NEWSLETTER

The Usawa Newsletter February ‘24

How JLF helped me with my undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD

In the bustling city of Jaipur, amidst the vibrant colours of its streets and the rich tapestry of its culture, lies an event that has woven itself into the very fabric of my life—the Jaipur Literature Festival. For eleven years now, this festival has been more than just an annual event for me; it has been a source of inspiration, transformation, and belonging.

I remember my first encounter with the festival vividly, a timid newcomer navigating the crowded halls and bustling tents alone. I had always struggled with reading and writing, haunted by undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD, enduring ridicule from classmates and a sense of isolation. But fate intervened when the festival came to my school as part of its outreach program. Surrounded by strangers yet enveloped in the warmth of literary conversations and shared passions, I found solace and a sense of community.

Over the years, the Jaipur Literature Festival became my sanctuary, a refuge where I could explore the vast expanse of literature and ideas, unhindered by my learning differences. With the support of my family and teachers, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery, gradually embracing reading and writing as not just challenges to overcome, but as gateways to understanding, expression, and connection.

As the years passed, my relationship with the festival deepened. I eagerly anticipated each edition, counting down the days until I could immerse myself once again in its lively discussions, captivating sessions, and eclectic mix of voices. From attending sessions on history and arts to engaging in conversations about queer identity and social change, the festival broadened my horizons and enriched my understanding of the world.

But it was not just the intellectual stimulation that kept drawing me back; it was the sense of belonging and kinship that I found among the festival’s organizers, volunteers, and fellow attendees. The Diggi family, with their warm hospitality, welcomed me into their fold, making me feel like a cherished member of their clan. And Sanjoy Sir, with his boundless generosity and encouragement, became not just a mentor, but a guiding light on my journey.

With each passing year, the festival became not just a space for learning, but a catalyst for personal growth and empowerment. It bolstered my confidence, honed my communication skills, and instilled in me a passion for lifelong learning. Inspired by the diverse voices and stories I encountered at the festival, I began to find my voice, weaving my experiences and insights into the tapestry of my writing.

This year, as I entered the festival grounds, I carried with me a new sense of purpose and determination. My goal was clear—to find an editor for the book I had poured my heart and soul into, a testament to the transformative power of literature and the Jaipur Literature Festival itself.

As I navigated the labyrinthine paths of the festival, attending sessions, networking with fellow writers and publishers, and soaking in the creative energy that permeated the air, I felt a sense of anticipation building within me. And then, on the final day of the festival, as the sun dipped below the horizon and the tents began to empty, fate smiled upon me once again.

In a serendipitous encounter, I met the editor who would become not just a collaborator, but a champion for my work. Against all odds, she saw the potential in my story, recognizing the voice and vision that had been nurtured and shaped by a decade of immersion in the literary world of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

As I reflected on my journey, from a hesitant newcomer to a confident writer, I realized that the true gift of the festival lay not just in the sessions attended or the books read, but in the connections forged and the lives transformed. The Jaipur Literature Festival had become more than just an event; it was a beacon of light, illuminating the path to self-discovery, growth, and fulfilment.

And so, with a heart full of gratitude and a mind buzzing with ideas, I bid farewell to another unforgettable edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, knowing that its impact would continue to resonate within me long after the tents had been dismantled and the crowds dispersed. For in the world of literature and ideas, the journey never truly ends—it merely takes on new dimensions, leading us ever onward towards new horizons of possibility and discovery.

-Siddharth Kothari

A Love Letter to Women’s Stories

Say hello to the Writing Women Blog, a love letter to women’s stories and our immense storytelling traditions!

Our instagram and blog space is a growing library of racialized women storytellers, their writings, poetry, book recommendations, and more, all shared within a framework of intersectional and transnational feminism. With a strong focus on translated and nonfiction works, writingwomen.co attempts to deepen reflection on what we can collectively gain from the study of women’s stories.

The space is run by Vijaya Chikermane, mother to a little human, Gender and Health Equity Consultant, and dedicated reader. Contributions to content, art and visioning come from many voices that you can read about on the site. There are a number of ways to get involved in this collective work, we’re always welcome to new connections. And ever grateful for like minded decolonial feminist partners such as Usawa!

Writing Women is a small attempt at countering the erasure that colonial, patriarchal history perpetrates on Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, Trans and queer women’s stories. It is only through curious learning from these voices, can we strengthen the reserves of our collective memory.

In the words of Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo “work is love made visible,” if the work of growing a living library of women storytellers is work, then I hope it is in the pursuit of making love visible. 

-Writing Women

The Usawa Newsletter December '23

Kinshuk Gupta Wins Nayi Awazen Samman 2023

There are many firsts associated with this winning — my maiden book, which is also the first LGBT-themed Hindi short story collection, receives this inaugural prize. Getting a prize is humbling, but my joy increased manifold because I’d least expected to get it. While the literary community had a resounding reception, I had to battle resistance too. Some critics decided to ignore the book because they felt the themes were way too explicit, nude, and could contaminate Indian aesthetics and cultural ethos. Our society is often against love — not only queer love but love of any kind. And so, a prize like this, not only upholsters my belief in love but also looks at the society in the eye and asks difficult questions

The Usawa Newsletter November '23

The Ornaments of Silence

by Tabish Nawaz

Detention

The birds set loose
at daybreak
cooing, pecking at the walls
invite us – in strange languages.

Awaiting a wave on its way
– peeping at a future – the past
flies from all directions.

Time – like a shrapnel – strikes,
lodges within, breathes.
The city makes its heat
festering the heartbeats.

Flowers blooming everywhere
honouring their springs,
oozing colours – bright and crisp –
from their petals, your smile
of last summers, dried
rasping on the road, breaking
on a little movement.

Each day the house opens
like a jaw
and shuts us within.

Departure

Leaving the city, unacknowledged
without a farewell,
carrying within my shoes
the sweat, the rain.

The footsteps like twin falling leaves
swirl wayward, stumble
into melancholic memories,
constructing monuments to the restless days
spent sitting with bare feet
dipped in the flowing river,
thinking how much of life
I wasted in your bosom, dear city,
convincing you that is how
the nature of the life was –
grafted, never feeling secure
always looking elsewhere,
never belonging,
soaring into the sky
of longings.

