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Nandini Sahu: Journey of a great poetic soul
Of the great names in Indian English Literature in recent times, Nandini Sahu occupies a significant place. Her poetic firmament is illumined with her journey of her self, her love for nature and life. Hers is a strong poetic voice. In a candid interview she talks about her life and her poetry.

Dr. Nandini Sahu born in 1973 completed her doctorate in English literature under the guidance of Late Prof. Niranjan Mohanty, Prof. of English, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. She is a poet and a creative writer of international repute, and has been widely published in India, the US, the UK, Africa and Pakistan.

Dr. Sahu has presented papers on various subjects in India and abroad. She is a double gold medalist in English literature and also the award winner of All India Poetry Contest, the Shiksha Ratna Purashkar and Bouddha Creative Writers’ Award.

She is the author/editor of eight books entitled “The Other Voice”(a poetry collection), “Recollection as Redemption”, “Post-Modernist Delegation to English Language Teaching”, “The Silence”(a poetry collection),“The Post Colonial Space: Writing the Self and the Nation”,“Silver Poems on My Lips”(a poetry collection), Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol.I) and Folklore and the Alternative Modernities (Vol. II)   published from New Delhi. She has two poetry collections under publication, Sukamaa and Other Poems and Nandini in Odia (Selected Poems in Odia Translation).

Presently, she is an Associate Professor of English in Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi. She is continuing her D.Litt. on Native American Literature. Dr. Sahu has designed academic programmes/courses on Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature for IGNOU. Her areas of research interest cover Indian Literature, New Literatures, Folklore and Culture Studies, American Literature, Children’s Literature and Critical Theory. She is the Chief Editor/Founder Editor of Interdisciplinary Journal of Literature and Language(IJLL), a bi-annual peer-reviewed journal in English.

Santanu Haldar: Dr. Sahu, please tell us something about your childhood.

Nandini Sahu: Simple days spent in an idyllic pastoral Odisha village, G. Ugayagiri. My parents were both teachers in local schools and we were a family of 6 daughters, being brought up in a disciplined life as would befit the hinterland of India in the 1970s and 80s. The love of books and passion for reading enormously was always there as early in my life as I can recall. In fact, long spells of time I’d spend with Baba on Sundays, working at his school library in arranging and cataloguing books, and laying my hands on all sorts of books, from literature, science to homeopathy! I vividly recall how I’d look forward to this all through the week. I loved my studies, scored well every time and nurtured a nascent dream of becoming what I have really become today. In that sense, my childhood continues to be with me both in nostalgia and in reality!

SH: Tell us a bit about your little son Parthasarathi who is reading in class eight and writing poems as well.

NS: Oh yes..my son Parthasarathi Sahu (Sonu) is God’s choicest blessing for me. He is an intelligent, simple and sensitive child. He is creative; keeps writing stories, poems, diary and publishes in NBT, CBT journals and bolokids. He is a typical Delhite, which I could never become!! He is my dream come true, he makes me proud every single day.

SH: How do you define poetry?

NS: Santanu, your question makes me recall T.S Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, in the sense that even a definition in ‘my own words’ will virtually mean all that has shaped me into the poet that I am today. Well, to put it in simplest terms, poetry to me is an expression of the insipient self …both an introspection and a liberation, an expression that is wily nilly shaped by a very intricate study of literature and musings on the journey of life--both aspects that I’ve always been very passionate about.

SH: Why do you write poetry?

NS: I hope my earlier response on my views on poetry answers your question. Anyway in this context, I would like to quote one of my poems from my maiden poetry collection The Other Voice:

“When words dance
on my pen’s tongue
I feel language
is a flooded river
not to be hindered
discorded
and poetry flows
from the hedges of the mind
breaking the parapets.

SH: When did you start writing poems in English? Can you remember the name of your first English poem?

NS: I wrote my first poem in my mother tongue Odia when I was seven. That was about the farmers and their contribution! See, I have always been like Wordsworth’s Lucy, a soul close to Nature. I started writing poems in English when I was in class VI, which was titled ‘I Am a Fairy!’.My parents fondly remember, I used to tell them by then that I would be a professor and a poet in English.

SH: Once you said-“Nostalgic reminiscence of Odishan landscape makes the background of my poetry.”--Would you explain it?

NS: Yes, my cultural moorings in my roots are indeed very strong. The Odishan landscape in its varied hues is what I’ve grown up with, so it’s very deeply rooted in me. The smell of the first rains of the season, the vivid understanding of the seasons by relating to the change in nature, the landscapes,mountains of KalingaGhat, the sights, the sounds, the flowers and the birds, the temples which have an ethos of their own, the sea, the rich cult of Lord Jagannath and even the people – every bit of it I carry close to my heart even though am in Delhi since last eight years. To put it formally, an eco-critical perspective pervades my thoughts and poetry, and as I say this I realize that the landscape has always been a part of me. It is only my familiarity with terminology that enables me to put into a formalised coinage that which has been my true rearing.

