A new poetry collection by a TISS professor protests the global trend of rising intolerance and xenophobia

Dr Ashwani Kumar, a politi cal science professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, will release his second book of poetry at the Mumbai Poetry Festival this weekend. The collection, titled Banaras and The Other, is the result of two years of work and seeks to capture the truth of what he calls today’s “fractured times“. Born in what is now Jharkhand but was then part of Bihar, Kumar spoke to Mumbai Mirror about how Banaras became the theme of this collection, why poetry cannot divorce itself from the political, and the need for vernacular influences in English poetry in India.How did you come to pick Banaras as the theme for this collection?

I am an émigré, a social scientist by profession. I have lived mostly out of a suitcase while I spent time at TISS. In the last five, seven years, I went across India, and I started looking at what is called the biography of a city. In English poetry I find the one city that stands really tall is BombayMumbai.There is no other city. What I am trying to do is I am paying tribute to Bombay poets but I am also contesting the hegemonic presence of BombayMumbai in literature, especially in poetry. I tried to discover the city which could be the other, what could be the other of Mumbai? Mark Twain said Banaras is older than history but of late it has become not just a spiritual city, not just a religious city, but it is becoming a political fantasy.The book is actually about a political fiction, a political fantasy, which I was not able to construct here in Mumbai because this city has become a neo-liberal fantasy.It has become a desire economy, the commercial capital. Mumbai is not a spiritual city, it is not a religious city, though there are religious riots here. Mumbai has also become very majoritarian and if you look at Banaras, for the last four or five years it seems to be struggling against its own myth; against its own history and largely becoming a political capital rather than a religious capital and a spiritual capital of Hindus. It is also becoming a majoritarian space.That’s why most of the poems in this collection relate to Banaras.

How does your political science work influence your poetry?

At the subconscious level, I don’t think my training in political science matters, or my political activism. That space where I work out my poetry is pretty much autonomous of my political position or ideology. In the conscious world, certainly my training in politics, my political ideology, my activism, my experiences and my memories of political involvement do influence in between the lines and in the invisible spaces between poems.At that level, I must acknowledge that I am deeply political and a very committed political. So for me, and here I beg to differ with my fellow poets, I am really committed to poetry as a political project. For me writing poetry is not a spiritual experience or a romantic experience. For me writing poetry, is, as I said earlier, with regard to my first book (My Grandfather’s Imaginary Typewriter), being in politics is for me the writing project. That defines me. The day I stop being in politics or with politics, I would stop writing poetry. So it is a deeply political project.

Why be political through poetry and not through other forms of writing?

Poetry is more esoteric than prose.In fractured times, writing poetry is far more profound if you write in esoteric language. Prose is a far more dulling experience; it is prosaic. That is why, going back to Banaras, I didn’t want to capture it in a prosaic sense.I wanted to capture its truth and simultaneously capture the truths of our fractured and fissured times. The book is about rising intolerance, xenophobia, about fears and it is a conscious decision to resist and to protest. The whole tradition of English poetry, seems to have become dull and less engaged with the politics of the current times.And it has become more about being melodious, being more musical, an attempt to rearrange words in a certain craft. It has become more craft driven and less about real, passionate engagement with the politics of the times, of the truth of the times.

Aside from the politics, how do the poems reflect your experience of being an immigrant in the city?

English poetry in India is largely a Mumbaikar‘s dream. The aesthetics are of a Mumbaikar; they are trained in a particular way. Images are done in a particular way. What is happening is that English poetry does not have people originally writing in English but with vernacular flavour, with provincial worlds. These worlds have come to Mumbai more as a migrant worker sweating out, giving blood to the city, making the city richer, more prosperous, liveli er, they brought robustness to the city, but the city missed out because nobody came from these vernacular worlds writing English in original English. So as a Bihari coming to Mumbai and producing English poetry, especially in the towering and lingering shadows of Mumbai poets such as Gieve Patel and Adil Jussawala, I bring that provincial world, that vernacular flavour, to English poetry.

The Mumbai Poetry Festival will be held at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the 22nd and 23rd of April.Seven books of poetry will be released at the event.