Release

On a rainy evening, returning home.
Light wearied of its rectilinear paths
leaps off the lamp posts, spreads
over the street, wallowing in
the footsteps of strangers.

The vehicles’ headlights stretched
like a pair of hands
running to catch the rain
falling as fireflies
on the windshields.

The twin wipers swatting them away
like Sisyphus chases after his rocks.
Imagine them happy
whispers a friend, diffusing
into the heart
the melancholy of the rain.

Imagining them happy
I returned home
Drunk, tired
of the weight
I slept
while the rain outside
poured the light,
untethering from the sources
over my window
flashing
to let itself in.

The darkness in the room
with each flash of light
deepens,
shoos light away.

The Anguish of Unrequited Love

by Aadi Jeev

I can’t help but feel like I’m waiting to catcall you. Like I’ve watched you pass by the same street every night, smoking in the corner. I feel like I’m stalking you. Like how I keep hanging around here on purpose thinking you might show up at 8:05. I don’t know if you’ve seen me at all in the dark. Or perhaps you’re extremely aware that I’m there, watching, waiting. When you hurry past me, your pace quickens, a key wedged between your fingers, ready to rip me apart if I breach your boundary. Why wouldn’t you start taking a different route then

I think about the things I could say to you as you pass through my cigarette smoke and I’m sure I’ll just scare you. I’m scared you won’t get it- what I mean by the things I might end up saying. There’s so much distance between us. So much space for words to float, deform & contort. You won’t get it.

Or worse, maybe I don’t have anything special to say. I’d call you “beautiful” at best. But you might already know that. Perhaps you have a girlfriend who tells you that every day, in a way that makes you feel safer. Safer than out here on the street. Safer one feels in their own skin. Perhaps you’ve forcefully slipped it into your morning affirmations in front of the mirror and gradually learnt to mean it. Perhaps your mother has always told it to you & you used that as an excuse for shawls & bras. Or you already know and don’t bother about it

With every passing hypothesis, I swear the cloud of smoke around us thickens. You seem impenetrable. I don’t have anything to say. I don’t have a say at all. So much smoke separates two people. So much structure & purpose. We thrash & grope through the fog trying to feel each other. All through the cloud stacks that choke the air that divides us. We block each other’s paths to chat for a while, get late for work, or try to hold each other in the currents that sweep us away and onward. I know you’re tired & just want to go home. I’d have come in the morning, but my shift starts at 6. It’s impossible to live in a world that makes no time or room for

But we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have without love. So, our sly world makes space for it. Little channels & pockets within the smoke- spaces where our love was allowed to quietly slip through and suffocate without much of a fuss. In the daytime, at home, with courtesy & grace. In marriages, in economies, in hospitals & taxes. We know where to look for love- our dating apps, our castes, brokers & bars. All marriages are arranged. All social love is arranged, organised & rationed.

The air that hangs loosely off your hurrying body is yours, not mine. It rests on your tympanum and doesn’t deserve to be shaken up with my holler. Especially when I have nothing to say.

Does anyone ever though?

Is not love our one shot at diffusing this smoke? When we stop & talk & tell each other about our day, where we’re headed & going? Maybe I will have something to say then. I could tell you you’re not beautiful in a way that has any value. You’re not beautiful in a way that could be turned into capital, bought, turned into a magazine cover, or be thought of as something that a nervous pervert in a dark alley has any right to. You’re beautiful in a pretty useless way, & isn’t that great?

Again, maybe you knew that too. But does it matter?

Love is our one shot at diffusing this smoke. Reaching across the structures & stories that define & divide how we’re allowed to live & keep moving. In a world like ours, love is always unrequited.

It disrupts, disorders, & disillusions. We aren’t allowed to love that would be true to the meaning of the word. We’re only allowed to define our social relationships in the way of usefulness to society.

What’s interesting is how blind we’ve turned to the lines and divisions that decide who, when and where we share our space and time with. We’ve got rules, maps, and timetables right from boys and girls sitting separately in kindergarten to ‘pure veg’ restaurants. We move our programmed bodies through these defined, gendered, & divided spaces. We barely clock how much it restricts who we “happen to fall in love” with. It’s a lot less to do with luck than it might look like. There are just so many layers of difference & math written into the smoke.

So, when I look at you through this smoke, I know I can barely make you out. The fog is thick, & there are no cleared-out pockets at all for our love, but I’m determined to make it through everything that defines us.

But I wouldn’t want you to feel unsafe though.

So, I let your love disrupt. I take the next day off work, & wait at that street, 7 am. I don’t smoke. You walk by and I stop you and say, “Hey, I love your style. Where’d you get your skirt from?” You stop and smile.

You get a little late for work.

Nigerian Journal of Poems and Short Stories Submission Guidelines

Call for Submission in Nigerian Journal of Poems and Short Stories (NJPSS) is now open! (ISSN: 2814-3752)

Publication (online) is Free if your Poem or Short story is Selected!

Nigerian Journal of Poems and Short Stories (NJPSS) is a journal devoted to well-polished poems and short stories. The journal has an editorial team and international reviewers who are dedicated to promoting literary readership and creative ingenuity through thorough review. This is an online journal which is indexed on Google scholar! See the link below!
https://www.nigerianjournalsonline.com/index.php/NJPSS

Submission should be done on the Facebook page (Dr. Ifeoma Odinye’s Literary Forum).
https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100082737042510&mibextid=gjUFcU

Submission Closes on 15th December, 2023.

Submit on the above Facebook page with your original name (Name in Full)! Once your poem/short story is selected, other details will be required from you. Kindly follow and like the page to register your presence!

Guidelines for Submission
All poems/short stories must have titles.
All poems/short stories must be original and well-written.
The length of poems must not exceed 1000 words. Short stories must not be more than 2000 words.
The poems and short stories must not have been submitted to other journals for publication.
No group submission!
Only one submission from an individual is acceptable for this call!
NOTE: All submissions must be written in English.

