I do not have any special love for poetry. I write poems because I have something other than the poetic to comment on. For the moment, poetry as a form suits me. But this might change. An unapologetic content-seeker, I run after content, in its many and varied forms. I can do away with the theme, but not content.
My “content” is somewhat provincial. I am not the “second-or-third generation over-educated narcissicist” of the South Asian immigration novels. I do not have a childhood spread over three continents. I rarely ponder over how and why I am ethnic. I take my Bengaliness for granted in the same way I take for granted my own death. What I write about, instead, is a childhood lived entirely within the suburban neighborhood of an ever-expanding city. A neighborhood that lurks between the city and the village. A neighborhood we often describe as “the dustbin of Kolkata.” I write of a girlhood spent between classes and political ideologies. I write of a girlhood spent between hysteric women and liberty-seeking men. I write of a girlhood spent under the shadows of too many catastrophes – natural, political, governmental. I write of a girlhood spent under the shadows of a failed revolution. A revolution that will weave into its legacy the name of a village in North Bengal which I have never visited. Yet that village is not far from the tea garden where my mother and her siblings grew up. Naxalbari. A “failed” revolution whose legacies I will try to unpack for the rest of my life. No, I have no special love for poetry. I write poems because I have something other than the poetic to comment on. Yes, I write because I have the legacy of Naxalbari to unpack – for myself, my friends and comrades, and those who will come after me. No, I do not have a childhood spread over three continents to boast about. What I do have is a “monocultural,” multicontradictional world to write about. A world that is irrevocably middle-class, yet aspires to do away with class.
In my poem “The Aftermath,” I put disparate objects put together side by side. Memories juxtaposed to history, irony pasted upon political earnestness, childhood memories patched on political slogans. There was no major political rebellion or upheaval in the Bengal of the 1980s. What was there amongst the people I grew up with was the numbing pain of failure. This numbing pain was often combined with efforts to make sense of the tumultuous events of the preceding years – the 1943 famine, Partition, Independence, the failures of independence, Naxalbari. It was a decade of political stasis. A stasis that was confusing. If there is a lesson I have learnt from surviving my childhood, it is this: times of “peace” bring their own traumas.
I do not have any heroic story of survival to recount, as do the Partition refugees/survivors of my grandparents’ generation. I do not have any hair-raising stories of underground political lives and relentless organizing. The legacy of Tebhaga-Telengana-Naxalbari is mine, but only as a legacy. I cannot claim the headiness of the immediacy that comes with living the everyday of a political movement. The thing about a legacy is that it mandates distance. That distance gives you the responsibility of figuring things out. It also invariably takes away from you the excitement of any first-hand immediacy.
“The Aftermath” is a poem about this legacy. It is about inevitable, historic distance. That’s why I named it “The Aftermath.” The title is literal. It sets the stage for the aftermath that is the childhood of many of my generation. The aftermath to the partition, the aftermath to the independence, the aftermath to Naxalbari. What I write about here, is my story of that aftermath.
In my version of that aftermath – that is, my childhood – there was no political movement in the scale of those of the past. What we had instead were horrific stories. The stories of death, torture, mutilation. In 1977, the new Left Front Government in West Benfal – the state in India which I call my home–unconditionally released political prisoners. Many of my parents’ friends – my uncles and aunts – came back with bodies permanently damaged and broken from prison torture. They came back with memories of dead comrades. They came back without any specific political program, with the responsibility of political failure on their shoulders, and with too many questions and too much confusion. Without consciously realizing it, I drew certain conclusions as a child. That dissent has a price. That the state is neither a benevolent nor a benign entity. That the state reserves the right to break your bones, dance on your intestines, and stamp on your kidneys if it so decides. When they recounted stories of torture and life inside prisons as political prisoners, there was always a kind of pride in their voices. Not surprisingly, post-Naxalbari political poetry in Bengali – often written by activists themselves – is full of harrowing details of the torture endured by political prisoners.
“The Aftermath” takes its cue from such poems. I break open that source in these lines: “Interrogations narrated in intimately plotted details. A story of a young man’s shriek in every tip of a leaf, drippings of a suspended tire on an eighteen year old’s back: Naxalbari is not the name of a village only. A better life for everyone.” Of course, those interrogations and those shrieks are not my history. At least not in any immediate or direct kind of a way. That’s why my project is not to write the “intimately plotted details of such interrogations.” Those have already been written. Instead, my project is to write about a little girl who came of age – socially and politically – listening to and reading those accounts of torture.
