A Postcolonial Feminist Sensibility: Usha Kishore in Conversation with Goutam Karmakar

Usha Kishore
                                                    About Usha Kishore
Usha Kishore is an Indian born British poet and translator, resident on the Isle of Man. Usha was a student of the University of Kerala, India, Sheffield Hallam University (England) and Canterbury Christ Church University (England). She will be pursuing her PhD in Postcolonial studies at The Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland in Autumn 2018. Her poetry has been published internationally in journals, including Aesthetica, Asia Literary Review, Atlas, Bare Fiction Magazine, Index on Censorship, Indian Literature, Poetry Salzburg Review, South Asian Ensemble, South Asian Review, The French Literary Review, The Frogmore Papers, The Stinging Fly, The Warwick Review and Under the Radar. She has also been anthologised by Macmillan, Hodder Wayland and Oxford University Press (UK) and Harper Collins and Orient Black Swan (India). Her poetry is featured in the British Primary and Indian Middle School and Undergraduate syllabi. She won the Exiled Writers Ink Poetry Competition in 2014 and the Pre-Raphaelite Poetry Prize in 2013. She is the author of three poetry collections and one book of translation from the Sanskrit. Her third poetry collection has been published from Eyewear Publishing, London, in March 2018.  Usha is the winner of an Isle of Man Arts Council award (2013), Culture Vannin award (2013 & 2016), SETU award (2016) and The Word Masala Award (2016). Usha is currently translating Jai Shankar Prasad.

                                             Excerpts from the Interview

Goutam Karmakar
Goutam Karmakar: You were born and brought up in Kerala, India. So tell us how far do the scenic beauty of Kerala and your childhood memories cast an influence on your compositions?

Usha Kishore: Kerala lives in my consciousness, I carry Kerala with me wherever I go.  The scenic beauty of Kerala, the monsoons, the flora and fauna, the sea, the sand, the culture, the temples, the dance genre of Kathakali, the legends and folklore are all part of my work.  One exemplar poem is "Monsoon Nights"  (On Manannan's Isle):

Monsoon Nights
… Grandmother’s tales
drone on as Anantha, Vasuki and Shesha
sway to the bheen of drunken monsoon winds,
their jewels throwing sparkles of speckled light
at the staggering coconut palms.  The smell
of sand perfumes the air in a trapeze of fireflies
and a courtyard quivers in the lap of the pale moon,
in the south-western corner of a distant nation
I call motherland, where eyes meet eyes
in greeting and languages melt in smiles.

The poem is nostalgic and replete with images of Kerala in the monsoons: the coconut palms, the courtyard and panelled wooden walls of a traditional Kerala home, fireflies and the invocation to the snake gods in the allusion to the Pulluvan Paattu, connected with serpent worship.

Not surprisingly, I tweet under the handle kilipaatu – which is translated from Malayalam as bird song or parrot song  and a genre of Malayalam poetry, characterised by the narrator in the form of a bird. 

GK: Now let us discuss something about your three collections of poems. On Manannan’s Isle is your debut collection of poetry. From the very beginning in this volume you have shown intertextuality and multiculturalism.

 UK: On Manannan's Isle was published on the Isle of Man, by a local publisher (dpdotcom).  The collection houses poems that outline my life and work on the island.  The book received a grant from the Isle of Man Arts Council and a Culture Vannin award and was launched as part of the Island of Culture celebrations in 2014. 

The opening poem in this collection is an invocation to Ganesha, a cross-cultural bridge through poetry, also a personal coming to terms with my postcolonial exile status: 

Caught between light and dark, living
in the aesthetic of nowhere, my verse
loses its rhythm.  All alone, I stand
on a distant shore, with a bowlful
of kheer to tickle your elephant tastes.

Come Ganesha, bathe in the Irish Sea…

When you are an oriental, living in the occident, multiculturalism is a natural process.   Incidentally, any Indian Writing in English or any diasporic writer can be called multicultural, as an Indian sensibility is translated into a Western language.  Nevertheless, following Postcolonial theory, 'english' is also an Indian language, appropriated from the colonial tongue.   The multicultural elements in this collection are also my interpretations of Manx Culture as in the myth of Manannan, local legends and beliefs.