Young and Hungry- Malay Roy Choudhury, a Perspective

By Maitreyee B Chowdhury

I first chanced upon the Hungryalists while reading Deborah Baker’s book, A Blue Hand, where she recounted Allen Ginsberg’s journey to India, his stay in Calcutta and made a small mention of Allen’s meeting with the Hungryalist poets. Intrigued, I started reading up more about this fiery brand of poets. As a Bengali born and raised outside Bengal, I found a certain resonance with poets like Malay Roy Choudhury, Subimal Basak, Subo Acharya and Pradip Choudhuri, who wanted to break through the annals of traditional Bangla literature in trying to produce something new and exciting. Their outsider instincts gave them an edginess, that was attractive and rebellious, adding a different perspective into Bangla literature and culture that one had read till then.

The Hungryalist Movement was initiated in 1961 by the Roy Chowdhury brothers, Samir and Malay, and Shakti Chattopadhay and Debi Roy. It was a call at rebellion of sorts, aimed at a change of guard from the old colonial canons. This rebellion eventually became their way of challenging governmental policies, prevalent Bangla literature that denied young writers a chance at experimentation, and existing societal norms that seemed outdated. One must take into account the fact that the political and cultural climate in the country in general, and Bengal in particular had also contributed to the circumstances leading to such a rebellion. Fuelled by partition woes, unemployment, hunger and dissatisfaction, this was almost a precursor to the much bigger Naxalite movement of 1970s when an entire generation stood up against the establishment and much like the Hungryalists, had to face the brunt of being mercilessly wiped out.

I realised that the Hungryalist spirit was an embodiment of the boundless faith the youth had in change, particularly in a post-colonial society fraught with post-partition agony, anger and disillusionment, and a sense of helplessness that was allied with the social and political crisis brewing amongst Bengalis. While refugee crisis, and post partition migration might have added fuel to the situation, it must be remembered that hordes of refugee families from the then East Bengal had also displaced many families in West Bengal, adding to the already restlessness environment.

I initiated a conversation with Malay Roy Chowdhury around 2014, when I conceived the idea of a book about the Hungry Generation. As a founding member and central figure of the movement, Malay da, was welcoming of the idea and guided me very generously towards books, literature and people who could help me in my research. Over a period of the next five to six years, we corresponded regularly, during which I found him vibrant, informed and intuitive in his discussions on world literature in general and the Hungryalist literature in particular. He was thoughtful and frank, and most generous with his time, and I felt that he had a vision that would have been ideal to bind together the Hungryalist poets, had they survived the crackdown from the authorities. Malay da, was also acquainted with many of the Indian language poets, who had stood by the group during the turbulent Hungryalist days.

A curious trend one notices over the years though, is the fact that even those acquainted with the Hungryalist revolution, often tend to forget that Malay Roy Choudhury was a prominent name in Bengali prose writing too. He wrote more than fifty books, many of which were novels and dramas that have been well received. Other than being a prominent poet, he was also a Sahitya Akademi winning translator, an essayist and an icon for the youth, many of whom he guided through the years. Added to all this, he also had the advantage of being acquainted with some of greatest literary giants of the time like Allen Ginsberg and Octavio Paz.

Born to a prominent Hindu family, Malay Roy Choudhury grew up in Patna, studied in Catholic and Brahmo schools, and was exposed to the infamous neighbourhood of Imlitala, where he and his brother Samir were exposed to drugs, petty thieves, lower caste people, and sex workers very early on in their lives. He had said to me during an interview, ‘if one has to understand my work, they will have to go through these many layers that have shaped me.’

In 1963, during the heydays of Hungryalist writing, Malay Roy Choudhury published a poem titled Prachanda Baidyutik Chhutar (StarkElectric Jesus) which made headlines and stirred a huge controversy, eventually also leading to his arrest, along with simultaneous raids across the country in the homes of other Hungryalist poets. Malay’s poem was confessional and personal in nature. It also had sexual overtones and used explicitly sexual language, which led to public condemnation, outrage, and a court case based on the charges of obscenity. Interestingly enough, the original Bengali version of Stark Electric Jesus is no longer considered obscene. In fact, the poem has been reprinted numerous times in many publications around the world, and in Kolkata. Many bloggers and poets have also put it up on their websites.

When Malay was arrested from his Patna home, he lost his job, and was even jailed for two months. This had a terrible impact, and changed the course of his life in many ways. He eventually left Bengal, for good and shifted to Mumbai, and even stopped writing for many years. It was only after 1983, following the death of his mother, that he returned to writing again.

Malay’s arrest served as a death knell for the Hungryalist movement. His brother Samir was arrested in Chaibasa and suspended from his job. Others poets, like Utpal kumar Basu and Pradip Choudhuri had to go underground for a while, while many others stopped writing altogether. The handwritten poems, drafts of various books by the Hungryalist writers, etc were also seized by the Kolkata Police during the interrogation, but never returned once the case was over.

While the movement itself was short lived, the impact it had on the Indian literary scene was quite powerful. The movement had spread to other languages such as Hindi, Assamese, Nepali, Hindi, Telugu and Marathi. As a result, when the leaders of the group were arrested, poets from across India and abroad spoke in support of them, and stood together in solidarity.

In retrospect, there has been growing interest in the movement and their work, as a group that spearheaded Avant Garde literature at a time when society was ripe and ready for change. It was a time for unrest throughout the world in fact and across the oceans, the Beat Generarion had sized people’s imagination with Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his poem Howl. As a result when Ginsberg visited India, and choose to stay in Calcutta, and then travel to stay with the Roy Choudhury brothers in their Patna home, it felt like an affirmation of kindred spirits that had managed to spark the same flame of revolt across continents.

Long after Ginsberg and the Beats left South Asia, the Hungryalists suffered from talk that they had been influenced by the Beat Generation. But Malay Roy Choudhury even while acknowledging Ginsberg’s help in spreading their work, has categorically denied any direct influence of the Beats on The Hungryalists. In fact, he specified that their movement and initial manifesto had already been set in motion long before Allen Ginsberg set foot in India. The Hungryalists also made it clear that though they did use intoxicants like Hasish and Ganja, it was never during the course of their writing, nor did the hungryalists ever use psychedelic drugs. At the most it might be said that they had a mutual admiration of sorts, which would have been natural with two well-known poets coming together.

