An Interview with Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca by Susmita Paul

 

Q. 1. Reminiscences about your childhood are strewn across your recent collection of poetry, such as ‘Light of the Sabbath’. Could you tell us why is it that your childhood surfaces so eloquently in this collection?

Memory is a wonderful thing. It has allowed me to celebrate the warm and loving personalities and places of my childhood in my chapbook, ‘Light of The Sabbath.’ It has allowed me to re-live my childhood days, to walk with my paternal grandmother down the broken sidewalks of Bombay with ‘every square inch teeming with humanity’, to the synagogue to light the lamp, ‘to squeeze the purple grapes of faith’ on sacred Sabbath Fridays, with my aunt, whose faith could move mountains, ‘Those hands that move mountains/ Stirred the curry fluffed the rice/. ’Faith may move mountains’… She is also celebrated in my poem ‘Chain of Events.’ Speaking of the gold chain with a Star of David pendant that she gave me before she left, I wrote in the poem: ‘These are the chains that bind/ Twenty-two carat gold/ into bonds of love’…

It is memory, and not merely nostalgia, that has prompted me to recreate the distinct taste of the China Grass Halwa (Indian pudding) made by another aunt, to eat ‘the curry with ten green chillies when we visited the village of Alibaug, instead of the twenty she usually put in’, referring to my ‘Alibaug aunty’, and to have a ‘jovial uncle with a rich laugh who owned a grain mill and where the grain poured out of the ancient machines like his patient and unselfish love for us’, to name a few of the dear people celebrated in my poems. Despite a challenging childhood due to a complicated family situation, I was blessed with aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, who freely gave me an abundance of unconditional love. The reminiscences of my childhood are celebrations of the relatives that peopled my young world. I would have to put together a whole other book of poems which commemorates my grandfathers, uncles, and my cousins. I do have individual poems about them.  My amazing aunt Hannah, whom I celebrate in my title poem, ‘Light of The Sabbath’ more than helped me survive the traumas of some of the loneliest times in my life. She was there at my birth and remained in my life till she made Aliyah to Israel.  Her faith and devotion to her God when ‘she read all one hundred and fifty psalms each Saturday’, is something that is indelibly engraved on my mind. My memories capture the essence of these souls, paying tribute to these strong yet gentle extended family members, and immortalizing them in verse.

In the poem about my maternal grandmother, ‘The Ballad of Little Ma’, my memory takes me to my petite, yet strong four-foot eleven inches tall grandmother who ‘spoke less, but when she put her hand on your shoulder/ you knew you were loved.’  And who had ‘no muscles or six pack / just strength of heart and soul.’

My childhood was a magical time, and yet, to borrow that well-known Dickensian phrase from the ‘Tale of Two Cities’, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ My focus in my chapbook was on ‘the best of times.’

 

Q.2. From the vantage point of your Jewish identity, how important is writing to stop the  erasure of socio-religious-political identities?

I was born and raised in the Bene-Israeli Jewish community in Bombay, the largest of the three communities of Jews in India. We were a minority community like the Parsis. Many Jews rose to prominent positions like Dr. E. Moses who was a Mayor of Bombay. Several Jews became prominent doctors, teachers, and lawyers The Jews, like the Parsis, blended seamlessly into the Indian landscape and never faced any discrimination. Many people in the western world express surprise to learn that there are Jews in India. The community of Indian Jews that immigrated to Israel in large numbers in the fifties and sixties by contrast, faced much discrimination in Israel.  Indian Jews were not even considered Jewish. Darker skin color and a failure to speak fluent Hebrew are cited as being among the causes of discrimination. Numerous Jews left India for a better life in ‘The Promised Land.’ ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ was the dream of so many Jewish people I met when I was young. To their credit, the Bene-Israelites are making strong efforts to preserve their heritage and even getting some of their traditions like Malida, an Indian Jewish Thanksgiving ceremony, cited in textbooks. They are working hard to assert and retain their identity.  Poets, artists, and writers can document this rich heritage through their work and ensure their history and presence is well-established as a significant presence in the world, and not erased. The world has much to gain by learning about diverse minority communities in India, and in other parts of the world as well.

