India’s Season of Dissent: An Interview with Poet Karthika Naïr

Our Co-Investigator Laetitia Zecchini interviewed the poet Karthika Naïr, discussing free expression, literary activism and the importance of being a political poet.

Born in Kerala, the poet moved to France in 2000, subsequently working for several cultural institutions (Cité de la Musique, Centre national de la danse, Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration…) as a dance producer, dance-writer, or “dance enabler,” as she sometimes likes to define herself. Her closest associations have been with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Akram Khan.1 She published three collections of poetry; Bearings in 1999; Until the Lions, Echoes from the Mahabharata in 2015, which won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year 2015 (for fiction), and Over & Underground in Paris and Mumbai, in 2018, co-authored with poet Sampurna Chattarji and the artists Joëlle Jollivet and Roshni Vyam. With Joëlle Jollivet, she also brought out a children’s book, The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel, first published in 2013 and translated into French, German and Bangla.

Her poignant retelling of the Mahabharata in Until the LionsEchoes from the Mahabharata, is “among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto,” as David Shulman recently suggested. The epic is recast from the perspective of those who have been promised to erasure and are often the first casualties of war: the faceless, the nameless and unremembered by/of history, many of whom are women (spouses, lovers, mothers, sisters, etc…). The “echoes” of the Mahabharata are not only the echoes of all the other Mahabharatas in whose lineage Karthika Naïr places herself, the ocean of stories and (re)tellings to which the epic continues to give birth. Her poems’ unflinching confrontation with the violence of the world, and of India in particular, are about today. In the powerful, damaged and enraged voices of those who refuse to be muted or unaccounted, we hear echoes of the struggles of Dalits, Adivasis, women, Muslims, but also of all the other (increasingly) threatened minorities whose dissenting views and narratives infuriate the sentinels of cultural and religious majoritarianism: activists, journalists, students, artists, writers…

In her recent introduction to the American edition of Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr writes: 

‘For many Indian writers and cultural practitioners, 2015 seemed to have represented a turning point. By 2015, casualties were not statistics anymore, reported with increasing urgency by PEN or FreeMuse. They were names, faces, voices you knew, had read, watched, heard. Some, those first met when young—in the flesh, or through words, chords, images—and dearly loved. Artists, writers, activists: some whose work, whose life had powered your own, from near or far. People who had merely gone out one day to celebrate art and debate, laughter and sport. Narendra Dabholkar. Ahmed Rajib Haider. Gulnar (Muskan). Bernard Maris. Govind Pansare. Avijit Roy. 21 visitors to Bardo National Museum. H Farook. M Kalburgi. Francisco Hernández. 89 music lovers attending an Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan. The living are targeted in other ways. With book bans. Prison. Exile. Fatwa. Smear campaigns. Accusations of sedition… Kamel Daoud. Oleg Sentsov. Perumal Murugan. Atena Farghadani. Fatima Naoot. The 50-odd Indian writers (followed by film-makers and artists)—who had returned awards and honors as protest against the spate of murders of intellectuals and minorities—hounded as anti-nationals by several media houses and right-wing politicians.’

Karthika Naïr. 2020. Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. Archipelago Books, USA (See Auth (…)

It was perhaps only natural that Karthika Naïr, who considers herself a political poet (or rather: “how can literature not be political?”) would be moved to write on Shaheen Bagh, when in December 2019, a handful of Muslim women came out of their homes in Delhi to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and resolved not to move before they were heard. Shaheen Bagh was also a peaceful resistance to and against violence: the violence to which Muslims and women have been subjected for so long in India; the violence unleashed at the Jamia Millia University campus a few days earlier, and the constant threat of violence (by the police and by right-wing “goons”) to which the protestors were subjected during the one-hundred days during which the sit-in lasted. The “dogs of carnage” summoned by Karthika Naïr in her ghazal, eventually broke loose, unleashing terror in the streets of Delhi. But what happened at Shaheen Bagh is and must be remembered. And the task of the poet is also to make sure that these voices continue to be heard.

