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For the love of language, myths and mangoes

Shikha Malaviya believes that Indian motifs are too powerful to be suppressed or exoticised. Lora Tomas speaks to the poet and co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective.

Lora Tomas  4th Apr 2015

Shikha Malaviya.

hese days, when it takes a "blink, like a Jinn" to find yourself somewhere completely different, being someone completely different, you may occasionally experience a bout of "Lingua Gelatio"; your tongue suddenly freezing while juggling accents. Such imagery, scintillating and finely crafted, makes up Shikha Malaviya's debut poetry collection Geography of Tongues, published in 2013 by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a press she co-founded with two other poets, Minal Hajratwala and Ellen Kombiyil.

Of continents, "there are more than one / in (her) destiny," since Malaviya was born in the UK, and grew up in India and the US, and more than one house in her poetry awash in memories and bric-à-brac of childhood. In verses that alternate between — or combine — lucidity and exactness, and evocative, mnemonic lyricism, she fuses Coltrane and Freddy Mercury with ragas, Urdu ghazals and Hindi songs, nursery rhymes with incantations (and there's always been a thin line between the two anyway, both being brisk of rhythm, and cryptic of phrase). Such lines break away abruptly, even feel chipped off, as they should, and thus aptly dislocated embody the same dislocations of identity ("and when you ask him / which place he likes best / he replies / everywhere / nowhere"). Blue gods, holy banyans and all sorts of enamoured worship are not at all downplayed by the fact that faith is also being sold in a recyclable bottle, "above miracles/ under anointments," and could have vicious side effects. "My country is ahimsa/ My country is loaded gun," she inventories in her poem Where I Come From; in others she confesses a newly-returnee's mild discomfort in India, the kind that sets in unannounced, at traffic lights or temples.

"The poems in Geography of Tongues are mostly autobiographical and were culled over a period of ten years," says Malaviya. "I was raising two young children at the time and working on this collection was my way to process and honor the meaning of family as well as cultural legacy. For me, poetry writing is an extremely intuitive process. I like to break it down into rumination, distillation and then the actual committing to paper. After that, a poem might go through a few drafts. I then like to set them aside and revisit them with a fresh mind. Very rarely, a poem flows out without needing any major touch-ups and that's when I feel like I've been given a gift from the poetry gods."

Asked about her literary influences, she says that her paternal grandfather was a poet who put his literary ambitions aside to support a family of eight. "I like to think my poetic journey somehow completes his. I grew up in a household of voracious readers, where every genre was embraced. As a child, I loved the poems of Shel Silverstein and also Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. Later, it was Emily Dickenson's straightforwardness, the metaphors and similes of Pablo Neruda, the lilting yet exploratory voice of T.S. Eliot, the quiet fire of Gwendolyn Brooks' verse, the world contained in Elizabeth Bishop's poems, the imagery in William Carlos Williams' work and so many more. Michael Ondaatje is one of my idols as he writes shimmering poetry as well as prose. Also, Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things, which is such a poetic novel. And then there is Arun Kolatkar's poetry, which burst into my life a decade ago. He's the real deal. Brutally honest, playful and witty, he takes the English language and shapes it into his own Indian worldview. My only regret is that I never had a chance to meet him."

Like the goblin men’s illicit fruits, Malaviya’s mangoes are also addictive, lip-smacking, finger-licking and nectarous. But her poem in prose Mad About Mangoes opens with a cleverly inserted apologia for writing about something that “clichéd and exotic.”

Like the goblin men's illicit fruits, Malaviya's mangoes are also addictive, lip-smacking, finger-licking and nectarous. But her poem in prose Mad About Mangoes opens with a cleverly inserted apologia for writing about something that "clichéd and exotic." This seemingly self-conscious need to explain — which the poet deliberately plays with, fully aware of everyone's side of the argument — stirs up so many questions. Mangoes, it appears, have stayed the coveted and contested "fruit of Empire" although the Empire is no more. Poetically employing the motifs of mangoes, or monsoon, is more often seen as internalisation and regurgitation of West's Orientalism, than as continuing the tradition of classical Indian kavya, Urdu poetry, and the rest. Are Indian authors expected to take it down a notch, extol a more modest, commonplace fruit instead; maybe apples, just not Kashmiri? Yet too much curating limits the imagination. Malaviya asserts that India and its motifs are too powerful to be repressed or exoticised: "We will write about it and own it because we want to. Those who are familiar with India know that mangoes and the monsoon season are very real, just like cows causing traffic jams are. And those who aren't familiar will hopefully know that there is more to India than mangoes and monsoons."

es, there is nothing really apologetic about this many-East-West-connections-filled book. In an inventive and bitter-sweet blend of Greek and Indian myths, If Sita Had Met Persephone, the two once abducted heroines (both exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome, long before the strange feeling earned its name) indulge in a little girl talk, swinging from sadness to sarcasm:

"They exchanged notes on being / divine abductees / Persephone recalled, 'There I was picking flowers...' / Sita said, 'That's not so bad. / They drew me a Ring, Ram and his / brother; they told me if I crossed the line...' / 'Don't beat yourself up,' Persephone replied / 'We all cross the line some point in time.'"

Malaviya whole-heartedly believes that these are good times for Indian poetry, in Bangalore and India. "Poetry fits in beautifully with today's hi-tech, instant gratification world. Small presses are taking root, traditional publishers like Harper Collins are publishing more poets and there seem to be more people seeking out poetry, be it through readings, workshops and literary festivals. The past year has been phenomenal for poets from India and the Indian diaspora. In my eyes, that says Indian poetry has arrived globally." The efforts of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective to discover and nurture new voices just add to this list.

"Our Emerging Poets Prize is especially geared towards poets who have not yet published a book or have published only one book," explains Malaviya. "We will select up to three poets who, under our peer mentorship model, will be paired with more experienced poets to shape their manuscripts through a rigorous editorial process, leading to publication. Once their books are launched, these poets will then give back their time and experience to the next batch of incoming poets. Our deadline has been extended to

1 May this year, to give poets more time to prepare their manuscript. We are thrilled to have poet and Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil be our esteemed judge and we are so happy to be able to offer a prize of Rs 15,000 along with a minimum press run of 250 books."

At the moment, Malaviya is working on her second collection of poems, which explores human connection with the four elements, especially water. "I'm also working on a novel that is rather steeped in poetry," she says. "And of course, I'm so excited to help nurture new poetic voices through The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. It's definitely a very jam-packed and fulfilling 2015!"

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