SH:  Who are your mentors? Who have inspired you to write?

NS: Mentors? Well, I would prefer to talk about those poets/writers who have inspired me. Jayanta Mahapatra, Manoj Das, Late Prof. NiranjanMohanty from Odisha have deeply influenced me. From the world literatures, I read Homer, Virgil, Dante—I am a classicist that way. Among the romantics and the moderns, I read Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth,Tennyson,Eliot,Emerson,Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost,Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Leslie Marmon Silko, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel, A K Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Carolyn Kizer and many more. A trip down memory from a vantage point today tells me that the ‘inspiration’ has always been there, for I have  to borrow an idea from Wordsworth, which I have always felt truly and deeply. It is,as I said earlier, a kind of dialogue/monologue with the self that has resulted in my creative writing in general and poetry in particular. Yes, being mentored might have given the finesse, the confidence of form or even the imagistic patterns to an extent, but like the neo-classical theorists, I do not believe that a poet can ‘be made’!

SH: Perhaps you are the only Odia woman poet writing in English. How do you feel hearing this?

NS: Well, it’s not really a very impressive a tag, though many critics write this about me and Shanta Acharya. Odia women writers have been doing commendable work, even though their choice of the medium isn’t English. Recently, Odia writer Prativa Ray received the Jnanpith  Award. English has, since very long, been my language both of thought and expression; and it is never at odds with my Odia tongue or origins. My formal educational degrees in English were a matter of choice, not compulsion. Odisha is the land I love, live and evoke in my senses, and (not but) a pan-Indian sensitivity has always been there, so I’m at home anywhere in India and abroad.

As it is, ‘Indian writing in English’ has since long been a problematic tag with theorists, let’s not further complicate it by adding provincial touches! Am fondly remembering Rabindranath when he writes ‘Aamitomarimatirkanya, jananibasundhara…’. The poet fuses nationalism into a poetic-creative sensibility right? So that is the way I see the issue. In one of my poems,Bridge-in-Making, I write:

“I write in English to free my words
lying imprisoned in the arms of the heart.
Be it Odishan or Indian, but it’s out of this earth and wind.
…I am Indian, Odia by birth, with
wheatish brown skin, dark eyes. I am just a
poet – English or no English– my taverns filled with Muses.

SH: When and how did you get gold medals in English? How did you feel when you got awards for your poetry?

NS: Well..I got gold medals during my B.A. and M.A. English long back. About poetry awards, again, I am not into any kind of social networking, and awards have more of social and political than personal implications. I was awarded the first prize sometime in an all India poetry contest among a few thousand competitors; then most recently the Shiksha Ratna Purashkar for my contribution to higher education. Anyway, I am not into any competition, so awards don’t make much difference.

SH: The Other Voice--your maiden poetry collection--would you tell us about the book? What is its theme?

NS: In my  maiden collection of poems The Other Voice, most poems  manifest  alienation and existential absurdity, being influenced by classical art, my forte, with my personal as well as social consciousness. My poetic  personae seems to rejoice at the beauty of the creation, sometimes ecstatic about being a woman, some other times disturbing the slumber of the society on sensitive issues like mental slavery of the human being and the  subjugation of women. I wanted to title the collection as ‘The Opposite Sex’, which is the title of one of my poems published in The Last Goodbye from Maryland, USA. But on a second thought, I didn’t want to sound like a die-hard feminist, which I am not, thus, it was titled as The Other Voice.Perhaps at that point of time I was thinking seriously about the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ in every sphere of life.

SH: Your next poetry book was The Silence. Tell us about its theme and the importance of its title? Why The Silence?

NS: The Silence is my second collection of poems where I have taken care to include poems dealing with the human feelings, which are so silent, and the poems revealing a complex and rich treasure of emotions. As a sensitive poet, I pour out my concerns, fears, ecstasy through these poems, attempting to trace the social, philosophical and spiritual environment around. In this collection, I have attempted to make  poetry a medium of positive living,optimism. Poetry is the harbinger of peace, plenty, harmony and universal love.

SH: Would you tell us about the theme of your famous poetry collection - Silver Poems on My Lips?

NS: The poems in this collection are mature in thought and diction. Here, I pour out poetry that oozes from the secret chambers of the heart, though I know by now  that in an age of material pleasures, perhaps it is difficult for the heart to ‘fit in’. Anyway, my  ideas rotate around a belief in human values. Love and poetry are my therapy to live, breathe and sing; I love this celebrationof silver poems on my lips even though life makes my eyes moist quite often.

