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

1 February 2018

PV: In the notes to the poem ‘Two Souls,’ you write, ‘This poem references the Hindu Vedic philosophy of non-dualism, where there is no separation between the soul and Brahma.’ Can you elaborate on this?

MC: The notion of two souls was interesting to me, because in Christianity of course there’s one soul. But at the same time, while Hinduism appears to evoke multiplicity, like most things in life there are paradoxes and contradictions. I was interested in exploring that contradiction, in the sense that although there is that multiplicity in Hinduism’s pantheon of gods, essentially there is also an undivided, transcendental Brahma.

One can apply the non-dualism theme in Vishvarūpa to provoke contemporary politics: to deconstruct how nations like Australia, which purportedly embraces a multiplicity, at the same time has a homogenised identity. So that kind of contradiction in Hinduism – the non-dualism that suggests that things are discrete – but also paired, how does that speak to some of the contradictions and paradoxes within nationalist identities?

PV: So you mean that nationalism typically tries to promote a unified vision of a country – a singularity – but that’s composed of a multiplicity that’s often suppressed?

MC: Yes, our literature is predominantly monocultural. Poetry in particular, until quite recently has been homogenised, and yet it likes to project an image that we are a diverse nation – it likes to tokenise diverse narratives. In Hinduism there is ultimately only one god, even though there are so many. In a Zen or a Theravada Buddhist practice there are positives and negatives concurrently in the same act of being and meditation, and that’s a significant difference in how consciousness is understood, I think. There is a post-Platonic detachment from singularity, from the ideal — Asia being the other, or another, that must assimilate because it is inferior. This is the Manichean binary we are bound by; whereas Buddhism’s awareness that self and experience is fragmented, as a phenomenon has always interested me. In this aspect, Buddhism is post-structuralist, something I also engage with in Letter to Pessoa.

PV: You’re an activist against racism, and for cultural diversity: this is embodied in your position as editor of Mascara Literary Review, and in some of your published essays and articles. Would you say that race and racism are themes in Vishvarūpa, and if so how do they manifest in the collection?

MC: I’m not sure that I am an activist against racism! I think racism is complex, and cannot be simplified into slogans. I have written essays on race, and I am interested to consider racial categories and how they preclude the specificity of certain voices, particularly mixed ancestry voices. It is almost impossible for these voices to cross certain barriers in order to reach a wider audience or simply in order to be a record within historical frameworks. This has become something I am deeply invested in: how does a mixed ancestry voice find a way to cross these impassable barriers of racial categorisation in literary categories, which are themselves overlapping: narrative, historical document, mythology, criticism and poetics?

I do think that writing essays can be affecting, and the language one uses is quite a different language to what is useful in poetry. It is often a rhetorical language: the intent and design is to inspire people, to provoke them. I don’t think Vishvarūpa is about race, although in the poem ‘(In)Visible’ – there’s a hint of that discriminatory amnesia, that spatial reduction conveyed in the shutting of doors.

PV: In that poem ‘(In)Visible,’ you write: ‘My body, sensual, without culture / bears no initial. My home, colonised by language. / (Yours.)’ I think the coloniser in this poem is the West, particularly the English. But where is ‘home’ in these lines?

MC: Well, I hope the text offers a partial response. Home can be the body, and I think the book is a lot about the perceptual world. But sometimes, even the body is not a place where one can be at home. There is a whole range of questions and contexts you can apply in thinking about this conundrum. Is the body home? Or is land home? I would say that language is home.

But also, just to go back to the point I mentioned before: that for Eurasians and for Anglo Indians, there were many places which were being considered as a potential home, including Mexico, the Andaman Islands, including Australia, including McCluskieganj in the north-east of India in the 1930s. Before 1947, when India became independent, there was a real crisis for these people – and we’re talking about a significant number of people – 300,000 people. 4% of Indians in Australia are Anglo Indian; it’s worth mentioning that, I think. There’s increasingly more research about their history, which is uplifting.

So where is home? I would like to think my spiritual homeland is India, the global South, and in this book I’m offering corridors. Also, I think it’s really nice that you, as a Tamil, are interviewing me. That speaks of new progressive ways of thinking. I remember in one of my trips to India I was attending a scholarly conference, and I suddenly experienced the kind of racism towards Anglo Indians and Eurasians that my parents would have experienced, which would have encouraged them to leave in the first place. And it shocked me. A leading, elder, male academic said to me: ‘Well, you’re not really Indian,’ and I thought: ‘Well, who am I then, or rather who are you, if you say that I am not Indian?’ Hindu fundamentalism like any extremism can manifest as religious and cultural intolerance and persecution.

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