That project presents a political challenge: how does one write about the relationship of little girls to radical political projects? This political challenge is also an aesthetic and a linguistic challenge. Political poetry in Bengali developed a language to write about certain realities – the bankruptcy of the postcolonial state, poverty, class war, dreams of a just society, and even revolution. It also developed a language to write about a specific subjectivity – the male revolutionary. The poems in this language describe the violation of that male body at the hands of the state with great facility. They also describe the trauma of that violation with great facility. They describe the heroism of surviving such trauma with greater facility still.
Women, when they appear in such poems, appear as symbols – the weeping but heroic mother, the lonely but enduring wife, the brave lover and so forth. It is not that the literary archives of Naxalbari are completely bereft of the voices of women revolutionaries. They are there – in Mahasweta Debi’s short stories and novels, in Jaya Mitra’s short stories and prison memoirs, in Minakshi Sen’s prison memoirs, and in Krishna Bandopadhyay’s autobiographical pieces. But they are far fewer in number and remain marginal to the voices of the male revolutionary-poets and writers. The default voice of Naxalbari’s rebellion, like so many other radical, revolutionary and progressive movements throughout the world, has remained male.
However, there was an even bigger problem facing me when I wrote this poem. Women’s voices, the ones that exist within the literary history of Naxalbari, are adult voices. Yet I wasn’t interested in using an adult female voice for this project. Nor was I writing a historical poem as such. What I was interested in exploring was, how a specific historical movement appeared to little girls who were a generation removed from the actual events of the rebellion itself.
The literary archives of Naxalbari were of scant assistance in this regard. There was a linguistic problem involved: that archive has been written almost exclusively in Bengali. It is not hard to lay your hand on political pamphlets of the time in English, but actual imaginative literature, born out of the movement, were mostly written in indigenous Indian languages. It isn’t that Naxalbari or the Naxalite subjectivity has been left out of the Anglophone Indian literature completely. It has appeared in the texts of a varied range of Indian writers – Upamanyu Chatterjee, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and others. Yet for the most part, with the honorable exception of Arundhati Roy, Anglophone Indian writing has explored the figure of the Naxalite superficially – from a distance, through stereotypes and known tropes. Consequently, I could not find a suitable language within that archive, although I chose to write in English.
Childhood has been written about extensively in contemporary American poetry. Yet the language of childhood in American poetry poses a problem for the kind of childhood I wished to write about. Most contemporary lyrical and narrative accounts of American childhood are deeply privatized. Even where they explore collective identities and concerns like race, class, gender, religious or sexual identities, its basic thrust is the exploration of a privatized space. A privatized space that bears little relationship to any public culture, or to public social and political movements. That said, I drew inspiration for my language of childhood from the confessional and post-confessional traditions of the American poetry, particularly women’s poetry.
It had not been an easy, smooth or unproblematic act of transplantation. In the process, I have asked too many questions: can the consumerism-ridden, apolitical childhood that I read about in American poetry provide me with the tools to write about a Bengali middle-class childhood which was steeped in conscious attempts of questioning those very default acts of consumerism and apolitical, imperial belonging? In attempting to borrow my language from the archives of American poetry, am I performing an act of reductionism on my own material? Will this make me complicit with the logic of cultural imperialism?
The answer to all of these questions is, yes. Yet this particular archive of poems has provided me with an aesthetic and critical language to write about the deeply intimate nature of familial violence – the kind of violence that girls and women often face within the privatized spaces of family and home. In my poem, the spectres of that intimate violence and state violence reside side by side, juxtaposed onto each other. In doing so, I wanted to politicize the intimate violence perpetrated upon women and children a little bit more. I wanted to place the violent legacies of life lived within families within the broader overview of the state and political violence, as well as vice versa. Because it could be that the borderlines between the “public” and the “private” aren’t all that clear to begin with. It could be that the boundaries between the “state,” the “family,” and the “prison” are less well-demarcated than we think. In blurring these boundary lines, am I giving American women’s poetry a more politicized language to speak about violence and family and childhood? I believe I am.
