Dr. Malashri Lal
In Conversation with Usha Akella
In the world of poetic utterances, the duality of belonging and non-belonging seems irrelevant. In the playground of living, the moment is eternity.
If stillness and mobility are indistinguishable and memory loops in with current experiences simultaneously, my writing has to discover ways of conveying this constant energy of change without showing apparent change.
-- Malashri Lal
Dr. Malashri Lal, Delhi-based scholar and writer chats with Usha Akella about her first book of poems Mandalas of Time. Malashri Lal, Professor in the English Department (retd), and Former Dean, University of Delhi, has authored and edited seventeen books. These include In Search of Sita, Tagore and the Feminine, and Finding Radha. Betrayed by Hope: A Play on the Life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (2020), co-authored with Namita Gokhale, received the Kalinga Fiction Award. Malashri Lal’s latest book is Mandalas of Time: Poems (2023). She is currently Convener, English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi. Among other recognitions, Malashri Lal received the Maharani Gayatri Devi Award for Women’s Excellence, 2022.
About the book: “Mandalas of Time blends cosmopolitan experience with the memory of India’s epics and legends, magnificent landscapes and metonymic associations… Sita and Radha are part of the mandala of consciousness, as are European castles and the eternal music of flowing rivers. The poetic self is intricately woven into a rare awareness of effulgence, the result of an openhearted receptivity to life’s lessons in patience… For Malashri, the sources of poetic inspiration are embedded in the many layers of her cultural heritage, Rajasthan and Bengal being primary among them…”
Usha: May I begin by offering my congratulations on Mandalas of Time—your first book of poems in the middle of an ongoing scintillating career as a scholar, academician, reviewer etc.,
It is an intriguing title, somewhat of a paradox—mandalas as static sacred geometric shapes, and the fluidity of time—juxtaposed. Though mandalas also represent processes, and one thinks of the lesson of transience with Tibetan sand mandalas…Comment?
Malashri Lal: Mandalas are pools of experience. Mandalas denote spurts of energy. While their spiritual connotations differ from one tradition to another, my understanding is more generic than specific. These poems, 75 of them gathered in a book, were composed over several years—almost a spillover of experiences that defied rational thinking. I hadn’t contemplated a book until about two years ago by which time Covid had played havoc with my mind. In the precarious reality of each day, I sought certitudes that had disappeared. When I started writing about the women in the migrant community, or wondered about senior people being denied the joy of a fresh-air walk—the absurdity could only find expression in poetry. Alongside, I started collecting scattered material already written, some that had been published. These were the pools, or mandalas, or chakras—call them by whichever name—they were sacred realizations of another state of being—and they were linked in ways that were subterranean.
Usha: The opening poem ‘Ardhanareesvara’ addresses dichotomy, opposites, apparent contradictions, and their reconciliation… this is a thematic concern that you the poet grapple with throughout the book actually, as in poems ‘Krishna’s flute’, ‘Shyamoli’, ‘Prayer for a grandaughter’, ‘Another new year’, ‘Lessons from the Ganga’, ‘Amnesia’ and many more. The poems seem to point out that life is the interplay of opposites. Comment?
Malashri Lal: While life is indeed an interplay of opposites, these are not binaries but fluid conditions where no barriers exist. Given my feminist stance, ‘Ardhanareesvara’ had to be my opening poem because one cannot distinguish a boundary between Shiva and Parvati imaged in this ancient tradition, although physical attributes are ascribed to each. Similarly, Krishna and Radha merge and yet have distinct identities too; so has the day fading into a night, or the Ganges waters flowing into the ocean. The process of transitions and the amorphous quality of in-betweenness fascinate me. Thinking about gender issues, the androgynous imagination results in the kind of literature I have enjoyed reading, and teaching: Geoffrey Chaucer, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Rabindranath Tagore, among others. The contradictions may or may not be resolved, but the author drawing attention to the fluidity and provisionality of the human condition is important, I think.
Usha: The sensibility in these poems bespeaks of a knowledge of the contagion of the human condition from ravages of environment, epidemics, old age, despoiling of nature, corruption of the human soul… the poet is blessed with eyes that see the sorrow in other eyes (‘Prayer for a granddaughter’). Yet, there is also the certitude of: Life’s renewal is a beautiful certainty. Comment?
Malashri Lal: Poets can claim the gift of empathy. Environmental degradation as well as the ravages of human oppression are realities that a writer must face unflinchingly. However, the tools for offering a counterpoint are different for the poet and the politician. A poet pulls up cultural memory, invokes divinity, extends empathy and altogether relies upon the power of words. I tend also to believe in spiritual forces that are resource guides when suffering seems relentless and ‘unjust’. Reading into Buddhist expositions on ‘dukkha’ or Swami Vivekananda’s speeches about ‘the power within’, my thoughts on human despair take a turn towards hopefulness. The primary lesson is from Nature: those bulbs of Easter lilies that remain buried underground for eleven months in the year but will burst into color and good health for one glorious month. That regenerative capability is part of the human condition too.
