address is an influence of Browning’s Dramatic Monologues – an abrupt start, an immediate engagement with the reader and a conscious attempt to draw the reader into the world of the poetic persona. A lot of my poems are in first person narrative and that projects a highly personal viewpoint.

As for the pastoral element, there is the greenery of Kerala constantly gnawing at my soul.  Postcolonial displacement and nostalgia seep out of my work in great measures. It is strange that you find a Hellenic yearning here;  perhaps in the way of establishing a relationship with the Indian past and a diasporic present, perhaps engaging in a cultural critique of Indian heritage and establishing an alternative space for dialogue with heritage.  I also find this attempt in other writers of the Indian diaspora like Debjani Chatterjee, Bashabi Fraser and Shanta Acharya, who translate their heritage to the West, re-interpret their culture and write back to the motherland.  The “Hellenic yearning” rises out of this sense of wanting to belong.  Writers like me know that we don’t belong in the West, but do we belong in India?

 I am an exile here,
an exile there, an exile
everywhere…    —  (“Where do I belong”, Unpublished)

We exist in this “in-between space” that creates alternative cultural tropes like my work– in wanting to question the overriding patriarchy of the Vedas or re-interpreting Kalidasa’s ?yamal?da??akamin a highly feministic translation or giving voice to lesser known mythical female characters as in the Dramatic Monologue of Usha of the Usha-Aniruddha myth.  This is what my “Usha” has to say to her friend, Chitralekha, the magical artist and illusionist in “Usha Dreaming Aniruddha” (inspired by the painting of Raja Ravi Varma):

Glide on the starry wings of darkness, Chitra!
Harness oneiric cycles of the mystic moon!
Woo him with dark arts and orphic wile!
Abduct him in sleep’s own spell!
If God men can seduce earth maidens, in the guise
of dazzling light, why can’t I, demon damsel,
spirit away the demiurge of my dreams
in the silky arms of sensuous night?
Let me incur Bana’s wrath! Let heavens open up!
Let all hell break loose! Let God fight God!
Let this sacred river profanely bleed in ochre!
Let Bana’s golden city turn into a city of blood!
But grant me my love! Chitra! Grant me my dream!

This poem was published in KavyaBharati, 2013 and is part of my ongoing ekphrastic project, entitled Gendered Yearnings - on the female subjects of the Kerala painter, Raja Ravi Varma.

Q: Continuing Keatsian resemblance, I also find that there is some kinship with his style and use of language. I discover that you have a special way with words that only accomplished writers tend to possess through hard work. To put it differently, you animate the words and make them speak the way a composer does with his select instrument. A great linguistic feat by a person not born into that language. How could a Caliban/non-native arrive at this lyrical felicity in English?

Again, this is a multi-faceted question.  Let me explore the facets, one by one. Firstly, Thank You for the compliment.  This is very flattering.  My poetry has been called reactionary, postcolonial, multicultural and of course militant.  I am glad, you are examining its lyrical quality. I do tend to use a lot of literary devices- imagery, metaphors and other poetic paraphernalia - to embellish my poetry.  Recently I find myself employing a lot of rhetorical techniques as well and as my work evolves, I find myself writing lyrical poetry too.   This is due to the regular analysis of poetic techniques in English Classrooms.

I think a lot of contemporary Indian diasporic writers in English use the language as if it were their own, but in their own unique way.  Shanta Acharya uses highly cohesive and meticulous phrasing, while Debjani Chatterjee creates her own lingua franca that communicates with the East and the West and Daljit Nagra uses a supremely hilarious Indian English.

Within my own poetic diction, I try and create a kind of diasporic Indian English with a Western flavour with the use of words from other European languages like French, German and Latin and at the same time copiously “chutnifying” the poetry with Hindi, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil and Urdu words.  The postcolonial inter-language comes into play here – the use of more than one language system to enter into cultural or multi-cultural discourse. Twenty five long years of exile have added their toll to my work, I suppose; and after such a long time, you develop an almost-native fluency.

Offspring of a colony, I am a colony within a colony.
My language is not my own, I am a mooncalf,
lisping in an alien tongue, seeking a bigger light
by day and a smaller one by night.  My words
are not my own. I appropriate those of others
at the school of imported words, where meanings
are translations of fabled history and syllables
are definitions of mottled culture.
 — (“Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism,” from Usha Kishore’s debut collection, On Manannan’s Isle, 2014)

We Indians have used English as our first language for nearly two centuries now and it is time we perfected it, as we perfected the bureaucracy of the British Raj.