The Hungryalist movement might have died down, many of the trail blazers now dead, but such movements, and the questions they raise, the kind of literature they inspire are perhaps forever. And the success of the movement lies in the interest such work gives rise to for future generations to come.

Till the end, Malay Roy Choudhury continued writing, and inspiring younger generations to read, think and to revolt, while also producing Avant Garde literature.

The Usawa Newsletter October '23

Claudia Goldin

“I have always thought of myself as a detective”, said economic historian Claudia Goldin in an interview soon after being informed she had won the Nobel Prize for Economic Studies. “I do my detective work with archival documents, with large amounts of data. The point of being a detective means that you have a question. And the question is so important that you will go to any end to find an answer.”

The question that Claudia Goldin set out to answer was women’s participation in the labour force, how it has changed with time and the factors that determine it. At the time when Goldin started her research, it was assumed that there was a positive co-relation between economic growth and women’s participation in the workplace. By examining historical data, she found that labour force participation actually dropped drastically after the Industrial Revolution when workplaces shifted from the home (or close to the home) to factories.

By comparing labour force participation for different cohorts of women, Goldin confirmed what was already known- that even when women entered the labour force, they dropped out after marriage and childbirth. Further, she found that when women tried to re-enter the labour market after their children were grown up, their options were restricted by educational choices they had made 2 decades previously. This, she showed is a vicious cycle, because educational decisions are taken assuming that women will not work after childbirth, and the same decisions later prevent them from participating in the labour market.

Claudia Goldin correctly identified the easy availability of contraceptive pills as one of the major reasons behind the entry of women into professions like law, medicine and economics that required extensive professional training. However, here too, she identified a distinct wage gap between men and women of similar age, education and productivity, which she explained as being on account of the fact that salaries are often determined based on the perception of how long a particular employee would remain with the firm. Since it was assumed that women would drop out after childbirth, salaries for women were pegged lower than those for men. Even women who continue to work after childbirth lose out on both career progression and earnings, because greater responsibilities at home make it hard for them to be constantly available and flexible to the demands of the employer.

Though Goldin does not offer any solutions, in the words of economist Randi Hjalmarsson, a member of the Prize Committee, “her research allows policymakers to tackle the entrenched problem.”

The Nobel Prize is awarded for big ideas and for long-term change. By awarding the Nobel Prize to Claudia Goldin, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has put gender inequity in the labour market in the spotlight. The first solo female winner of the Nobel Prize for Economic Science has identified the obstacles to gender equity. It is now upto policy makers and corporates to remove them, so women’s labour is finally acknowledged and rewarded.

Natasha Ramarathnam works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional writer, she constantly worries about ensuring her teenage sons grow up to be feminist men. She defines herself as a dog lover, a tree hugger, a coffee addict and a handloom enthusiast

JON FOSSE, The Other Name for prose

Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time” – Robert McKee

Time that very much stills yet flows through the writing of Jon Fosse. A playwright and translator, Norwegian author Jon Fosse has proved his mettle, time and again through exemplary writing whether it was for plays, essays or various novels.

I came across his work for the first time when he was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022. His Septology series is one of the most notable works which now has been widely read and appreciated across the globe.

He wrote his first novel, Red, Black, in 1983, followed by the Melancholy series, Aliss at the Fire, and Septology to name a few. Eventually, he started scriptwriting for plays, mastering that skill and how. Some of his expansively scripted plays, as said by him, have been written in a night.

“The Other Name”, “I Is Another” and “A New Name” are the intricately designed pieces of the Septology trilogy, each forming the philosophical & theological extension of the other. The series interweaves the life story of Asle, a staunch, rosary-bearing Catholic, whose thoughts keep meandering from the outside world to the inside. The plotless narrative is more like an assembly of dots, dots for the readers to connect. Pictures created by these dots will be your own creation, which can be colored as you want them to look viz. you want red for love or red for religion, grey for belief or humanity etc.

Just like Septology, Fosse plays with time and his method of continuous narrative in Aliss at the Fire. The ebb & flow of the plot can be measured through the various pawns he lays down on the chessboard. Each move on this chequered board cascades through contemplations about Art, Religion, Silence, Stillness, Darkness, delving deeper and deeper into faith

Author interviews are the best way to understand the thought process behind the book. Out of many authors that I have read, Fosse’s clarity has always intrigued me. Quoting one of his interviews, he says

“To write what I myself have experienced doesn’t interest me at all. I write more to get rid of myself than to express myself. It is the creation of a new universe, characters, moods, a story, a specific way of writing, which is interesting to me. And if I manage to write well, I bring something to this world that wasn’t there before. And that is also completely new to me.”

Fosse’s writing feels nothing less than assembly of poems. The never-ending loop of small sentences leading to longer ones makes for a perfect play area for the author. The engrossing narrative & absence of full stops all across the Septology might just make you forget to breathe once in a while. Hence the claustrophobia of his characters starts resonating with you as a reader.

His writing style has a juxtaposition of repetitive lines with that of fragmented sentences. I think these are his tools to bring out the hauntingness of the text. There is a sense of urgency in his writing & quick shifts from present to past & back that don’t let your attention shift even for a minute.

One of the most appealing aspects of his writing which I feel the common audience will connect to is how beautifully he describes nature and its compartments. In Septology, he has immaculately painted the beautiful Norway and its fjords

In general, talk about Faith, religion and subjective propensity have a high susceptibility of being borderline preachy but his work makes none of it.

“I just keep the mistakes and let them be wrong, because it’s often the mistakes that eventually lead to something right” – from I Is Another

In hindsight Fosse’s writing style might not appeal to all sets of readers. His plethora of work is not easy to understand and sometimes plotless narratives can also get daunting. I think to love and understand his work you need to be in the right frame of mind.

