“Words were inadequate to pile sensation upon contrarian sensation!” – Brinda Bose

Priyanka Tripathi, in conversation with author and academician Brinda Bose where she takes us through her writing journey, what writing means to her and shares her inspiration behind it all.

“it takes death to teach us

that dying is not desolation,

living is.”

(Calcutta, Crow and other fragments)

Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has been a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and taught at Delhi University for many years. She has published several books, including the edited collections Translating Desire: The Politics of Gender and Culture in India (2003) and The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India (2007), critical editions of Mrs Dalloway, Heart of Darkness and Through the Looking Glass, and the monograph The Audacity of Pleasure: Sexualities, Literature and Cinema in India (2018). Calcutta, Crow and other fragments (2020) published by Hawakal Publishers (Kolkata and Delhi), is her debut chapbook. 

Priyanka Tripathi: While Calcutta, now Kolkata, continues to be in your imagination since the day you left it, how compelling was it to engage and curate your experience, emotion and ethos of the city into a narrative, poetic and otherwise? How did Calcutta, Crow and other fragments come together as a collection?

Brinda Bose: It may sound trite, but Calcutta is the one city I actually have never left – perhaps more so because I have not lived in it at a stretch for decades now. This is not nostalgia speaking, however. It is not that I think of my time in the city – growing up, through school and college, and since then over countless stays, short and long – as halcyonic: in fact, its very opposite. The experience of Calcutta is everything un-mellow. It makes you soar, it gnaws and jars. It never lets you rest easy. Rather, it makes you restless and uneasy, and yet it bathes you in some unnamable passion for another humid day. I think those with a secret death-wish are those who truly cherish this city: always swimming close to the other shore, each moment of living an intensity, an engagement, like the city itself that seemingly and continually hangs by a tenuous, but electric, thread.

These were a set of feverish writings set off by a very personal bereavement a few years ago, the death of my father. They were re-visited and some very lightly revised recently following another loss: but they are not at all about losing one’s parents. They speak to the city both personally and impersonally, as one that embodies both loss and survival – and the grit it takes to tangle with both, which Calcutta has always exemplified for me. My experience of this city has been of bearing blows as well as of sheltering from them, running from bewilderment and pain to harborage and promise. 

PT: Despite being a deeply personal narrative Calcutta, Crow and other fragments addresses the complexities of politically turbulent times creating a space for farmer suicides, student strikes and others who have been pushed to the margins. Do you think it is of paramount importance for a poet/writer to be a conscious citizen as well for they continue to dwell in the same place?

BB: No, not at all – I don’t think any creative writer can consciously double up as a sociologist or anthropologist or political activist, though some of that may accidentally occupy space and take unexpected shape in something one writes, usually in response to the world around one at a particular time and place. If it happens, it happens involuntarily. When I read poetry, I find most of its politics in its aesthetics, though history and politics and culture may intersect to tell specific stories that are always less than the far more visceral, encompassing canvas that the words paint. The fragment you are referring to (‘Fire Showers’) was, as far as I recall, a litany of horrors that seemed overwhelming in the year 2016 – little knowing, of course, what was to follow even in 2017, let alone in 2020, which we all now wish to ‘cancel’… but it is really a response to a piling up of disasters in the worlds I inhabited or was privy to then, a chronicle of a private hell in a public lexicon. It might speak to some who pick up the references or it might not in historical terms speak to them at all, and yet capture a haunted-ness I wished to translate into word-rhythms.

PT: You had once written,We go to the humanities for grit and dare, for the monstrous, diabolic, fantastic, the searing and the unsettling – for passion, delight, distress and the thrill of transgression”. Is it for this reason that you chose to write about places and people in a way that feverishly oscillates between the personal and the political, life and death, pain and pleasure? How challenging was it to write those conflicting parts?

BB: Ouch, I wrote that? I’m always embarrassed by what I had once written, and never read it again if I have a choice! More seriously, though, I wasn’t thinking of a particular reason to ‘feverishly oscillate’ (and that’s a good description!) between extremes of knowledge or language: perhaps it emerged in that form because it was the only way possible for me to try and capture in words what I was experiencing, and simultaneously processing, with a certain intensity. It is not just because one experiences personal pain or pleasure or death or birth that one discovers those to be synonymous with the pulse of a city, any city. But if one does, then the city becomes a metaphor for all those experiences at once – not one or other of them. It was challenging to write because it felt that words were inadequate to pile sensation upon contrarian sensation – and yet not challenging at all simply because one knew that no words would ever be enough. All one was doing was Beckettian: trying again, failing again, (trying to) fail better.

PT: Will it be appropriate to say that you have found your voice through your poetry, for even your prose flows like a poem? Can you describe this voice?

BB: Thank you, what a beautiful thing to hear, that my prose flows like a poem! (and a pleasant surprise, coming from a fellow in our profession of academia, which now has strict demarcations of how and what prose should be, I hear…) I have never really thought consciously about the way I write – I realize now that I have just been inordinately lucky growing up, never being policed for writing in whatever way I pleased, through school and college and the universities I went to.

I don’t believe that there should be, or can be, specific ways of writing creatively or academically – certainly not in the humanities.

I have had (literature) students through the years who have written answers in cryptic, staccato prose and others who have had languid, gliding sentences make up their essays: and I never thought that either of them needed to be schooled to write in regular sentences, though those who held their writing to this balance have been fine too. This is all just to try and articulate for myself an answer to your question about finding a voice through poetry: I guess I have never said to myself, now I am writing poetry, all I have done is put line breaks at odd places and broken up my prose to resemble a poem!

