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

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


fleuve-souterrain said...

A slew of comments was generated when I posted this on Facebook as a Note. Reproducing below:

NABINA DAS-I should've remembered Kali while mentioning Krishna, Rama, Draupadi et al...

Tim Buck--A very neat and appreciated exposition.

Tim Buck--Or is it "explication"? I get confused.

Nabina Das--probably both... :) but it was a rewarding experience discussing this with Jen

Aniket Alam--didn't see this on your blog (have been too preoccupied with a weekly deadline) but this seems such an interesting discussion. thanks for sharing it. will try and see it in the woriginal on your blog.

Jen Pezzo -Kerowyn Rose--I was just reading through this again...it really is an interesting subject. There are so many depths of cultural differences that can be explored. Thanks for sharing Nabina! :)

JoyandDubblex Leftow--well thought out and definitely inspiring.

Nabina Das--Aniket, I am yet to post this note on my blog. Will do soon. This popped out of this wonderful discussion Jen and I begun after she read "Langston...", which is already on my blog. I'm sure more angles will emerge and I'd love to see your comments.

Jen, I value your critique a lot :) Poetry is not just about hidden dreams and fairy stories, to me it is a great deal of social histories and human endeavors. Hugs, girl!

Joy, thank you! It's a pleasure to have you read it...... Read More
I'm tagging a few more I'd forgotten to, only to say, your opinion is very very important for me -- so do read :)

Priti Aisola--This has been a very illuminating discussion for me. Thanks for sharing it, Nabina.

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