Beauty Das in Conversation with Shanta Acharya

Shanta Acharya
About Shanta Acharya

Shanta Acharya is known for her evocative and insightful works. Born in Cuttack, Odisha, India, she has made a significant contribution to contemporary English literature with her poems, literary essays and reviews. The first person from Odisha to win the National Scholarship to Oxford in 1979, she completed her doctoral thesis on Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1983. She was among the first batch of women admitted to Worcester College that year. In 1983-85, she was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard University. She has lived in London since.

Her poems have been published in literary journals and anthologies worldwide. The author of twelve books, her seven collections of poetry include Looking In, Looking Out (2005), Dreams That Spell The Light (2010), Imagine: New and Selected Poems (2017) and What Survives Is The Singing (2020). Her poems have been translated to several languages. Her doctoral study, The Influence of Indian Thought on Ralph Waldo Emerson, was published in the USA in 2001 and her novel, A World Elsewhere, in 2015. Her second novel and eighth collection of poetry are forthcoming.

She worked in the City, in London, and has the rare achievement of being commissioned to write books on finance. The largest institutional investor in India, when the stock market was liberalised in the 1990s, she has written extensively on asset management. She served twice on the board of trustees of The Poetry Society as well as The Poetry School in the UK. Founder of Poetry in the House, Shanta hosted a series of monthly poetry readings at Lauderdale House, north London, from 1996-2015. A life member of the Poetry Society in the UK, she has received several awards for her poetry, internationally.

Beauty Das
About Beauty Das
Beauty Das is a Research Scholar at the Department of English at Banaras Hindu University. Her area of research is South Asian diasporic poetry. She published her poems in Aulos: An Anthology of English Poetry (2020), and her Bengali poetry got published in Sangsaptak (2020).

BD: Women are sometimes doubly marginalised in society due to their intersecting social identities like gender, race, class, caste, religion, ability, etc. Can we call your experiences in diasporic land “intersectional diasporic experiences?”

SA: An increasing awareness of ‘intersectionality’ in all aspects of our lives is important. These ‘experiences’ are universal, and all good writing springs from such experiences – the oppression and discrimination resulting from the overlap of an individual's or a community’s complex social identities. Every society is dominated by certain groups based on any number of variables such as gender, race, class, caste, religion, age, education, marital status, wealth, etc. Those outside that circle of privilege are marginalised unless they surrender to the values of the dominant culture. The price of admission is usually prohibitive. Standing alone, outside those fortressed walls, is perceived as a threat to those inside. Interestingly, the ‘barbarians’ can also be seen ‘as a kind of solution’. This instinct for self-preservation results in experiences, conscious and unconscious, reflecting a community’s prejudices embedded in its value system. They vary so widely that one cannot generalise about individual ‘experiences.’ This marginalisation can happen in the country of your birth. Even within marginalised communities, strict hierarchies exist. Human beings are not particularly inclusive. We tend to identify ourselves with those like us, slicing and dicing everything in ways that benefit us. Even within families, there are such pressures. Most of the world’s greatest epics are about identity and the ensuing struggle for power and survival—the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey, among others. Perhaps that is why our greatest thinkers, philosophers, and poets talk of love (‘agape’) as being the highest good. Love that is selfless, unconditional, and sacrificial; the willingness to stand in the shoes of the Other (including that of your enemy).


BD: Are there any differences between your experiences in your homeland and the country to which you have relocated?