Speaking of Caliban - He is a character referred to copiously in postcolonial critiques and is the most often quoted:

…I am subject to a tyrant, a
Sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.
You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.  The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.

Caliban is my all-time favourite Shakespearean character, subversive, although not successful, glorious in his defeat and like a Prisoner of War in a Hollywood movie, always trying to escape the yoke of tyranny.  He has some brilliant lines in the play:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…
 — (This is what I feel about the Isle of Man, where I live and so do a lot of other people!)

…and teach me
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night…

Q: As a post-colonial writer, you question the very narrative of the colonialism and its effects. The most distinct feature of your poetry is that you can disrupt the whole discourse from within. Look at these lines from The Voice of the Sky, my favourite:

Strange fears invade me,
I am a pagan in a Christian land.
My hues are dusky, my notes are strange;
But the voice of the sky soothes me,
The voice of the sky guides me…

Q: Only a hugely talented writer can do that, working within the discourse and yet, subverting it like a radicalized post-colonial subject writing back. What do you say?

I am again honoured and humbled by your critique. Postcolonial trends invaded my poetry in the UK.  At one point, I was pursuing a Research Degree with The Open University UK on Postcolonial Poetry; this did not achieve completion, for various reasons. However, the postcolonial theories and concepts have invaded my creative work and are now embedded firmly there.   The narrative of colonialism and the subversion of colonial discourse that you see within my work, area sum total of my excursions into postcolonial theory.

Common skies
Divided horizons
A virtual collage
of migrant metaphors -
Is this my poetry?

The yearnings
of a dispossessed soul -
Is this my diction?

Mapping differences
in colonial space -
Is this my verse form?  — (“Migrant Metaphors,” On Manannan’s Isle)

I am glad you like “Voice of the Sky.”   This was published a while ago in the Swedish journal ArsInterpres.  This was a reactionary poem to the Isle of Man, written in the early 2000s.  I find it strange that I, born in some distant monsoon land, have settled on this island, off the coast of the UK; an island that the Celtic God Manannan covers with his cloak of mists (Manannan is one more in my pantheon of 33 million Gods.).  In this poem, I attempt to reconcile to my exile status and my new home, while reflecting on my Indian heritage.

Q: Talking of the hybridity of such writings, I feel that as a writer, you assert your Indian-ness and femaleness more than your other identity as a British subject. It is a refreshing tension/assertion that privileges the native over the foreign master; of the periphery over the centre. Comments, please?

You are right.  I call myself an Indian-born British poet. But, I cannot remove myself from the hybridity of Indian and British thought processes, linguistic expressions and world views. Increasingly, I feel that postcolonials like me are writing from the Imperial Centre.  As mentioned in another interview with SutapaChaudhuri in the Australian journal, Writers in Conversation, I think postcolonialism begins when the periphery invades the imperial centre (As you know, I am appropriating the words of Arif Dirlik here.).

Despite the yoke of postcolonial angst, I must point out that my poetry took shape in the UK.  I was first published in the UK, before I was published in India and elsewhere.  I am not unique here. This is certainly the case of a lot of British writers of Indian origin. Increasingly the centre seems to be happy, hosting the voices of the periphery!

Q: Your use of Sanskrit words and Hindu mythical figures, apart from the other creation myths from other cultures, bring in a new dimension, a richness, to very act of writing and reading. Very few Indian English poets do that. This kind of innovation is unique. What prompts you to deploy them in poems largely meant for global audience?

Primarily, I came into Sanskrit literature through Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope, after which I read the Nirvana Shatkam and years later, translated it.  The interest in Sanskrit stems from my childhood though.  I was surrounded by Sanskrit-chanting men, high priests of a patriarchal Brahmin family in Kerala.  As a child, I wanted to chant the Gayatri but was told that ‘this mantra is the monopoly of boys, after their Upanayanam.’   My question then to the patriarchs of my family was: “If Gayatri Devi is a woman, why can’t I chant it?”  I was promptly ticked off in stentorian tones and labelled “upstart”!  Years later, I wrote the poem “Twilight Prayer”:

 My eyes fold in
the night and
ignite light.

My chants sketch
endless gyres
on the sky.