In a New York Times article titled ‘Fighting Erasure’, Parul Sehgal says “Erasure refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible… It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?”

We were a liberal Jewish family. At my grandparents’ homes particularly, we observed the customs and traditions of the Indian Jewish community, which are often quite distinct from those of the Western Jews. Since I attended a Christian school and also worked in Christian schools in India and overseas, I learned much about Christianity. As I grew older, I wanted to discover my Jewish roots and see what impact they had on forming my world view and the influence on my life today. In my poem ‘Shipwreck’, I speak about the origins of my people who arrived on the Konkan coast of India as their ship struck a rock, with most perishing, but according to legend, seven couples survived.  The fair-skinned, curly-haired light-eyed people arrived over two thousand years ago and settled in the villages there, later moving to Bombay ‘I am from that same seed/ Descendant of those shipwrecked warriors/ God’s rock occurs in dreams/ my ‘ship’ breaks ever so often/ On life’s rocks but I survive/ like my ancestors/  Pressing seeds into verse/ To preserve a story of survival/ Not just on Saturdays.’

In my poem ‘Ancestral Shipwreck’ I also describe the origins of my community.

I arrived on stormy seas/ Flung against a rock by a shipwreck/ I don’t remember who I was fleeing/ Or why I boarded the ship. / The village gave me shelter/ I remembered *The Shema and The Sabbath/ I forgot my language…

 

 

Q.3. In writing, we carry the legacy of our ancestors- both biological and literary. How does it affect you, given that your father Nissim Ezekiel is considered the father of Indian poetry in English?

It is a matter of immense pride, along with an equal measure of humility for me, that my father, the late poet Nissim Ezekiel, is widely acknowledged as the Father of Indian Poetry in English. Biologically, I am his daughter, his flesh and blood. My name ‘Kavita’, which means poem in Sanskrit, was perhaps both symbolically and prophetically given to me by my father.  Or he might have had a vision, like the prophet Ezekiel! My mother told me that when I was born, my father rejoiced as if he had written his best poem!  It is significant that I was not given a Jewish name. In several interviews and presentations about my father I have always maintained that preserving his legacy is near and dear to my heart. It is more important to me than my own writing. Many of the poems I write are either dedicated to my father or make reference to him in one way or another. We shared a deep bond. In my poem ‘Daddy’ I write that ‘the love of words is my steadfast inheritance.’ My father sowed the seeds of my love of words… the beginnings of my literary legacy. My home was always more full of books than any other household object. My father was a voracious reader and poured his love of reading into all three of us. He held informal poetry reading classes in the house, which I attended as a child.

The biological relationship was never one of mere physical connection, his genes to mine.  There was a powerful engagement with each other – total acceptance of the other, but also suffering in acknowledging the reality of the other’s life – its strengths, weaknesses, sometimes uncaring, other times, too involved… but never indifference.  To me that is the essence of love.

My poem ‘My Father, That Man’ is a poem that speaks of my love and admiration for my father’s passion for words. The last lines express my hope that he has left something of his gift for writing poetry for me. ‘I know that man well/ For he was my father/ I have his flaws/ In my genes/ And perhaps a little/ From his gift of words.’

 

Q.4. How far do you think Indian poetry in English has evolved since its beginning?

I think every generation of Indian poets writing in English have made a unique contribution to the field of Indian poetry in English. The style and content of pre-colonial poets was very different from poets of the post-colonial generation. It is the same with contemporary poets. In my opinion, it would be somewhat unfair to judge the quality of poetry of various eras by placing them in a sort of direct comparison with each other. Or juxtaposing them to render one seemingly superior and more evolved than the other.  I can’t remember the exact source, but when asked if his writing was different from his predecessors, one of the Indian English poets writing in post-Independence (1947) times said, “That’s just the way we wrote.” With contemporary poetry, I find a lot of experimentation with several types of poetry like Haiku, Tanka and Haibun, Prose poetry, to name a few.  Also, in keeping with the pressing concerns of the times, the content of today’s poetry reflects themes like Climate Change, Racism, Feminism, and other urgent political and social issues. Several poets have adopted a more colloquial style, which is actually my preference.  Translation has also begun to occupy an important space in the field of poetry today.

