Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

"A Book is Not Like a Baby"

An Interview with Poet Anindita Sengupta

This is the ninth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das, who writes about Indian books and authors.

---

Anindita Sengupta is a poet, writer, journalist and consultant whose first collection of poems, City of Water, was published by Sahitya Akademi in February 2010.

---

How do you see yourself as a new mother and writer? I’m getting very personal here.

 

The image is a bit blurry. There has been—and continues to be—a period of calibrating. Personal goals and dreams, mundane or magnificent, have to be weighed on the scale of how they will affect her.

 

In some ways, it’s easy to be a mom. It’s very rewarding. You’re always needed. You’re never rejected. There is quite a bit of creativity involved so it’s fulfilling at that level. It can be very tempting to just slide into that role and not venture out into the world. I’d like to say my feminist ideologies keep me from getting too complacent, from letting go of my other roles. But actually, it’s my writing. I go out to certain places and do certain things because otherwise, the poetry will dry up. My husband is a huge help. He pushes me out the door for art shows or lit festivals or just for a walk with stern reminders that I won’t be able to write if I never get out there.

 

It’s easy to be a mom; it’s easy to be a flâneur. The tough thing is being both. I like to believe that I’m growing into my new self, a self that is not one thing or another but assimilates all of it. I’ll let you know when it happens.

 

 

Your daughter Amaya’s arrival must have influenced your writing and reading in some ways.

 

The writing has slowed down but I like to think it has benefited. Amaya has made me braver in some way, less concerned with petty outcomes. I also understand certain things better than I did earlier which is helpful. There’s a whole new arena of experience, imagery and feeling to explore. I’m reading new stuff, enjoying certain books more than I would have before. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Enright’s memoir on motherhood, Making Babies. Then I’ve been reading Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk (which was on the 2006 Booker shortlist). There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s from a baby’s perspective and that makes more sense to me and delights me more than it would have before.

 

I’m not yet sure how the writing has been influenced. I’ll be able to tell in a year or so with the hindsight of distance. But I think motherhood has made me hungry for new things. The real life is so exciting that the writing life has to sort of keep up.

 

 

 

You being a feminist writer, I’d be very keen to know what myths you’d like to bust on womanhood, motherhood and the writing life?

 

I think of myself as a feminist and writer, not as a feminist writer. But yes, there were things that surprised me. A lot of things, actually.

 

  • Finding time to write is not so much the problem as finding energy when you have the time.

 

  • I had thought I would write during the first three months. My grand vision was that I’d feed the baby and put her down next to me, she’d nap sweetly, I’d churn out interesting verse on my laptop. No such thing. I was too concerned about milk supply, diapers, perineal pain. I couldn’t think poetry.

 

  • A book is not like a baby. Nothing is like a baby, except a baby.

 

  • I always thought I’d find looking after a baby very boring. I don’t. I find it intense and quite a bit of fun.

 

  • I was astonished by how some people felt betrayed that I became a mom. A woman like me, et tu Brutus…that kind of thing. There’s nothing un-feminist about becoming a mother. Bringing up another human being and helping them see the world in a certain way is one way to make a change.

 

  • We need to revisit the language of parenting. I don’t make “sacrifices” or put my life on the “backburner” or any of that stuff. This is my life. My child has given me the ability to find myself, to rethink myself, to reinvent myself, to relive my best self. It’s a marvelous kind of freedom. She also gives me more laughs than I’ve ever known. I don’t know what I was doing before this and why I waited so long.

 

  • Motherhood is an act of asserting self(ishness). What could be more about the ego than wanting to influence another human being in such a deep, dramatic way? Because we have so much power over them, we need to be careful.

 

 

In Indian English writing, how do you think feminism has been employed as a conscious ideology or political tool?

 

I think Indians writing in English have shied away from the label of feminist writer, by and large. This is understandable because it tends to become limiting, a bit of a pigeonhole. In any forum, your writing will be relegated to the panel discussion on “women and writing”. There will be little discussion on other aspects of your work. As it is, writing in English puts you in a pigeonhole. So does being a woman writer. No wonder then that they / we are reluctant to be further boxed in!

 

However, most of the earlier generation of women had to be feminists to be writers. If you were a woman, either you got married and then had to find the time and energy to write despite lack of social and family support. Or you negotiated a position within the family which would enable you to write. Or you were not married and this in itself was an act of nonconformity. So in that sense, they were feminists and their writing reflects this in terms of themes.

 

Take Shashi Deshpande. She’s not overtly political or aggressively feminist but deals with themes like marital rape, extramarital love etc. Her women are strong and sensitive, struggling to be themselves and yet not be completely selfish. She brings out this particular moral tension really well. Then Kamala Das, of course, was rebellious and outspoken, unconventional in her views on love and marriage. Eunice De Souza talks about coming to terms with singlehood. “Keep cats / If you want to learn to cope / with the otherness of lovers.”  

