Five Minutes With is a series of interviews with contemporary poets from India. 

Ashwani Kumar is Mumbai-based Indian English poet, writer, and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His anthologies, My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter and Banaras and the Other are noted for their subversive ‘whimsy’ quality by critics. His Banaras and the Other, first of a trilogy, was long listed for Jayadev National Poetry Award 2017. Recently, Hungarian poet Gabor Lanczkor has translated his new poems for a special volume: Architecture of Alphabets. He is currently working on Ayodhya, the second of the Banaras trilogy and his non-fiction book, Biharis (Aleph Books). He is also co-founder of Indian Novels Collective to bring classic novels of Indian Literature to English readers. His other major scholarly contributions include Community Warriors (Anthem Press), Power Shifts and Global Governance (Anthem Press), Global Civil Society: Poverty and Activism (Sage International).

Photo of Ashwani Kumar

What prompted your interest in poetry?
I have said elsewhere that I am a creature of scattered circumstances, odd geographies and alien languages. With no family or social and literary connections to Anglophile post-colonial India, I came to the English poetry ‘like the rusted rumours of a riot’. Sounds strange but I was deprived of a standard mother-language in the conventional sense, for my mother spoke Magahi, a Bihari dialect, and occasionally wrote in now extinct Kaithi script. She often relished tales of infidelities in multiple languages including local Mundari. And she made yummy stew of goat’s tongue, liver and entrails. I wonder who taught her to make burrito at night for my father in Gua forests, my unofficial birthplace. If my father smelled anything of his involuntary dislocations, it was his love for hydrogen peroxide and fake Havana cigars. Like the nomadic Machiguengas in the Amazon Basin jungle, we believed that if we stopped moving, disaster would befall us. So, we continued our shape-shifting journey across parrot-green geographies. One day when I was returning from the school,I saw torrential lightning strike forests of palash flowers (flame-of-the-forest). I could not believe when half-burnt palash trees started bleeding with buzzing of alien words. Ecstasy and fear rushed in, twittering madly in my throat. And I started speaking an entirely unknown language. I was told it was the primal language of my ancestors. It was also language of the God. Since then, I have lived in the memories of trees bleeding, secreting magical, haunted verses for me. Thus, poetry came to me in schizophrenic moments of self-killing.

What are you reading?
You can call me an omnivorous reader. I don’t refuse poetry from any language or region. These days I am reading frequently and relentlessly. Just finished Andal: the Autobiography of a Goddess translated by Priya Chabria and Ravi Shankarand and still under the influence of sacred delirium of sensuality. I have enjoyed reading Alice Attie’s Under the Aleppo Sun for its exposure of forbidden tales of destruction and longing in the Syrian war. I am also hit between the eyes by Life on Mars–Tracy Smith’s sensational Pulitzer winning book. Anne Carson’s verse novel, Autobiography of Red is a disturbingly delightful read about how ancient myths magically segue into modern settings of love, longing and betrayal. Among Indian poets, I am reading recently published collected works of giants of Indian poetry such as K. Satchidanandan, Jayanta Mahapatra and Gieve Patel. Ranjit Hoskote’s unique transcultural expedition: Jonah Whale, Hemant Divate’s Man without a Navel, Sonnet Mondal’s sublime Karmic Chanting, Mustansir Dalvi’s Cosmopolitician, Nabina Das’s Sanskarnama, Vinita Aggarwal’s Two Full Moons, Linda Ashok’s Whorlight, Anju Makhija’s Poem Grow With You, Rochele Potkar’s Paper Asylum, Sarbajeet Garcha’s A Clock in the Far Past, Suhit Kelkar’s The Centaur Chronicles, Robin Nagangom’s The Desire of Roots, Anjali Purohit’s Go Talk to the River: the Ovis of Bahinabai Choudhuri, and Mangalesh Dabral’s This Number Does Not Exist are some of the enchanting poetry collections that I have read in the recent past. And in Mumbai rains, I often revert to Kalidas’s classic lyric epic Meghdoot (Cloud-Messenger). Are you wondering how I manage all this reading? From Goddess Kali, my fictional poetry teacher, I have learnt the art of anamnesia, remembering fragments of dreams while we are awake and walking. I am sure you also dream-read like me!