Usha: You comment in the introduction that the use of myth in your poetry is to throw light on the neglected corners in their narrative. In female figures from history, myth and folklore like Manthara, Rani Padmini, Sita—you imagine simple intimate moments from their lives. Comment?
Malashri Lal: The living mythology of India is a link between the past and the present. In Search of Sita, and Finding Radha have seeped into my soul. The same principle of delving deep into traditional stories and making them relevant for contemporary readers drove my book of poems Mandalas of Time, and more images appeared: Ardhanareesvara, Manthara dasi, Valminki’s ashram… The pool of emotions: Where does one draw the line between secular love, and a divine surrender—I don’t know. So, Radha enters the Mandalas through a story about Krishna being ill in Dwarka and requiring charanamrit from a devotee. This is part of folklore but not a story widely recounted. It appealed to my imagination as a unique expression of love, and the bypassing of social hierarchies. Manthara is among the reviled figures in traditional stories. I took my cue from a contemporary retelling by Anand Neelakantan in Valmiki's Women, and attributed mother-like emotions to Manthara. Moreover, I resist the stereotype of an ‘ugly’ and hunchbacked ‘evil’ character, remembering Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Today we have a better vocabulary for writing about persons with disabilities.
The poem about Rani Padmini in rhymed verse was written when there was furious controversy over the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish film Padmaavat in 2018. The mytho-history set in the 13th -14th century describes the alluring beauty and loyalty of Queen Padmini of Chittor who is coveted by the invader Allaudin Khilji. She commits jauhar along with the women of the palace (mass self-immolation) to save her honour and that of her kingdom. In the 21st century, the honour codes of the past may seem unacceptable yet one needs great sensitivity to enter the precincts of another time and place. Therefore, my poem on Padmini ends with a pertinent question about changing cultural values.
Sita, the woman of enormous moral and intellectual strength, is a leitmotif in the Mandalas with several poems imagining personal and intimate emotions about courtly life, noblesse oblige, forest dwelling, captivity in Ashok Van and finally, a long awaited motherhood. My imagination conjures scenes of Sita rolling rotis for her children, or waving a pankha fan at meal times, or confidently resisting her captors. Sita, in my imagination, is also travelling with my manuscript In Search of Sita to Bellagio, Italy, and meeting a Celtic goddess there. Close to home during the pandemic—Sita is commenting on the self-incarceration caused by Covid.
I don’t know what pools of consciousness such poems arise from, but the core belief in the strength of women remains constant in me.
Usha: I would love to delve deeper into your insights into poetry as a craft—how Time itself warps in a way bringing it to a standstill—as if poetry is the triumph over transience. There is a keen awareness of Time in the poems as in ‘Autumn’, for example.
Malashri Lal: ‘Time’ is the named protagonist of my book of poems. Recall the French philosopher Henri Bergson who said, ‘The truth is we change without ceasing...there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state.’ If stillness and mobility are indistinguishable and memory loops in with current experiences simultaneously, my writing has to discover ways of conveying this constant energy of change without showing apparent change. ‘Autumn’ is a useful poem to reflect on this aspect of the craft of writing. The ‘hieroglyphic for passing time’ is inscribed on the brown leaves and is the backdrop for the contrasts I refer to: ‘Hunger and satiation/Memory and forgetting’… In addition, to present the idea of synchronicity in other ways, it was a struggle till I found and placed the words ‘Simultaneous/ Tenuous/ Garrulous…’
Yes, simultaneity, coexistence, layered experiences and inner strife are subjects that interest me. The poems ‘Shyamoli’, ‘Crushed’, ‘Escape’ offer some illustrations. Several poems end with a question mark because there are no answers to the puzzle of the simultaneity of consciousness.
Usha: Nature is the other major theme apart from women. I was especially struck by the floral presence in the poems - symbolically or with an ingenuity as in the clever allusion to colonialism via bougainvillea in its namesake poem.
Malashri Lal: I have always been fascinated by the names of flowers and how they are interpreted in literature—Rabindranath Tagore’s Red Oleander/ Rokto Karabi, the lotus being associated with Goddess Lakshmi, Wordsworth’s Daffodils…the list would be long. The common flowers in north and eastern India appear in my poems: the bougainvillea, the champa and the hibiscus, the amlataas. But I associate them with larger sociocultural issues such as colonialism and class hierarchies. I do not take Wordsworth’s line too literally, “Let Nature be your teacher”, but adopt a more contemporary idea of ecological connectedness. With the names comes the history of naming—as with the bougainvillea and the Easter lilies—and there’s a vital link with cultural contexts.
