Dr. Sudha Rai is former Professor and Head, Department of English, and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. She has been awarded the Senior Fellowship of the Australia-India Council (2008), Visiting Research Professorship of Paul Valery University, France (2010), and Senior Research Fellowship of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi (2013). Rai has researched and published in the areas of Diasporic Writing, Postcolonial Literatures, Women’s Writing, Film Studies, Indigenous Australian Literature and Disability Studies. Her research thrust is on interpreting and theorizing culturally-specific issues of representation, identity, marginality, exclusion and resistance, voiced in contemporary literatures.
“Sipping the Jasmine Moon: A Conversation with Lakshmi Kannan”, Enter Text, Ed. Paula Burnett, Brunel. Vol 7, No. 3, University of West London, Winter 2007-2008, London, U.K.
Sudha Rai: Congratulations on your fourth volume of poems Unquiet Waters. Did you ever feel you were a part of a “generation” of Indian poets, sharing common concerns about identity or politics?
Lakshmi Kannan : O yes. Our own age and the times we live in can never be ignored or wished away. My contemporaries and I who are from the post-Independence era, saw many changes as children and as young women. For one thing, a regional identity in terms of asserting one’s own language (the vernacular) seemed to take on an almost political colouring, as if it was an antidote to the colonial hangover that was still lingering. It was the closest they could get to “nationalism”. Another change was the awareness of feminist thoughts, even if feminism was at a nascent stage and was yet to be articulated clearly. Many of us grew on this slow-but-steady movement that came to be called “feminism’. Our voices were heard, they registered, our points of view were recorded, or debated, or contested, but we could make our presence felt. There was as much approval of what we wrote as there was hostility. So, it kind of blew hot and cold for us. I would like to say that what we mean by a “generation” has shrunk now, in the sense that every decade seems to be as long a measure of time as to seem almost like a “generation” that has gone by. When I participated in international feminist conferences, there was so much that was rapidly changing for women the world over. Yet, there was a common factor for women from Asian and developing countries. The Asian women in particular had to contend with very deep-seated traditional social mores that were hard to rationalise. The term “modern” in itself seemed to be suspect and always begged a question. We learnt a lot from the colloquiums with our Western counterparts, from Europe, the North American zones, the African subcontinent and other regions. We admired the way they handled the tough deal they got from their governments, their workplace, marriage, relationships, and the very economics of their lives. Many of them had to define what was “feminine” for their society and forge a language that came to be understood by feminist thinkers. There were some seminal, path-breaking books on feminism that were iconic, so I’ve lived through times that witnessed the evolution of feminist philosophy. It was essentially a philosophy of being, nothing less. It was a learning experience to participate in these national and international events. It was also an unlearning in some ways. Today we’ve moved on to a realm where we’ve taken feminist arguments to the level where it belongs – that of human rights.
Sudha Rai: Your last collection of poems Exiled Gods was published in 1985. How do you evaluate your journey as a poet in the interim years?
Lakshmi Kannan : Lots of things went downhill in my life after 1985. The next decade and a half unfolded like a long, frightening nightmare. My husband did not just take seriously ill, he seemed to develop every imaginable disorder in his system and passed on. The ramifications of this on my life and my writings are such that to enumerate them would be like a tedious litany of woes. I wrote very little during this period. I published some fiction though, in Tamil, and translated a few stories into English. I resumed writing poems. That was when I became aware of how water as a large metaphor, as a symbol, seemed to take hold of my thoughts and inundate some of my poems. It was as if I had to surrender to some dictate from the overpowering, manifold and magnificent presence of water. I had to bow to its supreme flow.
Sudha Rai: I find your title Unquiet Waters so apt – allowing you to look deep into the currents of human consciousness, liberating their spirits and voices.
Lakshmi Kannan : An immense thematic potential opened up for me in this phase of writing. Water gave me clarity, transparency, and showed me some submerged lives.
Sudha Rai: I am also struck by the scriptural epigraphs from Agni Purana and The Old Testament used as epigraphs. Do your poems endorse any philosophical tradition or system of belief?
Lakshmi Kannan: Actually, I found an uncanny similarity in the two epigraphs from two different faiths. All spiritual paths converge on some points. My poems absorb messages from a diverse spiritual background and once again, the waters assimilated them! There is an interesting analogy in Buddhism. Nichiren Daishonin, the Buddhist priest from thirteenth century Japan who continues the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism as expounded by Shakyamuni says: ‘The Nirvana Sutra compares the waters of all the rivers flowing into the sea and becoming salty to the people of different capacities, instructed through the provisional teachings who attain the Buddha way when they take faith in the Lotus Sutra.’ He further explains about ‘salt’ in the chapter “The Universal Salty Taste” in which the Buddha explains about salt and the sea: ‘Even if one were to prepare a feast of a hundred flavours, if the single flavour of salt were missing, it would be no feast for a great king.’
