Collaborative Essay on the Collaborative Process for Between Us, Not Half a Saint, in Raga Bhairav

By Rajiv Mohabir and Rushi Vyas


Raga: Bhairav (a name for Shiva. A raga for daybreak. Contemplative mood)

Instruments: Bansuri (Rajiv), Tabla (Rushi)

Arohanam/Avarohanam: Between Us, Not Half a Saint and/or Articles from Appendix

Tala: Dadra Tal (6 beats)




Tabla: When we started writing these poems, I had been living in Aotearoa New Zealand for only a few months.

In those days, at the end of 2019 into early 2020, I would wake up before the sun, walk to our old Ikea dining table turned desk which had journeyed via ship from Brooklyn to Ōtepoti Dunedin over a period of two months, wrap myself in a blanket (houses here don’t often have central heating), and write.


First, I would write whatever I remembered from my dreams. Next, I would freewrite for fifteen minutes. Third, I would practice observational skills by focusing on an object in my view such as the triangular wooden mini-sculpture my friend Terrence Campagna gave me years ago, or perhaps the weeds outgrowing the lawn outside the window, or the ti kouka (cabbage tree) fronds and power lines swaying with the Ōtākou harbor behind them. Whatever the object of my attention, as if in a first-year writer’s workshop, I would write descriptive sentences for each of the senses. Finally, after that warm-up routine, I entered into our poems, reading through the news articles/essays we had chosen, scribbling down images that struck me, quotations that angered me, language that stirred me to respond.

I would recite the mantra for our poem, practice each syllable, each sound in my mouth the way my mother taught me the slokas I still sing today. Like this, I focused on the sound of each line. Like this, I focused on the moments when sound gave way to image in your poems.

“The Constitution / settles its foreign body in / the gullies,” you wrote in your first. And a few days later, “each sloka shows me / my failures at being decent.”

Each morning, I would enter into this practice of observing the world, knowing our complicity in the complexities of it. Together we would attend to these collective failures; stay our attention long enough for new knowings to change us.

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Bansuri: I had just moved to the Boston area from Opelika, Alabama: from the ancestral lands of the Mvkoke to the Dawnland ancestral home of the Pawtucket and the Wabenaki Confederacy. I have always thought in units of sound—it’s how I made sense of religious texts that for me were always understood through utterance, opaque, negatively capable. Through the marriage of sense and sound we call out to one another with the hope that our cries will be heard by the Divine.

The tones that swirled about me in my new home were foreign to me. Trees went to sleep and stirred with pink and white fireworks. The humpbacks came and sang at Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. I carried song and mantra in my own body too. But the world was wrong: Hindus were killing Muslims and Dalits. Modi was ruling my mythological homeland and tr*mp was desecrating my home more visibly, more brazenly than before. But what could we do? We are just poets.

We came up with the idea to have a conversation that stretched the possibility of both sense and sound, using the materials internal to us both, a structure—the Sanskrit mantra—that was starting to rot. I was driven to ask myself, what is possible for language to do? Can I wrest back the power of language from despots and bigots, weaponize their own artillery against those who would want us of complicated origin annihilated?

Rushi asked, What would happen if we used the syllabic structure of those mantras closest to us in order to make poems that speak back to the Hindu right?

These prompted writing exercises led into poems and set free the wildness inside that grew from the steady wrangling of constraints. Something about fitting my thoughts into lines and syllables allowed for the associations to germinate and stretch out.

We took turns thinking about constraints and writing to each other in rounds using the outside texts that we delineated as well as the formal structure of the mantras that we used as the formal base of the new poems.

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Tabla: In Kenji Liu’s latest book Monsters I Have Been, he works in an invented form, the “Frankenpo.” He defines the form as a proper noun, but also as a verb, “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with the original texts” (1).

Inspired by this form, I kept thinking how interesting it would be to see multiple poets engage with the same source material in composition. If different poetic hands entered into recombining language from the same sources, these various lenses or transducers of sound could fracture image and thought in infinite recombinations.

While we do not operate exclusively with found language, we both engaged with the same source texts to offer momentum and context in each poem. Particularly, we wanted to throw articles, speeches, and poems with an explicit political content in conflict with the “divine” Sanskrit mantras that are part of our cultural inheritance. Part of what excited me about our project was waking up each morning to see what you noticed from our source texts. I don’t think we ever responded to the same moment or image.