SH: You are a brave fighting soul. And your life is an inspiration to all. Where do you get the inspiration?

NS: Thanks for believing so. I think positive, love life, my desires are simple and my needs, minimalistic. I get inspiration from the god who dwells in my soul, who is neither Hindu, nor Islam or Christian.I believe in liberal secularism. If at all I am instrumental in giving a smile to the poor and needy, I see god in that smile. That inspires me.

SH: You are personally acquainted with Jayanta Mahapatra. Would you share with us the experiences?

NS: Oh yes..I am fortunate enough that poet Jayanta Mahapatra is deeply attached to me. He is a great poet, a visionary of this century. He treats me like his pampered child. In my interview with him published in The Quest, I have talked about my acquaintance with him in detail. He is an inspiration to every Indian poet.

SH: Sometimes loneliness and fear of death occupy your poetic self--is it true? How do you explain it?

NS: Well, its complex. The feeling of solitude is often a problem and a paradox too for a  sensitive creative mind. It is on the one hand a necessary precondition for many of my poems, which narrate a felt and perceived state of existence. On the other, it is kind of a philosophical understanding, a coming to terms with certain realities of life at both personal and universal levels.

But then again, if you can strip death of its ‘fearful’ aspect, it is often the other side of ecstasy. I wouldn’t quite say am gripped with any fear of death, but yes there is the urge to feel, in the ultimate analysis, that it’s been a life well lived. And the reality is that I am mostly unable to bring apart my personal self from what you call my ‘poetic self’. Nor do I much want to! For, it isn’t that the poetic self arises only when I sit to compose, it is always there in all my waking and sleeping hours. I am nothing without my creative self--to that effect, even my act of mothering is a creative consciousness that is equally pleasurable.

SH: In your poems there is a confessional tone like Kamala Das. What is your opinion on it?

NS: I guess you tend to think so, because both Das and I deal with the aspects of self-expression of women, though belonging to different eras, both in terms of the artistic medium and the individual selves of our personae  that are locked in a complex relationship with the (patriarchal) society. But the basic difference is--there is an idea of space that is to be transcended as in Kamala Das and there is a space  that is already spanned through a note of confident proclamation as in me, NandiniSahu. Her poetry is more of an appeal for existence by an impenetrable soul; mine is a carnival of the existence -- it signals a victory—which is deemed fit to our times.

SH: Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood -- so said T.S Eliot. What is your view on this?

NS:  If communication has to do with the heart and understanding with the head, then apparently I go with this. Whether as a student, a teacher or as a practising poet, my first and spontaneous attraction has been the content and the verve with which it reaches out or lets me as a reader to communicate/assimilate. But yes, as a composer, one does need to keep certain aspects and nuances in mind. For all the rigour of his poetic theory, Eliot’s own poetry does have a deep appeal to a mature reader, one that goes deeper than the maturity of understanding he demands of a conscious and informed reader!

SH: What is the future of Indian English poetry?

NS: Tell me something, do we ever ask this question in the context of British or American poetry? See, we talk of a condition of post-coloniality, and yet cannot remove the colonial hang from our mind-sets! Like the poetry of all other peoples from all other parts of the world, we too express our hopes, fears, anxieties, dreams and realities in our poetry. Incidentally, our medium is English, just as we also have our own regional languages as mediums.

In that sense, we may not be having too many canonical poets, and this I feel, is a blessing for the future of Indian English poetry. Besides, we also have to include the huge emergent corpus of poetry being translated from various Bhasa literatures into English. Indian English poetry right from its beginnings has mirrored several phases of the rise of both our nationhood and the collective unconscious; it is in a dynamic phase now and I see a very positive future ahead. But let us remember that the term Indian English  is just for purposes of nomenclature, it is poetry in its own right without any special qualifiers. It is our voice.

SH: Who are important contemporary Indian English poets from Eastern India?

NS: There are many from Eastern India who write genuinely. Apart from Mahapatra, I read Bibhu Padhi, Jaydeep Sarangi, Madhumita Ghosh, Bina Biswas, Aju Mukhopadhyay, Ratan Bhattacharjee, Manas Bakshi and many others.

SH: How about your next volume of poems?

NS: My fourth collection of poems, Sukamaa and Other Poems, is under publication. The title poem Sukamaa is about my association  with the subaltern. Sukamaais my  folklore and the poem is an outcome of my concern for the ‘other’-- the rural, tribal poor woman Sukamaa,our domestic help during my childhood in Odisha, now belonging to nostalgia and oblivion; this collection is my tribute to the marginal. Most   poems in this collection are imbued with a revolutionary zeal to set the record straight between the less and the more fortunate—to even out the confusion.

