If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The poet on her reimagined version of Vyasa’s Mahabharata and the human cost of war.
Most books’ epigraphs don’t slap me in the face, but then Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Archipelago Books) is not most books, and Naïr is not most writers. Her epigraph quotes Chinua Achebe: “There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter…Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian.” Naïr, in nearly three hundred pages of connected poems, reimagines the story of the Mahabharata as the lions’ story, giving a voice to nineteen of its characters and allowing them each to tell their own account. As Achebe also said, the power of giving speech to the prey means “the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”
Employing poetic structures including the canzone and the obscure French form rimas dissolutas, among many others, Naïr deftly shifts from one voice to the next. By doing so, she allows readers a glimpse into each narrative, turning the microphone on, say, the spouses and lovers of the warriors of the Mahabharata. The book, originally published in 2015, was the first poetry collection ever to win the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award in fiction, a major literary honor in India. I conversed with the French-Indian poet, dance producer, and dance curator over email to discuss why dance is her primary reference, how she embodied different identities to write each section, and the French film that left her shaking.
Bibi Deitz Until the Lions, referencing both the proverb and the title of your book, speaks to the importance of looking at the truth of oppressed or minority characters—the ones who don’t usually have a voice. Why did you choose to shine a light on that idea?
Karthika Naïr There were several triggers. One, a slow-burning fuse, was sparked in my childhood by my father, an army officer, who told me that war is, at best, a necessary evil; that heroism exacts a moral price, that conquest can provoke unspeakable reactions in the best of people. Vyasa’s Mahabharata itself is quite self-aware about this: The Stri Parva, one of the books that comprises the epic, consists of the laments of grieving women—wives, mothers, lovers, sisters, daughters—who upbraid Krishna, god-incarnate, for the carnage he catalyzed.
I was also keen on exploring the human cost of war beyond victory and defeat, on imagining and chronicling the testimonies of those for whom victory becomes a word without meaning. The families left shattered, distraught siblings and wives, a populace shorn of land and home, those reduced to slavery or serfdom or the reign of another ruler, who’d merely perpetuate an expedient social “order.” And to examine too, through these accounts, how we can all too easily become complicit in conflict and injustice. This, I believe, is particularly true in a democracy. It is not solely the powers-that-be and the soldiers on the frontlines who are implicated in battle.
The aim of the book wasn’t to reverse the gaze, and switch the good guys and the bad ones—it was to multiply the gaze, or the voices, specifically, granted the space to tell their tales. So, there are often intersecting, even conflicting narratives by queens and handmaids, a soldier father-and-son duo (with diametrically distinct views on war), a recurrent chorus of spouses and lovers, a rakshasa-sovereign with much distrust for the human race, a gender-shifting god who must discover the pain of being human and female, and so on.
BD You are also a dance producer and curator. How do those art forms influence your poetry?
KN Performance—dance in particular—remains my primary reference, in more ways than I may know consciously. I am lamentably under-informed in the literary canon, with sizable gaps in learning.
The influence of dance in my writing might be felt through the centrality of the body, something I first discovered in the work of legendary theater director Patrice Chéreau, who dissected the body, whether as a sexual or solitary entity (Intimacy), as the locus of mortality (His Brother, a film that literally left me shaking), or as a mirror of unreadable elements (I Am the Wind).
Then, regarding space, I see the page as stage. It acts as a matrix for movement, a medium to tell a story, through words deployed across white space. [The poem] “Constancy VI” in Until the Lions draws directly from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s “Violin Phase,” itself a response to Steve Reich’s 1967 composition. Mine is a structural, not thematic, refraction. It’s a two-way process, though. While scripting dance, I schlep my favorite tools from poetry over: refrains, variations of structure, mirroring, rhythm.
BD What did the Mahabharata mean to you growing up?
KN It was ubiquitous, and an endless source of entertainment. Poet, translator, and folklorist A.K. Ramanujan once said that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time, implying that it seeps into the unconscious at a very young age. I heard it from extended family before learning to read. Then it became the first reading material I received in comic book form, with separated, digestible stories for kindergartners. There were bombastic fantasy films, which tackled one or several strands from the Mahabharata. And, later, more sober versions to read. Proverbs would refer to legendary incidents or archetypal characters; languages themselves are colored by this ur-text.
BD I love this one detail I read in an interview with you in The Hindu: Your parents took turns reading P.K. Balakrishnan’s Ini Njan Urangatte over Skype when you couldn’t find it in Paris. How did the experience of hearing it that way inform your research?
KN The first two years [of the five spent writing Until the Lions] were entirely devoted to absorbing material on the Mahabharata. Reading, watching, hearing adaptations and academic papers, devouring regional tellings and discourses around the epic, and literary and performative renditions. Translations featured prominently, and I soon realized the region, religion, language, and caste of the author predicated the retelling significantly.
Ini Njan Urangatte as well as Randamoozham, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s brilliant novel—both written in Malayalam—are heavily influenced by social constructs specific to Kerala (matriliny, for one) and by local practices. Hearing my parents read Ini Njan Urangatte underscored an age-old, often overlooked truth: Epics are primarily oral, and are created to be sung, to be recited, to be staged. They are not abstruse pieces of scholarship, though that too was a time-honored offshoot. It was also a throwback to my childhood when I first heard the Mahabharata, in polyphony, as parents, uncles, grandmothers, older cousins took turns to tell stories. Emotionally as well as creatively, experiencing my parents’ readings over Skype was a moment of reckoning.
