I had followed Karuna Ezara Parikh- model, television presenter of shows such as Life’s a Beach on NDTV Good Times, travel writer and poet- on Instagram for more than a year before I met her. The person that I eventually spent several hours with was disarmingly open and astonishingly warm. What was supposed to be a standard fifteen-minute interview became a freewheeling conversation over many months, about social media, literature, art and the authenticity of art, the city she lives in and the city she calls her home, and whether poetry can come from a place of love, or only of pain.
The following excerpts from the conversation took place in two phases: at first, at a literature festival in Kolkata in January 2018, and then in August 2018 at Sienna Café.
Firstly, I wanted to ask you about social media.
That is what everyone comes back to!
You spoke a little bit about social media poetry (in the session at the festival), but do you have more to say about the positives and negatives of it?
There are positives and negatives. When I first started writing, I used to write on post-its and take a photograph of it. The Paris poem was the first one that I posted as a white on black print text. After that, I realised that this is a lot easier to read for people, and the reach showed that. So that’s the positive- through Instagram, you’re now reaching far more people than you would if you published a volume of poetry that would get lost in the noise.
The primary problem of social media poetry is the space in which one reads the poem, which is tiny- a three square inch space in which one has to fit the entire poem. And yes, it is deeply frustrating sometimes. But I’ve often found that the best art comes from setting a limit on yourself. Artistic expression is usually about freedom, but the beauty is that once you put a limit on something, you can challenge yourself, and that can work magic sometimes.
There’s another negative that doesn’t relate to writing specifically but to social media in general. It’s the sense of competition and insecurity. You have to keep telling yourself, well, we’re all here and we’re all putting something out. Let our ways of influencing the world be positive and not born from the negativity of competition.
There are people, as we know, who are not great poets who have huge followings. I won’t take names at this point, but, you know! But we have to stop questioning whose worth is what. I can’t, as a poet, stop and be like, that poet doesn’t deserve it, his or her poems are shit or not up to the mark. If this is what their audience likes, then there are enough people who don’t like this. If I don’t like it either, then I could be the torch bearer for those who don’t and give these people an option of something else as a poem.
Do you think there has been resurgent interest in poetry from traditional publishers because of social media?
I think the resurgence, if there is one, is commercially driven. It has opened up a market. You may not agree with Rupi Kaur’s poetry, but you cannot disagree with the effect she’s had. I think one has to see social media poetry as a stepping stone. You write a poem that is a line or two, and then, you have a longer version in a book, and maybe a reader will open the book on their bed and have the time to see it and absorb it. And that way, you propagate better poetry. It’s a double-edged sword and you have to use the right side to cut through the bullshit.
There’s this idea that long poetry is somehow better, which isn’t necessarily true.
Absolutely. I truly think that it is the shortest poems that are the hardest to write, even if they’re the easiest to read. A single line says so much. I remember, once, I’d written this line which said, “An empty heart is not less heavy.” And that was it. But even people who write longer poetry, wrote to me and said that just that one thought really got through to them. Unless you’re talking about Eliot, or, like, Allen Ginsberg, poetry is not that long, or has not been for a very long time.
Who are your favourite poets- contemporary, or classic?
I’m carrying a book around with me right now. There’s something in this that I would like to show to you.
She takes out A Time for New Dreams by Ben Okri and reads:
‘Heaven knows we need poetry now more than ever. We need the awkward truth of poetry. We need its indirect insistence on the magic of listening. In a world of contending guns, the argument of bombs, and the madness of believing that only our side, our religion, our politics is right, a world fatally inclined towards war – we need the voice that speaks to the highest in us. We need the voice that speaks to our joys, our childhoods, and to the Gordian knots of our private and national condition. A voice that speaks to our doubts, our fears, and to all the unsuspected dimensions that make us both human and beings touched by the whisperings of the stars.’
He’s just so brilliant, right. In terms of contemporary, young, Indian poets I love Harnidh Kaur, I think her work is stupendous. Rahul Gautam and Arunoday Singh, who are some male poets who are doing a great job. I love Anjum Katyal’s work, I think she’s fantastic. I recently was gifted a book of poems by a poet called Safia Elhillo. She’s an African (sic) (Sudanese-American) poet and her work is incredible. Many of her pieces speak to Indians as well. Warsan Shire- she’s so good. And my favourite Instagram poet is Nayyirah Waheed. Her minimal and really evocative style is amazing. I also really respect that she has remained faceless. There’s only one video available of her on the entire Internet and that, in this day and age, is a feat.