I chant
the womanhood

I am the earth
seeking thesky,
at twilight-

time - starry
lights mark
our union…

I am that woman
Gayatri – lover
of Brahma…       — (“Twilight Prayer,” Muse India, 2007)

Born in subversion at the lack of patriarchal approval to chant or study the scriptures, which were solely reserved for men, my interest in Sanskrit grew and continued in the verses of Kalidasa and the mystical hymns of Sankara.  In the UK, it was Debjani Chatterjee who encouraged me to translate.  My translations of Kalidasa and Sankara have been featured in UK, US and Indian journals.  My first book of translations is forthcoming from Rasala Books, India.  My journey into translation and into the world of Kalidasa have added to the imagery and metaphor in my English poetry.

Sanskrit words and quotes within my work were originally inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, where the thunder speaks in Sanskrit.  If Eliot could use Da, Da, Da and Shantih, Shantih, Shantih, why don’t we Indians call upon our own tradition and share it with the world?

Speaking of myths - Myth is something that I have always been pre-occupied with.  Growing up with oral narratives and Kathakali performances, myths were ingrained in me, courtesy of two grandfathers and a grandmother.    I use them generously in my poems.  In a way, this is translating my Indian culture to a global audience.

Q: Why the need for these multi-cultural myths? You are also fond of the Celtic myths. What work they do for you?

I am interested in the genealogy of myths and their universality.   A fascination for Indian myths paved the way for myths, legends and folklore from other cultures.  When I was in primary school, The Prabath Book House took up residence, next door to my childhood home in Vanchiyur, Trivandrum.  This Book House had its foundations in Communism and imported Russian culture. Hence, under the auspices of this Book House, I read Russian folk tales avidly and lived the life of Baba Yaga, the feminist witch, on whom I recently wrote a poem for a UK journal.  Later on in life, I came across Norse and Western Classical myths.  In the UK, I have come across so many myths from so many cultures that satiate my enormous appetite.  Myths work for me as I find new interpretations for them and also try to bridge across cultures.  Interestingly, many Indian myths have common counterparts in other cultures:  Indra is a combination of Jupiter/Zeus of Graeco-Roman and Odin of the Norse myths. Similarly, Hanuman has a counterpart in The Monkey King of Chinese myth and Garuda has many synonyms in Eastern myths.  In Buddhist myth, he is known as Garula or Supanna and in Japan, he is known as Karura.  The indigenous people of North America too have a thunderbird.  The cross-cultural aspects of myths captivate a myth-fanatic like me.

Q: The myths explain a world that is lost. World of harmony and integrity. Does it seem to suggest a longing for that lost world, a world much better than ours?

To a certain extent, yes; myths can be considered as a quest for an ideal world.  But myths are not only part of belief systems or rituals; they are fables illustrating moral truths; they are disguised histories or allegories that can be re-interpreted and reinvented on a personal level. They can be considered psychological archetypes, personifying conflict in socio-political systems. Myths are also interpreted as structuring the human world and as metaphors explaining the transitions in life.  Many scholars have theorised the interpretations of myth.  Some of them are Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Max Muller and Vladimir Propp.

Myths are not fossils of the past, they are still alive and breathing in literature, drama, visual art-forms and oral narratives.  They not only bring back a lost world, but also serve to create a brave new one.

Q: What is your aesthetics? Is it Indian or Western or both?


Living in the in-between
zone of two cultures,
flying through
the air-spaces,
that illumine
the backyards
of colonialism,
my life is a hectic
time-schedule, that
flits between two
opposing wavelengths.
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.

Somewhere in the                                                              
wheel of karma,
I have floundered,
to live in exile
and longing.  I take up
my pen and fall
into the rainbow realms
of the diaspora.
My aesthetic is neither
here, nor there.   — (On Manannan’s Isle)

Q: As a school teacher, you have done a lot in making poetry interesting. You have introduced Tagore also. What is your overall experience of teaching poetry to young minds still not skeptical of this form?

At one point in the 1990s, I did teach Tagore as the poet’s work was part of the KS4 (GCSE) syllabus and wrote in UK educational journals about the importance of Tagore, the world poet.  My experiences of teaching Tagore are summarised in the poem, “Teaching Tagore to 10 A/S.”  This poem has been widely anthologised in the UK.

Overall it has been a pleasant experience, teaching poetry in secondary schools.  My work is prescribed in the British Primary and Indian Middle School syllabus.  I teach a lot of poetry, British, American and multicultural.  It is important to create an interest in poetry at a very young age in order to avoid scepticism of this genre of literature or to prevent the overwhelming poetry phobia that is commonly seen in UK Secondary Schools, these days.

