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