About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das

"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).

Footprints in the Bajra is a serious book that moves at a smart uncontrived pace. It voices deep concerns about how and why the deprived and the marginalized in certain parts of our country join the Maoist ranks; how they adopt desperate and often terrible measures to wrench justice and to make their voices heard... a confident debut novel, a good read, which will leave you with plenty to mull over. -- PRITI AISOLA, author (See Paris for Me, Penguin-India, 2009) in DANSE MACABRE XXXIV.

In her debut novel, Nabina Das writes about an India where social divides stand taller than multistoried shopping malls. Footprints in the Bajra, inspired by what she saw while touring the interiors of Bihar as part of a travelling theatre group, inquires into why the Maoists have an influence over a large section of Indian society. Das talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about her book, and its protagonist Muskaan -- DAILY NEWS AND ANALYSIS, Mumbai, March 28, 2010.


"The interspersion of references from both the West and India do not clash. Shakespeare and Lazarus as reference points are brought in with ease, as also Valmiki and Goddess Chhinnamasta, and nothing jars ... The language is poetic and creates visual images of beauty and ugliness side by side." -- ABHA IYENGAR, poet (Yearnings: Serene Woods, 2010) and fiction writer in MUSE INDIA, May-Jun 2010

Shwetank Dubey says Nabina Das ably recreates the milieu of Maoist-infested regions of India -- Nabina Das has chosen the first person account of narrating a story from the main characters of the novel, Nora the sheherwali (urban dweller), Muskaan the rebel, Suryakant Sahay the crafty clandestine planner and Avadhut the frontrunner of all the operations... the book deals with something that no urban resident is bound to know on his own — the life and times of people living in Maoist infested areas and why do they give in to the temptation provided by the Red Brigade. -- PIONEER newspaper, April 25, 2010.
'"If you misrepresent them, they'll abduct and kill you," says Muskaan, our hostess'... goes the first line with which Nabina Das settles everything about her novel -- style, subject and pace... Excellent plotline. Wonderful detail. A beautifully crafted book. -- Karunamay Sinha; THE STATESMAN, Sunday supplement "8th Day", May 16, 2010.

"This is bitter-sweet, if a rather longish tale of a modern-day Maoist revolution and the seeds of destruction and betrayal that lie embedded in it." -- Business World, May 17, 2010

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Review in "Birthdays of Poets"

Poet and friend Joy Leftow has very kindly posted my review of Basanta Kar's collection THE UNFOLD PINNACLE on Andrew Christ's energizing blog birthdaysofpoets.blogspot.com. Basanta is the author of two published poetry books and is currently Directer, Care India, a nonprofit organization.

Read (again!) :

THE UNFOLD PINNACLE by Basanta Kumar Kar – A review by Nabina Das
The Turbulent Top: Marginalized Women’s Voices from India

THE UNFOLD PINNACLE by Basanta Kumar Kar– A review by Nabina Das

Monday, July 27, 2009

Discussion generated on my poem "Langston...": writing about skin color

Recently I posted a link on Facebook from my blog -- my poem "When Langston Hughes Visited My Home", one of the two published in the Guntur National Poetry Festival anthology released on July 2. Like the other one "Finding Foremothers", this too was appreciated a lot and generated quite a few comments.

What I always look for in the comments from my dear friends and readers is that keen eye for details about my poetic craft and the general topic in question.

One of them came from poet and friend Jen Pezzo Kerowyn-Rose who runs the literary journal "Mnemosyne". In her eyes, 'Langston' was not only a well-crafted poem but also an interesting exercise in looking at race/color/ethnicity through my eyes, trained for the most part as Indian eyes.

This is what she wrote on my blog -- "I love this poem. It is such a contrast to the way many Americans' view skin color, even today. The title is perfect. My favorite stanza is the first one. I like the imagery. What an artfully crafted piece of work. :-)".

With this thread we started off a discussion that has left me richer than ever. And I'd like to share some points with the others here...

1) Did I address the fact that I was writing about LH from childhood memory as part of my individual 'color' consciousness?


2) was it incorporated into a cultural universe where color/race was noticed/pointed out quite deliberately and as a tool for derision of the 'other' or just as an innocuous observation? That I wrote "dark-limbed poet", is it because as a child I was inherently aware what 'dark' and 'fair' meant to a 10-year-old?

