Jacinta Kerketta is an Adivasi (indigenous, literally first inhabitant) poet from Jharkhand in eastern India. She writes moving political poetry that contains the suffering and resistance of Adivasi people in India who have been historically marginalised and are the victims of a brutal contemporary genocide at the hands of governments obsessed with extractive capital which leads to the destruction of their physical and cosmological worlds.
In this interview, Ashley Tellis speaks to her about her journey with poetry
Ashley Tellis: When did you start writing poetry and how did you come to it?
Jacinta Kerketta: I started writing poems and stories when I was in the eighth standard at school. In that year, I first published in s small magazine that carried stories and poems called Raahee (Traveller). This little magazine reached many schools in the country. I used to receive letters from children from different parts of the country, even from the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This was a new experience for me. It made me realise that writing could touch the lives of many people. Even though we live in different places,, we have similar circumstances, struggles, difficulties, dreams, hopes of empathy. So, I kept writing.
It is difficult for me to say how exactly I arrived at poetry. But what is certain is that it started in the eighth standard when I started looking within. I was seriously ill in the seventh standard. After that, I was sent to boarding school. It is there that I began reflecting on questions like: when did I last feel happy., why is there so much restlessness inside, why are adivasi children always humiliated for not getting good marks in school, why is the relationship between my father and mother not good, what mental states do children go through in all these circumstances? Asking myself all these questions internally, I first began to write small stories and articles. Then, slowly, I felt poems suddenly emerged, like butterflies. They brought with them a lightness in me. And when they came, I used to feel a new energy in my body. For this reason, it remained close to my heart.
Later, those questions of childhood emerged again keeping in mind wider society. Through trips to several areas, I learnt about the struggles of adivasis, experienced their pain, observing carefully and understanding the state and power equations in society. The poems began to sharpen themselves in their own way. Such has been the journey of my poetry.
AT: Did you read much poetry as a child in school or later?
JK: I had never thought of writing poems. That's why I didn't study many poems since childhood. I used to read stories because story books were available in the library. But my mother gave me a lot of space in my childhood to wander away from books to rivers, forests, mountains and villages. I got a lot of opportunities to see and live life closely in my childhood. The entire village was our home. We had many families. New parents were found in every family. After living in such a tribal village society, I also came to live in another society where we were looked down upon for being adivasi. Also because of our colour. Regarding caste, religion and everything. I saw how the lives of women was even more difficult. Looking at these two societies, I found my parents and brothers struggling in the middle of all this. I started observing society carefully since childhood, observing women, children and everyone. I started writing poetry after going to boarding school in the eighth standard. Perhaps the poems started with the memory of the time with my mother, the river, the forest, the mountains and the people.
Much later, I read some Hindi poets. Then I stopped reading poetry for some time. To see in what form the poems flow within me in their own way. And in what form and colour does it pass through me. In whatever way it comes, it will be recorded in the same way. And writing poetry remained like this. After my poetry collection was published, I started reading many new and old poets.
AT: Do you write your poems in one go or do they come in bits and pieces?
JK: Most of the poems have been written in one go. At some places, I have made very small changes in some poems much later. If poems are not written in one flow, they are never written again. Therefore, one always has to be alert within, whenever that flow comes in, it has to be written immediately. Otherwise, it is never possible to write it in the same form again.
AT: Do you edit your poems or just complete them in one go and not return to them?
JK: This is accomplished in one go only. It is difficult for me to write poetry in pieces and connect them later. It happens once or never. Sometimes, very small changes have been made in some poems at a later time, but this does not happen with every poem.
AT: Do you write with pen and paper or on a computer?
JK: Initially, I used to write in a diary with a pen. After buying a laptop, I started writing on it. Now I write on my mobile phone as well. Because you don't always have a diary or laptop with you, it is easier to write here.
AT: Do you pay attention to form in poetry?
JK: I do not beat my poetry poetry into any mould. I feel the power with which it comes within me, in my body. It comes and goes. And then there is nothing inside except silence. I just feel the whole process. I just write and nothing else.
AT: Who are your influences in poetry?
JK: Hindi poet Vinod Kumar Shukla, poet Kedarnath Singh, poet Chandrakant Deotale, young poet Anuj Lugun have influenced me in the early days. But after this, the life of the adivasis struggling on the land, the adivasi world view, the wisdom of the common people, their poetry-like speech, in the real sense, gave the strength to the poems to take root. Grassroots people who live poetry, I write only them. They are the source of inspiration for me.
AT: Who do you write for?
JK: I feel people inside me. I am influenced by them. I see the lives of people who live poetry. I write them, only for them. So that they can see and find themselves in the poems.
Not everyone in society knows everything about everyone .But the people who dominate think that they know everything, that their definition of everything is correct. But this is not the complete truth. There are many truths and aspects about which not everyone knows everything. Like a prejudice works against adivasis. People who are unable to understand each other can see unknown aspects of each other in poems, can feel them can understand, can become aware. That's why I write.
AT: Where do you publish your poetry?
JK: The publication of my poems also has its own story. After writing, I always wondered how poems themselves find their way. I left everything to them. Then in 2015, I was reading poems among the adivasis in Odisha. Found two publishers there, one from India and the other from Germany. After listening to the poems, they proposed publishing them. And in 2016, the first bilingual Hindi/English poetry collection Angor (Embers) was published from Adivani, Kolkata and the Hindi/German collection Glut was published from Draupadi Verlag in Heidelberg. In 2017, this collection was also published bilingually in Hindi and Italian and in 2020 in Hindi and French. It has been published in Italian by Miraggi Edizoni. The publisher says that he was on a trip to India. Meghnath, a documentary filmmaker from Jharkhand, gifted him my first poetry collection. He was reading it on the train. Then he decided to publish it in the Italian language. After returning, he started looking for a translator. He then met Alessandra Consolaro, a professor at the University of Turin, who had already finished translating the collection and was looking for a publisher. This is how the book was published.
Angor is published in French by Editions Banyan.
The second collection Jadon Ki Zameen (Land of Roots) was published in Hindi/English and Hindi/German from Bharatiya Jnanpith, New Delhi in 2018.The third poetry collection Ishwar Aur Bazaar (God and the Marketplace) is published in Hindi in 2022 from Rajkamal Publications, New Delhi.
From 2021, I started writing for children. Jacinta's Diary is published in Hindi language in 2023 by Jugnu Publications of Ektara Trust, Bhopal, which contains travelogues, diaries related to villages, forests and mountains and small poems. It is written in such a way that parents along with children can read and feel them.
AT: What do you think is the role of poetry in today’s world?
JK: Art and literature have kept people from becoming narrow, saved them from completely dying within.
Poems have always tried to touch the souls of people in a few words, to awaken their suppressed sensitivity, and along with making them feel something also attempted to shake up their minds. The philosophy of life is present in the poems which again and again try to connect people to their roots, try to awaken the humanity within them. Poetry gives people a way to see beyond boundaries. Therefore, the people who join it are not limited by any boundaries. Poems convey even harsh truths to the hearts of people with great beauty and tenderness, and play their role in making people aware.
The collective awakening of the humanity of many people in the world is necessary. In today's time its need is even greater.
Translated from the Hindi by Ashley Tellis