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In Conversation with Poet & Writer Basudhara Roy

The phrase that “You can’t judge a book by its binding” came into existence in attribution to 1944 African Journal and later on in 1946 it became even more popular because of a murder mystery ‘Murder in the Glass Room’ by Lester Fuller and was slightly changed in its form and the term binding got transformed into “You can never tell a book by its cover.” Even Jhumpa Lahiri talks about in the same regard in a much reflective manner in her book ‘The Clothing of Books’.

In her words- “The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a cover is a sort of translation, that is, an interpretation of my words in another language -- a visual one. It represents the text, but isn't part of it. It can't be too literal. It has to have its own take on the book. Like a translation, a cover can be faithful to at the book, or it can be misleading. In theory, like a translation, it should be in the service of the book, but this dynamic isn't always the case.”

Nonetheless; I must admit that this is my first chance encounter of poet Basudhara Roy’s debut collection “Moon in My Tea Cup’ which has a cloth jacket made out of a Saree Border. Something I have seen after a long time, when I had those heavy dictionaries of Oxford that belonged to my Father with colorful pictures and illustrations and that was my last such book that I saw to be bound in a cloth cover and saddle stitched. Thus to feel and touch the very texture of her book was an invitation in itself to read it and believe in the saying “Never to judge a book by its cover” and perhaps I would say here it becomes just the opposite of it and you feel like knowing more about the book because of its unique cover design. Published from a hand operated press the Writers Workshop situated in Lake Gardens, Kolkata, I was even more amazed to know that renowned writers and poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das have got published from this publication house and I truly can understand it must be a great feeling for our poet Basudhara Roy to be now part of their family and having her book published from there.

The poet Basudhara Roy born in 1986, has been teaching English for the last eight years as Assistant Professor in Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. A student of St. Xavier's School, Bokaro Steel City, and later alumnus and gold medalist (2009) of Banaras Hindu University, Basudhara was awarded the UGC Junior Research Fellowship and has earned her doctoral degree from Kolhan University, Chaibasa, for her work on the explorations of cultural space in the short fiction of Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee and Jhumpa Lahiri. Her areas of academic interest are diaspora studies, women's writing, gender studies and postmodern criticism. Her poems, articles, short stories and research papers have appeared in several journals within the country. 'Moon in My Tea Cup' is her first collection of poems. Fond of books, plants, music and good conversation, Basudhara lives in Jamshedpur with her husband and two little sons and can be reached at basudhara.roy@gmail.com.

PB. Let’s talk about your debut poetry collection, ‘Moon in my Teacup’. Why did you choose to name your book with this title? As while reading I couldn’t find any poem with the title of the book which is usually what writers do. They name their book mostly with any one poem from the book.

Basudhara Roy. You are actually right and there is a little story about how the book got its name. You see, while the working manuscript was on my laptop, I had titled it ‘Notes and Other Poems’ and that is the way I had sent it to Writers Workshop also. Although I had written and published a number of poems before I wrote ‘Notes’, I had, till then, never sincerely entertained the idea of shaping up a formal collection. It was the moment I had finished writing ‘Notes’ that I had, for the first time, had this feeling that this was going to be no isolated poem, that there would be more to come, and from that very day, the document had titled itself for me as ‘Notes and Other Poems’. However, after Prof. Ananda Lalat WW had meticulously gone through the manuscript, he wrote to tell me that though he was delighted with the poems, I should consider a better title. He thought ‘Notes’ sounded too ordinary for the poems in the collection. I was, honestly, at a loss because if the title could not be ‘Notes’, I could morally give no other poem in the collection that titular honour. In perplexity, I remember absent mindedly leafing through my diary and this unfinished poem that I had titled ‘Moon in my Teacup’ suddenly caught my attention. It was a poem that despite repeated attempts, had absolutely refused to develop, and it stood stubbornly at a few lines and a few phrases, taunting me with its possibilities. I wondered whether I could use it as a title for the book without having a poem in it by that name. I put the question to a colleague and he said, why not. It was his suggestion that I begin my Preface to the book with a couplet that puts the title and its thematic connection to the collection in perspective and that is exactly what I did. So, that’s how the book got its name and I’m grateful that things happened that way.

PB. From your book I could make out that you have mostly written poems filled with lament, or a love lost feeling that the protagonist is holding within her heart, somewhere grudges and somewhere silent rebellion. How would you thus describe yourself as a poet, one with a melancholic heart expressing love or one with holding much love but chose to express it through silent words (poetry)?