In the following interview conducted over Skype, and revised over email in September 2020, we talk of Shaheen Bagh and of her poem “Ghazal: India’s Season of Dissent; of the activism of Indian writers and artists; of the politics of literature; of the relevance of poetry to protest movements and resistance struggles; of how literary texts can “respond” to violence, grief and pain. And since Karthika Naïr’s poetry and biography constantly weave together a multitude of contexts, voices, and cultural backgrounds, she also throws light on the interconnection and intersectionality of these struggles; on the resonances of the anti-CAA protests and of Shaheen Bagh outside India; on how terror and resistance to terror are echoed in different parts of the world.

LZ : From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to Turbine Bagh in London, we also witness an internationalization of struggles that are staged or made visible in different parts of the world. And Shaheen Bagh captured worldwide media attention. I was also thinking of a recent appeal by some prominent world intellectuals who have urged the release of writers and activists Varavara Rao and G. N. Saibaba.You yourself have been very much a part of many of these international campaigns to free writers, journalists, activists. But going back to what you were saying about “petition activism,” these campaigns and the media attention can both give incredible visibility, perhaps agency, but can conversely also highlight a form of powerlessness…So, for instance, Varavara Rao who is 80 years old and was diagnosed with Covid, and G.N. Saibaba who is 90 % handicapped, are still in prison and their lives, as we speak, are at risk. That is a question we’ll keep returning to, no doubt. But what can these campaigns and petitions do? How does that kind of activism help? 

KN : I think we need to be very clear about what petitions can do, and what they can’t. The best thing they can do is, indeed, visibilize. It may be never immediate enough, of course. But there is a specific end and one can manage to have a cumulative movement which gathers force from both physical real-life presence and mobilization, and campaigns or petitions that are internationalized. One of the best examples of that I would say is actually Shahidul Alam’s liberation from a Dhaka prison, where people in situ but also people from all around the world put enormous pressure. 

I do think that petitions are useful to that extent, inasmuch as they create awareness, give visibility, disseminate knowledge and information about certain cases, and help people use other platforms as well to protest, or dissent or demand. And in certain happy cases, it is generating enough of a momentum…But there are also worrying aspects as well: one, with the profusion of online appeals, there is the danger of, shall we call it, petition fatigue; the other, of petitions generating the false and easy reassurance that we’ve done our bit with a click on a button, that nothing more is required.

LZ: If we return to your ghazal, you’ve said that poetry has a treasure trove of forms at its disposal, and that these forms have specific functions—that they do different things, and are chosen for what they can do. In the context of Shaheen Bagh and the persecution of Muslim minorities in India, the choice of a ghazal seems both formal and political. Would you like to elaborate a little? 

KN: Of course. Well there are many reasons why I chose this specific form. One of which is also heritage. And the people that I quote or that inspire me here, are people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Kafi Azmi. The ghazal has an extraordinary history, and an enormous capacity for expansion, it can contain everything from a love song, with which it is (sometimes unfortunately) most famously associated, to an anthem: it has been the instrument of so much reflection, protest, and dissent. I was again inscribing myself in that literary and activist lineage, in that tradition of dissent.

LZ: You’ve also said that forms are your weapons…

KN: Yes, but in this particular context I wanted to inscribe myself in this lineage of the ghazal as an activist writer’s tool, or basically as a writer’s tool. Because like Arundhati Roy says, that’s a bit of a tautology “activist writer.” When you are a writer, you are political. To state the obvious, for a writer to say I am not political, for me, is also extremely political, because it means that you are so privileged that you don’t have to have any politics. So, the ghazal was a great way to inscribe myself in a tradition and say, again, that this kind of literary activism is nothing new. It is part of something that has been going on for ever so long, which is that literature, or poetry, is a way of situating yourself in society, in a nation, on a globe just as much as it is of situating yourself inside a body or a heart. And how you situate yourself in a body is probably the first political thing you do. 

For instance, in the first three couplets, the qafiyais the following pattern of words: “nation,” Going back to the ghazal, it’s a form which really lends itself to sort of hammering the same theme but with variations. You’ve got the radif (refrain word or phrase, which corresponds here to the word “dissent”) and you’ve got the qafiya (the rhyming pattern that must precede the radif). Imagine drawing loops of the same size, in the air, each distinct, but touching the same point on the floor—so the point of landing will be identical each time, though the curve will be different. I also love the fact that the couplets which have the same refrain, and the same meter, are self-contained, but that the change in rhyming words can allow the development of a thought, an idea with each successive couplet.

