Interview by Zoë Brigley
… I do love how language evolves within a certain context. How a word when taken from one language is reborn in another. How it switches, changes, subverts its past meaning in its new form.
Taj Mahal for when the only redeeming quality to my country of birth is a woman's grave. Grave matters. Silent prayers. Pearls on her neck marbled to the tomb. Is the sole compensation for love alive in dying? Namaste for when saying hello in a tongue not yours translates to finding yourself. Soul-searching is the new trend. Clasp your hands for brownie points. Rosary beads around your neck. Glint of knowing in your eye. Chai tea because saying tea-tea is absurd but chai tea - exotic, exquisite, extra. Chai latte? That’s noble, sure; but there's something about mouthing titties, coded in sweetness, honey-lipped wetness adding to the thrill. Blasphemy at the corner of your mouth. On café menus. In gleaming backyards. Hello there, have some chai! Karma is a little more nuanced than a stranger getting a ticket after stealing your parking spot. Though I’m happy for you, go get that divine justice! You deserve it. Maybe the stars aligned today for you to own them all with vengeance. Here’s a wider space for your Chevrolet, here’s dirt on your fingertips. Ghandi sp: Gandhi; is one of the many faces that fought for our freedom to bring chicken tikka masala to your table, on our own terms. I think he was a vegetarian. Regardless, here's India wrapped in a flavour case, here’s haldi, namak, jeera, mirch and a bit of spice tolerance for your safe-keeping. Yoga but I don't know much of those asanas. My body, unlike my mind, is quite inflexible. Stuffed with all the Mac and Cheese in the world, tawny skin weighed upon my shoulders. Shoulders balancing a gaze.
I like the form of this poem and how it is set up like a dictionary or a phrase book for the uninitiated. It creates much room for satire. Do you often write in a satirical mode and how does that serve your writing?
Thank you! I do enjoy writing satire. When I was younger, my poems came from a place of rage. I was always very angry for some reason. Hah! Over time, as my craft evolved, I realised that for me, satire was so much more effective as a form to get the point across than rage. It works. It fits well. So that’s how the practice began. That’s how satire became a medium I often rely on. As for this poem, I’m glad that the intent of it reading like a dictionary translated well. The fine print of a dictionary really fascinates me, reading like a contract full of random information that you didn’t necessarily sign up for. At least, that’s how it works for me; where I pick up the dictionary to look up a word and then 30 minutes later, I’m lost in the history of another 17thcentury loan word that evolved to its modern-day mundaneness a while ago. So, I wanted to use this very dry, very factual, very deadpan sort of form to write this poem tackling arbitrary stereotypes.
When reading this poem, I am struck by how you successfully challenge stereotypes about South Asia. What inspired you to write it?
I think I hadn’t met so many stereotypes about India and South Asian culture, at large, until I moved to Europe. Which makes sense… It just astounded me how little people know of the history of such a diverse region, beyond those very tired tropes and stereotypes that we’re all very familiar with by now. Moreover, sometimes, even the most well-meaning questions about the culture can be quite absurd and exhausting, and, well, this poem emerges out of that exhaustion.
Further, coming from South Asia, there’s always this expectation from you to talk about some exoticised element like Saree, Henna, mangoes for some reason, arranged marriages, Yoga, always Yoga, Slumdog Millionaire, the western fixation and fetishisation of South Asian poverty: basically, to speak for your entire culture, all the time, even in your work, especially in your work. And I grew tired of it, tired of catering to the gaze. The weight of educating people on South Asia or humouring their ideas of the region isn’t something I want to carry all the time, necessarily. So yeah, while I do find it amusing that these facets of my “culture”, so to say, are doing rounds in the West, after a while you get tired. I got tired. And that’s when this poem happened.
Ultimately, I love how this poem interrogates language. What is your own relationship as a poet to language and its complexities?
For me, the choice of language has always been filled with complications and conflict. So, I try to write in a language that comes naturally to me; which means that sometimes it may even be Hinglish (Hindi-English) or Banglish (Bangla-English). It’s a conscious effort to let a part of my heritage flow through language in my work, and to not completely give in to the colonial dominance of English, while also staying true to my voice and not cater to a gaze. Plus, regardless of my satirical take on the appropriation/adaptation of language (mostly stereotypes) in this poem, I do love how language evolves within a certain context. How a word when taken from one language is reborn in another. How it switches, changes, subverts its past meaning in its new form. How, in a way, it sheds its old skin to make something new. In the end, as a poet, my relationship with language goes beyond meaning-making, transcending into the realm of identity-making/formation and all its accompanying complexities, including the task of creating something new.