As far as intertextuality is concerned, when you read and write all the time and teach Literature, this is natural.  One of the examples of intertextuality in this collection is the poem, "On Teaching the Tempest."   The poem interprets Shakespeare from a postcolonial angle, highlights my experiences of teaching the text and my students' responses to the text:

Suspending disbelief, I proceed
through the pages of a language
not my own, crisscrossed
by sheer Indian womanhood. 
I tread carefully through an island
of metaphors. Somewhere in me,
a tempest flames, parts and flames
            yet again…

GK: ‘Night Sky Between the Stars’ is your second volume. This volume witnesses your feminine sensibilities and concern for Indian Womanhood. You have shown the fate of women in India and for this you have drawn examples from Indian epics. So, would you like to call yourself a feminist poet in this context? So, tell us how far the poet’s personal experiences as a woman are shown in this volume?

UK: Thank you for reading into my feminist sensibility. Night Sky Between the Stars encompasses my pre-occupation with Indian womanhood and articulates my concerns on a marginalised gendered identity.   Drawing heavily from Sanskrit verse and Indian myth, I have challenged the ideology of patriarchy, through various means including patriarchal texts and have tried to render new voices to female mythical characters, perhaps attempting to create an alternative dimension for Indian womanhood. I have portrayed Indian womanhood through mythical allusions that present conflict, challenges and reflections of Indian womanhood. One example is the poem "Dakshayani," a narrative of the myth of Dakshayani, her tragic love story and her resurrection as the goddess Sati. Like Dakshayani, I too challenge the Daksha Prajapatis of Indian patriarchy.  

Let me be born again and again to question pater ire,
to wipe womanhood’s grief, to triumph over the sins
of womb and breast that relentlessly bear generations
for your unending wars, your sky searching quests,
your bloodthirsty might.  Let me immolate myself,
again and again to retrieve time’s long lost honour.

GK: This volume projects you as a symbolic poet and the title bears the example of it. So can you explain the significance of the title of this volume? Where your first volume shows the diasporic sensibilities, multiculturalism, assimilation of different ethos and languages, the second volume gives emphasis on the condition of women in general. So, can you tell us the reasons behind this drastic change of subject matter?

UK: No writer or poet sticks to any one theme. Each poetry collection is like a novel – with its own themes, settings messages and poetic devices. Similarly, my first collection and my third are about diasporic sensibilities, while my second presents an out and out feminist theme.  Just like an individual has different traits to her personality, the writer presents various aspects of herself in different poetry collections. 

The current state of Indian womanhood does require some critique, does it not? In a nation that is personified as a woman (Bharat Mata – Mother India), in a nation, where goddesses are worshipped left, right and centre, why are women so damned? In this collection, I focus on the need for equality for Indian women. This angst (of Indian womanhood) forms a motif within the collection in poems like Girl Trees, Dowry Fires, Fairies Hanging, Devadasi and Little Mother.   I've also tried to raise serious questions on the socio-cultural perception of women.

You, who worship mother goddesses,
exorcise your daughters, like doors shutting out the storm. 
You burn us, like orphaned corpses in the crematoriums
of your minds.  Daughters, where do we belong? 
Look at us falling into the night, like light scattered. 
In a myriad crystal tears, we tumble from your eyes,
to be silences between the words of a soaring song.   ("Daughters")

The title poem is an inspiration from the Bengali Shyam Sangeet, where the goddess Kali is described as the "night sky between the stars."  In this poem, also a metanarrative of my poetry, I harness the power of womanhood to that of the Goddess.

I am she – beheading myself
at the altar of light – sucking
my own life – devouring myself.
Burning myself in wingèd flames
of legends, I disintegrate into
syllable, word, metaphor and allegory - 
only to be reborn in your verse. 
On the edge of time, many moons
hooked to my dark earlobes,
I dance, a night sky between the stars.   ("Night Sky Between the Stars")

GK: In this volume you have amply taken references from Sanskrit verses and Indian mythical references. The volume begins with the Gayatri mantra. So, tell us the reasons behind using the Sanskrit verses and Vedic principles.

UK: Sanskrit Literature infiltrated into my writing through Raja Rao's Serpent and the Rope, where Sankara's Nirvana Shatkam is referenced. The use of Sanskrit vocabulary as an interlanguage in my poetry can also be attributed to the influence of T S Eliot's The Wasteland, especially by Da Da Da, in "What the Thunder Said"!   (Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata, from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad). 

I was working on two projects between 2013 and 2015. I was translating Kalidasa's Syamaladandakam (The book is called Translating the Divine Woman) for Rasala Books, when Night Sky was accepted by Cyberwit. At one point, I was working on both books, simultaneously.  So, there is some cross cultural and cross linguistic influences on both texts. Translating the Divine Woman is my joint project with my uncle the late M Sambasivan, a Neurosurgeon and Sanskrit scholar from Kerala. It is a feminist interpretation of the Kalidasa text. Night Sky too is a feminist text. Whatever myth is referenced in Night Sky, is a feminist interpretation, be it “Creation" "Five Virgins" or "Vajrayogini."