Jen's observation that an American would speak/write differently (I believe some times, never) about skin color was a delight and I'm glad Jen and I went on to have a long discussion on a topic many would simply avoid.

-- 1) I THINK... back then I didn't have much of an 'individual' awareness or consciousness about skin color or what it might or might not mean... All I was aware of is that Rama or Krishna were blue/dark, Shiva too after wearing that ash coating all over and all that's because it seemed a special quality possessed only by special gods! Ah, and Draupadi, the heroine of the epic Mahabharata too was "krishnangi"! And a beauty.

-- 2) As for my upbringing in a certain cultural universe, I grew up in a liberal household with a spiritual mom (all Krishna worshippers on her side of the family) and a commie father (many commie uncles and an aunt who's like a Joan d'Arc to me...) although paternal grandparents were diehard Shakti (goddess) followers, mostly believers of the Tantra or the Lokayata school of philosophy. Color (as a marker of race) was probably the least discussed aspect at home. I say the least, because when it came to describing individuals, often it went like this -- "oh our neighbour, the dark gentleman with a moustache..." or "X's new bride is quite fair although her dark sister is prettier... ".

No doubt some folks employed a certain bias based on these indicators but as a child I saw and heard very little of it from my folks. Then caste, that Indian social monster, was pooh-poohed at all levels because it popped up everywhere even if you didn't believe in its rigors. Religion and creed/faith was a private affair, even for the older members who frowned upon the commie brigade!

So a child's mind registered things it saw/read with a question/surprise:

"...why the smaller typeface said:

Poems by a dark-limbed poet, a collection,

I had no idea then"

The editors of the book put that blurb in there for an obvious reason, now I know better. It was not about racism or commenting about skin color, it was an assertion "Poems by a dark-limbed poet" (krishnanga kobir kobita -- in Assamese). Jen rightly pointed out that this was really special, to be able to write/speak about a people in terms that were celebratory.

Celebratory it was. Krishna the god is 'krishna' (literally means dark), so is Rama the King of Ayodhya, and so is Queen Draupadi (nicknamed Krishnaa), whose best friend is Lord Krishna!

However, a 10-yr-old is still surprised to encounter the "krishna"-ness among mortals:

"Dark limbs were not seen

On our book covers

Only limbs were, but then

Krishna is just not a word

For a god, it dawned on me

But skins and cheeks and

Strong arms of poetic force

On my table"

The word "krishnanga" (krishna + anga = dark limbed) in my child's consciousness had signified the entry of a new entity. It was all about a celebrated name called Langston Hughes, the reference to him an assertion by those writers/editors/publishers who championed the cause of avant-garde literature, protest poetry and songs, alternative discourses and exhorting the sun to rise in a new direction -- "hey xurjo uthi aha" in Assamese... and this bit I understood much later when my adult mind realized:

"Also the end of crowing nights

When a poet came home

Inside the covers of a book, smiling:

"That day is past!""

Just as today we celebrate 'Jewish poetry', 'Asian-American writing', 'South-Asian fiction', I am immensely proud that some of these vernacular literatures in India had long ago opened up their doors to the world in order to celebrate the "Krishna" or "Krishnanga" poets and writers.

Thank you Jen, for inspiring this lively discussion!
Postscript: After finishing this note I found this picture of Goddess Kali in Wikipedia. Kali literally means 'black' but it is also believed the etymology includes the Sanskrit word 'kaal' meaning time or eternity. As a child I saw different statues of Kali in different shades -- midnight black, deep blue, dusky etc. -- with different names as well, like, Smashaan Kali (goddess of the cremation ground); Shyama Kali (the dark/blue Kali), and Bhadra Kali (the householder's goddess)
Image from the Internet (Wikipedia): Goddess Kali

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Langston Hughes Visited My Home

Time for posting the second poem from the Guntur National Poetry Festival Anthology. It arrived in mail just this afternoon. They call it "A Posy of Poesy". Well, I don't dig the title, but it's a decently produced anthology, nicely printed on good paper and accommodates several poets from all corners of India. Nagasuseela and Gopichand, the organizers of the fest, are also the editors and they've done a good job.