SA: There are bound to be significant differences between living in Cuttack compared to life in Oxford, Harvard, and London. If you move from Cuttack to Delhi, you will have different experiences. The oppression that comes with marginalisation can be institutional as well as individual/ personal. And the forms it may take vary enormously. You cannot prepare for it. Our prejudices/ perceptions shape all we think and do. We see the world as we are, not as the world really is. The concept of ‘illusion’, or what in Hindu philosophy is referred to as ‘Maya,’ sheds some light on the fragmented and illusory nature of experience. I am not suggesting the oppression and discrimination resulting from the overlap of an individual’s various social identities is an illusion. Far from it—these experiences are real and cause serious damage to the individual suffering from them and the society that enables such injustice to take place. Prejudice is so common that one is bound to have experienced it, even in the society in which one is born. I’ve also benefited from prejudices that worked in my favor. Privilege and prejudice can exist together. Human beings are primarily driven by self-interest. At what point one might suffer from the benefits of such interests is far from straightforward. To give you one example, during my Bachelor’s degree at Ravenshaw College, I was ‘given’ a second class in my Honours in English examination. I have a first-class academic career, I was always placed top of my class. Yet, it was possible for the powers that be to deliver such injustice, impunity, and unity as the Statutes of Utkal University permitted. The statutes did not permit the re-examining of grades. Though it was widely recognised, there was nothing anyone could do about this injustice. At the same time, I was blessed in Oxford where my professors were men of great integrity and calibre. I had a ‘congratulatory viva’ and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy. So much depends on the culture of the individual/organisation concerned. In my experience, decent human beings treat others fairly without expecting anything in return. It is always the weak and mediocre who are prone to abuse whatever little power is entrusted to them. Being a woman (unfortunately, women are just as prone to marginalising other women), Indian (Indians are very skilled at marginalising other Indians), single (single people sadly do the same), highly educated and independent, both financially and as a thinker, can translate to worryingly high levels of marginalisation. It would be wrong to generalise as every experience is individual and each individual’s experience is different. I could be treated fairly by a white man, not terribly well educated, intelligent, or well off, yet be thoroughly marginalised by an Indian woman with a similar background. Everything depends on the individual and what sort of human they are.


BD: How has your identity been shaped by your movement from one country to another?

SA: Identity is a complex issue. Tracing its development over time, place, and culture, especially as change can be imperceptible like the movements of the earth, is complicated. Besides, the changes one perceives in oneself may not be the same as those perceived by others. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: ‘People only see what they are prepared to see.’ Sometimes, I think the essential me has not changed. Yet, I know I have changed in every way. Living in London is one of the most cosmopolitan, diverse, and multicultural cities in the world, being oneself is an interesting project as one grapples with a competing range of views, perceptions, and possibilities. Sometimes, being oneself does not ‘come as naturally as leaves to a tree’. Yet unlike Keats, I cannot say it is better if it comes not at all. A first-generation immigrant, female, single, facing all sorts of discrimination (growing up in Cuttack, we used the word ‘discrimination’ positively – i.e. to mean someone enlightened, gyani, with a sense of knowledge, superior awareness; here, now it means someone without such awareness), where words do not mean the same thing, you learn to focus on issues that matter and not be consumed by the injustice inherent in every situation every day of your life. Either you grow as a human being or are destroyed, left embittered by the negative forces around you. Mind you, all this can happen in the place of your birth. One can be exiled in one’s home, even killed. One of the compensations for being an outsider is objectivity, a displacement that encourages self-examination. The angle of vision from the centre is different than from the circumference, helping one to see things uniquely. One’s invisibility is a magic cloak. Yet for ideas to live and grow, one needs others to see it and share it. Ralph Ellison’s hero said in The Invisible Man: ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ Imagine a world without our greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, industrialists, and philanthropists simply because we refuse them a place at the table. Now imagine all the good we will never know because we have destroyed it. How many gifted people have been sacrificed because we did not have the ability to understand their gifts? It is even more tragic when we ‘understand’ and instead of supporting, we erase. As I have been trying to say – we are all limited in our perceptions, some more than others. It is the human condition. As long as we remain open to possibilities, and not get too comfortable in our conception of our ‘self’, there is hope. My relationship with my adopted homeland is as complex as my relationship with India. I have created my own cultural, literary, and spiritual home which I carry in me. Roots matter to the extent that you need them in the process of self-definition. I do not feel rootless because I do not live in India. I am perhaps more Indian than many Indians who live in India. India is no longer the country I was born into or the one I left. Neither is England the place it was when I came here. Being a bit of an ‘outsider’ everywhere is no bad thing. It gives one perspective. The nature of exile and the role of language in defining a new personal identity are common among creative writers, perhaps more so among self-exiled ones. The act of creation is also one of self-exploration. To be able to delve into oneself or another’s is godlike. My writing is not just self-definition, it enables me to understand others and connect with them. For writers in exile, it is as important as breathing; without this connection, they perish. It is the means by which I explore fundamental questions like: Who am I?


BD: The notion of “home” is one of the major themes in your poems. What is your idea of the concept? Caught between integration and dislocation, does the immigrant want to start the journey back to his or her birthplace, or does the immigrant want to make a home in a homeless land?