LZ: I wanted to quote the words of writer Githa Hariharan, who is also the co-founder of this extraordinary platform, The Indian Writers’ Forum, to which you have contributed.14 In a text written for the 3rd anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s brutal murder, she paints a very dark picture of the situation in India today, with the growing list of political prisoners languishing in prison without trial, the attacks on Muslims, minorities, academics, students; the charges of sedition, conspiracy, contempt of court or “unlawful activities” levelled at many citizens. And yet, she says “we still have voices that speak up”: “If we speak, Gauri will continue to speak…They cannot silence us all.”

KN: I really think The Indian Writers Forum has been doing a wonderful job for so many years as a sentinel. It reminds me of that old saying about those who stay awake, so others can sleep in peace. Now I don’t think anyone of us can sleep in peace right now, but the IWF has been there as the eyes in the dark for so long. And they are putting what they see in the dark out there. And that’s precious. I think we also have to remember that it’s extremely fragile… Remember that whether through fiscal legislation, or through other means, so many NGOs in India are under increasing threat. And for years I was not able to give a donation to IWF because I am a foreign national. The irony of it is that political parties can receive unlimited foreign funding without any examination or questioning, but NGOs are suspect. So even when you are not hounding an organization actively, you are cutting off its blood supply. In other words, supporting something like IWF is more and more vital. 

More generally, I think, yes, we have to resist and speak up a long time before we are on our knees. There is so much that we have to be constantly vigilant about. Here as well (i.e. in France). A few months ago, I heard someone who is a leftist and an activist say that he was going to vote Marine Le Pen in the next election, because he said, “it can’t get much worse.” And I said, it can get much worse. You are a straight, white man in your 70s. Yes, things are going to be ok for you on a quotidian level. But for anybody who is different in any way, in terms of race, in terms of sexuality, in terms of language, in terms of religion, in terms of dissent or mobility, no it is not going to be ok. The alternative cannot be the Marine Le Pens of the world, because India is standing testimony to how little it takes to dismantle a democracy. 5 years! When you had 65 years behind you… What I mean is all you need is the wrong regime in power, in both houses of the Parliament, with enough clout to purchase or threaten free press. No country is invulnerable in its democratic or republican principles. 

LZ: I’d like to raise with you the question of literary texts as responses or reactions to specific events. Of course, you cannot predict from where a poem really springs, and a writer always writes with everything he or she experiences, but you’ve written many poems that seem to articulate a kind of response, like your ghazal around Shaheen Bagh, or your powerful text on the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris in Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai. You also wrote a recent poem triggered by a self-portrait of the photographer Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire…And that made me think of a short newspaper column written by Adil Jussawalla called “Poems after Ayodhya,” where he takes issue with the fact that you should expect poets to voice their immediate protest or shock about the riots. And he has this fabulous sentence where he writes that “the state of the country is not a workshop that makes poems happen…” 

KN: Bless him! But, whether we like it or not, poetry is political. Take the Romantic movement, for instance, which all seems very innocuous, but for me was intensely political as well, because you were taking the divine out of the established places and the realm of religion, and placing it in nature for instance, or within the discovery of a wider world. But I agree completely with Adil and do get uncomfortable with poems that are for example titled “Kargil” or “Palestine.” And very conflicted about what one could call a form of disaster porn. But it’s sensitive, isn’t it? And I always think of something Larbi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) told me: should me no shoulds, in other words, let there be no rules on what can or cannot be tackled by art. So I also think that everyone responds as he or she can, and the poem will speak for itself. Nothing should come between that compulsion to speak and the page, if you see what I mean. My own take is that I try to situate it in the intersection between the personal and the political and that’s the way it’s been for Charlie Hebdo for instance…Even today, I mourn Bernard Maris like somebody I knew. And so I write also from a very personal space, of what I lost in that bloody massacre.

You can read the full interview which is part of a special issue on ‘The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India’ in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

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