SH: You are a great short story writer.Would you tell us more about the theme of your short stories and its names?

NS: Oh that’s very generous of you to say so! Yes, I do enjoy writing stories and am working on my first collection. Well as far as themes go, I believe the essence of a short story is often a simple impression, a small happening, some people around us who impress us by certain characteristic traits – big or small and so on. I find the staple of my stories in the everyday life that surrounds me. There are several human beings who have left a lasting impression on me, so much so that their memories have remained with me and have come out as stories when I’ve looked back at them from a vantage point. For instance, the maid(s) I grew up seeing at home, my friends and teacher(s) in school, college and university, diverse experiences in life and maybe lives of other people I’ve seen or heard from close quarters. Whether in my poetry or in my short stories, I have always believed and practised penning simple thoughts that my reader(s) too can relate, re-live and find correlatives with incidents, episodes and thoughts of their lived experiences.

SH: What is your message to the budding poets?

NS: Think deep, feel with honesty and when it comes to expression, read literature of your genre that has preceded you. My poetic faith is, you could say, a cross between the Wordsworthian and the Eliotesque streams of thought. Just as impressions are important, so is your medium of expression and if you want to make a mark as a poet, there is no alternative to being a voracious reader and an insightful thinker. Classical literature is to my mind, a vast treasure house that shapes a creative writer and lays down one’s basics. A thorough knowledge of one’s milieu is equally important in locating the relevance of the poetic voice. Write not with immediate fame in mind but primarily as a rigorous exercise in apt self-expression.

SH: Do you have any message to the society?

NS: I don’t exactly know if it can be called a ‘message’ , but yes, as a creative writer and as a teacher, I do feel that one should imbibe within oneself certain basic traits like honest commitment to a purpose, lay down firm foundations of character and sincerely learn to empathise with those who genuinely need help and support. However, cliché the saying ‘Practise what you preach’ may sound, I would implore upon youth to follow it in letter and spirit. And above all, look ahead and look sharp about it, for, ‘the best is yet to be’! There is no scope for complacence, whichever path of life one has chosen to traverse.

SH: Do you have any plans in the future to write novel or your autobiography?

NS: Well, which creative writer doesn’t dream of writing a novel! Yes, maybe somewhere in the subconscious I too am gathering my materials from the myriad experiences of life…. Autobiography…well, I guess will give it a thought when life has come to a fuller circle!

SH: Do you consider yourself as an eco-feminist?

NS: Yes, I would prefer to be remembered as an eco-feminist. My poetry lays bare the mutilation done to humanity on account of man’s insatiable desire for authority. I am a voracious reader of human history.I relate with the compassionate faces of Nature, and wish to surrender desire and design the purest form of transcendental poetry. My works mostly end with a note of hope for the renewal of ecological balance, subsequently a potential redemption of the civilization. Through my rejection of the traditional ritualistic values and the ways of a passion-ridden society and through the pursuit for the subversive mystical rejuvenation in Nature, I aim at conforming to a better world than that we have seen.

SH: Would you share  with us any three secrets of your life which people do not know?

NS: Well…perhaps people don’t know that Nandini, a serious academic and progressive, independent woman, can also be a good cook, dedicated mother and the greatest admirer of Lata Mangeshkarji.

SH: You are an Associate Professor, a critic, a folklorist, a famous short story writer, an award-winning poet, a proud mother- how do you look at your identity?

NS: A woman knows how to play roles, successfully. My poem ‘Aside’ speaks of my myriad identities. That’s a signature poem where I am every woman. Anyway, I am humbled by your appreciation.

SH:  Will you share with us one of your recent poems?

NS: I would quote a few Haikus:

LifeI am the wind to blow the light off
but I am the sturdy  flame too,
I see and don’t see my body parts.

Love
I flow down and undo the dichotomy
keep hanging and smiling
between the perished and the perennial.

Happiness
Sandwiched between verbs
and predicates
I am the subject at the core of being.

Maa
Whirling water, clean and clear
you assemble the broken pieces
in your graceful curves.

Tears
Tears theorize with condensed waters
and close accounts with history.
Tears burst a sovereign destiny to time.

Devil
He is nowhere here or anywhere.
Very much there in
the spirit sans love.

Sleep
My sleep and sleeplessness
play hide-and-seek.
Is someone awake in me?

SH: Would you mention some of your poems which will establish your identity as a poet?

NS: There are many that I find close to my heart. Mostly from my first collection The Other Voice and the forthcoming one, Sukamaa and Other Poems.

SH: Thank you Dr. Sahu, for sparing your valuable time and sharing wonderful thoughts with me.

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Rupam chatterjee
Nice interview.
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