In “Meet Rajiv Mohabir, the Guyanese poet of Indian origin who writes to remind himself that he is alive,” Urvashi Bahuguna (Scroll.in) reviews Rajiv Mohabir, stating that “migration is his ‘dharma’, and his world in poetry stretches to colonialism, linguistic identity, religiosity, and his ancestors.” In his interview with Bahuguna, Mohabir affirms, “My writing has been transformed by connections I make between myself, American culture, India, and my Caribbean connections. I am not Indian, I am Guyanese. I do not see my work as an attempt at preservation but rather as cultural creation in the United States with an Indo-Guyanese accent, another point on the map to where I have migrated.” Here are other excerpts from the article and interview:
Guyanese poet Rajiv Mohabir’s first book of poetry, The Taxidermist’s Cut, was chosen for the Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books. His second book, The Cowherd’s Son, won the Kundiman Prize and was published in May 2017 by Tupelo Press. In The Cowherd’s Son, Mohabir explores the roots and the trappings of migration. We are introduced to an India that has been transplanted to other countries. [. . .] Mohabir’s grandmother, referred to as Aji, is a woman with a story and a song for every facet of life. In a language that draws upon Bhojpuri and Hindi, Mohabir creates a world whose symbols are familiar to the Indian reader but whose interpretations will be a revelation to them. He spoke to Scroll.in about what poetry means to him, how it helps heal the scars of linguistic insecurity, and what he derives from a life lived in near-constant motion. [. . .]
In an interview, you said about The Cowherd’s Son, “I was inspired by my Aji’s songs and stories. My poems are a kind of translation of her poetic.” Can you talk a little about what you call her “poetic”?
I come from a very oral tradition: one of Calypso, Bhojpuri folk music, and storytelling and see this as my poetic inheritance.
My Aji’s poetics and her life were very much informed by the Ramayana, but not the Ramayana of Valmiki or the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas. She understood her world through the songs that she learned in diaspora with divergent story lines and caste reckonings – Bhojpuri folk songs that celebrate every aspect of life. There are songs for every geography of life: for the birth of children, grinding grains on a chakki, planting rice, every second of wedding rituals, death, cremation, and for all things spiritual. These songs stand in the place of Sanskrit mantras, replacing the Brahmanical with the vernacular. My Aji’s poetics, unlettered though they were, were anti-Brahmanical and invested in dissent – not very tuned to the tenets of the Ramayana.
Her poetic also centred dis/relocations as she sang in New Amsterdam, Crabwood Creek, Toronto, and Orlando. I hope for my poems to echo my Aji’s trajectory, questioning who we are, having left India over 125 years ago, facing the future while recounting the past. I want them to question religiosity and fixity. [. . .]
In the poem Gift from a Grandmother you write, “There is no shame/ in surviving anyhow you can…” What role has poetry played in your survival? As a queer immigrant in rural Central Florida, poetry was the vehicle of my survival. I am reminded of Audre Lorde. I am reminded of my Aji. Our songs and stories have survived and adapted to their new contexts and were not a luxury. In the cane field of Skeldon women sang sohars for the births of the children. In New York, I wrote a sohar poem for my niece who was born. I also write biraha against homophobic violence. I write to remind myself and my family that we are alive, that we have a deep history of oppression that we are even now working through. Poetry allows me to wade into treacherous waters and to bend driftwood and seaweeds into vessels to bear me to the far shore. [. . .]