‘Myth is not merely decorative’: Prithvi Varatharajan Interviews Michelle Cahill

1 February 2018

PV: And I guess the Hindu epics would just be in the lifeblood of the culture in India, so people would be rewriting them and playing with them all the time.

MC: I think so. And of course the influence of globalisation on India, and Western influence, has changed the spiritual practices of the subcontinent compared to, say, 20 years ago. So it seemed timely for spiritual practice to be taken into postmodern diasporic territories and revamped.

PV: To your knowledge, is there a literary tradition of rewriting mythological stories in the Hindu epics? I’m wondering where you see Vishvarūpa as sitting among other literature.

MC: Recently, there have been a few collections of note. Mani Rao is an Indian poet who has lived in the States, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. She wrote a translation of the Bhagavad Gita around the same time that Vishvarūpa was published. Daljit Nagra is a British Punjabi poet who’s written his version of the Rāmāyaṇa. And also more recently there is Karthika Nair, who has written a book called Until the Lions, which is a layering of the Mahābhārata. It was performed in Adelaide at the OzAsia Festival. Karthika is from Kerala, and lives in France. So I think Vishvarūpa does sit alongside books by contemporary Indian poets of the diaspora whose work applies alternative temporal and geographical spaces to Indian mythology.

Worth mentioning are the Western mythological strains in contemporary Indian diaspora poetry. My ‘Six Myths of Love’ from Vishvarūpa is an example. Sandeep Parmar has remixed Greek mythology with her portraits of Helen in Eidolon. In The Herring Lass, I use a different kind of myth-making for the experience of non-human animal and northern hemisphere economic migrations.

In Australian literature, I think Vishvarūpa sits with collections like Bella Li’s Argosy and Adam Aitken’s Eighth Habitation. These are books that discursively and imaginatively reanimate travel and colonial history, mytho-historical alternatives which are hybrid narratives to the settler or to the Indigenous narrative. To varying extents, what these books share is that they reject realism as a defining trope. I think the poetry of cultural difference needs moorings such as these from which to embark to new textual spaces or to return to wherever the past lies.

PV: There’s a movement back and forth between Australia and India in your collection, and lines suggesting cultural displacement, like ‘a cultural fragment out of context,’ in the poem ‘Sīta’. There are also travel poems set in European cities. To what extent does this reflect your own life, and an existence between different continents and cultures?

MC: There’s no doubt that my identity is liminal. It’s a kind of inter-being, and in a way that’s what Vishvarūpa is: a state of being in-between cultures and countries rather than being domiciled. I was not merely drawn to the physical journey, going back and forth. There were several journeys that I made to India, to the Himalayas, where the syncretism of Hinduism and Buddhist practice draws me. I am also interested in the detours that we take as writers. Sometimes it is through detours from what may seem to be the purpose of one’s work that we find it renewed. I trust this intuitive pathway as it is the only way I know ‘to be’ a writer. I trust this intuition more wholly in my creative life than I do in my real life.

The book is also about dream and memory and time, and a movement backwards and forwards through these modalities: in the imagination, and historically. I’m hinting at or tracing historical possibilities that can only be reimagined, that can only be reconfigured because they were lost. So I did not want to be limited to a spatial journey.

India and Australia do have an interesting relationship, and particularly for Anglo Indians. In fact, in 1826, Tasmania was considered as a symbolic and material homeland for Anglo Indians, because they had sought a geopolitical home for over a century leading up to the time of Independence. And many times Australia was considered as a possible home, among other destinations such as the Sunderbans, Mexico or The Andaman Islands; in the1930s it was Papua New Guinea. Colonisation dramatically changed the face of Indian society and culture, particularly for those Eurasian peoples who were my ancestors.

PV: You appear as a traveller in the sequence ‘Prayerflags from Dharamsala.’ Was that based on a journey you took there?

MC: Yes, that’s right. As I mentioned I had been interested in that part of the Himalayas, because of its Buddhist influence. I met some Tibetan poets and activists there and interviewed one of them, Tenzin Tsundue. It was a harrowing experience to be there – to hear their stories of leaving Tibet, and the kind of oppression and detentions that they faced from the Chinese government. It was also an experience of association with the political purpose, akin to: ‘this is where I belong.’ After many years as an editor and a writer I can more fully appreciate how incredibly difficult it is for minority voices and border territory voices to be performed in the mainstream.

PV: Well, on the topic of belonging: In the poem ‘Ode to Mumbai’ you articulate a complex sense of affinity with Mumbai. You write: ‘Mumbai, even your name / is a philologer’s conundrum, as mine is the antithesis / of myself, a colonial slip … Your poem has a history, in which my pages are missing.’ Can you speak to your identification with Mumbai in this poem, with your feeling of belonging or not belonging there?

MC: Mumbai is a very special place for me. I stayed as a child in my mother’s house in Bandra, which back then was leafy and Catholic and quaint, with a nearby fishing village by the Arabian Sea. It was, and still is beautiful to walk there in the mornings with the sun sparkling on the fishing nets and the fish drying out, and glinting. It was the first place in India I stayed. I met my grandparents, uncles and cousins. They lived in a traditional way. I especially liked my grandfather. And it was really like an electric shock … suddenly I felt: this is my home, this is where I belong – having lived in Kenya and England– it just felt that this is where I belonged.

At the same time there is a grief of not having lived there, and how it has changed, and a grief at the official version of history where Eurasians and Anglo Indians have been confined to the margins with reduced opportunities causing psychologically disturbances. As a child, I guess I was quite perceptive and I could sense these neuroses. Historically, the whole Eurasian episode is something which is awkward for the history of the Raj in India. It remains in the footnotes. Even my own writing has received reductive critical appraisals from white (mostly male) critics who have historically always distorted and stigmatised mixed ancestry narratives. And yet there were a significant number of people whom the Eurasian experience affected. There are many aspects of it that are significant – in terms of home, citizenship, in terms of poverty, housing, education and culture, displacement, in terms of being domiciled or adopting a diasporic identity – it’s a whole identity crisis, a whole refugee crisis that is not adequately recorded. In ‘Ode to Mumbai’ I am also tracing language: the Anglo Celtic origins of my name and the Portuguese words, the temple dancers who left Goa for Mumbai in earlier migrations. So the poem poses the questions ‘What is left to the inheritors of transgenerational migrations? Through what lens or modalities can one truthfully answer the questions that will interminably give rise to doubt?’

PV: I was thinking in that poem about naming, and about how names, or words, don’t always capture the truth of what they represent, although they might capture an aspect of it. For example ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Bombay’ mean different things, or represent different things historically, to people – some prefer the name Mumbai and some prefer Bombay. And I was thinking of your name too, and its ambivalent relationship to you. So I thought there was a nice connection between the name of the city and your name, in the poem.

MC: Yes. I should say as well that it’s inspired by Dilip Chitre’s poem ‘Ode to Bombay.’ He and I had a discussion about a year before his death. We were exchanging emails and he was so supportive of my work. I had published some of his work in Mascara Literary Review. ‘Ode to Mumbai’ is a homage, in dialogue with his poem; and being a film-maker, an artist and a Maharashtran, Chitre was more cosmopolitan than some poets. I was very touched that he accepted me as an Indian poet when I was at a very early stage of my career.

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