Basudhara Roy. Well, yes, I firmly believe that poetry is an act of communication. For me, good poetry is neither ‘art for art’s sake’, nor merely cathartic self-expression. Poetry sails or fails by what it communicates. Again, the realm of poetry, I believe, begins at the point where prose, if not necessarily fails, certainly surrenders. As a poet, I attempt to firmly place my work within these two convictions regarding poetry and that is why much of my poetry envisages a dialogic mode. I have been an avid admirer of Browning and his dramatic monologues, and my consistent attempt in many of the poems particularly in my first volume has been to capture the temporal and emotional tension of some definite, significant moment. Many of my poems talk of love, though not always in the amorous sense, and all of them I think, build themselves on the (im)possibility of communication. So, if I had to choose one theme that, I think, characterizes ‘Moon in my Teacup’, it would be the fragility and vulnerability of emotive communication in our everyday world, and the inevitability of it all.

PB. I  read in your Bio, that you have earned your doctoral degree on the exploration of the cultural space in the short fiction of Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee and Jhumpa Lahiri. Why did you choose to study these women writers? Do you also identify yourself as a feminist writer?

Basudhara Roy. In the year 2009, when I had just completed my Masters in English Literature from B.H.U. and was contemplating a doctoral degree, these women writers from the Indian-American Diaspora were being extensively researched on by several of my seniors. However, I observed that while much work was being done on their novels, their short stories were not being studied with the same academic seriousness. Also the short story, I had always felt, had failed to garner the kind of academic respect that its elder sibling, the novel, definitely enjoyed. This interest in the short story as a literary genre, coupled with my admiration of these three writers who shared a common Bengali sub-culture and several thematic concerns in their work, spurred me on to study them within a comparative framework. That became the subject of my doctoral dissertation between the years 2011 and 2016, and it is now available as a book published by Atlantic, New Delhi last year.

Answering your second question, yes, I believe that my reading and writing have been influenced by my experience of being a woman and therefore, I am alert to gender inequalities everywhere and would qualify for a feminist. Identity, I believe, is something one cannot escape from (regardless of what T.S. Eliot has said about poetry being an escape from personality). No matter what I do, I will always be a woman and always look upon the world through this experience of being a woman, despite differences,  I share with all other women. So, when I read, write, narrate, interpret, and make sense of the world, I do it from my particular, subjective, and from limited standpoint of being a woman. And whether one calls it feminist or womanish, this woman-centric subjectivity is, I believe, crucial to my work both as reader and writer.

PB. Your areas of academic interests are Diaspora and gender studies. Do you plan to write on any of these areas in near future? What kind of books those would be fiction or non-fiction? I mean if you shape them in words how you would wish to portray these themes.

Basudhara Roy. Both diaspora and gender studies are disciplines that inspire me academically. They offer rich scope for interdisciplinary work and I hope in the near future to be able to take up academic projects on both these fronts. Fiction, however, is out of question at the moment I think. I have written and published a few short stories in magazines but that is history now. The last story I wrote was probably four years ago. I am working presently on another collection of poems and if I can be consistent in my work on that plane, the manuscript might be press-ready in about three to four months’ time.

PB. Your poetry collection ‘Moon in my Tea Cup’ has been published by Writer’s Workshop, which I happened to notice is a hand-operated press much of a small cottage industry with less online presence. Which means your book is not available online. Would you like to tell us how this publishing is different from the other contemporary publishers?

Basudhara Roy. Well, to begin with, publishing with Writers Workshop was a dream. As students of English Literature, we grew up looking upon WW not simply as a publishing house but as a movement that significantly shaped the destiny of Indian Writing in English in the post-independence era. Poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Keki N. Daruwalla and so many others had all begun their journeys from there and for me; it was a dream to be part of that glorious heritage. When I was ready with my first manuscript, I could think of sending it nowhere but only there to try its fate, and my joy knew no bounds when it was accepted by Writers Workshop.

It is true that their way of working small-scale affects their brand value economically vis-à-vis contemporary publishers. It also affects marketing and makes it difficult for readers to procure their books since there are no online sales channel. For my own part, I too was unable to set up a Seller account with Amazon and I have had to personally send out copies of the book to whoever showed an interest in reading it. But then theirs is an entirely aesthetic and non-commercial ideology of publishing and the little inconveniences notwithstanding, I am immensely grateful to Writers Workshop and to Prof. Ananda Lal for publishing Moon in my Teacup. Each time I see my poems enclosed within their trademark cloth-woven book jacket and their delicate calligraphy on its cover and spine; I cannot help but feel a sense of pride in belonging to the WW family.

