By Rashida Murphy
Nabanita Kanungo is from Shillong. Her poems have appeared in Caravan, Planet (The Welsh Internationalist), Prairie Schooner, The Missing Slate, ELSEWHERE LIT, Café Dissensus, VAYAVYA, and The Bombay Literary Magazine, among others. Her work has also been anthologised in Ten: The New Indian Poets (Nirala Publications, 2013), Gossamer (Kindle Magazine, 2015) and 40 under 40 (Poetrywala, 2016). A Map of Ruins, her first book of poems, was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2014. Her second collection of poems is due to be published in January 2018, by Poetrywala.
I first encountered the work of Nabanita Kanungo, when she sent me a book of her poems to read and review in my capacity as Books Editor for Café Dissensus. I started reading the poems and finished them in one sitting; easy enough for a slim volume, you might think. Then I read them again. For several days, I read the poems that still haunt me for their frank exploration of the violence embodied in landscape and the way language is used to convey both ‘resistance and retrieval’.
“I believe in such cartography,” says Michael Ondaatje, “to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings.” Kanungo’s work also reminds the reader of the cartographies of existence, the “communal histories” and inscriptions, which are written on our skin like so many books we never read. I spoke to Nabanita about her practice and thoughts, both as poet and as woman and what compels her to inscribe and chart her journey as a poet with such devastating musicality. Here are her responses, and they reflect her preoccupation with both internal and external geographies, womanhood, language, class and history. For a review of her poems published in Cafe Dissensus in June 2017, see here.
Rashida Murphy: Tell me a little about yourself. What languages do you speak and write in? Do you have a spiritual practice?
Nabanita Kanungo: I was born in Shillong, grew up there; studied in St. Mary’s School and graduated specialising in geography from the institution’s college. After this, I gave up studies and took up music for two and a half years, under late Bela Choudhury, a former Indian Classical vocalist of AIR. A true guru, she turned her visual impairment into one of her greatest strengths – deep listening; a kind of spiritual awareness which would reflect in her life and art. She had a keen ear for the silence in music, something to which she sensitised me during my training. Then I returned to academia and geography. It was around this time that I began to write poetry.
At home I speak Bengali, which is really a mutant-Sylheti trying to sound Bangla, a fallout of the civilising mission my parents undertook, probably to help us aspire for a better place in elite Bengali society. I understand Khasi and can speak a little but am not as fluent as my parents. I picked up Assamese during my doctoral field-survey in Guwahati and could achieve some fluency during my stay in Karbi Anglong, where I taught in Assam University’s Diphu annexe for a little more than two years. My Hindi varies with place: the local Hindi we speak in Shillong is a unique palimpsest peculiar to the place – a mix of Nepali, Sylheti, Assamese, and Khasi, a foreign tongue altogether for someone from the Hindi heartland. Of course, I switch to regular Hindi when I’m conversing with my Hindi speaking friends. I write in English mostly and very rarely in Bengali, though I have done some translation work from Bengali to English. My mother instructed me in the Bengali script to help me prepare for my music exams, when I was about ten years old, and for the staggeringly rich literature it gives me access to, I thank her to this day.
RM: Your poetry is haunted by place. Can you tell me a little more about how place/dis/placement and notions of ‘home’ inform your writing?
NK: Most of the poems in A Map of Ruins address a feeling of having been jolted awake into a sudden realisation of the constancy of a violent history (in this case Partition), its ongoing and protracted cycles of dispossession and displacement in different times and environments. The poems which particularly engage with issues of identity and citizenship in AMoR relate to an experience I had in 2008, when my job as teacher in a college in Shillong was terminated on ethnic grounds. For financial and practical reasons (of safety), my family and friends advised me against filing a lawsuit against the college authorities. This wasn’t an isolated case; as a child I had witnessed periods of ethnic violence and curfews in Shillong. But this particular episode singularly changed the way I had experienced and understood place, identity, and belongingness. The sense of an omnipresent history and the dynamics of its recalcitrant geography opened me to try and locate notions of ‘self’ and ‘belongingness’ in the act of speaking rather than a territorial space, because language had become the only ‘place’ one could belong to, a site of resistance and retrieval of this narrative. While much of AMoR is safely read by many as some kind of nostalgia, beneath this and other tropes of celebratory landscape-gazing, there is a reckoning with a constant sense of insecurity which is as political as it is personal; a confronting of an emotional dilemma of sorts, in which memory, in its search for a mooring, spans two landscapes, both of which, in their real and imagined aspects, embody loss and unbelongingness. While in these early poems, ‘home’ or a sense of it is deeply contextualised in a particular history, in my subsequent writings, its subjectivities override the personal-political frames of location and time.
RM: I love the idea of ‘celebratory landscape-gazing.’ I read that but also so much more that reminded me of other places and people. Who are some of your early literary influences? Poets, storytellers, landscape … how did they affect you and what made you respond to their words?
