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At home in the world: The many lives of Nabina Das

Lora Tomas speaks to poet and writer Nabina Das, whose work possesses remarkable cosmopolitanism without diluting or downplaying her Assamese roots.

Lora Tomas  21st Feb 2015

Nabina Das

rom buying fish and country baguettes at Rue du Faubourg-St. Antoine in Paris, to semantic walks through the other "florid cities" of Europa, or revisiting Ghalib's neighbourhood in Old Delhi, seagulls near Battery Place in New York, or the troubled North East, Nabina Das's lauded second poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, 2013), is an astute exercise in cartography of both inner and outer landscapes, as the Assam-born poetess and writer discloses in our interview. And this twofold exploration informs Das's other works as well: the novel Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, New Delhi, 2010), her first book of verses, Blue Vessel (Zaporogue, Denmark, 2012) and, most recently, the short story collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, New Delhi, 2014).

Having lived and worked for almost a decade in the US before returning to India, Das says that the plural part of her is like the roots of ginger — rhizomatic — growing and interconnecting with everything else, effortlessly, like water (as the two French thinkers, Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, once suggested). Her Garden in Two Hemispheres, a poem from Blue Vessel, speaks elegantly of these multiple belongings, of drawing sustenance from various soils and cultures, and cultivating variety:

One place had a lotus pond, jasmines


This current one has bluebells

or forget-me-nots that sway

in summer's generous way

of rewarding their dovetails.

"In that particular poem, the two gardens are really just one," she reveals. "Seen through a split lens and connected closely. The hemispheres are imaginary spaces too, I mean not geographically speaking, but as reference points. All what I say there are forked-tongue utterances. After writing the poem I thought: Jeez, I don't remember seeing nahor flower for a very long time. But I know what it is like for I have seen it as a child in the wilderness of Assam. Besides, the word seemed a good fit there. It 'grew' in that space of dichotomy where a flâneuse such as myself was comfortable stepping in and out. What nourishes me in these worlds I create is the possibility of growing more roots, growing more diverse and one at the same time, and define rootedness as manifold. Not sure if I said this elsewhere, but being called a Bengali or an Assamese poet and writer gives me the biggest jitters. I'm perhaps both but not one or the other. Very much a Guwahati girl, I cherish my homestate's ethos

and beauty."

Das's voice, which recurrently slips into (the language of) folk tales and poetry even when spinning fiction, is distinctly indebted to the sights and sounds of her childhood, and her "storyteller grandmoms."

Having lived and worked for almost a decade in the US before returning to India, Das says that the plural part of her is like the roots of ginger — rhizomatic — growing and interconnecting with everything else, effortlessly, like water (as the two French thinkers, Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, once suggested).

"Ashalata, my paternal grandma, was apparently of 'royal' background," says Das. "This is interesting because I've heard stories from my father about how his ancestors were 'thugs' who had migrated across the Gangetic plains from a small riverside town in what is Kanauj today in Uttar Pradesh to the Assam-Bengal area. Were they fleeing their old lowly life and criminal profession? Were they carriers of so-called 'globalisation' in that age and time? The stories this marauding 'denotified tribe' (as British gazetteers list them as and thus deny access to social privileges) transmitted to generations down the line had a strange flavor when they got mixed with Ashalata's legacy. Shyamala, my maternal grandma, was a softspoken lady whose husband (I never saw my maternal grandpa) was a progressive school teacher and social worker who mainly worked to get women out of homes and to school in the pre-Partition days of Bengal. I remember my grandma's storytelling from scriptures and epics falling on my ears in a soft cadence while we snuggled under large quilts in the hill town of Shillong."

hrases like "river-verse," "river lines," or "river tongue" that Das coins and uses in both her poetry collections seem to allude to the significance of the "mighty Brahmaputra" (as the ever-present backdrop to her growing up) in her work, and the fact that for her, "storytelling stands for rivers both known and unseen, especially as the latter is a carrier of human lives and tales." The River on a Pyre — the closing poem of Into the Migrant City — opens with these lines:

Eyeing the Brahmaputra

Flowing with its whale-body

And the faraway banks smoking

She thought death stood quiet.

And much like the flow of water, her language is intensely musical: it alliterates, twists the tongue or rolls off it, glides around the pebbles of vowels, and gurgles and splutters over consonant clusters. "Music used to be an integral part of my childhood and youth," says Das, "My mother in fact hoped that I'd become a singer once the Hindusthani classical, Rabindra Sangeet and folk music training I received showed that I had a good voice and a natural aptitude to rhythm and sound. There are several reasons why I didn't become a singer. But music stayed with me in writing my poetry and even prose. I've even tried writing poetry after Kathak "bol" or spoken rhythmic beat keeping."

When I ask her how she negotiates the two parts of herself, a cosmopolitan sheherwali (how she dubs the Delhi student-activist Nora in her novel Footprints in the Bajra, set in the fictional village and a Maoist stronghold of Durjanpur in Bihar, New York and Delhi), and the one with a strong sense of local identity and concerns, she — a former journalist — replies that writers are not absolved of responsibilities. "Hence I write. Not a manifesto, but manifest concerns. During my stay in Nrityagram, Bangalore, as a 2012 Sangam House fiction fellow, I heard stories about uru habba (village festivals) from cooks, cleaners, helpers and gardeners housed in the campus. I also heard about hunger and haplessness. Somewhere 'the red soil of coiled fists' demanded to be written, imagining a space of justice and peace on that barren land:"


And when it gets lonely

For bats hanging in papaya fields

She looks back at the slick roads of cities

Like a century that knows its wounds.

Uru habba, they call it

When the festive garment is tattered to stitch up dreams

For those that pine for rice and rhyme."

Of the red soil of coiled fists.

(Uru Habba for the Red Soil (Nrityagram), from Into the Migrant City)

"The 'history lessons' — spanning from Bihar's backwaters to back streets of Brooklyn — belong to the list of responsibilities of a poet and writer, to be remembered, reminded and documented," says Das.

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