PB. What is the ideal time when you write? Is there any particular or strict discipline that you follow? Being a doting mother, a wife and then having an active professional life how do you balance it all?

Basudhara Roy. Let me begin by saying that I am a perpetual inhabitant of chaos and I get nothing done half as well as I would like to. I have two sons aged eight and two, and they do every little thing to ensure that I am not left out of whatever it is that they are doing. Again, being an academic necessitates that I read, write, and engage deeply with prose for considerable stretches of time. So broadly, apart from good days and bad days, I have my prose days when I am writing academic articles and reading to that effect, my poetry days when I have the mental space and leisure to read and write poetry, and my dull-routine days when I am doing invigilation, assessment, evaluation, report-writing and such uninspiring work. My most intellectually fertile period during the day is when I am driving to and from work and that is when an idea will suddenly strike me and I must immediately jot it down in my diary once I have parked. I find it difficult to follow any writing schedule as such. Sometimes, there will be weeks when I do not get one proper line written but when the inspiration is on, I can write anywhere. If I am in a hurry, I will text the relevant phrases to my husband or a friend on Whats App even in the midst of a meeting or a party and retrieve it later at leisure for reworking.

PB. Where does writing comes into your blood? Would you like to share your journey of how writing began and is there any person in particular whom you really felt inspired from in your life?

Basudhara Roy. Writing comes to me from my father who has always been an avid reader of Bengali literature and has always inspired in me a love for a beautiful turn of phrase. As a child, I would spend hours listening to him talk about stories and the power of effective story-telling. It was he who inculcated in me dissatisfaction with colloquial modes of expression and would try to push me to find new words to convey my meaning. He was not aware of post-structuralism or post-modernism but in his own way, he taught me to not take words for granted and to try, test, and contest their meanings before becoming friends with them. My obsession with words is my father’s gift to me and whatever I shall manage to write in life shall be drawn from his joy in my creation.

PB. What is it that you find missing in today’s poetry and at the same time feel that poetry of present day writers is more expressive and symbolic in nature? Do you also identify yourself with modern poets or the post modern era?

Basudhara Roy. Well, I think every age finds its own expression depending upon its thematic preoccupations and its own aesthetic and functional views on language. Poetry, today, is evolving at a very fast pace. Of all literary genres, I feel it is poetry that has been the greatest beneficiary of the ICT revolution. Social media has facilitated the publication, circulation and reception of poetry in a big way and poetry, today, is more popular than it has been for a long time in the past. Poets today are far more adventurous and incisive than they were a few years ago and almost every field of experience has been colonized by poetry. I like the mature irreverence and nonconformity that many contemporary poets evince in their work and admire their commitment to the form. As far as my work is concerned, it is not very unconventional or radical as such, but it shares postmodernism’s belief in the inefficacy of language for the foolproof transfer of meaning.

PB. Have you read any book lately that has stayed with you for long?

Basudhara Roy. One poet who never leaves me is Agha Shahid Ali and I must revisit his poems ever so often. Then, there is Amrita Pritam whom I cannot let go of. Keki N. Daruwalla and K. Satchidanandan are two other poets whom I fail to exhaust. These poets I must pick up periodically the way I catch up with old friends. A few weeks back, I read Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake and these poems have determinedly stayed in my mind.

PB. Do you agree that Rumi, Khalil Gibran or Pablo Neruda are the forefathers of love poems? Do you think is there any new age writer who is as good as them whom you have recently read? Would you like to tell, why you chose that name?

Basudhara Roy. All these poets that you mention are certainly master poets who have etched love unforgettably in our imagination. But there are other poets from our subcontinent who have spoken of love as admirably and perhaps as unforgettably. Consider Amrita Pritam or Kamala Das for instance. Also consider K. Satchidanandan’s poem ‘Loving a Woman’ or Ezekiel’s ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’ or some of Eunice de Souza’s poems. A few months ago, I read Arundhati Subramaniam’s Love Without a Story, and I have not yet completely recovered from its powerful emotive and linguistic spell.


The above interview has been conducted by Editor Monalisa Joshi and if you wish to read the poetry book 'Moon in My Tea Cup' you can connect with the author at this mail id basudhara.roy@gmail.com



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