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‘In a way, borrowing words is a rite of passage’

Manjiri Indurkar on her debut poetry collection, ‘Origami Aai’, literary lineages, advertising and feminist narratives in poetry

Manjiri Indurkar.
Manjiri Indurkar.

Manjiri Indurkar’s debut collection, Origami Aai (Tranquebar), is a masterclass in negotiating nostalgia, trauma, and various kinds of coming-of-age, both personal and artistic. It also has a certain versatile playfulness—there’s room here for unironic expressions of youthful excess, while also occasionally deploying this tonality to highlight the horror of a grim scenario.

In Indurkar’s skilled hands, parents and grandparents become wounded oracles, their words proving to be self-fulfilling prophecies (“If we can’t have the Murphy Baby, you can’t either, they all said”). Familiar objects and everyday visuals become portals to a largely imaginary past that slow-walk her towards catharsis (“I wonder if it is the hunger for milk or Aai’s / stories that make Aaji return”). Her own body becomes the site for “kind cruelties” (“I carve out a name I cannot spell / and honey drips out of my leg”).

Also read: This book gives a glimpse into the world of Urdu poetry

Edited excerpts from an interview with Indurkar about her book and approach to poetry.

For many writers, the act of writing is a way of stepping away from parental influence, both literally and as a way of referring to literary lineage. How easy or difficult has this been for you?

A lot of my experiments with poetry began as a way of saying things I couldn’t have said otherwise—like the sexual abuse I faced as a child, my deep dark terrible secret that could be said through a poem. People who wanted to see it would see it. Others could just read a poem about my grandmother.

I bring up grandmother because my first phase of writing was with her. We had a turbulent relationship and I could easily write about the gifts and the curses I got as her grandchild. This was in my early 20s. Writing those poems opened a window into the domestic space for me. I became curious about what goes on inside a house, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the corners we don’t talk about. I wanted to break through the facades of domestic happiness and look at what happens inside a house.

As for literary influences, I have always believed that once your writing is out in the world, it belongs to the reader as much as it belongs to you. I can’t make anyone read my work the way I want them to.

Call it an act of defiance or just a good way of reading, I have made these texts my own. I have used them in my poems the way I want to. Used them to tell my story. The way one writes found poems. Or the way (Jorge Luis Borges’ character) Pierre Menard made Don Quixote his own.

When we refer to older writers in our work, we are both acknowledging their importance in our lives and “correcting” their work out of what the critic Harold Bloom calls “revisionary strife”. What do you make of this in the context of your own work?

I would say that it necessarily isn’t true just for poets, but all writers and all women writers or anyone writing from the margins. The majority of our texts, and therefore our literary influences, are male writers. The “correction” then is as much about correcting history. The way Suniti Namjoshi in her book The Fabulous Feminist corrects fables. The way Helen Oyeyemi turns the story of Bluebeard into a feminist narrative. It in a way is a method of creating a room of your own.

The journey most writers make is they take the works of their heroes and copy, steal, appropriate, you can call it whatever you want to. But we all do it.

In a way, borrowing words is a rite of passage. But once you begin getting settled in this newly acquired body of a writer, you also learn how you say things, and how you make your own meaning from the works you have borrowed. It’s a licence all writers have. How you use it is what sets the good ones apart.

There are several examples of 1980s and 1990s’ advertising references and allusions to 1990s’ TV fixtures like ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’ and ‘Chitrahaar’ in ‘Origami Aai’. There’s a cloying tonality that you seem to want to highlight here for ironic purposes.

Advertising has always had this miraculous way of doing things. It is used to create needs; it is used to offer solutions to complex problems. It is where desires are birthed, desires we didn’t know we could have. It has always intrigued me, the ease of solving problems or making people believe their problems will be solved, “Aah se aaha tak” in a minute. Because I was obsessed with these ads from my childhood, because I grew up listening to these urban legends like that of the Murphy baby, this was ready material. But more than humour, I think it is the horror that I would want to bring forth through these “quick fixes” capitalism offers.

So, when I use these ads, while of course, their tonality is “funny”, but it feels like gallows humour to me, more than anything. It is my father’s painful knees that are a part of the Moov commercial, and my grandmother’s dead firstborn who is the Murphy baby.

Your earlier chapbook, ‘Dental Hygiene Is Very Important’, ends with a poem where the narrator’s grandfather died the morning after leaving a copy of ‘Anna Karenina’ open at the table. This prompts the narrator’s grandmother to obsessively read Tolstoy’s novel thereafter. Have you ever had such a visceral equation with a book or a writer?

I have had my phases of obsession with characters, and writers. I was once obsessed with a character called Mary from Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, to the extent that I wrote poems about her visits to me, I had given myself the pseudonym “Mary” because I fell in love with her, felt obsessed with her, wanted to remain her prisoner. A lot of these poems, including Karenina’s Lover, that you speak of, were written in this phase of being haunted by this extraterrestrial being. But, eventually, that phase ended. Call it my failure as a reader since then, or just ageing, but I have not been possessed by a character that way since. And I do miss it.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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