Currently it is becoming increasingly difficult in the UK to teach poetry for poetry’s sake and somewhere along the line, you come to realise that Poetry cannot be a standalone in the educational climate of examination results, academic standards and league tables; it has to be combined with the teaching of analytical skills.  This method marries the examination/assessment business with the pleasure of poetry. I am a firm advocate of the precept that the teaching of Poetry combined with analysis and creative writing, leads to a more in-depth and enjoyable study; thus steering student interest towards Poetry and Literature at University Level.

Q: How is global poetry in English shaping up – thanks to social media?

Social media provides a great scope for a global poetry in English.  It is well known in the West, that social media provides a forum for the poets of ethnic minority communities, who are not well accepted in mainstream publications.

Q: Your take on Indian Poetry in English?

With Indian poets like Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and in recent times Nissim Ezekiel and Kamala Das well accepted in the world and translated into many languages, Indian Poetry in English is now an accepted aspect of World Literature.   Many literary journals publish Indian Poets writing in English and there are many anthologies in the West, that are solely dedicated to the works of Indian Poets;the most recent of them are The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry and The Blood Axe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets from the UK,  and The Dance of the Peacock from Canada.  The work of  contemporary diasporic poets like Pulitzer Prize Winner, Vijay Seshadri, Bashabi Fraser, Debjani Chatterjee, Tabish Khair and Shanta Acharya have been acknowledged around the world.  There is also a lot of exchange and discourse between poets in India and diasporic poets, which signifies the engagement of the diaspora by the Motherland.

Currently, Indian poets writing in English do not restrict themselves to India and Indian concerns but are on a par with other writers in the world, poetisingworld issues.  I see a movement towards what is called a Globizen (Global Citizen Poetry).

Q: Nostalgia characterizes many diasporic works. What prevents such writers or writers in such a mode from staging a second home-coming?

Nostalgia is a contributory factor of diasporic poetry/writing.  It is a way of re-interpreting the writers’ cultural past to the world and to a certain extent to themselves.  It serves to create a cultural identity, within a diverse Western society and is certainly a renaissance of Indian heritage.  Conditioned by the vast geography and history, the complex culture and language systems of India, the diasporic writers carry with them a little India of the mind that they translate in their poetry. Their Indian consciousness is projected in nature, flora and fauna, religion, in particular Hinduism (It is impossible to be Indian and not write about Hinduism, be it in praise or in damnation!) myth, art (visual and performance), rituals and customs and even food.

Now, you ask, “Why not a second home-coming?”  The nostalgic yearning for the Motherland is not something that is easily achievable. The nostalgia is part of a cultural consciousness; to appropriate the words of Keats, “unfulfilled nostalgia is sweeter,” as it creates the most beautiful poetry.  In practical terms, there is the way of life that the diasporic writers have been used to in the West and there is a reluctance in letting go of this.  Others have personal circumstances, which restrict them from returning home.  There is also afear of change perhaps or even the fear that their nostalgic yearning may not be fulfilled in a contemporary India.

Q: Talking of the post-colonial stance, are we not positioning ourselves deliberately as the fixed terms of debate within a popular discourse mainly determined by the West? Are we still natives to the empire that has ceased to function physically but operates in mind space as a dominant instrument of control by its free agents within academia?

On one hand, we are a linguistic colony; on the other hand, we have appropriated the language of the Sahib.  Are we not moving away from this Western linguistic paradigm and creating an Indian world in English? Our own “english?” Is the West not moving away from its cultural paradigms and accepting us? Colonialism has paved the way for a global exchange of languages, cultures and literatures.  We are not the Macaulayan offspring, Western in thought and language; we are Indian in thought, with a lingua franca of our own. I am sure that Macaulay did not envisage the tables turning.

Now, if we look at Western academia, especially Literature, almost every Department of Literature has a South Asian.  Are we not participating in the discourse?  Natives we might still be, but are we not writing from the imperial centre?  We are actually changing the mind set or operating in niches within the mind space of the free agents!!

Q: Your view of racism and multiculturalism in Britain? Is it not a mere political shibboleth?