BD You moved around a lot as a kid because your father was an officer in the Indian army. When did you start writing poetry?
KN It was a nomadic existence, but a comfortable, protected nomadism, in many ways. We moved towns or cities every two to three years. I wrote some execrable poetry as a child, but with a rare jolt of good sense, realized at the age of twelve how truly awful they were, and burned every page in the fireplace. It took about twenty years for me to return to poetry, during my initial years in France. French was pretty much the only language I heard, spoke, or read, and I sorely missed the linguistic tumult, the aural bustle that is such an inherent part of urban India. Poetry somehow allowed me to rediscover that vibrancy, at least in my head.
BD I read that Amba/Shikhandi is your favorite character from your book. Why?
KN There are quite a few characters I am inordinately fond of, especially Amba/Shikhandi, both as a character and as a voice to render.
Here is someone who—whether when abducted from her wedding ceremony, or when her body, love, and honor are reduced to pawns in royal power-games—never ceases to demand justice, never ceases to believe she deserves it, unhesitant about stopping the universe itself until she is heard. That quest possesses a quiet relentlessness, and she waits two lifetimes for retribution (raising questions also of the troubling and slender divide between justice and vengeance).
The poem “Manual for Revenge and Remembrance” is in the voice of Amba/Shikhandi and it was the first individual voice I dove into—I had written the choral “Constancy” series earlier—and it was baptism by fire. I needed to convey two entities, bound within the same soul, but utterly distinct, in the same poem: Amba, who embodies the remembrance aspect, and Shikhandi, pure vengeance, a war machine, inexorable in his purpose, which is to kill Bheeshma on the battlefield.
Fortunately, specific poetic devices helped to conjure up the voices. I resorted to both form and visual design to convey the double presence. Amba’s recollections, mostly delivered as sonnets except when she breaks down reliving the trauma of abduction and shame, are written in greyscale. This is an ancient voice, faded but steady. Shikhandi appears in pure black, with the verses shaped like a battalion advancing down the page. Shikhandi speaks in a variant of siharfi, a Punjabi and Sufi form of devotional poetry where the worshipper moves through the alphabet, singing praises of their beloved god. Except that in Shikhandi’s case, the only divinity he worships is his purpose, and the siharfi becomes a manual for war.
BD How did you keep track of all the voices as you wrote?
KN I needed to be faithful to nineteen voices, reflecting a spectrum of experiences and emotions, wildly distinct personalities. How I could possibly ensure each would be singular was what I worried about the most. Form came to my rescue. It was integral to developing individuality, to conveying the mood or personality of each of the characters.
With Mohini, whose story is one of pure grief and helplessness—a god becoming human and forced to experience the mortal, female state—I worked with visualizing her heartbeat to capture its cadence, the ebb and flow of blood in her voice. The attempt was to graph it on the page, like an electrocardiogram, while the words themselves were composed like an ostinato, with variations on the constant refrain, “a curse on you,” and little else. I resorted to a slew of wonderful traditional forms as well.
Kunti, as another example, is such a clear-sighted, ruthless being, who never loses sight of her goals, nor the means to achieve them. I felt that single-mindedness, the drive, could be conveyed through the canzone, where the five end-words, repeated in varying patterns across sixty-five lines, indicate what her life hinges on. There’s so little space for free movement. It seemed like a good way of hinting at how little agency she allowed the people whose lives she choreographed with such precision.
BD How did you get into character as you embodied each one?
KN It was a process of immersion. For once, I didn’t multitask, did not move across voices simultaneously. Each voice owned me for the time it took to render it. There was a preparatory phase before beginning each voice, where I let all the information—visual, narrative, kinetic—wash over me, and then left all of that to percolate. Once I knew which form was most fitting, most faithful, to a voice, it became easier to plunge into it. But Amba/Shikhandi took a month to write, whereas Hidimbi, one of the final voices, I wrote across three days while recovering from surgery in hospital. So, it became more organic over time.
BD Your book is divided into sections of varying design—for example, “Constancy IV” is in the shape of a bell. How did you decide on the setup for each section?
KN Each form was chosen purely for functionality. Some seemed obvious, like Kunti, while others took longer to identify. For Vrishali, Karna’s widow, I found an obscure French form called rimas dissolutas, built in sestets that rhyme not within each stanza but across the poem (abcdef, abcdef). I hoped it could convey the spiral of her grief, growing through each sestet, but then returning to the point of departure in the next, as though all thought, all emotion, remained trapped beyond a point, caught within the circle of sorrow.
With “Constancy IV,” I had twin references. The poem celebrates and mourns the wealth of love and life, in the clear foreknowledge it will [eventually] be buried [by death]. My visual references were both the bell and the early Mughal design for a mausoleum. I don’t think the reader needs to know my intention—ideally, the combination of words and shape would incite a certain emotional response to that voice, through the poem. Ideally!
Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn, and recently finished her first novel; more at bibideitz.com.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.