 

Q.5. How do you visualize yourself in the poetic arena of contemporary English poetry? 

I spend a lot of my time, writing about my father, giving readings of his poetry, lectures, and presentations about him. Preserving his legacy is very near and dear to my heart. I am more than happy to introduce him to the younger generation of poets, that may not be acquainted with him, as well as to international audiences. For me this is a labor of love, and more important than my own writing. Of course, I am a published poet myself and enjoy writing poetry. I have taught poetry in schools and colleges in a teaching career spanning over four decades and published my first book ‘Family Sunday and other poems’ in 1989. Raising two children and working full time consumed the intervening years. I happily, but sometimes wistfully, put my writing on hold. Giving time to my family was important at that stage. It was a priority for me.  After a long hiatus, having retired from teaching, I started writing again and my chapbook ‘Light of The Sabbath’ was published in September 2021. My simple desire is to share my most treasured memories and experiences with readers.  My greatest reward is when the poems are well-received and have touched the reader is some way.  My poems are also a record in verse of my family history.  On one occasion, my father, knowing my love of the Beatles, bought me a book of their lyrics from a bookshop in New York. He inscribed the book ‘To Kavita, with faith in her potential.’ If, in some small measure I can fulfil that potential, then I have not only fulfilled his hope for me, but my own dream for myself.

Kavita: Thank you for the opportunity of sharing my thoughts and ideas with you.

Susmita: Thank you Kavita for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. We are filled with gratitude.

 

Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in a Jewish family in Mumbai.  She was educated at the Queen Mary School, Mumbai, received her BA in English and French, an MA from the University of Bombay in English and American Literature, and a Master’s in Education from Oxford Brookes University, England.  She has taught English, French and Spanish in various colleges and schools in India and overseas. Her first book, Family Sunday and Other Poems was published in 1989, with a second edition in 1990. Kavita is the daughter of the late poet, Nissim Ezekiel. She manages her Poetry page at https://www.facebook.com/kemendoncapoetry/

Susmita is a creative writer and independent scholar with bipolar mood disorder with schizophrenic potential. She writes in English and Bengali and is published in “Headline Poetry and Press”, “Montauk” and “Learning and Creativity”. Her published books are Poetry in Pieces (2018) and Himabaho Kotha Bole (When Glaciers Speak) (2019). She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Pine Cone Review. Her personal website is www.susmitapaul.org 

Two Poems by Rizwan Akhtar

Free Market Economy

Not for ambition or bread—Dylan Thomas

just when the evening is about to collapse

like a market haggles rattles and shut

his tea settles in a cup bringing a reprieve

behind window a dusty urban Narcissus

flouts lavish curls (on a glossy cell phone)

so that when the day is done and the memory

tucked inside body is worn by sweating labor

nine to five battle with bread culminates

he is on a soft pillow munching dreams

indeed his muse is an aristocrat unaware

of her assets whipping world’s stock exchange

compare to this mean vendor of survival whose

poetic is so undernourished even trees he choose

gasps for more oxygen and grass craves water

the sun is so capitalistic intent on lurching him

a wildness lives at heart’s surroundings.

Hermeneutics

We do not live in proximity

with a sea and neither are

there gods so our pantheon

never originated except an

encounter on a bench since

then only personifications

be any other implicit way

to wind up all our chapters 

we shouldered even trees

close by called for glossary

ever since there is a simile

stuck on some page treated

your arms for all sorts of

purposes from a nuanced

analogy to a wild biting

to say I love you was the

death of punctuation till

an alcove of silence and

the book alone shelved.

Rizwan Akhtar’s debut collection of Poems Lahore, I Am Coming (2017) is published by Punjab University Press, Lahore .He has published poems in well-established poetry magazines of the UK, US, India, Canada, and New Zealand. He was a part of the workshop on poetry with Derek Walcott at the University of Essex in 2010.

Poems by Devika Mathur

BARREN DAYS

These days, possibly
I could stay awake all night
without lids open
without an outgrown mass for affection
staring into the raw rims of oval mouth- night shifters, I say.

