‘These poems are little bombs that explode at your face’ : Namrata Pathak

Dr. Namrata Pathak has four books to her credit. An M.Phil and PhD from English and Foreign Languages University (formerly, CIEFL), Hyderabad; she teaches in the department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya.

Her articles and creative writing have found a place in Vayavya, Nezine, Cafe Dissensus, Northeast Review, Kitaab, Coldnoon, Setu, Indiana Voice Journal, Muse India, Raiot, The Tribe, Dead Snakes, The Thumb Print Magazine, to name a few. She has been a recipient of FCT-Ford Foundation Fellowship and UGC-Associateship by IIAS, Shimla. She is currently working on a book on drama/theatre and an anthology of poems from North-East India. 

In an exclusive interview with Bengaluru Review, Namrata discusses her debut collection of poems, That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate, published by Red River in 2018.

That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate, collection of poems by Namrata Pathak. Red River, 2018

Let us all about the title of the book. Frankly, when I first read it, I imagined Mirai as a little girl learning to eat a pomegranate. But of course, the book explores a bag full of emotions. Tell us about how you arrived at the title. It is an intriguing one, for sure.

Naming is political. We name to appropriate. We name to make something our own. Apart from the colonial dispensations, naming foregrounds paternal instincts, an act that stems from giving birth— a pact is sealed between the one who gives birth and the progeny that is born into the world. This ownership forges a vital connection, the navel cord bond which grows from strength to strength, and you are constantly tied to your work like a mother is tied to her baby. When I submitted my first draft to Red River, I did not think of any name. Dibyajyoti who has an eye for details, told me that I could think of naming the book, That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate, which is infact the title poem. The title seemed apt and catchy. Also, there is an appeal there. The name projects an interrogative stance, like, “Who is Mirai?”, “Why does she choose to eat a pomegranate?”, What is yet-to-come” or “What’s next?”. The name, thus, can also serve as a window and you can lean across, strain your eyes a bit, and have a fragmented glimpse of the entire thing. It provokes the reader to dig into the book, excavate meanings and most importantly, seek explanations by combating an array of questions that the title throws up. Yes, many regard Mirai as a little girl sinking her teeth on a red and ripe pomegranate. Partly, Mirai can be a little girl jumping in glee at the sight of that rotund fruit. Who knows?

There is another thing that is very smart about this collection. The categorisation of the poems. Were the poems written for these themes or they happened to fit in these categories?

The poems happen to fit in the categories. The five segments are about five stages of eating — anticipation, preparation, feasting, metamorphosis and rebirth. Many synonyms of eating, like, “consuming,” “gnawing,” “swallowing,” “gulping” and others are scattered across the book. Each poem in the specific category adds to the mentioned stage of eating.

In few poems there is a sense of separation and an ache to reach out. Do you think separation as an emotion is so deep? Like:

In Paltan Bazar, our moments
scream revolution right and left;
Your mammoth mouth
that could not even linger on my body
ate up my sky whole.

Or

Is it
the sags in armpits,
the grief stacked under the eyes,
fine lines,
a body in hiding
in your stained brown notebook?

Distance is symbolically rendered in many poems. It is not only gauged in terms of separation, but it also can be a concrete connector, a bridge or an invisible bond that two people share. There is an urge to reach out. Also, to escape into oblivion, to sever ties or plainly, to disconnect. Also, there is a pining to merge with each other so much so that what matters is an oneness of spirits and perceptions. But at times, don’t we shun encounters? One-to-one correspondences? Meeting points of many kinds? Don’t we run away, abandon, say, accept our complacency, our defeat, refusing to take life head on any more?  It is paradoxical, I mean, how spatially and temporally we render distance, and also how at the drop of the hat, we cover it in our thoughts, in cravings, in dreams or in other dimensions of reality. We are travellers of many worlds. All poets are.

What’s with fish in the poems?

Why this enchantment with the “fish-woman”? Why to move aimlessly between the “raw” and the “cooked”? What about a fish that does not look like a fish? Why so intrigued by cutting a fish in proportionate sizes? I don’t have answers for you. Well, all I know is this that I wrote about a mysterious creature that is half woman and half fish, who cannot be conventionally framed. I don’t know who is she? A surreal projection? A reflection of my innerscape? A portrayal of the dark unregulated forces inside me? Animal instincts? Or that familiar-yet-not-so-familiar image that I encounter in the mirror every day? Partly, this is what you call being drawn into the “strange,” the “unknown.”

Tell us a little about women in your poems. Especially ‘her touch’, ‘death as a woman’ and ‘when a schizophrenic mother raises you’.

A woman’s world is way too undulating, rocky, subterranean and contoured. Flattening is out of question. Experientially, I am overwhelmed by the many-hued vista that unfurls in front of my eyes. These poems are little bombs that explode at your face. They dwell on intimate spaces, less-talked-about experiences, taboos, and a profound desire to be heard. Also, the prime aim is to voice out one’s thoughts, scream loud, and make one’s presence felt. Women, mad, ghettoized, wronged, peripheral, and victimized, populate the book. I am ensnared by witches. I am enamoured by the insane. These labels need to be probed further. They need to be steered clear of the baggage that they carry.

I am particularly attracted to the poem ‘Lahore’. It involves stunning imagery that delights all the senses. How much do you think experiences shape the poems? Isn’t imagination enough?

