The Point Podcast

Selected Essays | Sumana Roy on Joseph Brodsky

February 27, 2024 The Point Magazine Season 2 Episode 3
Selected Essays | Sumana Roy on Joseph Brodsky
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The Point Podcast
Selected Essays | Sumana Roy on Joseph Brodsky
Feb 27, 2024 Season 2 Episode 3
The Point Magazine

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Sumana Roy about Joseph Brodsky’s “Less Than One” and her Caravan essay “We Are All Mamata Now.”

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here and use the coupon code 7POD50 at checkout for 50% off.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this episode of “Selected Essays,” Jess and Zach talk with Sumana Roy about Joseph Brodsky’s “Less Than One” and her Caravan essay “We Are All Mamata Now.”

Craving more essays? Subscribe to The Point here and use the coupon code 7POD50 at checkout for 50% off.

Jessica Swoboda  00:00

Hey everyone, welcome to Selected Essays, a podcast series from The Point magazine about essays you should read, but probably haven't. Each episode we'll be talking with writers about an essay that's influenced one of their own. My name is Jess Swoboda, and I'm here with my co host Zach Fine.


Zach Fine  00:22

Hey everyone. This week we spoke with Sumana Roy about Joseph Brodsky's "Less Than One" and her essay, "We Are All Mamata Now," which was published in The Caravan in June 2012. Sumana is an associate professor at Ashoka University. She's the author of several books, including My Mother's Lover and Other Stories, and How I Became a Tree, as well as a novel and two poetry collections. Her essays have appeared in places such as Literary Hub, The Point, Minnesota Review, the Paris Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. Also, we just want to let our listeners know that Sumana lives near a few hospitals and that they'll hear some background noise during the recording. Our editor John has done his best to reduce the interference, but we're sorry for any inconsistencies in the audio. 


Jessica Swoboda  01:04

We hope you'll enjoy this episode and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to We'd love to hear from you. And also be sure to subscribe to The Point, the magazine that brings you content like this podcast. You can find a 50% off discount code exclusive to listeners in the Episode Notes.


Zach Fine  01:27

Hi Sumana, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays.


Sumana Roy  01:43

Thank you. Thank you, Jess and Zack for having me here. As I told you a few times, I love this series. And I'm very, very glad to be a part of it.


Zach Fine  01:52

We're excited to have you on. We were wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about Joseph Brodsky.


Sumana Roy  01:59

Okay. Joseph Brodsky, the Joseph of his name, ironically comes from the Joseph of Joseph Stalin. So Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad to a Russian Jewish family. His father was a photographer for the Soviet Navy and eventually lost his position because as you get it, he was Jewish. The family then subsequently went to live in poverty. Brodsky's experience of school life and the classroom wasn't really great, and it's a subject he returns to in this title essay of, you know, of this volume of "Less Than One." He quit school at when he was 15 and embarked on on being an autodidact, basically living, living the life of an autodidact, reading whatever he understood as literature. And in his head, the idea of classics was already forming, he would have to take on because of the circumstances of his life, a variety of unusual jobs, including, for instance, he worked as a geologist assistant in Central Asia. He taught himself or learned by whatever means English and Polish. He translated the poems of John Donne and my first introduction to Brodsky was through this, because John Donne was one of the first poets I came to love on the university syllabus as it were. So from the time Brodsky began publishing poetry, particularly under this anglicized name, Joseph Brodsky, he aroused the ire of Soviet authorities. And it was obviously because of the times it was compounded by the anti semitic persecution he faced because of his Jewish background, but the vendetta against Brodsky started at around, I would say, 1964, because of a trial in Leningrad, and he was sentenced to five years of labor. They were protests from artists and writers, and it was led by Anna Akhmatova, who is you know, Amanda Brodsky, as, as a successor in the poetry world as it were. And this was shortly before her death. She had to secure Brodsky's release after 18 months, but his poetry continued to be banned. Israel invited him to emigrate, and Brodsky promptly refused, explaining that he did not identify with the Jewish state or its ideology was eventually forced, as you can imagine, to leave the Soviet Union. And in 1972, he moved to Michigan. This essay I want to say in an aside, was published four years after that move in 1976. By the time he had moved to Michigan with the help of the poet, WH Auden, who he met on the way to America, he eventually settled in at the University of Michigan as poet in residence. He taught at several universities. He continued to write poetry and plays. And this is very interesting for me that he would write in Russian and translate his work into English. Spender, Stephen Spender, the poet would say this about Brodsky that Brodsky is someone who has tasted extremely bitter bread and his poetry has the air of being drowned out between his teeth. And splendor even went on to say that it should not be supposed that broadsky is a liberal or even as socialist, and that he deals in unfreezing hostile truths, and is a realist of the least comforting uncomfortable kind. Brodsky, almost, perhaps almost, in response to spender described himself as an exiled writer, and as one, and this is from one of his poems, as one who survives like a fish in the sand. In 1987, a year after the publication of "Less than One," this collection of essays, when I think we're going to focus on the title essay "Less Than One," but this collection that was published as less than one in 1987, a year after its publication in 1986, he would be awarded the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the youngest laureate to get that award at that time. So that's I think an introduction to Brodsky.