You are right - there is a direct reference to Vedic verses as in "Creation," where I refer to Vedic poetic meters like Anushtup, Viraj and Usnih, where a Vedic deity is invoked through   a verse meter: 

Sacrifices with threads drawn out
on every side, woven into the warp and weft of chant
and hymn, out-spinning the threads of Sama verses
on to the vaults of heaven, conjoining Savitr with Usnih,
Soma with Anushtup, Viraj with Varuna and Mitra. 

Revisiting the past, I feel I've had an ambivalent childhood. On one hand, I was infused with the love of Indian culture, tradition, art, music, dance, language and literature. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of patriarchal hierarchy. This ambivalence, I feel, is reflected in my work, especially in this collection. As a young girl, I was told by the patriarchs of my Brahman family that I cannot chant the Gayatri, as this was the Upanayana mantra and bequeathed only to the boys/men, during the sacred thread ceremony. The opening poem of Night Sky, "Twilight Prayer" is a feminist interpretation of the Gayatri Mantra. A goddess, a woman, is the personification of the mantra and ironically, women were prevented from chanting this mantra with its female personification!  I feel that the Indian patriarchy had withheld knowledge from women (Vedas and mantras all impart knowledge.  Etymologically, Veda, comes from the root vid - to know).  Now Indian women are beginning to challenge this mind set! This is the thought process behind "Twilight Mantra" (and in fact, the whole collection). The poem is most certainly defiant verse, where a woman chants the Gayatri Mantra and is absorbed into its personification. 

GK: You have used words from other languages. You have shaped the English language in your way. You have made the English language Indian English in your poems. So tell us why have you created this kind of diasporic Indian English?

UK: I have always been fascinated by languages. India is a multilinguistic plurality; we are all surrounded by the music of many languages. The indigenous languages and the colonial tongues of English and French have all left their mark on us. Like many Indians, I went to an English medium school, where my second language was given more importance than my first and subsequently I started writing in the alien tongue.  Mahé (French for Mayyazhi) in Kerala was a French enclave and I studied French as a third language – thus French words trickle into my work. As academics, we get used to Latin, Greek, French and German terms in literary criticism. These terms too invade my verse; this reminds me of Kamala Das: "My language is my own". As a diasporic, you get used to the language of the host British community and the diasporic communities. Therefore, my English is a mutant, a syncretic cultural mosaic. I explore this, along with my postcolonial feminist sensibility in the poem, “L’ Écriture Feminine et Indienne" (translated as 'Indian Feminist Writing').  I lament that:   Toutes mes langues sont coloniales/ Elles sont les enfants terribles de la politique.    (All my languages are colonial/They are the terrible children of politics.)

GK: Immigrant is your third volume of poetry. The title says all about the theme of the book. Here by creating a linguistic and cultural space you show the experiences of South Asian immigrants in the UK. So, tell us how have you managed to maintain a balance in between marginalisation and assimilation in this volume? Caught in between integration and dislocation, does the immigrant want to begin the journey towards the homeland or does the immigrant find a home in a homeless land?

UK: Immigrant is my third poetry collection and as you say, the title is self-explanatory as it reveals the theme of the book.  As the title poem goes:

A country stretches across my wings,
at times a burden, at others a blessing.
I have learnt to live with it…

Immigrant examines the political, cultural and linguistic spaces of first-generation South Asian immigrants to the UK and "illustrates that to live in the diaspora is to occupy a spectral space, to be haunted by the ghosts of history, empire and colonialism, to be a ghost flitting in and out of spaces called nations, to be homeless, to be caught between."  (Eyewear Publishing). 

The binary perspectives of assimilation and marginalisation that recur in my poetry, is actually a tug of war in the insides of any immigrant, a dilemma of any first-generation immigrant. Whether a balance is achieved in Immigrant, is open to reader response. As a poet, I find that "my aesthetic is neither here nor there."  As discussed earlier, the primary issues are language and culture.  My language is anglicised, but my sensibility is Indian.  This sometimes comes across as a syncretic idiosyncrasy. Recently, I lived through this idiosyncrasy, when I was editing the Sanskrit Issue for Muse India (July/August 2018). 

Immigrant also document the politics of being an immigrant professional interacting with the harsh realities of racism and discrimination. There are still existent pockets of prejudice; on the other hand, there is a huge move on the part of the host community towards assimilation, which is being welcomed by the immigrant communities, who are working hard towards this process. I draw from my experiences as an Indian woman teaching English in the mainstream British secondary sector and try to chart my poetic space in an imagined borderland.

