By Nidhi Kumari
Prerna Bakshi, a writer, poet and activist of Indian origin from Australia, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of the recently released full-length poetry collection, Burnt Rotis, With Love, long-listed for the 2015 Erbacce-Press Poetry Award in the UK, gets candid in an exclusive interview with Indus Age.
“Burnt Rotis, with love” a title good enough to make people curious and wanting for more. Tell us about the idea behind the name and also how you came up with it?
There were a few reasons behind the title I chose for this book. Firstly, all the main themes of this book – gender, class struggle, imperialism, Partition(and it’s important to mention that I don’t see Partition just as a historical event but an event with a life of its own in that it continues to affect the lives of people on both sides of the border) – relate to an existing, oppressive social order. For a new one to emerge, the present dominant and hegemonic social structure has to be overthrown. It has to be burnt to the ground.
Secondly, the title attempts to challenge the status quo, the common perceptions and attitude of people, the weight of their expectations that burden women, reduces them and their role in society and their capacity as human beings to whether they can make round rotis. The women in my book are not ‘perfect’, nor are they striving to be one. They are complete and perfect, just as they are, in all their ‘imperfections’. They are not afraid to burn rotis, and more importantly, they are not apologetic about it.
‘Burnt Rotis, With Love’, a collection of poetry is said to be a ‘protest poetry’. Please enlighten our readers more about it.
My poetry is unashamedly political and I firmly believe that all poetry, all art is political – whether we choose to admit or not. Toni Morrison once said, “all art is political” and I believe the role of the poet or an artist and what it should be, is best described by Brecht himself when he said, “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. We live in a very political world and this idea that poets and artists, could somehow create ‘art for art’s sake’ and claim that ‘it’s not political’ or that ‘it doesn’t serve any political purpose’ is deeply flawed and frankly quite ridiculous.
Art could be beautiful, emotional, vulnerable, personal, political and dangerous at the same time. All good art is, as Toni Morrison argued. There isn’t and shouldn’t be a binary between personal and political, and as the feminist phrase goes, ‘the personal is political’. In that regard, I guess, some people might refer to my work as ‘protest poetry’. That said, regardless of what label one wants to attach to my work – as long as it stirs up a conversation, whether it’s between people, different groups, with others or even oneself – as long as my writing does as much, then that’s all that really matters.
What is your inspiration as a writer and a poet?
Those who live on the margins;the fierce women from India and all across the world; those living in Chhattisgarh to Manipur to Kashmir asserting their rights, who continue to fight even in the face of the sheer naked violence that the state machinery subjects them to;the working class people of India, the great majority of which lives on less than $2 a day; those that happened to be some of the most oppressed people being at the receiving end of one of the most brutal state oppression there is and yet fighting on – are some of the people who continue to inspire me.
Do you have any particular favourite from the collection of ‘Burnt Rotis, With Love’?
I guess I’d have to say, “What’s the name of your pind?”
What’s the name of your pind?
He asks me which pind
do I belong to?
Confused, I respond by telling him
the names of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s village.
He interjects, her’s not necessary. Your belonging, your identity, your pind is traced through the pind of your father and his father and so on, you see.
I say nothing, and just nod.
In the blink of an eye, my grandmother’s history was deemed irrelevant. Erased.
History belongs to the victors, they say.
Clearly, she had lost.
Her past, torn
like it was an unwanted page from the book of history.
Her clung together memories
got flushed down the toilet like a clump of hair stuck in the comb.
What is her pind, then?
What is her home country?
Or is she a traveling soul?
A wandering Sufi?
An escaped soldier?
An absconded convict?
If she had no home to claim as her own,
which borders did she cross then?
To what extent did she even cross any, if at all?
What was her supposed ‘home’?
Or was there even any?
What makes ‘Burnt Rotis, With Love’ special?
It forces you to take sides. It reminds you that not everyone can afford the luxury of choosing ‘the middle path’, not when your life depends on it. It tells women not to be afraid of labels, of being called ‘disobedient’, ‘immoral’ or ‘unruly’. It lets them know that people don’t get to define us, that it’s us and us alone who get to do that.
Keep doing your thing. Keep questioning. Keep raising your voice. Keep being there for your fellow sisters. Keep smashing the patriarchy until there’s nothing left to smash.
You’ve been lauded for your work. What do these appreciations mean to you?
I’ve been fortunate to have received praise for my work so early in this journey from leading literary figures such as K. Satchidanandan, a noted poet, critic and Sahitya Akademi Award Winner, Margaret Randall, a well-known US feminist poet and political activist and people who I have long admired such as Prof. Peter McLaren, Ilina Sen and Chaman Lal. I was described by Prof. Budd Hall who teaches in the University of Victoria (Canada) as a “new generation of social movement poets working in the traditions of Margaret Randall, Audre Lorde and Marge Piercy”, these are huge names and for a debut author like me, this was a big encouragement. Since then, I’ve received words of appreciation from several others and this has been quite an overwhelming experience. I’m truly grateful for that.
How can our readers get access to your book?
The paperback (print) version is available for purchase here: http://bit.ly/1TZwA30
The FREE e-book (digital) version is available to download at this link: http://bit.ly/2eByLe8
For more information about the book, visit: http://prernabakshi.strikingly.com/
A few lines of poem for our readers, from your collection.
My Uncle tells me when the calls
For the Partition filled the anxious air,
everything was up for partition,
not just the land.
Nothing remained outside
Everything was to be partitioned.
On a railway platform,
shouts of Hindu water, Muslim water
could be heard as fleeing refugees
searched through their ragged pockets
to fish out a few coins in exchange for water.
The journey was long. Not everyone
made it to the other side
Those who did
had their thirst quenched
but what about the water? What quenched its thirst?
If water could speak,
it would confess its thirst.
Its thirst for peace.
Thirst for sanity.
Thirst for to leave it
the fuck alone.