 

 

Tell us about your first poetry collection, the honor it has won and more. Is there a second poetry book coming?

 

I’m quite moved that City of Water has been so well received. It won me the Muse India award for young writer in 2011. The judges were writers I respect immensely, including K Satchidanandan, who is one of our greatest poets and translators.

 

The book had a lot of poems that were quite hard to write, that were very honest and searching. I wouldn’t write some of those poems today, or at least I’d write them differently. But I’m glad they were written and sent out (in the form of book) at that time. Like a conversation that was meant to happen.

 

I’m working on a second collection which I hope to finish by the end of the year. There are a lot of poems on language, home, migration, journeys, that kind of thing. These things have been on my mind a lot in the last few years. Many of the poems were started in England while I was a Charles Wallace fellow at the University of Kent in Canterbury so the mood is probably a bit different from City of Water. There are influences of new British writers I had been reading at the time. 

 

Does your verse reflect your theoretical convictions? Give us some examples.

 

Although I’m as scared of being labeled and stuck into a dusty category as any other woman writer, I am a feminist and some of my poetry reflects this. I’m deeply interested in women’s lives and their stories. And yes, I have written some overtly feminist poems. There’s one called "The Migrant’s Wife" which talks about female sexual need. Another poem which is in my new collection is called "How to Stop A Girl" and it’s about female foeticide.

 

I’ve written more poems about other things though, than I’ve written about feminist themes. I don’t know what this means. That gender is a part of my consciousness but not necessarily all of it, or even the most important part?

 

This brings us to your web site, Ultra Violet. Tell us about it.

 

I started Ultra Violet in 2007 as a space where women could share stories, information and ideas. I was coming out of an ugly corporate job where I had to battle verbal sexual harassment from the boss. The complaint process and the aftermath had left me tired and I was determined to chuck the corporate life and just start writing. At the time, I didn’t care about making money or any goal, really. I just wanted to do interesting things so that I could feel alive again.

 

During the whole meandering battle with the company, I had started blogging about it. I had also got information on the Visakha judgment and sexual harassment laws from websites. So I thought "why not start one?" I’ve worked as a communicator for twelve years, across a lot of media. My idea was to be the facilitator for other women to post their views online, to make it easy for them. A lot of women have things to say but aren’t that good with websites or blogs. They don’t know where they can express themselves. I wanted to help them get online.

 

In the beginning, I did this in collaboration with a women’s organization. Later, I went independent and enlisted the help of other independent feminists. It’s been five years. It’s lasted longer and grown more than I thought it would. We’ve got a super team of editors, women from different backgrounds who identify as feminists. We solicit and get articles from around the country and some from abroad. We do this work on a voluntary basis and I pay for the domain and hosting space.

 

 

While reading through UV it struck me that all age groups of writers for the site are passionate about their outlook on the society and the normative behavior it generates. How much circulation do these opinions and accounts get in the “mainstream”?

 

Not much. There are some very good writers — Kalpana Sharma, Paromita Vohra, etc. — but the avenues are limited. Women’s magazines are afraid to get "too serious" and general newspapers have limited space for "women’s issues." But webzines and blogs are increasingly trying to fill this gap.

 

 

Why did the idea of the blog seemed viable to you? I mean, why wouldn’t you have an Ultra Violet Club or Society where likeminded men and women could meet from time to time and plan their action?

 

As I said, the idea for the blog emerged because of my own experience with sexual harassment in the workplace and as a direct result of the Internet being important to me. Also, I wanted to use my strengths to benefit women in some way and I’ve worked with communications (especially, new media) for a long time.

 

To me it seems, Ultra Violet is one of its kind in feminist discourse in current Indian writing and thought. Do you collaborate with any other online forums?

 

We are happy to cross-post and many of our editors are part of other forums. Dilnavaz Bamboat also writes for www.womensweb.org. Richa Kaul Padte works on www.sexualityanddisability.org. Because this is an entirely voluntary effort, collaborative efforts are limited. I simply don’t have the time to do more with it. And I can’t pay someone else to either. Maybe, some day….

 

 

You are a poet. Imagination is your forte. But why Ultra Violet?

 

I’m also a media person; I’ve worked with communications for over a decade. I’ve worked in newspapers, edited and designed newsletters, created websites from scratch, written grant proposals, edited research studies, written technical guides and instruction manuals, and worked in public relations. So you see, the poetry is what I do for fun!

 

I’ve also been interested in gender issues for a long time. Sophia College in Mumbai has a very strong component on Feminism and it laid the foundations of this interest. I always wanted to do something in the field of gender and communications. In fact, I hope to do more work in that area at some point.