So much of your life is online, but you’re getting married in January 2019. Will this change after that?
I don’t know how that’s going to change my life in anyway except that it sort of cements on a piece of paper my love for someone and their love for me. What I’m struggling with is the pre-marriage wedding part where there’s a lot of planning and it often takes away the time that I want to write in. It’s always, I think, very tough with writing to remember to prioritise writing regardless, to at least find and let it have its little nook in your life. I’m definitely at a place where I’m full of love. I feel very full and whole, and there’s a lot of warmth in my home, and that’s not always the best place to write from because often, writing comes from such a broken place. But I’m finding a different kind of writing out of being happy.
The other thing is that, for the first time, I feel the need to protect something. I’ve never felt that before. Nothing was that important, that sacred. Now, I don’t want an audience viewing it. So, now, when I used to put out a poem every two or three days, now I have one every two weeks, sometimes once a month. And I don’t regret it. It doesn’t mean I’m not writing, it just means I’m not displaying that.
Do you think that, in the age of social media personalities, you have to put everything of yourself out there to stay relevant?
I think it’s especially tough for writers, because they are people who have the courage to question themselves constantly, and to challenge themselves. So, to expect people like this to be on social media, and throw themselves out there- that is strange. Perhaps it was easier for me, because, you know, since I already had a public profile. But it didn’t make it less scary. I think a hundred more times about putting up a poem than I do about a video or an image from a shoot. I guess I’m less invested in those, I don’t care as much about the judgment.
You’re a dancer and a yoga practitioner, too. Does your love for yoga affect your life as an artist?
Yeah. I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. It got a lot better once I removed myself from the city of Delhi, which is a very active, very antagonistic city. The moment I came to a city like Calcutta, I found that the city really spoke to me. I fell in love- that helped. But you can’t find that peace or happiness only in your circumstances, because those things change. For me, it’s about finding lasting peace within myself. I find that in that sense, yoga is very grounding. It gives direction to me as a writer and to my day, and it’s a healthier attitude.
Recently, Aanchal Malhotra mentioned to me that she stayed at your place here in Kolkata, and didn’t find much of a difference between her own home in Delhi and your home here. So if other people don’t find a difference, what do you find?
Mmm… It’s a different experience, being well known in Delhi. I had an event every day, I had a birthday party every night, I was very much the TV presenter, the model, the social girl, I used to party a lot. When you come to a city where you know no one, it sorts that out immediately. I knew no one, I started working with a jute bag company, I hung out at a café and I spent all my time with my now-fiance. So it cut out all the bullshit and it made me finally sit down and do all the writing I wanted. I know why Aanchal felt that, because she came to my home, and that’s a different space. I, perhaps without even realizing it, have got so many elements of Delhi in my home. At home, you get the essence of the person, which I guess is the same whatever city you’re in.
So Calcutta brought out a more nurturing side, would you say?
More self-aware. And yes, very nurturing towards myself. I think you put it very beautifully when you said nurturing. I finally managed to look at myself and ask myself what I wanted.
From your job in Delhi, which was in a very glamorous world, to the world of a writer, which is not necessarily that- do you miss it?
Do you not find me glamourous?! (laughs)
I do, I do! But I’m talking about it from a cultural point of view rather than an individual one. Calcutta is definitely not as high-amp as Delhi.
Personally, I was never very comfortable in that world. I was very able to fake it, and I still have friends in that world, and I won’t say that it’s only Delh, because Delhi is home to me and I have some of the most genuine relationships of my life there. I have my family there, I have my family home, I grew up on a farm with dogs and cows and vegetable patches and it was a very special- it is a very special city for me. But I know what you’re talking about and no, I do not miss it one bit. I never look at, say, Fashion Week images and say, “Oh, I wish I could be there,” or, “Oh my god, I wasn’t at that perfume launch.” The one thing I do miss are book launches, actually. I hope they have some on a very big scale in Kolkata soon!
This post is a part of the A Year in Interviews project, during which I hope to put up 52 interviews throughout 2019, one for every week in the year. Spoiler alert: I’m already late.
Featured picture by Riza Ghosal.