Nishat Haider – WE Meritorious Green Heart Awardee 2022, interviewed by Smeetha Bhoumik, Editor, Yugen Quest Review

How time flies, Nishat! It’s been more than twelve years together on poetic trails – finding meaning, adding meaning; and finding friends, adventure and excitement!

You have taken immense strides in your literary/academic journeys, and contributed to our WE Literary Community. Please share some moments you treasure.

Nishat: Literary/academic journey is always a collective affair. We build on the creative imagination, encouragement, assistance and visualizations of others. I am extremely fortunate to be a part of the WE (Women Empowered) Indian Group of women writers, academics, poets, thinkers, and artists who advocate, validate and celebrate the heterogeneity, complexity and richness of the field. While I have serious misgivings about the use of the catch-all term ‘women’s writings’ or ‘women’s art,’ but I do believe women’s writings and creative works of different periods, cultures and modes share a certain reflexivity or consciousness emphasizing both difference and unity in the female experience. And the most important question here is: can we make any meaningful association between each individual’s literary, socio-cultural, historical and indeed spiritual context? In fact, the artists, poets, educators, and humanitarians in the WE group have become a family with deep love, admiration, and respect for all. Gradually, the journey of WE became intertwined with the individual trajectories of the women creative writers and academics that afforded occasions both for theme-building and team-building. The tapestry of connections and affections enable us not only to challenge barriers but also to cross boundaries forced by tradition and discrimination. Credit goes to Smeetha Bhoumik, endearingly called Smee by her friends, who has believed enough in the idea behind WE to bring it to fruition despite the extensive demands of such a complex and collaborative project. As the famous Urdu poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, once famously referred to the power of a single committed individual in the pursuit of his/her dreams in the following lines: “Maen akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar/ Log saath aate gaye aur kaarvaan banta gaya [Alone, I set off towards the destination/ The caravan was created as the people joined in concentration] (Translated by Raza Naeem). A single committed step of Smeetha became a giant leap in the formation of the WE group.

2. These are the very same twelve odd years, that have posed the biggest challenge for women in this country; and it seems to be a motif replicated in some other parts of the world too.

a). What are your thoughts on this and how do you deal with it?

Nishat: Women’s creativity, as a site of their lived experiences, and our ways of thinking about it are constantly renewed through socio-political and cultural changes across space and time. The new millennium has witnessed humongous socio-economic, political, and environmental shifts that have posed many challenges for women in India and worldwide. The oppression of women as a system of interconnected barriers and vectors of power which diminish, immobilize, and insubordinate is not only enacted in intentional ways but also unconsciously that often go unrecognized and undiscovered. Without going into all the complexities for exploring women’s oppression, we must recognize four facts:

  • The intersection of oppressive forces.
  • The silent or invisible nature of this oppression.
  • Women are not free until ‘all’ women are free of oppression.
  • Women’s historic subjugation and exploitation by men is further exacerbated by capitalism because it sustains, bolsters, or augments other oppressions.

Although women’s creative and professional endeavours have been encumbered by traditional histories, heteronormative patriarchal discourse, socio-political prejudices, discriminatory economic policies, cultural imperialism, and intersectional oppressions, but women as embodiments of multiple identities have marched on. Amid social changes, religious restrictions and physical violence, women have nonetheless achieved distinction, devotedly executed their familial as well as professional responsibilities, and wielded power.

A woman, like any human being, is intricately bound to a community of others. Both the individual woman’s connectedness to others and her intuitive understanding of the human condition have not only enabled reflection on the past, the present, and the future, but also encouraged engagement with intersectional gender thought and transversal politics. Irrespective of women’s location and situation, writing provides catharsis and a much-needed means to challenge the discriminatory socio-political forces and economic system. By facilitating haptic, sensory and affective connections between the poet and the readers, poetry inspires us to think empathetically and reform our perspectives. In the current times of hopelessness and fear, poetry provides cultural sustenance and spiritual succour. In fact, Gloria Anzaldúa compares artistic expression to shamanism as she believes that literary works and creative arts enact psychological healing, which is much like the healing performed by the traditional shamans.

b). As a collective, we have found inspiration together, of course, and that’s helped me at a personal level too. Your thoughts?

Nishat: WE, as a collective has done amazing collaborative work on subjects of gender equality and promotion of peace and harmony through arts and poetry. As a feminist network it has organized skill-building workshops, poetry reading sessions and critiques of books that brought together poets, academics, performers and activists to work towards gender empowerment. It also provides a much need forum for young budding artists and writers. The collective synergy of WE have energized me and revved up my spirits in these challenging times when we are confronted with rising misogyny, bigotry, censure/censor of dissent, and high levels of political polarization

3. As judges of the WE Poetry Awards, you comprise a dream team! Many thanks from WE and YQR. Warm thanks from me, and I am happy to join you on the panel this year.

