Nisha Ramayya’s collection, States of the Body Produced By Love, is a thorny debut, though containing sustained flashes of brilliance. Fans of Maggie Nelson or Anne Carson may find themselves in familiar territory: there is the same impulse for wide-ranging references, the same desire to crack words open and poke around inside them. Ramayya’s concerns, however, are broader than Nelson and Carson’s sorrows in love: as the title suggests, States of the Body addresses ideas of the nation state, Hindu nationalism, British imperialism – and yes, love too.
The collection opens with a long section of prose, much of which explores the metaphorical possibilities of the 10 Mahāvidyās, goddesses who are manifestations of the greater Hindu goddess Satī. Can they be used to illuminate the caste system, Ramayya wonders? “If I’m not careful, I allow them to mean everything,” she writes. “The Mahāvidyās are metaphors, which is where the difficulty begins.”
Difficulty is indeed the word at times. Ramayya’s work is laced with citations of other writers, among them Frantz Fanon, a usual suspect of the so-called postcolonial; to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, the “post” is unconvincing. Sara Ahmed and Julia Kristeva, and various experts in tantra, mantra and ritual, are also referenced. Their works are named “(mostly) in the spirit of gratitude”, Ramayya writes wryly in her endnotes, but these references feel pre-emptively defensive, like someone paying their academic dues. They act as a spiny scholarly exoskeleton, a defence against the charge, all too often levelled at poets of colour, that their work lacks craft, is insufficiently literary. But unfortunately, Ramayya’s speaker keeps us at an intellectual distance, too.
Central to Ramayya’s work is her knowledge of Sanskrit, acquired through a Victorian dictionary written by Sir Monier Monier-Williams, who was Oxford’s Boden Professor of Sanskrit, a position established to translate Christian scripture (no prizes for knowing what for). “I crouch in definitions, dragging lamps,” she writes of the decision to acquaint herself with her lost ancestral language. “This is my home, but [Monier-Williams] opens the door to let me in.” His dictionary is a complicated inheritance: a key colonial foundation, but also how Ramayya can relearn the language of her forebears. In To Stupefy Like Bind, Ramayya interrupts the text of the British imperial penal code with five different definitions of the word utthāna.
the act of rising (as the moon, as the disposition of the
moon towards self-rule) –
… the act of rising up to depart (as a warlike expedition, as
opening the door behind you, as welcoming ghosts) –
For poetry, a word with five possible definitions is a joy and here it delights. Ramayya the apprentice lexicographer aims it at an oppressor’s justice system while Ramayya the poet rejoices. By comparison, the punning and metaphoric possibilities of English are run ragged in Death, where the onslaught of double meanings leaves one dizzied in lines such as “from the dead time spent apart from you, spending lying die for you, the time of lying alongside you, from the lie of dying far from you”.
Pitting Sanskrit against English becomes an attempt to avenge a historical affront, most notoriously summarised by Thomas Babington Macaulay. In his Minute on (Indian) Education, which lobbied for the introduction of a Eurocentric literature curriculum in India, Macaulay declared: “I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic,” and, in the same breath, concluded that “a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. Sanskrit, which English tried to quash, now dances with five definition-words while English, the language of the country that stained the atlas pink, seems boring in comparison.
All this throws into sharp relief the fact that Ramayya writes in English. She highlights the violence of the language, its use as a colonial weapon. Of course, all language can be made violent and Ramayya muses on Hindu nationalism’s appropriation of the lexicon she has studied so lovingly: “Sanskrit is weaponised; its am. -s and ah. -s that sounded to me like a chorus of laughter, a string of pearls … turn to bile and blood in my mouth.”
Nevertheless, English is the language Ramayya lives and works in. By using it to write anti-imperial poetry, she has turned it against itself. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, Ramayya cannot refuse English, the language forced upon her family by invasion and migration, but she can re-fuse it. This aspect of her work is thrilling. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end to read a poet engaging so directly with how her language came to be hers. The rest of the collection can feel like pushing through a thicket of brambles – but what wonder can be found in the heart of it!
• States of the Body Produced By Love by Nisha Ramayya is published by Ignota (£12.99).
• Stephanie Sy-Quia is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, a mentoring programme launched by Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe with Ledbury poetry festival and the University of Liverpool to tackle the under-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic poets and reviewers in critical culture.