“The Aftermath” began as many poems do, as an exercise during one of my early morning writing sessions. I made myself a word bank, read a few other poems, took notes – things I do to move my language beyond its own comfort zone. During all of these activities, Sarah Gorham’s poem “Bust of A Young Girl In the Snow,” which I first came across in a writing workshop, stayed with me in some inexplicable way. It shook me so much that I felt compelled to read the whole collection Bad Daughter. Gorham’s images came with an undertone of violence. She often wrote about the familiar world of women and children, mothers and daughters, and homes. Yet there was a surreal quality to her images, a touch of unfamiliarity which made the very work of metaphor-making a political act.
Gorham’s poems enabled me to tap into a series of images which I didn’t even know had existed within me. There is an eeriness in Gorham’s poem “Bust of A Young Girl In the Snow.” a fear of abandonment. In the poem, a little girl becomes a statue. In other words, the little girl is literally objectified and then left alone. I wanted to reproduce in my poem this intimate association of human beings with objects. I wanted my poem to be a comment on moments when living human beings are reduced to objects. The moment of being tortured is one such moment.
But I also wanted to have actual little girls in my poem. I wanted to give them more agency than what they have in Gorham’s poem. At the same time, I did not want these girls to perform a straightforward act of angry proclamation and reclamation. There are poems where I have done that, but I did not want to reproduce that premise in this one. I wanted the little girls in my poems to inhabit a realm of complexity, a combination of positive and negative agency, so to speak. I wanted to ask: what happens when little girls act out the political and familial violence that characterizes their social environments? Hence, the dolls. The little girls in my poem are far from innocent. They do not inhabit an idyllic childhood. They are not cute. They invoke a childhood infested with markers and symbols of a world of commodity fetishism, even as they deface those symbols. They deface those symbols playfully, as children are wont to do.
Within the poem, memories of state violence reside right next to memories of domestic violence. Domestic violence resides right next to the violence adults commit upon children in the name of discipline. Children commit violence on their dolls and toys. In that sense, the poem is a collage of sorts. In order to make this collage transparent, I allude to my sources. I allude to Sarah Gorham’s poem in my image of a cow licking its dead calf (Gorham’s original: “A cow nudging its dead calf”). For me, Gorham’s line evoked a powerful childhood memory. This was the memory of my grandfather, his insistent love for his cow, and the memory of that cow desperately licking the body of its stillborn calf, its tiny unseeing eyes wide open. Less than a year later, we would sell that cow. It just wasn’t economically viable to maintain a cow in the midst of an ever-growing city. I was four then, and it was my first close brush with death. I wanted the image of the dead calf to do two things simultaneously in this poem: to acknowledge the shadow of Gorham’s poem in my own, and to record my own childhood memory.
I also need to mention Agha Shahid Ali, one of the very few South Asian poets within the academic American poetry scenario who wrote extensively about political violence. Agha Shahid Ali’s Kashmir echoes our Naxalbari, my Naxalbari. True, they are not entirely similar in terms of their specific politics and overall historical trajectory. Yet they are similar in many other ways, especially in the way both invoke the reality and memory of state violence. I read Agha Shahid Ali’s lines: “Drippings from a suspended burning tire/Are falling on the back of a prisoner, /the naked boy screaming, ‘I know nothing.’” I reproduce this imagery almost verbatim in my poem: “A story of a young man’s shriek in every tip of a leaf, drippings of a suspended tire on an eighteen year old’s back: Naxalbari is not the name of a village only.” While my immediate referent was Agha Shahid Ali, these lines could have appeared in any of the post-Naxalbari Bengali political poetry. The state often speaks in the same language of physical violation and violence, whether in Kashmir or Naxalbari. Conversely, the language we use to respond to that violence converges around similar images and metaphors.
My poem is thus a collage – but not quite. It is a collage where the painter’s hands are too impatient, and end up drawing and painting on the disparate materials gathered therein. In this, the poem becomes very much like our own confused times, and its meanings very much like our own confused ideologies. The poem is a document of this confusion, written through juxtapositions and assemblages of multiple social, aesthetic and political realms.
Read “The Aftermath” in our current issue.