A thing might be done during the afternoons
but generally nothing much happens in my house
all yellow- mahogany ruptured landscape
with tainted smiles to watch
monotony of colours, pigments and textures.
I have frowning faces all over
for spilled, spoiled milk (whatever you say)
A woman dragging her shadow in circles
counting till 50 backwards to go off to sanity,
nothing to stop her,
often, she skips if not running.

I can smell the salt all day.
Through the hanging stale night lamps,
a toothpaste now old and rusting
with beds cracking,
days pale like the birds bereft of water

brown as your memory
brown table, brown cinema and nothing wonderful.
Breakfasts are small,
small and wholesome.
Pinkish fruity nectar,
jasmine tea
and no words.
The rose from my balcony is my muse
a snippet from a falling sky-
it reminds me of my field of stone,
air and blur.
Sunsets and smiles.

These days, possibly
I can imagine going off to sleep
with everything inside my clumsy fist.
Askew, I will wake and break.

A RED FANCY

Red washbasins under my tongue
mosaic bones,
a shiver on my knee,
red is the sky and red is you.

This time is a wound now,
red fluttering itch.
I see you in my transparent dreams-

made of paper hearts and porcelain art,
a red opaque mirror
of us-

holding a sniffle of barren mouth
a sniff and a snuggle-
how do you want this?

how much do you want it?
A red shadow.
a red bed for a growling moon.

Count the ways, now.
the red floors of mannequins dancing/ the nail bite/
the fever. 
Count the ways you want it again?

  Cold now. 
Almost slippery.
Close to the red door.

Close to immature death once again.
The red sky is empty again.

-Devika Mathur resides in India and is a published poet, writer, and editor. Her works have been published in The Alipore Post, Madras Courier, Modern Literature, Two Drops Of Ink, Dying Dahlia Review, Pif Magazine, Spillwords, Duane’s Poetree, Piker Press, Mojave heart review, Whisper and the Roar amongst others. She is the founder of the surreal poetry website “Olive skins” and writes for https://myvaliantsoulsblog.wordpress.com/   She recently published her book “Crimson Skins”  and her five poems were also published in Sunday Mornings River anthology recently and has her works upcoming in two more fierce anthologies

Remembering K.K

K.K is no more. Words most of us thought we would never get to hear since we hold on to the silly and unproven belief that death follows the ritual of visiting the old before the young. But as I type this and as you read this, we are in a world which does not have that man in flesh and blood, where his sudden departure and absence has been felt more sharply than the implosion of a star.

I first SAW K.K. on T.V on a show called the Bhaskar Ghosh Show on Star Movies in the year 1999. I put “SAW” in all caps because those were the days where one only heard playback singers- the social media bandwagon was still a decade away. The playback scenario in Hindi Films was ruled by Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan and Abhijeet—Sonu Nigam still had not achieved the stardom that came to him post Kal Ho Na Ho and was more of a familiar face as a host of a Musical Talent Hunt show.

 K.K. came like a breath of fresh air. In those days, the Indie Pop scene was not as tedious, monotonous and lacking in depth as we have now. Alisha Chinai, Euphoria, Daler Mehndi, Colonial Cousins were churning out one hit after another. Add to it, the charm of the music videos, introducing certain faces (Vidya Balan, Shahid Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, John Abraham, to name a few) which would later go on to launch a thousand ships. K. K’s Pal was released that year, along with the Nagesh Kukunoor’s growing up/boarding school drama Rockford and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. So in a space of months, three songs, speaking of three different stages of adulting and teenage evolution, slowly crept into our lives with the calm assurance of a ghost who refuses to be exorcised. Tadap Tadap from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was a wail of a lover- railing against a God for making him fall in love and against the fickle nature of love itself. Pal, the song was more soothing and comforting, a song meant for the people residing on the opposite axis of heartbreak. And Yaaron Dosti would become a staple at school and college farewells.

With time, the legend of K.K. kept on growing. If you believed in the maxim, “Our Sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts…” then you knew why K.K was in everybody’s playlist. I mean, who would not like a man who sung Sach Keh Raha Hain Deewana and Awaarapan, Banjarapan (A song so poignant that we forgot to criticise John Abraham’s emotiveness or the lack of it on screen). MTV and Channel V gave him the kind of airtime that was required for his voice to grow on us. And he straddled different lands- those of despair in the songs mentioned above and of elation and celebration and just plain masti in Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe and Dus Bahaane.