In some ways, this mirrors how mantras can be interpreted in various ways, how what is named “holy” is always laced with the lies of power. One person can chant a mantra for the sole purpose of calming their own mind, to be kinder to others. Another can chant because they simply enjoy the music. Another person can chant a mantra to reify a power structure, or reinforce a caste-ist (or white supremacist in the case with yoga in the western world) superiority to others.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, a place with its own violent British colonial history, this history of deception and violence against tangata whenua (people of the land) is much more a part of daily conversations and consciousness than in the places I have lived in the US. Proximity to these discussions, in addition to learning from leading Māori decolonial scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, has led me to examine my own relationships to colonial power, my own multi-valent entanglements with these colonial legacies.

Ornette Coleman said “power flows in every human interaction.” I think about those words in relation to land, personal interactions, and the way we respond to the “news,” however circumscribed and personalized that is. In this project, form shaped an excision of our “failures at being decent.” These poems helped me think through how I might reshape the ways I move my body and the ways I interact with the world in relation to the violent, caste-based, racialized histories we were born into. Crafting these poems reminded me that recitation of “divine” mantras leads to no enlightenment unless it leads to a practice of listening to, and following the lead of, the subaltern.

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Bansuri: There is a belief that the Divine is simultaneous with its Name, that utterance gives physical body to thought. That sound gives incarnation to being.

To sound means to make a noise.

The way I engage with outside text and source material comes from Kimiko Hahn’s and Nicole Cooley’s experiments with bringing the outside world, be it physical object or archive of writing, into the poem to act as a trigger moment to make the speaker dive into the affective reservoir they carry. The vibrations of the outside text imbues the medium of the poem with its energies.

To sound also means to dive deep.

This process for me found that I was able to give body to my thoughts around the political concerns in the Hindu world. I had to be outside of myself before I could see myself, hear my noise. My own consciousness I best understood in my affective reactions to images and headlines.

And like Shiva who enraged through the utterance of भो gave rise to Kal Bhairav, the deity of time and annihilation, birthed through voice, noise, sound.

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Tabla: I just finished reading the book Carceral Capitalism by scholar and poet Jackie Wang. After spending most of the book laying bare the devastating inseparability between capitalism, systemic racism and incarceration in the US, Wang cedes the floor to her poet-self in the final chapter. She imagines an abolitionist future in conversation with admired scholars, artists, and revolutionaries.

Bansuri: When we finished writing this project and the world shut down, we were already feeling hopeless. Most of our drafts were done and India was about to burn in an entirely new way. Had we been seers we could have predicted it. Had we been seers and predicted it, who would listen? Half of America refused to wear masks, unable with kindness to protect one another. The militarized police accosted peaceful BLM protesters, incited riots, and backed a despot.

Tabla: Thinking along the revolutionary vision in Sun Ra’s music, Wang writes, “For some time I have been thinking about how to convey the message of police and prison abolition to you, but I know that as a poet, it is not my job to win you over with a persuasive argument, but to impart to you a vibrational experience that is capable of awakening your desire for another world” (319).

Bansuri: The treatment of COVID in India under Modi is completing a terror loop where the citizenry are left to burn in heaps while the rich remain insulated from attack. Had we been seers we would have written about this. After the preliminary drafts of Between Us, Not Half a Saint, we wrote one short poem cycle about the beginnings of the pandemic.

Tabla: When I read your words, when I close my eyes and hear the speed and rapid timbre of your voice, it is that vibrational experience you seek to impart. It is that vibrational experience that you and I have felt through the songs passed down to us—whether mantras and my mother’s voice or Chutney songs and your Aji’s voice.

Bansuri: I am angry. I am angry that people refuse to wear masks still. I am angry that around the world the distribution of the vaccine and resources are still bogarted by the Global North. I am angry that our politicians masturbate over life-saving patents for pharmaceuticals. I am angry that the destitute in India suffer blow after blow of virulent nationalism and that this government has become the overseer of death by plague. I am angry at our diasporic guilt and complicity.

Tabla: Between Us, Not Half a Saint, was a project of reckoning. What happens when two people dispersed via very different paths from “South Asia” enter into conversation with the intent to make music of what is broken? How do we move through the melody angry morning after angry morning?

Bansuri: So in anger: भो। भो। भो।

Tabla: In writing our poems, we aimed to feel a new vibrational experience from the mantra, an experience that imagines, howls, and critiques, that wakes in the morning to call to Shiva—not as a gendered God or figure invoked to falsely legitimate power—but as a symbol or energy that dawns when we abolish oppressive power structures. This anger wants abolition, of caste, systemic racism, structural anti-Islamism, indigenous erasure, sexual violence, patriarchy. The mantras stay alive, are passed down to us orally to be changed through us. These poems become their own mantras, ways to practice a resonant frequency of new Indian diasporic cultures that we want to emerge.

Bansuri: So in anger: भो। भो। भो।