The Nobel Prize for Literature 2023 awarded to him celebrates his imperfect characters and staunch readers

 

My alma mater was books, a good library…. I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”

Malcolm X

 

This quote perfectly sums my past, present and future. Curiosity is to Human as Fickle is to Life. The only constant being Knowledge, which will help you learn, Unlearn and Relearn. Hence I love to read range of books from Fiction to Non Fiction, from Historical Fiction to Autobiographies, from Romance to Real life challenges. I generally post my book reviews on Social media sites (@rendezvouswithbooks) and enjoy a Tome as much as a short story

-Bhavna Joshi

Extracts from My Body Didn’t Come Before Me: Poems

Follow-up appointment

I had to spell it—h o p e l e ss n e ss
had to hiss my tongue twice, had to pronounce

right, had to say other words—tired empty hollow
like a bottomless bowl of brass, embossed,

till I tasted the bitter melt of Escitalopram
on the lilt of my tongue standing in front

of the pantry at work; till smiling good morning
colleagues watched my eyebrows knit but didn’t

ask what is this medicine? I had to hear it
from the lady doctor, wise in her metallic zipper

coat, saying let us not taper anymore.
Had to hear my name—Kuhu—had to whisper

Kuhu down my throat, had to rub my palm in circles
around my navel, had to feel the bed flatten

underneath my spine, had to hear her say—Kuhu
you take care of yourself.

Snails

My first blood was brown like poop
gone wrong. I didn’t understand my bum
and why the poop kept falling out.

I took to eating more rice. Still the goopey
brown. Flecks some days, then a snail.
Enormous. I’d come home and bend over the sink,

scrubbing with a brush. The white bristles
turning to mud. For four days I took extra bloomers
in my school bag, didn’t breathe much

on the bus back, gripped the seat
when we crossed over speed bumps.
On the fifth day, I showed two snails to Mum.

She stuck in a little white pad,
gave me a stack of old newspaper, and said,
don’t drop them in the toilet. Then she opened

the Illustrated Human Body
and with her right index finger, she traced
what I didn’t think could exist inside me.

What your doctor will tell you:

Forty-five degrees to the right. Thoraco-lumbar.
Cut open. Iron rod. Stitch. Small
Surgery. Milwaukee. Kuch nahin hota hai. Insert. Spine
Still growing. MRI. Pregnancy. Girls grow till seventeen.
Iron. Curved. Rod. Sharma ji hain, vo fitting kar denge.
No known cause. Stop tennis classes.
In eight years when she’s twenty. Brace. No
Known cause. Twenty-two hours. Lacheeli.
Push ribs in place. Phir vo slouch nahin karegi.
L6-L7. Bent-back X-ray. Idiopathic. S shape. Take off your shirt.
Are you wearing a baniyaan? All normal activities. Surgery.
Bohot ladkiyan aati hain. Aap se bhi chhoti-chhoti.

Plunge

 
        The year I decided
I no longer wanted men,

        my body also decided
that it did. I could not rub poems

        against my clit. The words melted
like dead ant heads. Their toes

        curling to the floor. My belly
grew softer and the button

        hung convex. I plucked wild
Syngonium from the park’s sidewalk.

        Digging the hardened mud
with a karchchi. Trying to locate the roots

        whole. In return, the knobbly
mouths threw up sand

        that clung like diamonds
to my clavicle bone, shimmering

        with sweat. When I plunged them
through the mouth of a beer


        bottle, the roots
contracted into each other


        to slide through its neck
before bursting forth—boom

        into the vastness
of its belly. For a second, I thought they

        believed
they were going to open

into air.

Excerpted from My Body Didn’t Come Before Me: Poems by Kuhu Joshi. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023.

ISB alumni visit the Usawa office

On 8 October 2023, three ISB alumni visited Usawa. As part of the ISB Alumni Social Impact SIG’s Impact Day Celebrations, alumni participated in alumni-run NGOs across the country.

Our Editor-in-Chief is an alumnus of ISB. Joining her were Shurti, Aneesha and Avanish. Our Books Editor, Ankush Banarjee attended over Zoom.Trisha Shah and Ritika Saroj represented team Usawa. The attendees participated in a thought-provoking discussion.

Usawa Translation Grant

The function of literature is multi-faceted; it is an escape, it is an examination. And in either of its various facets, it disrupts boundaries. To think of literature is to think of a tapestry of words, of letters, of sounds woven with such care and imagination that it transcends geographical boundaries. Literature in translation is not new, what is new is the momentum it has afforded to translators. Translators are creative writers too – it is because of their careful attention that readers are able to inhabit different worlds and tongues. It is in this spirit of recognizing the intricate work that translators do that we at the Usawa Literary Review are pleased to launch the inaugural Usawa Translations Grant.

The Usawa Translations Grant is an initiative to support the translation of contemporary literature from the present-day countries of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, originally written in local languages into English.

It is a literary effort to bridge the gap for as peoples of the peninsula, we share tectonics, flora and fauna, and even histories and cultures, but as neighbours we continue to remain strangers in the face of solid, impenetrable borders.
Stories, like water can permeate solid boundaries, and poems are able to waft through barbed wires. Such is the power of words that place faith in at Usawa.

We are proud to announce Ajmal Kamal, who is translating the Sinhalese novel by Kaushalya Kumarsinghe as the first recipient of the grant. He will receive a sum of twenty thousand rupees to aid him in the writing process. The origin story of this translation in progress confirms the premise of the grant; it is a work of collaboration between the author and the translator who only had English as the shared language between them. This tale of collaboration is the essence of the Grant – a metaphor for our times that there is hope despite artificial constructs. A more detailed profile of the translator, Kamal and the author, Kumarsinghe may be found here .

Winners of the first Usawa giveaway announced

Usawa celebrated Hindi Diwas by giving away Stree Lekhan Ka Samkal by Rashmi Rawat. The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, DU. She is an acclaimed critic who has two books to her credit: Stree-Lekhan Ka Samkal (Aadhar Prakashan) and Hashiye Ki Awazen (Bodhi Prakashan).

Read a note from the author here

The Usawa Newsletter September'23

A Tribute to Jayanta Mahapatra

Reflecting on the life and legacy of this literary luminary, we have compiled a collection of heartfelt tributes dedicated to him.

