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Psyche of a Poet In Exile


Here I want to share a secret of mine! When I write, I pretend to be in India.

As a writer, although I'm prepared to write anywhere, I prefer to write in a quiet corner of my home, away from all distractions. And when I return home to write, I often like to unite myself with the memories of India to condition my mind; India, where my poet was born, and I wrote my very first poem in Hindi at the age of fourteen.

It doesn't have to be like a ritual for writing. But a weather like India, smell of Jasmine while driving in a neighborhood, dark clouds rolling in the skies, like monsoon, winds howling in the streets, Darjeeling tea in the afternoons, or just some Indian music is enough for my poet to feel inspired and bring me in a Zen mode, where I become one with the beauty and chaos of life that nourish my writings.

My first poem was about the nature of impermanence in everything that exists. It was about the red flowers falling from the Semal tree (silk cotton tree) on a grave, that we called it “Mazar of a Pir” (resting place of a Sufi saint) in a Muslim cemetery, overlooking my house. I'll often go on my terrace in the afternoons, only to see the wild winds chasing the leaves in the cemetery in fall; and the rising smell of burning *Lobaan (Frankincense) from the graveyard will sanctify my senses. I had no fear of ghosts and spirits. Mazar, Chaadar (a silken fabric offered on the grave) and Qawwali (devotional songs of Sufis) were uplifting for a Hindu girl like me. So were the ancient temples of my hometown Gaya, mentioned in Vedas and Puranas, and Viharas of Buddhist monks, from where the light of Buddha-Dharma went out to illuminate Asia. My mystical surroundings in both harmony and disharmony, gave birth to my poet, that was destined to be born, I had no choice!

Looking down the cemetery from the roof top of my home in pleasant winter sun, and the moonlight in hot summer days, I wrote three volumes of poetry; one completed before I turned eighteen, (published in 1986), that also received the “Bihar Rajbhasha Award” given by the government of Bihar, India. Around the same-time, with some unknown inspiration, I also began to translate Mahabharata, worlds longest known epic poem, from Sanskrit into Hindi, only to realize that I enjoyed nothing more than reading and writing poetry, even though I painted, acted and learned dance to discover my creative self. My translation of Mahabharata was interrupted after finishing its fourth chapter due to my college exams, that I wish to resume and complete someday. Writing fulfilled the need of expressing myself without anyone's interference in my world. In my writings no one questioned my dreams, no one tried to correct my vision. In my writings I was free to rebel and reconcile. In my poetry, I was safe with all my vulnerability. Most importantly, whatever I wrote in my young age, was published, read and celebrated. My writing empowered me in a way that was a privilege for me growing up in India. If it wasn't the writing, my life perhaps would had been totally different today.

But one day, things suddenly changed for me, when I moved to the United States after getting married, as my husband was an American citizen. I came to the US in 1994, and we lived in the western suburb of Chicago. My immigration was a conscious choice made by me, that I call it a self-exile. My decision to uproot myself from my soil, and re-establish in the United States came with a price, that I discovered much later. A price that I had to pay by silencing my poet for almost a decade, that spoke in its native tongue (Bhojpuri) and wrote in Hindi, (not spoken, read and understood in my promised land).

Other side of this irony was, that a woman poet is often declared dead in my country after getting married, as for most of them family becomes their main focus and priority. Migrating to a foreign land on top of that, was almost like committing an intellectual suicide for a Non-English writer like me.

Coming from the warm climate of India, and now living on the prairies of the mid-west, I not only had the challenge to survive the harsh winters physically, but also emotionally. I would go in hibernation for months, and nothing will grow from my frosted heart for me to write! Back in early 90s, there were no computers in regular households, and the internet made sense to many of us much later. So when we got our very first computer in 1994, I struggled typing in Hindi using some unsophisticated softwares, and finally gave up. Though, I yet wrote and sent handwritten poems and stories to the literary magazines in India. But now, I was no longer recognized there as a mainstream poet, I was recognized as a “Pravasi Kavi” (a migrated poet), an NRI, (a term that refers to a Non Resident Indian), sometimes used for the Indians living abroad to make them look exalted, and sometimes to dismiss and show less appreciation to them by doubting their understandings of India from far, and their love and  commitments to their country and culture, either out of ignorance or jealously.

So, it was about time for me to incarnate as a poet of English tongue. English was taught to me from my very childhood. I studied English to receive my formal education, but did not choose to write literature in it, as Hindi was my national language. And although, I translated my poems into English, wrote English screenplays and pursued a career to make English films as a director in Hollywood, when it came to write poetry, I remained an Indian poet in my heart. Even after living in the Unites States now for twenty one years, when I pick-up my pen to write poetry, it swirls the ink that travels from the East.

My very existence as a poet always remained like a river carrying water from its source, even after crossing international boundaries. A river that carried along sands and silts of the lands it travelled, creating fertile grounds for my creativity, giving new colors and dimensions to my work, but it has always been more forceful when I have felt connected to the place of my origin.

There are several examples of writers and poets who migrated to another country, but remained connected to their roots. They derived inspirations from the social and cultural nuances of their native lands, and their literature often reflected the influence of their associations and cultures. For that reason, they were read with much interest, and their works remained outstanding among all. Agha Shahid Ali is a great example of a migrated poet who carried a sense of exile all his life. His way to identify himself in his writings and relate to his poet shows a great sense of loss he felt after leaving Kashmir, but it also gives a sense of satisfaction to see that for the very same reason, he never felt separated from his country and culture. In later part of his life he lived in the United States, but always carried Kashmir in his heart. His desire to return to Kashmir, even if it was just to find a final resting place for himself, that he wasn't able to fulfill after all, does not make less of him as an Indian poet, as much as he is recognized as a writer of English pen.

Migration or exiles do not always take place when we cross international boundaries. We can migrate from one place to another and feel exiled even in our own country. As T.S Eliot has said  - “Every country is home to one man, and exile to another.”

I find this statement true. Boundaries of nations and immigration do not always guarantee how we feel and identify ourselves in an exile, whether it is self-imposed or forced upon us. Nor do they guarantee freedom, acceptance, opportunity and prosperity. We earn them, or eventually learn, how to make peace with our conflicts. What works for me is the mantra of *“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, meaning the whole world is one family, and I'm a citizen of the universe.

~ Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

*Lobaan (Frankincense or olibanum) pronounced “Lohbaan” in India was an important trade good on the Silk Route brought by the traders of Arabian Peninsula.

* “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” is a Sanskrit phrase that refers to “Supreme Universal Spirit” mentioned in Mah?pani?ad - (VI.70-73), an ancient Hindu scripture written in ancient India.