Nishat: It is a matter of great pride and privilege to be a co-traveller in this journey of poetry, sisterhood and love!

4. In recognition of your outstanding contribution to WE through tumultuous times, you are a recipient of the WE Meritorious Green Hearts Awards 2022, along with Taseer Gujral and Somrita Urni Ganguly, (poets Amita Paul, Rituparna Khan and Lily Swarn received it for poetry @ #CeWoPoWriMoWE and contribution to WE Celebrations). This award is very special as it joins the dots in our WE journey since 2016, when WE Literary Community came into being.

Everything came to a head during ’20-’21, when the pandemic and climate change necessitated a renewed look at life and nature. We’ve been fortunate to have worked through those trying times establishing new awards, writing poetry and celebrating treasured moments.

Would you like to share your thoughts on this please? How do you see it going forward?

Nishat: The Covid-19 contagion has produced an age of uncertainty, fragmentation, despair, and a dire foreboding about the future. It led to a state of emergency involving lockdown and quarantine, and a loss of human connection as people observe social distancing for the fear of contamination and infection. Additionally, the pandemic has exposed the iteration of systemic inequalities and injustices rooted in institutions, attitudes and behaviours across the caste, class, ethnic, and gender divide. Certainties have been replaced by shared fears. More troubling is the apprehension that the present crisis has an air of longevity about it, constituting a turning point in history.

 In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno said, “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” The pandemic as a splinter turned our imagination and vision into a magnifying glass to explore diverse suppressed voices, perspectives, realities and experiences during the lockdown. Adorno’s maxim made me think about how the pandemic forced us to reflect on our entangled and interdependent connectivity. Consequently, we must think seriously about what living together on Earth has meant or could mean. Creative artists, performers, writers, poets and academic thinkers have an uncanny ability to link personal experiences to broader questions of life and structural injustices, thus addressing issues of responsibility also. So, in a way, poetry also exhorts us to look critically at our implicated-ness or complicity, and thus poetry connects the readers and poets through mutual vulnerability, empathy and compassion. Amid the disruptive transformation of the world owing to the pandemic, poetry becomes a site of healing and succour as it helps us to make sense of not only the crises and its impact on the quotidian everyday experience of ordinary people, but also experiences of loss of human connection. Poetry is a way to give voice to those affective experiences which are not easy to access and grasp. It enables us to live with uncertainty and fear, whilst reinforcing hope, new visions and alternatives. The transformative role of poetry consists in enabling us to make multiple and diverse connections with alternative futures, whilst unlocking new forms of living, solidarity and hope. 

WE (Women Empowered) India group has been very successful in building a community of committed poets, artists, thinkers, filmmakers, public intellectuals and academics from diverse backgrounds and languages to promote peace, unity, joy and humanity. WE enabled a collective of affectual voices by constructing a creative space to represent diverse forms of expressions from across caste, class, and religious borders. As Rupi Kaur says,

we all move forward when
we recognize how resilient
and striking the women
around us are
(from Milk and Honey)

At Women Empowered, we seek to challenge, subvert, and transgress the asymmetries of power because as women and creative writers or thinkers we acknowledge that all people, irrespective of their ideological and identarian standpoint deserve equality, justice, and the right to live with dignity.

In future, I would like the WE group to take up consciousness-raising (regarding women’s issues and challenges ahead) and solidarity initiative in a big way and offer support to women from marginalised, disempowered and disenfranchised communities in order ensure that they are not rendered invisible in creative spaces and their stories, visions, and experiences are not silenced or elided. As Adrienne Rich pertinently observed, “The words are purposes./ The words are maps.” I hope that in due course the WE collective will become an international forum which would aesthetically, culturally, and performatively engage with the world at large and invite others to do the same.

Dr Nishat Haider is Professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (India). She is the author of Tyranny of Silences: Contemporary Indian Women’s Poetry (2010). She has served as the Director, Institute of Women’s Studies, University of Lucknow. She is the recipient of many academic awards including the Meenakshi Mukherjee Prize (2016), C. D. Narasimhaiah Award (2010), and Isaac Sequeira Memorial Award (2011). She has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and her essays have been included in a variety of scholarly journals and books. She has conducted numerous conferences, seminars, workshops on gender budgeting and gender sensitization. She has worked on various projects funded by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF, UGC and other agencies. She has lectured extensively on subjects at the intersection of cinema, culture and gender studies. Currently she is also working as the Project Coordinator of FY18 English Access Microscholarship Programme (an initiative of the United States Embassy/Consulate General in India and the United States Department of State). Her current research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Translation, Popular Culture and Gender Studies.