SA: Poets, perhaps more than most writers, are ‘outsiders’; the ‘other’ living at the edges of society, they do not belong anywhere. The psychological cost of an exile’s self-restoration, working from the external self, the false, imposed image, to the inner reality is high. I am an exile, a choice I made decades ago. Yet, the longer I live here the less I belong here, or for that matter there, where I came from. As both the place of my birth and my adopted homeland keep changing, there is no going back. You live where you are, in the here and now – at home everywhere and nowhere. Our search for identity and belongingness is individual. Yet in our common humanity, we translate our experiences into poems that explore identity and the self, which keeps changing, reflecting our struggle to ‘be’ whole. Defining ourselves through words, this search for self is a continual process as we never feel at home, except in the reality we create. The value of poetry or any form of art is that it embodies representations of life for our contemplation, both for our aesthetic pleasure and inner renewal. Ultimately, what matters is the freedom to find oneself, and perhaps share that insight with a stranger. It is this sharing that is important. When you leave behind everything, and begin a journey into the Unknown, you extend the limits of your personal reality. To that extent poetry makes things happen simply by changing the way we perceive the world. Each one of us determines the limits of our engagement with this new world. So I am the ‘outsider’ making her own world.


BD: Is there any significance behind the titles of your poetry collections?

SA: The title of all my poems and books serves as an introduction – a greeting or a namaste, a welcome to my world, my home, a prayer, an epiphany. Each title is significant. My poetry collections have evolved over long periods of time and the poems carry on a conversation with each other. Writing, for me, has always been a vocation, not a profession. It enables me to do things as my own pace, finding a place for everything that matters. The title of my first collection, Not This, Not That (1994), refers to the concept of ‘neti, neti’, which has greatly influenced my thinking and is perhaps essential to understanding my work. While my first collection tries to define the connection between humanity and divinity, my second, Numbering Our Days’ Illusions (1995), takes off from neti, neti dealing with love and our relationship with It, which by definition is illusory and thus limited. My third collection, Looking In, Looking Out (2005), is about perception, its illusive quality. All my books (including their titles) are interconnected and speak to each other, offering a view of my world as it keeps changing. Shringara (2006) is an intense exploration of love and loss and reflects a way of dealing with death. The entire collection deals with grief and how it shapes us. All the people and experiences we have are our ‘shringara’, our ornaments, our treasure. Dreams That Spell The Light (2010) journeys into aspects of the self, and Imagine (2017), my new and selected poems, offers the promise of being human. My latest, my seventh collection, What Survives Is The Singing (2020), is a reaching out, reflecting a deep and profound receptivity to the world. Many of my poems are meditations on the tragedy and triumph of being human. The manuscript had been submitted before COVID-19. Its appearance during lockdown in the UK was a poignant reminder of ‘strange times’ – not just of displacement but of man’s inhumanity. Living on your own is the price you pay for priceless insights. I bring these insights to bear on my writing. At the core lies a promise of hope and redemption.


BD: Could you give us some information about your next projects?

SA: My eighth poetry collection is almost ready. While it continues with my exploration of the human condition, the insights I bring to it are fresh and different. I am also working on putting together a collection of poems, which is a lot of work but also gives me great pleasure. We have not spoken about my novels; my first, A World Elsewhere, appeared in 2015, and my second is due for publication in 2024. My novels are independent yet interconnected, speak to each other, and benefit from being read together. I am thinking of a third, a kind of trilogy. I don’t know about other writers, but my life has been full of hindrances. Finding the time and peace of mind to write has consistently been thwarted by a lifetime of obstructions. I have never received any support for my work. The fact that I have done it in spite of everything is a blessing. Unfortunately, the politics of publishing are soul-destroying and have nothing to do with the rapture of writing.


BD: Please share a poem that best describes you as a poet with us.

SA: This reminds me of ‘Sophie’s Choice’—how can I possibly choose one? I can understand if you choose one. I find all choices limiting—neti, neti. I was asked recently to choose just one poem by a poet I admire for a book in his memory. I struggled. Why limit yourself to one when you can enjoy a full thali? It is also the reason I find poetry competitions and awards baffling. Who would I give my award to – Akhmatova, Angelou, Blake, Brodsky, Dickinson, Donne, Eliot, Ezekiel, Frost, Glück, Heaney, Hardy, Homer, Kalidasa, Keats, Plath, Pushkin, Rumi, Shakespeare, Szymborska, Tagore, Tolstoy, Merwin, Neruda, Vyasa, Whitman, Wordsworth, Yeats, or someone else whose work I do not know?

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