Usha: ‘Shila Devi of Amber’, and ‘Bellagio, Italy’ are my favorite poems. These are surprising poems, fresh and the characters recast. Comment?
Malashri Lal: Interesting that you should pick two very different poems in terms of the creative impulse behind them. ‘Shila Devi of Amber’ is about the holy, black stone idol who travelled with Raja Mansingh I from Jessore in Bengal to Amber in Rajasthan in the early seventeenth century. For me, she epitomizes my fragmented identity—a Bengali brought up in Rajasthan, studying English Literature. I’ve lived between Tagore’s literary world and the oral poetry of the Bhopa folk singers. Classic and folk—I now realise that they cannot be separated. Shila Devi’s original priests were Bengalis and their families are still recognized. When I felt like a culturally displaced person, fighting to belong within a non-belonging, Shila Devi was a consoling deity. Today, with internal migration being a common condition in India, this poem will speak to many people who have transited away from their ‘roots’ and are left wondering if that isn’t a fortunate journey after all.
‘Bellagio, Italy’ is about contrasting mythologies—a much revered Sita in India and a forgotten Belisama in Bellagio. Namita Gokhale and I were editing our book In Search of Sita, when this poem occurred to me. While we may debate cultural legacies today, the value of interrelation between human beings and nature cannot be denied. Both Goddesses are reminders of elemental fire and light, compassion and strength. It’s also about women’s stories reinforcing the lesson of ecological balance.
Usha: ‘Shyamoli’ stood out for me in its honest articulation of conflict for Indian women like us who are embedded, nurtured, shaped by a system that gives us certain strengths—yet has to be resisted—with the ‘swab of new feminism’. As you reiterate in another poem: I ask you if you can rewrite Values the past held strong? And in ‘Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg’ ‘I loved the old and lived in the new.’ Comment?
Malashri Lal: My moderate feminism does not accept the conflictual binary of man versus woman. The history of Indian feminism shows its early expressions as a reformist movement in the nineteenth century in which enlightened women and men participated together. Sarojini Naidu (1879 –1949) the poet, politician, homemaker, is the foremother of Indian feminism, according to me. She could say with conviction, ‘When there is oppression, the only self-respecting thing is to rise and say this shall cease today because my right is justice.’ Feminism can have a gentle strength and a subversive edge at the same time. My poems are products of such feminism in which I like to contextualize my subjects, their history and culture, and not combat the past with the practices of the present. Feminism of this nature has a power that is rapier sharp but doesn’t shine the light on its cutting edge.
Usha: Your female centric interest percolates into nonfiction, and I understand that you are awaiting the release of an oeuvre on Lakshmi, following on the heels of other goddesses. I’d love to know more about the book.
Malashri Lal: After Namita Gokhale and I published In Search of Sita (2009) and Finding Radha (2018), Sri Lakshmi arrived as the revered figure to complete the Goddess Trilogy. The book to be launched in February 2024 is titled Treasures of Lakshmi: The Goddess Who Gives. The cover, designed by the publisher Penguin Random House, is a magnificent representation of Sri Lakshmi’s power, dignity and attraction. Significant research went into finding ancient texts from Sanskrit sources, and we also commissioned creative writing and essays that place the goddess Lakshmi in a contemporary context.
Personally, I see Lakshmi in the traditional way as the goddess of abundance and not limited to material wealth. Today, in much of India, the goddess is invoked at Diwali as showering blessings of gold and jewels. The book was an opportunity to enter the precincts of the lost legacy wherein Lakshmi is the source of wellbeing and prosperity in the larger sense of social good. Lakshmi is also a ‘wandering’ goddess—she enters and leaves homes depending of the quality of devotion offered. Among the folktales and vrat kathas there are examples of Lakshmi being propitiated with simple offerings and purity of intent. From the first appearance of Lakshmi in the Samudramanthan to the sahasranama of a thousand appellations, the goddess Lakshmi is a complex and fascinating figure for comprehending the many meanings of wealth.
Usha: The coming out of this book has been a joyous celebration for you in the loving company of dear friends and colleagues. It’s a beautiful testimonial of a life well lived. Wishing you many more such moments as you nurture others, and continue to evolve.
Malashri Lal: I deeply appreciate your good wishes. Thank you for the insightful reading of Mandalas of Time, and the perceptive questions that have helped me to look deeper into my creative process. You have opened new paths for me Usha Akella. May we walk some of it together in speaking of feminism in culturally significant contexts.
With ‘The Hearth Within Celebration’ of Malashri Lal's Mandalas of Time. Basudhara Roy.
With Prof. Avishek Parui. https://youtu.be/BaThtkpotkc. Mandalas of Time: Poems