I was invited to come down to Guntur and read my work with several other poets from different corners of India, but couldn't do that owing to a lot mixed up things going on in my world right then. Would have been so exciting. But I am excited to learn from the editors and newspaper coverage that the festival was a success.

I'm still flipping through the collection and am yet to sample some engaging writing. Meanwhile, I post my second poem from that collection. You remember reading my other poem in the book here: "Finding Foremothers". Now this is:

"When Langston Hughes Visited My Home"

The name was strange and the book
Was shiny dark
Thin, freckled jacket, like my angry
Pre-teen face
On the table

The title kept calling in a
Jingle-jangle Assamese refrain
I kept saying it out loud:
“Hey Xurjo Uthi Aha”!

Why it exhorted the sun to rise
Accept the challenge of a new
Dream that flamed
Brighter and purer
And why the smaller typeface said:
Poems by a dark-limbed poet, a collection,
I had no idea then

Dark limbs were not seen
On our book covers
Only limbs were, but then
Krishna is just not a word
For a god, it dawned on me
But skins and cheeks and
Strong arms of poetic force
On my table

Also the end of crowing nights
When a poet came home
Inside the covers of a book, smiling:
"That day is past!"

Postscript: This poem generated an interesting discussion among my friends. My friend and editor of Mnemosyne poetry blog Jen Pezzo-Kerowyn Rose made a very pertinent observation. Read "Discussion Generated on My Poem 'Langston...': Writing about Skin Color". Tell me what your thoughts are!

Image from the Internet: Langston Hughes

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Check out my review of a poetry collection by Basanta Kumar Kar, who works in the nonprofit sector in India and writes about marginalized women, belonging to discriminated social groups like the Dalit, the Tribal or the Adivasi, and the Other Backward Class. Joy Leftow, principal editor of The Cartier Street Review, had this wonderful assignment for me. And although, most of the earlier reviews I've written for newspapers or journals were art or film reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Reason number one was my own work experience in the Indian nonprofit sector. Basanta has an extended association with the Chhattisgarh-Orissa-Andhra Pradesh region where he has witnessed the life of the aforementioned women, especially the Dalit and the Adivasi women, from very close angles. And the most striking aspect of his writing is how easily he assumes the voice of his subjects, all women, and weaves it into poetic expressions.

Here's an excerpt from the review:

"Marginalized Women’s Voices from India:

THE UNFOLD PINNACLE by Basanta Kumar Kar – A review by Nabina Das

Basanta Kumar Kar’s involvement in the Indian nonprofit sector for years has afforded him a close-up of the tribal societies, the backward classes and marginalized sections of that developing and diverse country. He practices with flourish the first-person voice of personas as varied as an under-aged girl with a history of abuse to a Gond or Maria tribal woman struggling against the onslaught of modern civilization to a mother-cum-sex worker reflecting on her fate in the ruthless city. As a professional in his poetic role, Kar brings alive the disillusionment and haplessness of India’s marginalized women, especially those from Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). He is involved in his subject’s plight and at the same time lets his subjectiveness to position himself as the keen observer. Kar shares the wealth of his experiences with his readers in the rather long 73-page collection.

The Wikipedia defines the SC/ST as ‘Indian population groupings that are explicitly recognized by the Constitution of India, previously called the "depressed classes" by the British, and otherwise known as untouchables. SCs/STs together comprise over 24% of India's population, with SC at over 16% and ST over 8% as per the 2001 census… Some Scheduled Castes in India are also known as Dalits. Some Scheduled Tribe people are also referred to as Adivasis.’ Commenting on the crisis of faith of these underprivileged communities, in the aptly titled “Faith First”, Kar writes:

Smoke and cloud work in tandem
swings of snow peep
hills draw lines, mesmerise
they butcher;

The actions embodied by the elements smoke, cloud, snow, hills etc. are swift and brutal, akin to the experience of his subject. Nature provides no succor. It is a constant reminder of bad fortune. In “…mesmerize/they butcher” this is particularly amplified. The short staccato sentences metaphorically and literally “work in tandem”. The cosmogony of the women Kar writes about, socially denied and deprived, and often under a double yoke of social stigma within their own communities, comprises of humanistic elements that surprise us with their animateness, the only source of comfort for the subjugated lot:

I understand my neighbours
tamarind tree, dates and nuts
pigs and chicken, ghosts and spirits
traditional healers.