I live on the edge of history and politics,
wallowing in the culture of a distant
monsoon land.  Equality is new rain, here. 
I breathe in the old rain, the latticed winds
of racism and anti-racism.  In swirling mists,
I recall grimaces, harsh words and jibes
reserved only for the peripheral and the marginal.  (“Marginal and Peripheral")

I think this immigrant has found her space – she needs the exile, which is her identity:

I am an exile here,
an exile there, an exile
… I know I am an exile; without
this exile, I am no one.             ("Where do I belong?")                  

There is no journeying back home!  I have accepted my immigrant status, along with all the paraphernalia that accompanies it.   

I live on both sides of the sky,
…I am half swallow, half chakora.
But I am not lost, I am not alone,
I am not afraid. My past seeps
into my present, My future,
a strange mixture of magic
and realism. I am not one but two.
India bleeds in my veins, England
paints my feathers with her mists.     ("I Am Not One, But Two,")

GK: Poems like Indo-Pak 2001, Indo-Pak 2016 and We Ain’t No More Paki Mate throw light on the ongoing relation between India and Pakistan. So, do you think good fences make good neighbours? And why have you shown this relation in this book?

UK: The two "Indo Pak" poems, "Partition 1947” and "The Radcliffe Line” chronicle and historicise the Indo-Pak relationships. I don't know if fences make good neighbours, especially if the fence, the Radcliffe Line is drawn by a departing colonial power.  It is up to the two nations and the people to build bridges!

Ironically, as other UK and US diasporics would tell you, there is no major animosity between Indians and Pakistanis abroad.  In India, I grew up fearing Pakistanis, after the Indo-Pak wars. My first meeting with a Pakistani was in the UK, in the Education sector in Kent and we became firm friends. I realised that we looked alike, ate the same food and spoke similar languages.  I have had many Pakistani friends since.  I also teach Pakistani students.   

Why have I written about Indo-Pak relations?  Well, it is time somebody did!  In fact, quite a few writers, on both sides of the fence write about the situation. How long would we keep on fighting?  The Missing Slate, a well-known journal from Pakistan publishes a lot of Indian poets and they have featured my work many times! I think literature and art can build bridges between warring nations. 

The poem, "We Ain't no More Paki Mate" is a tongue in cheek postcolonial historicisation of South Asian Immigrants to the UK. Paki (Literally meaning pure, from Urdu) is a term of racist abuse for South Asians in the UK.  Written in the London cockney, the poem is also a rant against racism. 

GK: Now let us discuss something about the condition of diasporic poets in UK and USA. Are poets like you, Usha Akella, Bashabi Fraser, Shanta Acharya, Daljit Nagra, Sid Bose, Kavita A Jindal, Saleem Peeradina, Debjani Chatterjee and Meena Alexander are getting enough scope and readership there? Do you think event like Word Masala Foundation and more poetry reading sessions should be organized to promote the works of diasporic writers and poets globally?

UK: Bashabi Fraser, Debjani Chatterjee, Saleem Peeradina and Meena Alexander are established poets of the Indian diaspora.  Daljit Nagra is a very well-established British poet.   I don't know if you can call him a poet of the diaspora. Sid Bose is a new voice, Kavita Jindal is a poet and senior editor of the Hong Kong based Asia Literary Review. I don't know where I stand in this circle of poets. 

Word Masala Foundation is a London based organisation, the dream child of the poet and writer Yogesh Patel. UK Organisations and publishers like Word Masala, Exiled Writers Ink, The Literary Consultancy, Eyewear Publishing and Skylark Publications, certainly play a major part in the promotion and publication of diasporic poets. 

GK: Can you tell us something about your future projects? Are we supposed to get any epic poem or long prose poetry from you in future? 

UK:  An Epic poem is a dream! Long prose poetry – you never know!  Some longer prose poems like "Gandhari" and "Partition 1947" have been published in my 2nd and 3rd collections.  

Future Projects - I have enough published poems at least for one more collection. I have completed the translation of Kalidasa's Rtusamharam and I am currently translating Jaishankar Prasad. 

GK: Thank you Usha Kishore for sharing your precious thoughts and valuable time with me.    

UK:  Thank you Goutam.  I am delighted and honoured that an academic like you has shown interest in my work! 

About Goutam Karmakar
Goutam Karmakar is an Assistant Professor of English at Barabazar Bikram Tudu Memorial College, Purulia, West Bengal, India. He is doing his doctoral research at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology Durgapur, India.

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