PT: You sculpt a new kind of language…for example, ‘dyingcity livingcity survivingcity’ joined together appear to be your own coinages…also, interesting is the use of some other phrases and words like,  ‘bare life, bear life’; the word ‘raining’ being used some nine times in “fire showers”; a sentence in prose running up to ten lines or the rhyming in the context of ‘freedom with the change of place, face and pace’? Is such customization natural to your writing or purposely done?  

BB: I think this is where the ‘feverishness’ you spoke of comes in, perhaps unconsciously – the compound words, the repetitions, the run-on lines are all somewhat lazy gestures for being at a loss for words, to convey the sensation of being overwhelmed by multiple stimuli at once. They are, I think, inspired by some of my favourite writers of prose and poetry – Joyce, Hopkins, and Arundhati Roy among them – though clearly the illuminations are feeble at best! They are purposely done to the extent that I felt I needed their help to recreate the sensations I wished to, and natural in that they flowed from some unknown fount of misbegotten words and hyphen-less compounds that insisted on roosting where they have roosted.

PT: You clearly acknowledge in the introduction that these fragments (not literally) came naturally to you at a certain point of life when you were dealing with your personal loss. Do you think this loss aggravated your loss of Calcutta, in a way that it immediately needed a venting? What personal recollections do you share in this regard?  

BB: I guess I have already touched on this earlier, inadvertently – so I should not repeat myself. As I said in reply to your first question, it is not really simply about deaths and consequent losses, of people, of oneself or of a city. It is true that a personal bereavement set off these fragments – even as one felt less than whole, and able to speak only in broken sentences – but that loss has been echoed since then by other bereavements, as well as by whatever is remaindered. These fragments shored against my ruins, to steal from Eliot, have been real and surreal, tangible and frangible, virtual and visceral. I have felt often that Calcutta, more than any other person or place or thing, has been both witness and protagonist and symbol, in this enduring experience of loss and carrying on without. Again, Beckett: ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ Or, Tennyson, ‘Tho’ much is taken, much abides…’ In the fissure between them, lies both silence and meaning.

I have felt often that Calcutta, more than any other person or place or thing, has been both witness and protagonist and symbol, in this enduring experience of loss and carrying on without. In the fissure between them, lies both silence and meaning.

PT: You write, “there was a time when all of poetry was a wild and endless epiphany”. You know, there are multiple levels of interpretation this line generates as it may refer to a sense of nostalgia for the past, anxiety in the present and a conspicuous kind of restlessness about the future. What do you think?

BB: It sounds like nostalgia, but it goes back to what I was trying to say just before this – that it boils down eventually to a coming-to-terms-with gains and losses, hits and misses. Not in specifics of success and failure, but in a larger, dispersed sense of knowledges that come from life – and deaths: not just physical ones but of people and places that once were yours but are no longer. The circle of life makes this an imperative, loss. If there is nostalgia, it is about the past, present and future. If anxiety, ditto. Restlessness, indeed – so much more about the past than about the present and future! And there is exhilaration too, even if not shouted out loud. Fragments are always buoyant, after all: keeping afloat, tossed on terrible seas.

There is a small, and rather amusing, story behind this one, the one you’re quoting from, ‘reprise’. It is in fact a reprise of a poem I wrote when fairly young in Calcutta, which was published in my college magazine then. It was somewhat starry-eyed, titled ‘Cactus Flowers’. (I am not sure if anyone had ever told me that my eyes were like cactus flowers, but I liked to imagine someone had, anyway!) This reprise is a revisit to such a time of youthfulness, but not in nostalgia for some lost perfection; it is an awakening to the reality of there having been ‘no flowers that were my eyes’. It is an experience that is repeated throughout one’s life, for we learn to forget and to dream again. That is what keeps us ticking, those resurgent dreams. So what does mourn here, if anything at all? ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’

PT: Crow has been regarded as a symbol of ‘magic and mysteries’, ‘bad luck and death’. What was your reason of for choosing Calcutta’s crow, as you mention, as central to your narrative? The book cover also has a crow. Can you talk a little about that?

BB: About the cover first: I sent the set of writings to my son Romik, a design student, who had agreed to do the cover for us – and this is the first and only image he played around with after reading the text. My publishers and I both loved what he came up with. I liked his crow as it had attitude – nonchalant in its mischievous destructiveness – and the colour of pomegranates against its crow-blackness.

I felt that the four sections of that eponymous piece of writing, ‘Calcutta, crow’ would anchor this set of 21 fragments, though not all are about the crow – and not all located solely in Calcutta, either. I think that the two contrasting mythic symbolisms you draw for the crow – ‘magic and mysteries’, ‘bad luck and death’ – coalesce the ideas flying and squatting in this small collection, which is about life, and intimacy, and loss, and longing, as much as it is about a city (and a bird) that harnesses all that. In Calcutta, as in much of India, we grew up with the annoying, if endearing, crow. It was as much a part of our breathing as the humidity in the city’s air. We wished it would leave us alone, but we secretly missed its raucous presence on muggy afternoons that fell uneasily silent. That seemed like an icon that might stand up as a metaphor for Calcutta – a city that has always refused to remain just a mark on a map – also becoming, in its turn, a metaphor for the lives we live and the knowledges we imbibe from them, vexing and quickening at once. Calcutta, Crow are equals in a game of loves and losses.

About the Interviewer

Priyanka Tripathi is an Associate Professor of English at Indian Institute of Technology, Patna. She can be reached at priyankatripathi@iitp.ac.in



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