The Sense of Sound: A Note on Jayanta Mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra’s fellowship to the International Writing Program (IWP) began not long after the United States Bicentennial celebrated the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration Of Independence, in 1976. The poet was part of a cohort of twenty-two writers from around the world who arrived in Iowa City during the final months of the first post-Watergate presidential election—which is to say: a complicated moment in American history. Asked what he recalled of his stay in the Midwest, Mahapatra replied, “It was a silence I’d never felt before in India. From a noisy, crowded town where I’d lived for more than forty years, right into the noiseless haze of Iowa, where the sky seemed to hang from the many farewells that wounded me, was unnerving. It was a silence that was full of the sense of sound, or perhaps did not carry any sense of sound at all, I cannot say.” What I can say is that the wisdom he gained from his exploration of the various ways in which silence can shape a life in poetry was what marked our single conversation, in an alcove reserved for writers during the Jaipur Literature Festival. It seemed to me he had created or discovered a special zone of silence, a place apart from the overflowing crowds, in which he explained some of what he had learned from his encounters with writers in the IWP. And since I cannot remember exactly what he said that afternoon I will let this prose poem retrieved from his stay in Iowa fill the silence that always attends the death of a great man:

Through the windows of the Mayflower, the Iowa River looked so still as though
its heart had stopped beating, small streaks of white appeared motionless on the
surface. The morning was dull, yet clear, and clouds looked down upon me with
their faceless gloom. A vast white cover of cloud. And the river. There it was;
maybe, I told myself, it had felt the winter already. I finished my letter to R,
dressed, and went down to mail it. Something led me to the Iowa River; it was
cold. Ah, as I approached it, it looked so still, the waters heavy and idle. Yes, the
river was frozen, a crust of ice had formed, and there, so real, in front of me.
Something which I had only imagined, a wild dream. It was more powerful than
snow. So still. I threw a stone, it did not go in, it lay pathetically on the surface. I
walked along the river, watching the dead leaves, maple and oak, in the ice;
somewhere a long stick thrust out its free end into the air. A second stone at
another point broke the thin crust and sank in, in fierce display of its power.
Something moved inside me, through the same blue-green and banal water that
had not changed its visage, and held more power, grim, scornful, like the face of
some funeral priest from my land.

Christopher Merrill, Director, International Writing Program

You’re safely ensconced in our hearts Jayanta da…

in Jayanta da was a beautiful soul and a remarkable human being. Everything about him was inspiring – his poetry, his physical agility despite his age, his lucid mind and his humility. Despite being a decorated poet and having a huge fan following in India and overseas, Jayanta da’s feet were on the ground, his head firmly on his shoulders. He had a delightful sense of humour and an endearing ability to narrate amusing anecdotes that would leave me chuckling. He also had a roaring love for food: street food, restaurant food, home food, everything! He loved the quintessential Mumbai vada pav and I remember being chastened by well wishers when I indulged him with a vada pav everyday for the duration of his stay in Mumbai once.

It seems rather hurtful to recount those carefree, happy hours now. Happy memories feel raw and poignant when one looks back on them after the person is no more. Jayanta da’s passing has left a terrible vacuum in my life as well as in the literary world. I imagine it’s going to be rare, if not impossible, to find a poet as gifted and humble as him – that combination might be hard to replicate.

I recall once, we were sitting on the parapet of Land’s End watching the sea lapping the rocks below. Jayanta da happened to observe a woman selling small, plastic toys on the footpath. He drew out a ten rupee note and bought a plastic toy whistle from her. I was puzzled by his actions but refrained from expressing my confusion. After a few minutes, several passers by, stopped by and bought toys from the seller. Jayanta da, paused and said, “See! You buy one and a cascade starts…” I wondered silently if there was a subtle message there…

Whenever Jayanta da spoke about his adolescent days, the child in him bubbled up from layers of tiredness of being a nonagenarian. I saw tears fill his eyes as he recounted incidents close to his heart, I saw his jaws convulse as he gave way to emotions that were anchored in memories, that went beyond the confines of time and space, like when he mentioned how his mother threw away his precious diaries when he was a teenager. “I used to be a loner in school. Those diaries were the only voice I had in those days…”, he said. I remember him deeply every day since he left us on the 27th of August. Remember him with tenderness and nostalgia for the person he was, for the values of honesty, dignity and humility he stood for and for how much he meant to us as a poet. Jayanta da, the morning after you left us, a Laughing Dove visited my terrace, looked me in the eye and cooed away incessantly. I imagine it was you, saying your final goodbyes and singing of your freedom at last. Of course. Birds speak to me like that.

Vinita Agrawal



“Our ancestors are a living presence with us” said Jayanta Mahapatra to me in a conversation a few years ago. True, indeed he himself would be a living presence forever for us, the poets of the subcontinent, through his poems and his warm spirit. The mystery he had said lay in how we in India understand our lives woven in a cyclic fashion; there is no saying when the straight line becomes a circle and then again, the circle turns into a straight line. He related his understanding of “time” to physics, the discipline he was trained in. Rooted in Odia culture, history and landscape, he spoke of how his poem “Dhauli” came out of his intense pain over the gruesome massacre of the people of Odisha (Kalinga kingdom), and how the river lay discoloured with their blood. The past of his land lived on vibrantly in his memory. By writing poetry in both English as well as Odia language, he enriched both the languages and cherished the freedom to choose the language to suit the content he wished to write on. One of the few poets to have been published abroad in prestigious magazines since long, Jayanta Mahapatra contributed greatly in internationalizing Indian poetry in English. In editing and publishing “Chandrabhaga”, he mentored many a generation of young poets. We pay our humble homage to him by taking inspiration from him and honing our sensitivities and creative skills in writing poetry.

