Nabina Das is an Indian poet, novelist and columnist. She is the author of a short fiction collection, The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped, a novel, Footprints in the Bajra, and two poetry collections, Blue Vessel, and Into the Migrant City
"It is with poetry today we shall be winning our battle against fascism and hatred "
What is your earliest reading memory?
As early as I can recall. At home books sprouted from desks chairs beds and even shoe racks. I understood we didn't have much money to show but enough books. My parents even gave books as wedding gifts to friends and family members. From picture books, to children's stories to poetry, and the epics, the earliest reading memory is that of long hours of smelling books while reading them. Besides, there was always storytelling -- from my grandma, and my parents. A book that I remember leaving a lasting impression in my head was War and Peace, a gift on my 13th birthday. Couldn't really read it cover to cover right then, but read it as much as a teenager could to keep the stunning passages ringing in her head.
Has writing been a conscious choice or a natural thing for you?
Probably as natural as knowing who I am (ah that fickle self)! Or as conscious a choice as my many choices -- loves, peeves, places I go, and the people I keep in my life. I float between both. Writing is also a political choice for me. It reflects me and my convictions.
Do you have any special habits or rituals when you write?
Almost none. I simply prefer a corner to write, wherever I'm in the world, whether at home or in an airport. Growing up in the '70s and the 80s we didn't have a gadget-oriented existence. Books were rituals as well as habits.
Do you choose your stories/poems or do the stories/poems choose you?
Sometimes it's both ways. I begin a line and then another line takes over. It's a constant sailing. The boat is rocked from within and without. Politics, the arts, stories, loves, and travails all affect me. But I'm rarely a poet of occasions. Rarely have I written a birthday, anniversary or a mourning poem -- almost none. Also, stories or poems have their own minds. At times, when I'm not even contemplating writing, poems have come to me. We have entrapped each other as though in sudden lovers' encounters.
What books/authors do you enjoy re-reading and why?
I'm an Indian poet and writer who's grown up on literature of my own country as well from around the world. The Russian masters alongside William Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, Guy de Maupassant, James Baldwin, Prem Chand, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay, Sa'adat Hasan Manto, Marquez , Toni Morrison, Kafka, and many more constituted my early reading. There are no strict favorites. The list expands as I read more contemporary authors.
Let me mention my poetry loyalties here: Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Wislawa Szymborska, Duo Duo, Ko Un, Cszelaw Milosz, Cesar Pavese, CP Cavafy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Simic, Robert Hass, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, among the world pantheon. From the Subcontinent, I love to read AK Ramanujan, Hoshang Merchant, Adil Jussawalla, K Satchidanandan, Mangalesh Dabral, Eunice D'Souza, Gopal Honnalgere, Kamala Das. I have learned to read Namdeo Dhasal much later, and re-discovered Sananta Tanty, and these are only some names that I can think of. The subcontinent also has a rich tradition of Sufi, Bhakti and classical poetry. Then there are a number of younger poets who are doing excellent work. Apart from English, I also read in Assamese, Bengali and Hindi.
What is so important about fiction/poetry?
You cannot perhaps pay bills with poetry or fiction, but you can definitely impact the course of society with poetry, or stop a regime from turning into a beast. Poetry can shake the establishment. It is with poetry today we shall be winning our battle against fascism and hatred. In India, poetry will defeat the Hindutva anarchy. Poetry will wipe away caste segregation. That is why, from where I come, it is a responsibility to be a poet/writer, and writers must keep writing. This is my conviction.
Flaubert says he was physically sick when he wrote Emma Bovary’s death. Are you empathetic with your characters?
I'm a fiction writer when I let poetry do its own flaneur-ship. Yes, I have felt empathetic with my characters, one or two. In writing the rage and passion of my protagonist Muskaan in my novel "Footprints in the Bajra", I have experienced the same tumult in myself. Even while fashioning an oddball such as Mr. Abbas in a story from my short fiction collection "The House of Twining Roses", I was mercurial and morose till the time the story was finished.
Can you cry writing your own poem?
I don't think poets need necessarily cry over their own poems! While writing an elegy, I do relish the sombre mood, as much as I feel ebullient in writing a love poem.
Who is your ideal reader?
Someone who'd read me repeatedly and even reach out with some feedback, perhaps? Contrarily, the ideal reader would be someone who can use the poem as an argument, as a protest, as a hammer, or even as a prescription for sleeplessness.
Should writers be embraced by society or should they be exiled?
I won't mind being exiled periodically! Something about the humdrum always makes me want to get away every now and then. Maybe society should embrace this notion and encourage it!
Is there a God or are there gods for writers?
God is what we create in our deepest fears. Ironically, we also create gods to instill fear in others' minds. If as a poet I were to have gods, it'd be only ideas that are open to changes.
What makes a writer a writer?
Perhaps the patience to learn, from anyone and everyone. Personally, I feel that I am a writer just because often I'm just a learner, and quite often an anti-writer.
Tell us about your fiction/poetry.
"Blue Vessel" and "Into the Migrant City" are my two poetry collections. I have a short fiction collection titled "The House of Twining Roses". My first book is a novel -- "Footprints in the Bajra". My poetry is what makes me charged up about the world. In writing fiction, I'm often just a restless inquirer. I also translate a little, and write essays and reports, mostly on literary topics these days.
How do you really feel about recognition and fame? Are you a satisfied mind or always craving for more?
Fame is a such a short-lived concept. Most poets and writers write not to get famous, but because they are restless and seeking answers. Having been the Commonwealth Writers correspondent 2016, the Charles Wallace creative writing fellow 2012, Sangam House fiction fellow 2012, and Wesleyan Writers conference fiction fellow and Julio Lobo fiction fellow at Lesley University in 2007 and then the winner of some noted poetry prizes, etc., I've only mustered courage to stick to my pursuit -- a solitary one. I'm grateful for the little benedictions, but these do not make me famous.
As far as satisfaction is concerned, there's not enough of it in a writing life. Craving is there as long as creative urges are there. There's this Hindi-Urdu term we use -- awaargi -- to indicate restless detachment. I consider myself a literary vagabond of sorts.