Racism is not a political shibboleth in Britain.  It is a living and breathing monster.  Having worked in this country, I have faced racism in various avatars: verbal abuse, institutional racism, implied racism, racial stereotyping et al.  A lot of work still needs to be done to eradicate racism from British society. The situation has improved, but recently the successes of South Asians, especially the Indian diaspora in the UK has created a lot of resentment within a considerable section of the host population and this has led to a lot of heart breaks for the Indian community.  Last year, one of my poems “Marginal and Peripheral” was on the prize list of the Ireland based Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition.  The poem was based around ideas of marginality, after the Indian poet, Robin Ngangom.  I withheld publication at the time, because the poem was a reaction to what I was going through; to what I think was a race-related harassment at the workplace.  However, we Indians tend to tide over the most difficult of circumstances and tend to survive the wildest of storms.  Are we not the inheritors of Chanakya?

At one point, multiculturalism was the cliché here.  Now, the political move seems to be moving away from the multicultural reality of the UK, towards a unified Britishness.  But can’t we be British and multicultural?  This move has had some implications in literary circles.  Hence, there is a need to re-establish Indian diasporic poetry in the UK.

Having said that I have come up through poetry competitions and literary awards, through British publishers.  I cannot complain, but I wish there would be more diversity in mainstream British Poetry, with more room for other cultures (I mean not mono-culturally British).  Recently, there has been a re-emergence in poetry written by non-native speakers of English, which is very encouraging.

Q: Your favourite British writers?

Poets wise among the contemporaries, my favourites are Carol Ann Duffy, DaljitNagra, George Szirtes, Debjani Chatterjee, Bashabi Fraser, Moniza Alvi, Ian Macmillan, Simon Armitage– gosh the list can go on…   I have another long list for the stalwarts starting from Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, P B Shelley, John Keats, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and so on so forth..

And among writers as such, favourites include William Shakespeare, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens , J R R Tolkien,  Jane Austen, R L Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Charlotte Brontë, Louis de Bernières,  Kazuo Ishiguro - I could go on you know….

As an English teacher, I am blessed that I can teach all these writers and favourites are often alternated.

Q: The issue of awards and its politics. Your views, please?

I do not know anything about awards and prizes in India and the politics behind them. My experience has been with British awards and prizes.  I see a sense of fairness, as most awards seem to be working on merits; and more and more writers of the Indian diaspora and other cultures seem to be making it to the prize lists of British competitions, including yours truly.  This is a positive move.  As far as my awards were concerned, the British Arts Councils and other institutions do award writers of the South Asian diaspora.  Debjani, Bashabi, Moniza Alvi and Daljit Nagra are only some examples.  Various others have also been recognised. The only exception here is Culture Vannin (the inherently Manx (Isle of Man) organisation).  I am lucky to be the only Indian born poet to have been awarded by this organisation.  Again, this also assures a sense of fairness and equality.

Q: The poets that interest you in South Asia?

When speaking of South Asian poets, I am only familiar with contemporary Indian poets including Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Arundhati Subramaniam, Sudeep Sen, Ranjit Hoskote, K Satchidanandan and Mamang Dai.  Again the list could go on.  The stalwarts run from  Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu to Kamala Das, Arun Kolatkar, Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwala, A K Ramanujan  and so on so forth. Recently, Sutapa Chaudhuri with her Plathian sensibility and introvert minimalism has interested me a great deal.

Q: Message to writers struggling hard in India and elsewhere?

My experience is limited to the UK.  In the UK, we have Literature Festivals, Poetry Workshops, Writing schools, mentorships, poetry collectives, poetry societies, peer reviews etc. and a lot of resources including Arts Council Funding. All this keep poets abreast with the happenings in the world of poetry and encourages them along the path towards publication. I have been benefitted by the Isle of Man Poetry Society, The Arts Council and Culture Vannin and good mentors like Debjani Chatterjee and peer reviewers like the Manx poet Janet Lees.  These are various measures that need to be implemented in India on a larger scale to help budding poets.  Established Indian poets are already working on the idea of workshops and mentorship.  And there are also many Literature Festivals in India, these days. Perhaps, all these facilities would create a platform for new voices.

Perseverance and Patience are my mantras to budding writers. Publishers like Muse India, KavyaBharati, Kritya and Indian Literature are always bringing new voices out to a world platform.  I have been well received by all these journals as a new poet, trying to break into the Indian scene.

Q: Thanks.

Thank You for the excellent set of questions, which have been thoughtfully crafted. You have made me think. Let us revive Descartes – Je pensedonc je suis (I think therefore I am).