Sukrita Paul Kumar

Requiem for Jayanta Dada

I (28 th August 2023)
I feel your absence like an earthquake. The way
an earth-hugging invertebrate does, sensing
the shake with un-mouthed keening.
The tremors rising and subsiding.
The ripple-spread of shockwaves. The cracks
erupting on the erstwhile smooth surfaces
of my heart. There is no respite.
Not that I am asking for one. For I
do not wish to scatter my grief like day-old rice
to crows on the terrace. I have loved you always
as one loves the taken-for-granted deity
in a corner of the house, in its solitary altar.
I keep that space within.
At certain hours, the incense of my pain swells
like ash from the lit-end of a joss-stick.
Another evidence of your benevolence to me,
each time I inhale the scent of bereavement.
II (30 th August 2023)
Three days Dada. Three days after you left
a plump full moon hung above the horizon watching
the bustle of people as they prepared
for the night. It took the moon three days
to come visiting in her glorious light. Your body
by then had turned to ash. The ash you wrote of.
Grey and warm. Then white and cold. And dry
as the soil on the moon.
A long time ago, and it seems that long to me now,
I used to knock on your door
with letters scrawled by an untidy hand, and
you would respond, as if welcoming a wandering child.
You kept your doors, all of them, wide open. You let us in
as you did the bees and potter wasps, dead flowers come loose
from their stems, the elusive scent of the bamboos swaying
in your garden. All wafted in. None stayed for long.
They say your solitude saddened you in the end.
I say that is how you gifted your poetry to the world.
Like this year’s super blue moon. Rising, holding
her mysteries close. Casting her radiance with
carefree generosity over the expanses of our nights.
On the morning of the fourth day, I saw the moon again.
A perfect disc of cold white ash smeared
on the sky’s forehead. What did the moon know
that I did not? But I can remember. This much I
am allowed. So, I press your memories
between the leaves of books. Sometimes,
like flowers with too thick petals, they bleed
into the pages and the words become blurred.
III (1 st September 2023)
September is for the white of Kash flowers.
Feathery fingers susurrating.
Torment to come.
Nights of cicadas and frog throngs. Of lament too.
The hush beat of a hunting owl.
Terrified squeak of mouse.
On your rocking chair beneath the bamboos
That you had planted scores of years ago
Ash borne on errant wind now sings to their roots.
Mynahs on your sills. Grudging
Eyes of yellow kohl. In a moment
They will raise their chorus cloud ward.
I see you. You are listening in your garden.
Contemplative and waiting.
Life atremble, in your fingertips.
The Koel repeats his notes
Slicing the silence open
The bamboos, you told me,
Have flowered this year. They were
Loyal to you in the end.
Grief begins like a ripple,
Grows in concentric circles.
Rocking the body,
Bending the mind in prayer.
But not towards God or any almighty.
Nor to the universe that sings.
But to the smallest, most fragile of things –
Fronds of Kash in the fields
Shy bamboo flowers
A sparrow’s dusty wing
– Fleeting. All fleeting, but
You knew this. And you kept poetry
flowing while you were waiting.

Shikhandin

A Book, a Day, and Into a Long Journey with Jayanta Mahapatra

Death is not extinguishing the light;
it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.

Rabindranath Tagore.

I last met Jayanta uncle in June this year. Then his last words were, “please do not take pains to come all the way. I may not recover this time.” A tragic self prediction, isn’t it? Actually I planned to celebrate his birthday (October 22) at his home in Cuttack this time. But “our thoughts are ours, there ends none of our own” (Hamlet).

I first met Jayanta in January 2006. In the infant years of my writing, one morning while browsing for new poetry arrivals at a bookstall in Vijayawada, I bumped into an arresting title A Whiteness of Bone and read a poem “All the Poetry there is”. The images and metaphors were brilliant, alluring and cryptic that I was so tempted to buy the book and finished a few of them that evening. They were exactly the kind of poems I dreamt of writing but failed. I heard his name but never read him seriously before except for a mechanical academic reading. I passionately fell in love with his poetry. The next morning I started off to Cuttack to meet him. I didn’;t know in fact why I was going at all but just wanted to see him. I didn’t even have any reservation; I travelled in the general compartment. I reached Cuttack and boarded an auto rickshaw to Tinkonia Bagicha. That was where he lived. I saw his address on the book I bought. When the auto rickshaw was nearing, my heart started to pound with awe imagining my meeting of the great poet. When I was wondering what to speak with him fear gripped me. I didn’t know anything about him or his poetry. I reached his home. Beside one of the huge gates was inscribed Chandrabagha on a marble plaque but when I later asked whether it was the name of the journal he runs, he said he meant the river.

Entering the compound I saw the culms of huge bamboo that reminded the lines “…carry the silent air in the bamboos / to the roots of our small cries” from his A Whiteness of Bone. There was a beautiful garden in the compound with a concrete bench in the middle where Jayanta used to sit to enjoy the solitude. On the entrance door a beautiful golden yellow rice sheaf was hung. It evoked the image of rice which was like a motif in his poetry.

When I reached the door, his wife Mrs Runu Mahapatra received me. I joined my hands and said I came to meet Mr Jayanta Mahapatra. She said he went out for groceries and would be back in a while and showed me a chair. He came after a while; stood in the door staring at me in a surprise wondering who I was. In a little stammering voice I said “I came from Vijayawada to see you.” He asked what brought me. I said I read A Whiteness of Bone and fell in love with his poetry. And he asked “What can I do for you?” I didn’;t really know what to answer and I knew I was neither intellectually nor creatively matured enough to speak anything about poetry. And both laughed affectionately at my innocence. Then I told him I too wrote a few poems and asked him whether I could show. Smiling, he asked just one which I thought was my best. I didn’t even know which one was my “best” but gave one. He read and asked for one more. I gave. Then what he said had just unsettled me with a shattering blow; collapsed my castle of cards. He said, “Sreekanth! Try to write some poetry.” Pale-faced and with a broken smile I nodded “Yes Uncle.” He asked me, “do you have some pain in your life?” I said “yes.” Then he told, “poetry should never drag you further into grief; do not burden poetry with all your grief. Poetry should more be a source of healing from grief with a sort of catharsis, must squeeze the grief off the heart, but should not pull further into it.”

