Writer and scholar Basudhara Roy talks to Indian feminist scholar, poet, critic and translator, Sanjukta Dasgupta, about balancing many intellectual pursuits, her various collections of poetry, interacting with and deconstructing poetic canons, the kitchen as laboratory and liberating Lakshmi from patriarchal control.
Sanjukta Dasgupta is an Indian feminist scholar, poet, short story writer, critic and translator with twenty-one published books to her credit. She is Professor and Former Head, Dept of English and Former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships including the Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship and Fulbright Scholar in Residence grant, Australia India Council fellowship, and the Gender Studies fellowship grant, University of British Columbia. She has been invited to participate in conferences and has taught/lectured at universities in the USA, UK, Europe, Canada , Poland and Australia. She is the President, Executive Council, of the Indian Poetry and Performance Library, ICCR, Kolkata, and the Convenor of the English Language Board of the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. Her recent awards include the IWSFF Women Achievers Award, Kolkata (2019) and the WEI Kamala Das Poetry Award (2020).
I wanted to begin with how you stand at the vibrant intersection of many intellectual pursuits. As a feminist thinker, Tagore scholar, cultural commentator, critic, short fiction writer, editor, translator, vocal artist and more, how does your idea and practice of poetry interact with your multifaceted life and diverse literary interests?
That’s a good question. In fact, you have rightly identified my many areas of creative and critical interest, though pursuing them all with equal fervour is not humanly possible. I do compartmentalize and that enables me to engage. Writing poetry is an irrepressible urge for me. It is, in a way, far more intense than the biological labour pain. This labour pain of creativity leaves me restless till the words are born on the page. But the creative process allows endless revisions; a biological production is largely about acceptance, neither revision nor deletion are considered ethical practices. In the case of poetry it is not about choice, it is a compulsion which is intense and gratifying and multiple revisions often lead to the emergence of the perfect product.
Your first collection of poems, Snapshots, was published in 1996. I find the title very symbolic for a debut collection. It has about it an urge towards documentation, as well as a certain tentativeness with regards to what might be documented. I would love to hear about how this book came up and how its reception shaped your intention and inclination towards poetry.
Since middle school I had been writing poems of indifferent merit. Though I read Bangla poetry since my schooldays, I wrote my poems in English. It was an unconscious choice. Much later I learnt that I should have been embarrassed about writing in English rather than in my home language, my mother tongue Bangla. The poems written in English kept on being born on the page with embarrassing regularity. I did not even make an effort to preserve them. Most of those scribble pads and diaries are lost. I remember while waiting in the car to pick up my son from school, I would compose limericks. It was a fun word sport. I truly regret the loss of those scribble pads. Limericks impose discipline and I enjoyed the rigour. Thereafter, the content of my poems seemed to change. From love, relationships, regret, loss, disillusionment, despair, longing, the angst and sorrow of the subjective persona, my poems were delving into newer vistas of inquiry, argument, concern. These poems tried to bridge the personal self with the collective consciousness, focussing on a direct or indirect awareness campaign, a campaign geared towards sensitization of class and gender discrimination, the suffering of the wretched of the earth, the most wretched in every economic class being women, that Franz Fanon and even Karl Marx, seemed to elide.
As an admirer of T.S. Eliot, how far do you agree with his views on the necessity of a tradition for new writing to emerge? As a scholar and critic of global repute, you, no doubt, had before you, models of writing other than those from India. Which writers first drew you towards poetry and how do you think your writing has developed and grown in communication or confrontation with them?
I completely agree with Eliot. Tradition in this case implies intellectual awareness and intellectual curiosity. New writing is born from earlier literary traditions, which pave the way and can be timeless, while others may invite deconstruction, interrogation, appropriation and abrogation. The discursive style, repetitions, nuanced interpretations, which each time open up new windows of perception, contribute both to critical and creative thinking. This generates the often-theorised sense of ‘dis-ease’, that triggers the emergence of new techniques of reinterpretation, even radicalizing the much-feted stereotypes. In India it has always been Tagore, as my nurturing was about complete immersion in Tagore’s poetry, songs, fiction, drama, essays et al.
Well, as my training has been in British and American literature, discovering Shelley, Byron and Keats, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Robert Burns, William Blake among many others could be regarded as foundational courses in poetry appreciation, critical analyses, skillful handling of language, stanzaic patterns, blank verse and free verse. This close-reading probably created the impulse and inspiration in me to write poetry in the English language. Thereafter the poets I read with pleasure had to be John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Pushkin, Phillip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Carol Duffy, again among many others. Communication and confrontation are both internalized within the creative process. I have tried to learn from them, but I don’t think I consciously imitated their style or content in any way. Intertextuality about my writing is the critic’s domain. I am happy to create.
Your second and third collections, Dilemma (2002) and First Language (2005), appeared in close succession. In both of them, I identify a sense of unrest and angst with the personal and public worlds that come to acquiescence and rest with the later collection, More Light (2008). I would like to know if you agree with my reading. Also, how did you look at poetry during this phase of your life and career?