The weltanschauung of the women is stark yet conveys the environment they thrive in:

We are together

no one more equal than others."

Do go to The Cartier Street Review - Home and click on the little RED link CSR July 2009 Edition to see the full issue and the read the review. Also, clicking on the title above will take you there. In the spotlight is poet AnnMarie Eldon, featured poet is Michael Annis and there is the regular editorial column by Joy Leftow -- "Leftow's desk". Bernard Alain, founding editor of the CSR, has again turned out a superb issue with Joy and staff Thomas Hubbard.

Image from The CSR cover by L. Bellini: "Fragmented Man"

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Liberated Muse Vol I: How I Freed My Soul is out. Edited by Khadijah Ali-Coleman. Of my three poems "Chakra Walking", "Purifying Rites by Water" and "A Migrant's Tune" that appear with the work of several artists and writers in the collection, here is:

Chakra Walking

This has a wood-scented flower-center bright like a
Peeping bird's eyes, awake

Also watery

From floating gas fumes of the bus
Invading a space of always, ever, where like pure water
The mother goddess’
Pupils flow with a meadow-rust


And split the day like egg-shells -- A grass-bride giving off stillness to my
Moldy brown hands
That keep tracing
A path, again and again
Stuck like a Greek mythical hero gone to slay

The Minotaur

When I tell this story to my friends
Disbelief and
Awkwardness take over
Because we know we walk chakras at homes, jobs and road stops
Just as we inhale unheroic opposition

Of fate, weather
Wood-scented flicker of other eyes to emerge from shackles.


See http://outskirtspress.com/webpage.php?ISBN=978-1-4327-2415-3 for more info on the book. The blurb says:

Contributing writers include: Tichaona Chinyelu, Nabina Das, Venus Jones, Farah Lawal, Omar Akbar, Anthony Spires, Amy Blondell, DJ Gaskin, Summayah Talibah, Maureen Mulima, Randy Gross, Margaux Delotte-Bennett, Serena Wills, and other notables. Visual art work by Turtel Onli, Marshetta Davis, Shan'ta Monroe and more.

Foreword by author Ananda Leeke.

Cover Art by Sharon Burton.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Finding Foremothers

So, the "2nd National Poetry Festival" took place in Guntur, India, on July 2. And although I am one of the participants -- my work features in the festival anthology as does poet-blogger friend Tikuli Dogra's (http://tikulicious.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/detritus-my-poem-selected-4poetry-fest-anthology/) -- I couldn't go down there. I am in Delhi, but down with what one calls here "Delhi belly"! A friend said, America's softened me, six years of stay... To be frank, we came back to Delhi for the first time in summer in all these years. Well!

So at Guntur, according to the organizers Suseela and Gopichand (both of them English teachers and literature enthusiasts), 100-plus poets were invited from all over India. Must've been a fabulous experience for all who went there.

Here is one of the poems, a personal favorite of mine.

"Finding Foremothers"

This is a day the family sits down
to a dinner for a festival remembering
ancestors they say hover disguised as
birds and animals – on the lawn, on garden boughs.

Is my grandma among the cows?
I knew she was feisty! Maybe
a crow then. And her own mother
was she there too with her broken
teeth and sad robes yellowed with
age in a photograph some gora had
clicked at her rich spouse’s gracious permission?

The sweetened tomato chutney on
my banana leaf plate seeps away like blood
dark dark red, blood of aunts, wives
who cooked and cleaned, sucked
blood from cuts, bore kids and bled till
they stopped; bled in their hearts when widowed and denied.

A few grains of paddy, holy water, forefathers still
flocked outside; on the television a woman wails.
I flip through an old photo album. Sepia, forgotten clutter.

In other news, I am out of the contest. Stuck around for about three rounds I think. But of course, the worthy would carry on the battle whereas I am hoping to hop on to more scintillating stuff! Thanks Kristen McHenry for leaving a comment on my blog, it encourages me a lot! Do keep visiting.
Image from the Internet: women gathered for a party in Bombay, 1910