Then what he did to me the next moment transformed my writing, thinking and even reading. He asked me to sit on the floor (divan bedding) and rewrite my 40-line poem by compressing it in its size without spoiling the meaning and said, “You came from very far, you should not go empty handed”. He said he would return in half an hour. It was really an ordeal. I tried and could redo it only to 30 lines. He returned and read, took my poem, sat beside me on divan and spent half an hour doing it in just 15 lines without spoiling an iota of the theme and said “You can now send this poem to some good magazine, it may publish.” And later it was. He had also curly-bracketed five lines and said that they were very good. They were, “Democracy on its last journey / to the burning ghat / drags its wounded feet on the / hot sandy dunes / of the deserted nation.” I can never forget this emotional moment when my eyes were moist with hope. I strongly recorded those changes in my memory. Jayanta and my poem in his hand were like Michelangelo carving a stone. Before I met him I was not sure whether I was writing poetry or some sentimental scribbles and almost every journal used to reject my poems.

By the time this tutorial episode was over, it was 11o clock in the morning. He then said “I have some writing work, feel free to spend some time with aunty.” He told aunty to talk to me. And I shyingly went inside and was surprised that I felt very homely and motherly with her. After a while, he said, “We’d be very happy if you please have lunch with us”. Do I deserve it? ; and never dreamt would dine with one of the greatest writers of the era.

Then at lunch he said with a smile, “I’ll give you a pleasant surprise now” and he called someone “Sarojini, Sarojini”, twice. An elderly woman came from Kitchen. He introduced, “Meet Sarojini, she’s from Srikakulam, AP, speaks Telugu”. It was another great surprise. She’s a helper, came 30 years ago and remained with them like their daughter. Her son Issac also grew up there. I developed a native kind of association with her since she is a Telugu woman. It was she or Issac who always used to pick up my phone. After lunch, we had a long conversation about many things. During our lunch he shared his memories with AK Ramanujan and even showed me a sealed champagne bottle which Ramanujan gave him as a gift before his death. He shared his memories and photographs with Allen Ginsberg famous American poet and Prof. CB Cox, the then editor of Critical Quarterly. During lunch he said, “Sreekanth I’m sorry I’m using spoon, you please feel free to use hand.” In every bit of our conversation I could see love in him. Except for a few minutes initially I could soon become homely with both uncle and aunty.

That evening when I was about to leave to stay at a lodge, aunty told that uncle asked her to tell me to stay with them that night. Evening while helping her at the dinner table she said “uncle generally doesn’t speak intimately with a stranger like you.” And when I asked then why with me, she said “Seems he has taken a liking for you”. I was so overwhelmed and felt so proud of those words. And the next day I left. Ever since, we met many times, had a volume of sweet memories.

After a few years, Runu aunty died. Sarojini told me that he cried like a child when she died. It was after aunty’s death we became more intimate, had correspondence through letters. Sarojini and her Son Issac had been uncle’s caretakers. Sarojini looked after him with utmost care for many years. He used to say he owed her a lot. Uncle has one son Mohan who also died. Uncle seriously suffered from Covid and had its after-effects also. And another tragedy was recently Sarojini also died of a stroke. Her death took him into deep depression. He wrote to me, “It was good having you here. Am still unwell. And Sarojini’s passing has left such a chasm that it can’t be filled. I haven’t been my normal self after her death, and you must have noticed that.” After her death Issac and his wife took care of him till his death.

But for uncle, I wouldn’t have written poetry. Uncle and auntie were like my (grand) parents. That’s why I dedicated my maiden book Poems of the Void to uncle and aunty. When I sent the first copy, he called and excitedly thanked me over the phone for dedicating it to them. He said, “I loved the poem ‘The Last Birthday’ it has moved me”. This compliment was like a Ph.D. Till then I didn’t have much confidence or regard for my own poetry. But this compliment gave lot of hope. Actually, that poem I wrote on my father’s last birthday we celebrated in the hospital itself a week before he died in Cancer ward in ICU, CMC Vellore in 2014. It was this death episode he said that touched him. It’s a fact that the theme of death was a kind of obsession in many of his poems. It was published in Burrow Journal Australia. I honestly attribute this honour to what uncle did sitting beside me on our first meet.

Lastly I am pressed to share a few of my memories from our last meet. I was always fascinated by Jayanta’s reading table. It was my favourite place at his home. He used to pore over something, writing or reading always bent over the table. He was half engulfed by a tall and U-shaped dense wall of books. I used to sit near him silently reading something picked from his library. In the middle of his reading he used to take unwrapped lemon flavoured chocolates and eat from a tin beside. He usually loved to read under a lamplight encircled by darkness. His home was pleasantly silent all the time, a perfect ambience for a writer which I long again and again to be in. On my last meet I asked him what he was reading. He said he had a big task to complete. It was the 20 th edition of Chandrabhaga (his last one) to be ready soon and asked me to send five of my poems. In the letter he wrote to me “Auschwitz” was a poem I’ll use. It is so honestly done. So revealing.” I was so excited because previously he rejected my poems writing a gentle note what I had to improve.

Later once I asked him how he was submitting poems to the foreign journals. He said, “I don’t have a computer. And I know nothing about the technical things you mention in your SMS”, and I told him, “If you have any poems to be submitted to the journals you wish to, please don’t hesitate to send me. I’ll submit them online to as many journals as you wish. It takes less than five minutes for submitting. What all you have pending and if you wish them to be sent to any particular ones of your choice, I will.” And this was what he wrote to me,

“It is so kind of you, Sreekanth, to say you would submit my poems which you would try to get publish in US journals. I will try to send you a group soon by postal mail and will leave it to you to do what you can. This eases me a lot, Sreekanth, and I am fortunate that God has put this concern in your mind. Am grateful both to Jesu and to you.

Uncle”

The last poems he sent to me were, “Starting Point’, “Road”, “Not This Love”, “Night”, Bird and Sky” “Eager for Love”, “Poem”, “The End of Something”. I created an Email for him and sent them to Poetryfoundation (Chicago) and Paris Review and New Yorker through submittable.com. These were his last poems. I feel it was God’s most precious opportunity to me.

 

Uncle!

You often used to speak about aunty. Now I am very happy that you are on your way to her – your long-dreamt destination, and will always be with her in the eternity where there are will be neither tears nor “Hunger” nor “Indian Summer”. We all will certainly meet one day.

Happy journey Uncle.

Photographs from the Collection of the Poet Durga Prasad Panda, editor of Jayanta Mahapatra: A Reader