How do you find inspiration?
I am an un-tutored, and un-mentored poet. I was neither trained in the ancient Hindu gurukuls nor in the boutique poetry-workshops. Thus, I don’t work like a skilled wordsmith who arranges words according to pre-determined karmic design. I am deeply political. But, I am not narcissistic about my politics. In other words, I am not a poet of clean, lavender verses. I often see “myself multiplying into shirtless, short plump selves; many smelt like lizards but some smelt like jasmine buds” (Banaras and the Other). I can’t say I have stopped dreaming about bobsled pursuits for glam Russian blondes, James Bond’s car chases, and prototypes of Stalin. As much as I would have loved it, I have failed in learning the Hip-Hop songs of purple-skin, mixed-blood immigrants from Siberia. So, while writing poetry, I am inspired by Aunty Maria, who “loved Pinto beans and red paprika and grew up on pancakes, apple pies, and crunchy crackers. After a shot of white rum punch, she would often sing in foreign accent-Picotante, paralysante…picotante, paralysante”. (From About Aunty Maria, forthcoming). In short, most of my verses are partial-paralytic translation of alien languages in garbled conversation with each other.

Where do you write?
You mean the physical location in territorial or spatial sense? Or you mean imaginary places like glaciers of red-hot coals. I don’t have a fixed locale in life and literature. I am often walking, travelling, migrating across real or imagined places. So I can write from anywhere, from where ‘something begins its presencing’ like railway stations, bus stands, highways, coffee-houses, bicycle repair shops, ladies’ dance bars, movie theatres, telephone booths, medieval shrines, caravanserai, servant quarters, and cheap hermitages with asbestos roofs. Sometimes I write from the shoe closet of Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis, the famous Brazilian writer who disliked travelling far away lands. I am sure you won’t believe me.

Why do you write?
I fear writing yet I write to shed my fears. Where this fear comes from? It originates in the scene of a furious crowd, attacking and burning buildings and cars, lynching people. But most fundamentally, it comes from the fear of dying in my own language. I guess torturing one’s language is called poetry; it coerces spontaneous flow of speech into a Procrustean bed of love-making. Does this frighten you? I ask myself. Yes. It does. For me, language is the haunted house of being, and the darkness shines here. So I write wrinkled words of primal prayers–bleached with white light, a fantasy landscape seen through half-sleep and eyelashes, turning my face away from my prelapsarian shadows of shame and guilt. No wonder, when I hid in the claustrophobic tornado shelter on the campus of Oklahoma, I became a poet. That’s why I often imagine I suffer for a living in poetry. Poets survive their deaths, as Wittgenstein put it, in the limits of their language.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
For me, poetry is a magical, surreal experience. And it’s a dangerous liaison with reality. Writing poetry is a like a dirty love affair between taproots and earthworms. So, aspiring poets need to consider unorthodox ways of love-making and ‘remember only broken parts, not the whole body’ of poetic conventions. In Waking Early in Ayodhya, a poem in My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter, I challenged conventions and delved into taboo-breaking memories of primal love-making in Ayodhya in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri mosque; “Waking early in Ayodhya / I recall my late night dream; Highlighted pink cheeks, pine lips, mascara eyes, / Long lonely collarbones, / Honeysuckle breasts, queen-size lotus buttocks, / I remember only broken parts, not the whole body.” So, when your tongue feels stiff from remaining silent, speak your own language, deserving “death with your appetites, your selfishness, and the capital sins” (A Season in Hell by Rimbaud).

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
I am told futures are strange engendered species; they fertilize without males or sperm. I am afraid that futures can be exterminated and poets won’t save us. Since I don’t know a clinical approach, I am asking poets if they really believe that their eloquently waxed, green washed, and beautifully wrapped verses are as healthy as half-rotten and over-priced ‘organic apples’. Also, I am not sure if poets can cure us of decaffeinated innocence about the horrors of the present and past. There are all kinds of poets these days, many with bondage gear and swastika symbols, emptied of their original meanings, still necrophilic enough. There are no such things as good or bad poetry because we have come to enjoy and consume anything, everything. In these times of delusional industrial pleasure of literature, poetry has become a meaningless, blind, destructive rage about the return to a golden era of utopian happiness. We are doomed to catastrophes. So, we must accept the impossibility of shaping the future, and rid the poetry of its present excesses. Is this an impossible dream?

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