That was a decade where travelling often out of the country, to the USA, UK, Australia among others had kept me very busy as I had to balance home, a teenaged son and his career targets, a corporate husband’s demanding work schedule, my own teaching, marking exam papers, along with administrative work as Head of the postgraduate English Department of Calcutta University, forays into the Centre for Women’s Studies Research Centre, supervising MPhil and PhD scholars, socializing – all this may surely have led to a state of hyper-stress that I did not even realize. By 2008, I guess either I was able to balance all my commitments better, so you can perceive that composure had somewhat been restored. But quite remarkably, you seem to be able to read me like an open book.
Between More Light and Lakshmi Unbound is a gap of almost nine years, the longest when I consider your oeuvre. Also when you return with Lakshmi Unbound, there is a visible sharpness about your method and a conscious mode of satire and subversion at work. Were these nine years a period of gestation for the two collections that would be avowedly and unerringly feminist in spirit?
Once again thank you for your careful and perceptive reading. This period of around nine years brought in new responsibilities. I was elected Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University. This entailed a reasonable participation in the requirements of 21 departments, as the nomenclature Arts also included Social Sciences. It was a rich learning experience. Furthermore, it was during this period that I had to take on the responsibility of closely supervising the day-to-day functioning of the UGC DRS 5-year grant period, as its Coordinator. When Lakshmi Unbound was published in 2017, I was a more mellow feminist and my poems written during this time engaged subtle word-play with greater confidence than before.
In many of your poems, the personal and political come together with the domestic space being portrayed as a site of inequality as well as of keen understanding of such inequality. The kitchen, for instance, often translates itself into an ambiguous space where your female subject is not just performing inequality but has heightened awareness of the same. How do you view your portrayal of domestic space in women’s poetry at large and in your poetry in particular?
The kitchen is an integral part of a married woman’s domestic space. When it is not, it is exceptional, in fact, very rare. At the centre of domestic chores and domestic drudgery lies the kitchen. Whether the kitchen chores are handled by paid domestic helpers or whether labouring in the kitchen themselves, a majority of women discover much later in their lives that they have kitchen-centric minds. This is where the politics of unpaid labour and exploitation becomes impossible to ignore. On a personal level, I must say that I have regarded the kitchen as a laboratory or a cottage industrial outlet where raw materials are changed into edible products. So a dressed chicken stuffed with dumplings roasted with char-fried vegetables makes a woman feel, I imagine, like Marie Curie displaying her successful scientific experiment. Participation of other family members in kitchen work, especially male members, is not a normative practice in many cultures.
In Lakshmi Unbound, you offer to your readers the very powerful image of Alakshmi – the disentanglement of the Goddess Lakshmi from the hearth and her assertion of liberty, identity and selfhood. The cover of the book very symbolically portrays a bird flying away from a cage. Lakshmi being an intrinsic part of the fabric of Bengali culture, the radicality and dissidence of the idea of Alakshmi will require no explanation to a Bengali reader. You have, however, contextualized it excellently for a wider audience through your reading of Lakshmi as the ‘Angel in the House’. We would love to have you talk about how Alakshmi and Nora came together in Lakshmi Unbound.
I think the core agenda in Lakshmi Unbound is a defiant, determined search for freedom. After all, without freedom from fear and freedom from coercion, creative freedom cannot be achieved. So Lakshmi Unbound is not just deconstruction, it is an endeavour to call attention to the need to destabilize the deep-rooted stereotypes that have controlled the minds and mobility of women. Women are not caged animals. The security of a cage is not a human aspiration. Like their male counterparts, women need complete freedom that can accelerate and sustain their creative urges. As you indicate, perhaps my interest in reading literature from the viewpoint of a feminist literary commentator and critic, makes me methodically excavate the subtext of a gender-centric text, so I find an exciting kinship between the Buddhist Therigatha composed by Buddhist nuns to the autobiographies and poems written by women writers, globally and locally. Freedom of choice is crucial for all humans, if this freedom is denied, then the struggle for gender equality is bound to continue. So it is expected that Lakshmi’s incarceration would lead to litterateurs endeavouring to set her free from bonded slavery; and so we find Nora, Medea, Mrinal, Sohini and Satyabati, among many others, pushing against the borders and boundaries in order to breathe freely.
As I read through Lakshmi Unbound and Sita’s Sisters, I am awed by the way you craft a revisionist feminist mythology in these books by taking up familiar figures like Sita, Lakshmi, Kali, Mira and then turning them on their head by decontextualizing them from their time and space. You also turn, from time to time, to Western mythology, dismantling patriarchal worldviews in the same way. As a feminist poet, what does deconstructing mythology mean to you?
I think in these two volumes of my poems you mention, my intrinsic idea was to find a way in which women could garner the self-confidence to set themselves free from patriarchal control. As the propensity is to regard mythologies as an intrinsic part of the belief-system, which again is iconized by organized religion, there emerges a need for iconoclasm, rather than unquestioned, mindless trust of practices that have lost their relevance in the 21st century. My effort is to free these mythic figures from their claustrophobic space so that they can be re-invented in sync with the contemporary times.