Sudha Rai: About the poem “Don’t Wash” on Rasha Sundari Debi – do poets need to consciously write women into history?
Lakshmi Kannan : Interestingly, this very poem was selected by the British Council for their women writers’ website they launched recently, www.womenswriting.com Living within what could be termed as a brutal culture of erasure, Rasha Sundari Debi had to save her writings from being erased. She and her writings are one: she is the subject, and she is also the creator of her destiny. So, it is not as if I wrote her history, she has herself written her life-history in her widely acclaimed autobiography Amar Jiban.
Sudha Rai : In your poems “Don’t Wash”, “O, For Shame,” “An Autopsy,” and “Ask for the Moon”, you dramatize the notion of “transgression” for Indian women and their silent and successful resistance. Transgression, in one of my favourite poems “Ask for the Moon”, is beautiful and complete, and in no way fearful.
Lakshmi Kannan : The younger woman in the poem realises the futility of arguing with the arrogant Brahmin male who claims an absolute patriarchal right to recite the Gayatri mantra. It is a mantra invoking the sun for a healthy, regenerative energy. All she needs is the political will to bend gender at a point where it breaks. The sun (or the moon, for that matter) is nobody’s monopoly. Actually, if the sun is God Aditya for the Hindu Indians, the sun is a female deity in Japanese mythology called Goddess Tensho Deijin who protects everyone. So, what’s the message?
Sudha Rai: Your pen name is “Kaaveri” and you constantly situate and intermingle rivers (Ponni, Gomti, Ganga) and women. What do rivers voice about women that women themselves cannot?
Lakshmi Kannan : Plenty of things! For instance, have you noticed the mirthful abandon with which women splash about in water when they bathe, or when they want to get drenched in the rain as in “O, For Shame”? In “A River Remembers” again, you’ve the lines: ‘River Ponni flows as usual remembering how the women once buried their faces in the silky folds of her shining waters seeking adventure, seeking life’. You see how without verbalising or articulating their desires and aspirations, the women just express their joy and oneness with the feel of water on their bodies, on their being. It’s such an intimate relationship. As for my pen-name “Kaaveri”, I’ve been using it for my writings in Tamil long before I worked on this collection. I’m very fond of the river Kaaveri as I was born in Mysore and grew up in the city as a small girl. It carries the affectionate memories of my grandparents and my mother.
Sudha Rai: How did you relate to the Tsunami tragedy?
Lakshmi Kannan : I was stunned and benumbed by the deluge. Suddenly, there seemed to be too much water all around, and in its most ferocious form.
Sudha Rai: As a founder-member of The Poetry Society (TPS), what are your comments on the “then” and “now’?
Lakshmi Kannan : Now we’ve more events for poetry in Hindi and Urdu, with translations in English. At the TPS we organise poetry competitions on an all-India level and tie up with various organisations such as the British Council and other educational institutions. It’s amazing the way children and young adults take interest in writing poems.
Sudha Rai: I find the epigrammatic strain very pronounced in your recent poems - a pithy, feminist wisdom. A signature stylistics of Lakshmi Kannan?
Lakshmi Kannan: I always strive for economy in expression and look for a concise way of putting things. Even in my fiction, my style goes staccato in places. A deeper reason is the desire to leave a cool pool of silence in the reader’s mind. A writing should both create and sustain the silence of reflection in the reader’s mind. So, I abstain from saying anything more than I should.
Sudha Rai: How can women re-inscribe social values?
Lakshmi Kannan: Actually, women are so creative in their lives, whether they are into writing, painting, music or other creative arts. They are already re-arranging paradigms for themselves. With poets, it becomes easier because in the process of writing, they can discover a path or a direction, as also a whole new grammar and language to address this very complexity of their lives. That makes things clear for them.
Sudha Rai: One section of Unquiet Waters focuses on poems on Ganesha. Are there any modern elements in your representation of the elephant God?
Lakshmi Kannan: Ganesha seems to be a great favourite with most people. He seems to be one icon who is approachable and has a friendly proximity.
Sudha Rai: I find a strong pictorial dimension in your poems that seems to draw on the techniques of visual art such as portraiture. Do you agree?
Lakshmi Kannan:Yes, I think so too.
Sudha Rai: Do debates about colonialism, post-colonialism, language, history and the politics of gender affect your writing?
Lakshmi Kannan: All of them definitely influence me as a writer and a person. The politics of gender is so pervasive one can never wish it away.
Sudha Rai: How do you interpret the term “sacred spaces” both as an individual and a poet?
Lakshmi Kannan: What is “sacred” definitely needs a “space” to preserve its sanctity. While “space” is a word that has come to be used any which way in the self-assertive times we live in, “sacred” is a word that makes people go squeamish or awkward. It lives a secret life within a shy, discreet “space”. And this space is obtained only within the esemplastic powers of poetry that whips, melts, welds and fuses to arrive upon a poem. He/she has just breathed life into this poem and now it has a prana, the life-force. It is the closest approximation to something sacred.