Vivek Narayanan on his Ramayana and poetics of multiple locations

Vivek Narayanan on his Ramayana and poetics of multiple locations
Courtesy: Deepankar Gohain

Vivek Narayanan poems have a mesmerising quality with each word weighed in with its unique presence. The driving rhythms and poetic accents mould them into haunting lyricism.

For this month’s outing, I have selected the dark hieroglyphic meaning of politics. If the Kafkaesque hearts are stones, the Orwellian casting is cold. However, Vivek’s forthcoming book to be published by the revered New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 2022, a retelling of Ramayana intrigues me.

Any epic can become a religious text to shift into becoming an absolute, as in the foundation stone at Ayodhya, but at its heart, it will be always a great story to be retold. As a long poem, it would need a poet who is also a good storyteller. Even if you translate such breath-taking work into your words, it changes in its delivery and expression. Thousands flock repeatedly to hear the same ‘katha’ by Moraribapu as it gets refreshed in every retelling!

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But art is not as linear as that ‘katha’; it embarks on a unique reinvention to keep it current. One ends up wondering how much perspective of the purists remains preserved in such extraordinary transit. In any good business, training, one comes across an exercise where the first person is given a short narrative on a piece of paper, which is passed on from a memory by whispering it in next the person’s ears. The odd result the last person narrates is compared to the original to teach us not to rely on hearsay. Despite such dangers of transformations, Hinduism seems to be tolerant of its religious epics and not bothered about morphing manifestations of epics. Hence, with this room of manoeuvres, it is wonderful to see that some of our contemporary Indian poets are also not shying away from offering their ingenious takes on Ramayana. Hence, it will fascinate me to see how Daljit Nagra’s transposed Ramayana will be different to Vivek Narayanan’s.

The forthcoming ‘AFTER: A Writing Through Valmiki’s Ramayana’ will be published internationally by NYRB and in India by HarperCollins.

Vivek Narayanan teaches at George Mason University.

Here is his simple advice as to how you should approach a poem: Be calm. Be ok with not knowing everything, not understanding everything, and not always being in complete control. That's advice that I think sometimes very experienced readers of poetry need to hear as much as beginners...

Q

I am fascinated by your return to Ramayana. Daljit Nagra wrote his poetic experiment and published a collection entitled Ramayana. Are you just undertaking to translate it or are you recapturing it as he did, knitted in a shift of parallax? What is happening in your work that will be unique?

A

Both! And neither! My project draws on some of the methods and "close study" approach of current translation practice but also tries to reinvent the original in every poem. I've done that in several different ways.

This is how it has always been in the long tradition of the Ramayana: every version is also a rewriting. There are many Ramayanas and perhaps no Ramayana as such but for that multiplied existence. As for what is unique, I'll leave the readers to assess that.

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Q

Like many, I have a trail of Africa in me and you call me ‘my dear Indo-African brother’. Take us through the journey that is the making of Vivek Narayanan. Where is the thematic anchor of Vivek’s poems?

A

I was born in India, grew up in Southern Africa — mostly Lusaka, Zambia — did my undergraduate and graduate studies in the US, then returned to South Africa and to India for long stints.

They all mean a lot to me, but especially Africa and India, where I formed as a person. So it is I've reconciled myself to having not one anchor but many.

Q

Some diaspora poets circumambulate their Indian identity to be part of the mainstream of Western literature to avoid any labels! Others will embrace who they are and make no deliberate attempt to emulate the other one as in what you call Pessoan heteronym. What are the problems of duality or the otherness in this game of survival and opportunities? Where is Vivek comfortable in this?

A

I certainly have no interest in being just absorbed seamlessly into Western or American literature or whatever, but to be honest, the idea of "diasporic" or "immigrant literature" also bores me. To declare oneself an immigrant seems implicitly an allegiance to the place one has immigrated to. I can't relate to that.

I'm interested in what I've sometimes called the poetics of (multiple) locations — which is first to say we're all located somewhere —I 'm suspicious of those who claim to be located nowhere and/or everywhere — but secondly to say that we all have multiple locations and that our locations needn't limit the places our imaginations and sympathies try to reach for.

Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. Along with the Freedom of the City of London, he is a recipient of many awards. Published in numerous journals and anthologies, and with films and LPs under his belt, he has invented a new poetic form entitled Rapid. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.

In this regular series for iGlobal, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.

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