Talking of stories, I realize it is not just the stories of the past that interest you but that you are vitally drawn to the poignant stories of violence, injustice, and abuse that rampantly mark our present. Many a times, a particular journalistic report seems to make its way into a poem in your immensely empathetic consciousness, offering not just a record of what happened but a compound social critique of the incident. Such poems as they intersperse with your mythological ones, offer a larger and complex sociological collage of women’s ontology and status in the everyday world. What would you say to that?
Yes, I agree. This has been part of my overt agenda. I can cheekily assert that my poems such as The Hunted can be used as teachable texts in gender sensitization courses.
Five years after Lakshmi Unbound, you, significantly, chose to title the collection of your selected poems Unbound. Reflecting your work of the last twenty-five years, how does the idea of ‘unbound’ manifest itself to you in this collection?
I must emphasize that Unbound is a compilation of a selection of my poems from my six books of published poems. Here I am absolutely indebted to my editors Jaydeep Sarangi and Sanghita Sanyal. The chief ideator of this project was poet and literary critic Sutapa Chowdhury. Unfortunately, Covid-19 snatched her away from us. Also the remote supervision of you, poet and critic Basudhara Roy, must be acknowledged. It is this collective effort that led to the publication of Unbound: New and Selected Poems. I am truly honoured and humbled that this immensely talented creative team felt my poems deserved such a recognition. Unbound may be regarded as a metaphor that resonates with the aspiration towards achieving creative freedom. My twenty-five years of creative journey has been a consistent exploration to try to find the path of freedom from among the misleading mesmeric mazes that threaten and stifle both sense and sensibility.
A distinct leftist and postcolonial politics informs your poetry with sarcasm and satire being your favoured modes of assault. Whether it is fashion, language, religious fanaticism, capitalism, or as in your recent poems, gerontology and even the pandemic, your sense of humour remains indomitable. How do you envisage humour as a tool of dissent?
I think poets have successfully used humour in order to ignite the curiosity of readers. The poems may be tense or intense but a touch of humour, wit or irony are like feather strokes that awaken and alert the minds of readers. The 18th century British poets, most of whom had strong political affiliations, were brilliant in their artistry of using humour. Bengali poetry, traditionally and even in contemporary times, uses humour and serious discourse with astounding excellence. Perhaps my reading influences my writing, without much anxiety of influence.
As a writer and scholar, what is your opinion on the ‘feminist’ label? Do you see it as a label of identity/politics, as empowering/inhibiting?
As you may have noticed, many writers who write women-centric content, flinch from being described as a feminist. There is a notion that feminists are male-haters. Therefore women writers are scared of being labelled a feminist, as they feel they need to be recognized by both male and female writers. Feminist writers are marginalized, though their struggle is against patriarchy and not men. This means feminists believe in complete gender equality, both in their personal lives and also in the public domain. The irony lies in the fact that even intellectually aware women are sceptical about anti-patriarchy movements and feminist movements. However some men describe themselves as feminists such as Amartya Sen. I wish women were confident about their self-descriptive identities. Some claim that we are in the era of post-feminism. I can only reiterate that post-feminism will be possible in the era of post-patriarchy.
Feminists have widely pointed out that when women write, they are responded to, more significantly, as women rather than as writers. How would you like to be identified – as a woman writer/ a writing woman/ a writer?
A feminist writer.
Your poetry is largely activistic. It engages with the world as it is with the distinct urge to improve it. You are also, in addition, a mentor to a very large group of young and aspiring poets in India. As President of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library (IPPL) at Kolkata, you are continuously working towards forging a vibrant poetic community that nurtures its members through poetry readings, reviewing of each other’s works and helping them with publication and performance venues. To you, what makes poetry a potent and relevant form of art today? Also, what role do you visualize for the poet in the contemporary world?
I often reiterate in my talks the one-liner from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I think young poets are the future, not just of their own country but of the world. At IPPL, we encourage poets of diverse age groups to express their ideas freely, experiment with language, bi-lingualism, content, styles and techniques. I think in the 21st century we are in a peculiar reverse mode. The technology-enabled focus on multi-media, audio-visual means of expression and communication, have shifted attention from the word to the picture. From printed pages to visuals. The graphic novel is a case in point as is digital humanities. From being entrenched in cyberspace we are re-negotiating with the primary cultural practices of the cave-space. This maybe regarded as fascinating evidence of cyclical progression. Therefore poetry seems to have reinstated itself as the preferred genre, not in terms of readership but in terms of enthusiastic writing of poems by a very wide cross-section of young people who are often described as millennial kids. Poetry has re-invented itself, poems are being shared in the social media, of varying merit, but somehow it is creating the perception in the eco-system, that poetry may destabilize the domination of the novel, as the most preferred literary genre. Time will tell. This century is not fully 22 years old yet. Writing poetry is a deeply subjective, personal response to time and space, life and the environment, passion, emotions, feelings and philosophy. The poet should make an endeavour to write for history and society, since both are dynamic and script a pattern of timeless moments.
Lucy Writers would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Basudhara Roy and Sanjukta Dasgupta for this inspirational interview.