NK : I owe much of my early writing to the works of Jayanta Mahapatra, Robin S. Ngangom, and Anjum Hasan. As I began reading more world poetry, Rilke, Borges, Gibran, Neruda, and Darwish inspired me a lot. My late paternal uncle, whom I called Boida or Jethu is also a constant presence in my work. A wonderful human being, his life’s journey from physics to banking to post-retirement farming was exemplary in the way it reflected a quiet, unassuming intelligence and a deep wisdom. We’d exchange books with each other and discuss everything from philosophy to dry-fish recipes. It’s incredibly fortunate for me that in the small, middle class world we were both born into, he saw it as important that I learn to appreciate literature and think critically. His death in 2014 made me realise how much of my poetry and writing I owe him.
RM: Who are some contemporaries you admire? Writers and activists and actors and philosophers?
NK: To be honest, I have only begun reading the work of some my contemporaries and such limited reading wouldn’t make for an informed reply. I enjoy the works of Rohan Chhetri, Anindita Sengupta, Goirick Brahmachari, Nitoo Das, and Arjun Rajendran (though I am yet to develop an appreciation for some of Rajendran’s extremely experimental and speculative writing). Dibyajyoti Sarma is another poet I read; his work has a refreshing and strong creative immediacy to it. The works of Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee, Nandini Dhar, and Arun Sagar are also those that I return to often.
RM: Describe yourself as a woman in India. What do you grieve about most and what are you hopeful about?
NK: The centuries old lore and mythology (and its wisdom) of this country in which one finds the feminine principle exalted and worshipped, and what we see living embodiments of that principle suffer, probably makes for the starkest example of the divergence between myth and reality. It’s incredible how this feminine half of the creative order (especially in aspects of the body, yes, even that of very young children) is looked at, abused, broken, and de-humanised by the hyper-masculine structures, be they religious, political, ideological, or even the very domestic and personal. And then again, there still are real stories of the lived experiences of so many women, which testify to their awakening and their breaking out of such structures; their reclaiming of and coming into their personal power; choosing to voice their truth at the risk of losing their popular appeal, their career and even their life. This kind of courage and how it empowers not just women, but an entire society, gives me hope.
RM: What are you working on currently? Do you write prose as well? Can you share some current work-in-progress and tell us a little bit about it?
NK: I’ve been involved in two book projects since the past few months: one is a compilation of articles (mostly pertaining to doctoral research) on various issues of urbanisation in Shillong and the other is a collaborative venture into developing a comprehensive historiography of geography. Despite the training in an ostensibly scholastic, ‘scientific’ geography, the themes that continue to fascinate and engage me are subjective and ‘obscurantist’ (as positivists would have it). Neo-liberal urban culture, geo-ecological cultural histories, which deal with visual and symbolic aspects of landscape and memory, are themes that I like to read and write about. The few (published) prose pieces I have include papers based on my doctoral research and review papers, and essays which I am currently working on as a part of the book project.
RM: Do you have a writing group you share your work with? How important is it to have a critical friend and do you have one or several?
NK: I’d been part of a writers’ group in Shillong and it was wonderfully enriching for a while. But the way we function as writers and individuals changed so profoundly somewhere along the way, I had to learn to accept the divergences and move on. I’ve always thought of writing as essentially a solitary practice and while it may appear an aberration to many, for me it has been vital and necessary. It is extremely important to have friends with whom one can share one’s work and receive honest (and even blatantly) critical feedback. I share my work with two or three such friends. They have not only helped me read my work differently but have also supported and been there for me.
RM: What informs your writing practice and how do you know when a poem is ready?
NK: My poetry began with a need to give voice to a particular narrative and make it visible and heard. Memory and its fluid landscape which inform the imagery and lyric-form in AMoR, was probably a stylised expression of that need, engaging with which was both difficult and cathartic. In the course of a discussion I had with her once, Anjum Hasan insightfully pointed out how people are consistently and conspicuously absent in this poetic landscape. I think in my second collection (due in Jan 2018, from Poetrywala), I’ve unconsciously responded to this, by letting this landscape speak through the voices of those who inhabit and interact with it and whose struggles and negotiations define the intimacies and despondencies of this mutual relationship in a larger, less localised context.
In the past one or two years, writing for me has become more and more of a spiritual practice, a deepening commitment to speak from a more centred, nuanced, and restrained voice. Not that I don’t rejoice in the occasional lyrical burst of intensity. But I do find myself attending a bit more consciously now to the craft, to the importance of economy in conveying an idea and balancing the lyrical-imagistic elements with the narrative. I’m never quite certain when a poem is ready; most probably when it resonates the silence which is its source and ultimate goal.
RM: Future plans? Final thoughts?
NK: I’d like to explore further the themes I’m working on for my book-projects, research them more intensively and publish some work, if possible. As regards poetry, there are no ‘plans’ as such, except perhaps to keep reinventing my language, break out of the usual tropes and experiment with new ones to best articulate and communicate reality as I’ve experienced it.
A Map of Ruins may be purchased from any Sahitya Akademi outlet or here.
Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter. She lives near the port town of Fremantle in Western Australia and is currently researching her second novel. She is Books Editor at Cafe Dissensus and also writes for it. Some of her other writings may be accessed here.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Humanimal and the Planet Earth’ , edited by Dr. Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol, West Bengal, India.