His musical collaboration with Pritam helped the latter find feet for himself in the Hindi film industry. The other two important cogs in the wheel were the Bhatt production house and Emraan Hashmi. Emraan had this amazing knack of making any song on screen sound and look better. Not that K.K needed any help. But their collaboration worked, be it in Tum Mile, The Train, Gangster and Jannat. In between all this, was the soul stirring Alvida from Life in a Metro, a song which had two versions, the other sung by Bangladeshi rock stalwart James and where, with all due respect to James, K. K’s version was a couple of miles ahead. His voice had the wonderful playback quality to it, it was not merely of a singer’s but that of a voice that was meant to be heard on screen.

But things change. And not always for the better. In the last few years, we heard less and less of him. The old timers have either stepped away from the limelight or are seen as judges in various reality shows. Not K.K. He was active in the live concert scene and had been selective about collaborating with music directors. Various factors may be responsible for this— there has been a flurry of old songs being remade and recreated, the auto-tune phenomenon which has taken away the skill element from playback singing and finally the tendency of music directors to have more than one version of a single song in a film’s soundtrack but which gets to feature in the film proper and which meant for unplugged version and only for the album being at the mercy of the producer. The landscape of the music industry had changed. For the ones in their early youth now, he was just another name. But not for us.

It has been just over a week since his demise. I have stayed away from the FM and Spotify, lest I chance upon the various tribute shows and playlists that have been curated for him. But I have hummed his songs continuously. Without being conscious of it. Without taking much of an effort. There is no discrepancy or duality or hypocrisy there. The fact remains that there has been a void which will not be filled up. Very similar to the void created with the absence of another genius, Irrfaan. I have sat in the evenings and nights and wondered why does it hurt? Where does it hurt?

The truth is this loss is a very selfish loss. Very few of us are railing at the unfairness of life, or the unpredictability of death. That is something we have been accepted. With K.K, a particular generation has lost a part of themselves. This grief is a very private grief, something that people of this generation might not able to grasp fully. K.K voiced the longing, grief, love and hope and hopelessness and friendly banter of millions. He was a sign where things were not made available too easily. One had to go to music websites filled with trackers and questionable links, the most popular being one from the other side of the border, and see if the songs had been uploaded. Very few of us could afford the CDs and since cassettes were slowly setting with the western sun, the only available option was to download songs from the internet. He is the symbol of the times when, since these songs were not available at the press of a button, the wait for them to be played on TV, on countdown shows or even on the FM was a agonising one but it was all worth it.

We are all holding on. It is funny how most times on social media and Whatsapp, we are only looking backward to the times gone by. We are active members of groups and subscribe to pages which deal with the forgotten taste of childhood and adolescence. K.K was a guardian of a treasure, the keys to whose doors we have willingly given away. And that is why this death hurts. When K.K sang Zaara si dil mein de jagah tu, it was a request that he didn’t have to make.

Poems by Oindri Sengupta

Two faces

My city has a history of nothingness.

Like many other cities that are born

out of someone’s despair and dreams,

my city too erupted from a lost sigh,

kept behind by a broken promise at the night’s end.

We are all dust-gatherers here,

cleaning our rusted memories before fading into light.

You came in during a dark hour

when the city found eloquence in its salty waters,

around the sound of its graves,

under the silence of the sky.

Drifting from one thread of light to the other.

Your call was like the madness of the soul

that once tasted the flavour of flight.

My feet followed you,

looking for answers,

While the city discovered its being scattered

on the road we left behind in sleep,

you discovered the elemental colours of life

on the path that you carved inside me.

Oindri Sengupta teaches English at a Govt School in Kolkata. Her poetry has been previously published in journals like The Lake (UK), Istanbul Literary Review, Chiron Review, Life and Legends, Outlook India, Muse India, and is upcoming in Poetica Review (UK) among others. Her poetry has also been used and adapted into a play, ‘Another Rainbow’. Her debut collection of poems ‘After the Fall of a Cloud’ has recently been published by Hawakal Publishers (New Delhi) in 2022.