Lahore was first published in Coldnoon, a journal on travel writing and travelling cultures. The motive is to stimulate the sensory organs — you see, hear, smell, and feel a lot here. The imageries are worked out that way. Personal experiences are woven into the fabric of the poem — I saw Lahore through the eyes of Zamurrad, a friend from Pakistan whom I met in a conference in Sri Lanka. As she told me about her assignments, roles and visions back home, I was made to imagine a nation at the face of new propensities of peace and also, a scarred history. At the same time, it taught me the possibilities of finding a home in the most unlikely of places and people.

Undoubtedly, this conversation will be incomplete without mentioning how gorgeous the illustrations are. Reetuparna’s illustrations literally add life to the poems. You’ve rightly said it, Namrata. The book is half hers. Tell us about how the words and images came together.

I am grateful to Reetuparna for the visual treat. She gave a new angle to the book. You are right. The book is half hers. The poems come alive at her touch. She is a content developer and illustrator for the media house, The Northeastern Chronicler, which is based in Guwahati. She secured a position among the top thirty doodlers of India who competed for the Redbull Doodle Artist crown. Gauhati Art Project featured her in one of their posts. She is the cofounder of a start-up, Inara, where she prints her doodles on various merchandises. Each image can be read as a poem, conveying a new aspect, sometimes adding to the already existent discourses, thus expanding and elongating the semiotic lifeline that runs through it.

How much do you think your roots and the hills have influenced your writing? As a poet do you carry them consciously or they just flow in your words as easy as a river. Please name some of the local poets you feel we must read.

I am always drawn to those grey, in-between spaces in life that defy rules of divisibility. Call it a way of looking at life. Call it a perplexity that haunts me often when at times I am made to choose either one. Why can’t we have both the worlds, realms or perspectives? You can say I straddle two worlds as my workplace is in Meghalaya and I am from Assam. I shuttle between these two places in the weekend. Hence the motif of travel, crossing borders, forms an intricate pattern in the book. The hills, yes! I won’t be doing justice to the book if I do not acknowledge what the hills do to me, the place in which I let myself loose or how resplendently the territorial markers interspersed in the poems aligned the book with a spatio-temporal specificity. Once a renowned poet from Orissa who writes in English remarked that there is something in the air and water of Meghalaya — it seems poetry flows in the veins of people. The rich cultural mosaic and a language that is rooted in an interesting ‘orality’ (in guise of oral lores, grandmother’s tales etc.) configure new expressive potentialities. We have a handful of stalwarts from Meghalaya. My personal favourites are Robin Ngangom, Ananya S. Guha, Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih and Esther Syiem. Mind you, there are four-five quite promising young voices, radical and experimental, that would be taking the world by storm in the coming days. I have immense faith on them.

Counting the seeds’ is attractive. The questions seem to be haunting:

Don’t we eat love, memories, people and places? Don’t we eat words and sounds? Don’t we eat our lovers? Don’t we eat ourselves?

Essentially it is saying we become what we eat, read and the people we live with. Do you agree?    

The after effects of lapping up writers like Paul Freedman and Michael Pollan who wrote extensively on food are illuminating, to say the least, as these thinkers open up a discourse on the political nuances of eating that changes from culture to culture and also food being a connector and separator at once, investing meanings on aspects like what do we choose to eat, why don’t we prefer certain cuisines, and what selective assimilation teaches us about people’s psychology and group behaviour?  These writers looked at food as a symbol, hybrid, as in it both the “inside” and the “outside” meet. Essentially it is also about people and places that we let in, and our lovers that live inside us, so do memories and chunks of experiences, moments, structures, feelings and what not! That’s How Mirai Eats a Pomegranate ponders on such knots, what lies behind the act of eating and not eating.

You’ve mentioned that your first validation of a poem came from Northeast Review. We see that you’re an academician and literature has been a part of your journey. Doesn’t that already add to the confidence to your writing? Do you still seek validation? If yes, how.

Academic writing is quite different in terms of style and temperament. To strike a balance between writing poetry, which is an immensely creative enterprise, and academic writing, to chiefly talk about catering to the needs of journal editors who prefer a specialized research-oriented writing, can not only be challenging, but also slippery. My seven years stint as a teacher of English Literature, one who is mostly assigned the Critical Theory Paper in both the semesters, and also, the usual mode of knowledge dissemination in a regular classroom, I mean, the pedagogical tools that I use and the texts that I teach, geared me for a soul searching and I probed a bit more— don’t we internalize a specific way of speaking and a specific way of writing?  Isn’t it easy to fall prey to a language that is heavily jargon ridden and opaque in academia? In the initial years of my career, I developed a penchant for such a difficult language. I don’t know why! I regarded it as a sign of scholarship. How funny! I am exorcized now, thankfully. The ghost is driven away. Impenetrability, linguistic and otherwise, does not serve any purpose! The hardest part is to unlearn and create a new register or a new idiom. A language that is not tied to anything. A language that should do justice to a poetic fervour. Call it a spontaneity. Call it an unbecoming. But coming to validation, sending my first batch of poems can be termed as my first nascent steps, wobbly, and there was a possibility of falling flat on the ground. That was a hesitant, reluctant, unsure me! However, people grow over the years. Even today I look for a pleasant nod or a gesture of affirmation. I feel good when people are appreciative. They kick start me, propel me to write. As a writer, don’t we look for such moments of inspiration? I think all of us do.  

This interview was conducted by Poornima Laxmeshwar, who resides in the garden city Bengaluru, and works as a content writer for a living.


Read More :

A delicacy of language describing small town lives

‘For young readers, some experiences are timeless’ : Andaleeb Wajid

‘Thankfully, Bengalis do have a sense of humour’ : Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury


 

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