When one’s father is a legendary poet who has defined the post-independence English Poetry of India, it is difficult for one to get away from the influence and poetics that he exerted.
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca, someone of a great heritage and poet Nissim Ezekiel’s daughter, has faced that challenge diligently, sincerely, and by remaining loyal to the greatness of that poetry which defined India. It is the quality we would expect from a poet of her rare standing and context.
She doesn’t struggle with this heritage but carves out her unique voice. In her poetry, we hear the noisy hustle and bustle of India, get a whiff of the aroma of typical dishes and cuddle up to warm people. It is the life we cannot find elsewhere on the earth. Now living in Canada, Kavita takes us to that nostalgia. Proudly, she is uncompromising about her love for India, as her father was when he tore into the Nobel Laureate Sir Vidya Naipaul’s dismissive and ridiculing views of India expressed in his book, bursting with misplaced Anglophile superiority. So, Kavita doesn’t disappoint us when she transports us to India we all know well.
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Hence, when you read her poems, you realise she celebrates one distinct India where respect between communities is exemplary. This India, unfortunately, has been squandered by the Western Guardianistas, but worst by the Indian intellectuals and artists abroad who have nothing good to say about India to please their peers. Against that backdrop, let us celebrate Kavita not only singing from ‘Aamchi Mumbai’ but from ‘Aamchi Bhaarat’!
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca has been a teacher of English, French and Spanish in colleges in India, and private schools overseas. She is a published poet, featured in various journals and anthologies, including ‘The Journal of Indian Poetry in English’ by Sahitya Akademi. Her debut collection ‘Family Sunday and other Poems’ was published in 1989. Her chapbook ‘Light of the Sabbath’ was recently published in September 2021. Kavita is the daughter of the late poet Nissim Ezekiel.
Poet’s helping hand:
The poem reflects my poetic craft, which, at its core, is about writing poetry that is being true to who I am, reflected in the last lines, which urge the artist to ‘Paint me as I am'. The artist has total control of chiselling me in with all his sharpness.
You cannot escape your father’s legendary legacy to Indian English Literature. Having been so close to him, how did you navigate your unique voice and style in poetry? Can you tell what his traits were in poetics? How yours stands out differently?
To preserve the legacy of my father, the late poet Nissim Ezekiel, is near and dear to my heart. I have given several presentations about his life and his seminal role in Indian in English. As his daughter, it is an honour and a privilege to be able to do that. His Collected Poems (1952-1988) is like the Bible for me, always open on my desk for inspiration. He has set the bar high. It was not difficult to write poetry in my voice; since in my writing, I am able to be true to my own thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet:
‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’
My father wrote about ordinary things in a clear, direct manner. I write about ordinary things in the same vein. Often our tone is similar. My father was the poet of the ‘inner self'. However, the depth and breadth of his poetic experiences are so vast, it is impossible to replicate. Whatever shapes my life shapes my poetry. His poetic journey was distinctively his.
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The most inspiring stories of Indian integration are Parsees and Jews. As the Bene-Israeli Jewish community in Mumbai, how was your experience and response to sensitivities were different? Tell us how you have captured them to extract the universal values in your acclaimed poetry chapbook, Light of The Sabbath.
Parsees and Jews blended quite seamlessly into the Indian . I grew up with a firm unity in my Jewish and Indian identities. There never was any conflict or tension between the two. When asked how I should describe myself, my father often said we were both Indian Jewish and Jewish Indian. A spirit of embracing the differences of the other communities around was natural. I did not even feel the differences. I had many Parsee friends and neighbours, and they, like us, followed their particular customs and traditions but participated in the religious festivals of the other faiths in India. I grew up in the Bombay of one world. In my chapbook, I have explored my Jewish roots through the warmth of the personalities that loved me growing up.
The other theme is the sacredness of light, which illuminates truths and realities beyond just the sabbath light. The light was a subject of conversation in my home – appreciating light in all the various forms of illumination that invigorated one’s being.
It became something of sacred consciousness. In most faiths, light has a central role; for example, ‘fire’ represents light in addition to warmth and heat.
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Your poems are a bright light of the Sabbath, a lesson in life, relationships, objects, and people. Pluralism, bheed, is India. But your bheed of images is vivid and bustling. Do you see your poems as salvage of the individual from the deluge of a crowd? What is the core message of your rich universe? Is Canada-your home now-still a peripheral space compared to your Indian inscape?
For me, the individual is not lost in the bheed, but draws richness from it and contributes to it. I cannot imagine an India without its crowds and bheed. It is the crowds that give life and vibrancy to India, not that one does not need to get away to solitude of one’s own! My universe is enriched by the of the individuals in my home and the wider, outer, colourful landscape in India. My roots are in India, and there is an inner ache at the core of my being which misses India and all things Indian. My home in Canada is where my family is and I’m grateful for all the good things which my adopted country has offered and allowed me to contribute. It is not as though I have not struggled to slough off ‘India’ in my being. As I expressed in my poem Tell Me If You Know Where Home Is: I’ve never really left home/ The place is always in my head, becoming as a noisy child’s rattle,/ If I shake my head from side to side/ As Indians do back home, it still doesn’t help…
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MBE runs as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. Also honoured with the Freedom of the City of London, he is a recipient of many awards and has read his work at important venues like the House of Lords and the National Poetry Library. Published in numerous journals and anthologies; and with films and LPs under his belt, his collection of poems, is just published by The London Magazine. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.
In this for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.