Jessica Swoboda  06:55

Right? No, thank you. That's fantastic. And so you've selected his essay "Less Than One." And an email exchange with us, you said, "'Less Than One' is an essay in the truest and most original sense of the word. There's not a single sentence there that has not made me think about the subject about the form of the essay itself, and about the aesthetic being inseparable from what we now call politics." So can you say a bit more about this, and why you selected this essay to discuss with us today?


Sumana Roy  07:24

Thank you. I'm so touched that you remember, and you pick this up from the thread. Somehow, I'd read this essay quite some time ago. But somehow, because of, I don't know, the intuitive character of history, or the intimations of history, I began, I came to it again, around the time of the Russian Ukraine conflict, the war, as it were. I'll try to summarize the essay. And also respond to why just I mentioned what I did about, about this essay "Less than One." It's very difficult to summarize anything. I always struggle, particularly, but more particularly, that has the title is Less Than One. Because the most immediate thought that comes to us because of our conditioning in numbers is what is less than one? And then what is the less than one that I will be reading about in this essay? Snd that this is an essay by a poet. And my introduction to Joseph Brodsky was like many others I imagined, was primarily as a point that that feeling does not ever leave us, not when we come to it, not when we move through it, as such is the acute intelligence of Brodsky's language, the halo of his language, as it were, that every word or phrase needs to be twice examined, as anything with a halo is almost always twice seen, if not a multiple number of times. How does one summarize "Less Than One?" When one itself is so hard to summarize? Brodsky is trying to understand how the optics of his childhood are or do you see what he calls the, in this very famous phrase, what he calls the militarization of his childhood, his conditioning images, in the repetitiveness, the repetative character, how this led him to see an experience and write about the world in the way that you did. You know, I thought of a few Bengali writers, I was born into Bangla and I told him a few Bengali writers who have said that the kind of writer one will be is decided in the first decade of one's life. There's something almost fatalistic about such a whimsical thesis, but reading Brodsky's essay, I was often reminded of that, and I'll tell you why in a bit. So it is Lenin's Russia. His photos are everywhere, in offices and homes in all imaginable and of course, unimaginable locations. And this is what Brodsky says about these images. There was baby Lenin looking like a cherub in his blonde curls, that Lenin in his 20s and 30s, bald and uptight with that meaningless expression on his face, which could be mistaken for anything, preferably a sense of purpose. This face in some way haunts every Russian and suggests some sort of standard for human appearance, because it is utterly lacking in character. Perhaps because there is nothing specific in that phase, it suggests many possibilities. So while we meet a few other subspecies of Lenin or the Lenin optic, soon after, in a paragraph such as this one, one cannot help noticing that Brodsky is continuously moving on at least two planes, the literal, which in this case is also the factual, the historical, and aesthetic to explain what I mean by this. Take the sequence and syntax of phrases that I just read out for you, how every Russian is haunted by the face of Lenin, because there is nothing specific in that phase, in that it suggests many possibilities. So just if we move this idea to the politic, for instance, as I did in my email to the two of you, for instance, we will see how the attack on the child Brodsky's eyes, by the unending stream of images of Lenin leads him to understand the cliche, the character of the cliche, that anything that is a standard for anything. Standard is Brodsky's word, whether it's human character or appearance, or a landscape must be utterly lacking in character. Again, Brodsky's words. So this is one of the primary reasons for my loving this essay. That everything in an essay called "Less Than One" is actually more than one is constantly giving us reiterations giving them the character of cause of effect of reason. So you know, the statement about the effect of Lenin's face on Brodsky and other Russians come to the game to affect the aesthetic of his word, and not his alone, but also of his contemporaries. As a counter movement, as it were, at least that's how I think of it. And I'll call these two sentences from Brodsky, where he says, "I think that coming to ignore those pictures was my first lesson in switching off my first attempt at a strange moment. Anything that bought a suggestion of repetitiveness became compromised and subject to removal, that included phrases, trees, certain types of people, sometimes even physical pain. It affected many of my relationships, in a way I'm grateful to Lenin, whatever there was in plenitude, I immediately regarded as some sort of propaganda." 


Jessica Swoboda  13:16

So what if we zoomed out a little bit right now and just turn to the first passage. Can you read that aloud for us, please?


Sumana Roy  13:24

Sure. So the first paragraph goes, as failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball. Once bombs keep sliding off. That's the first paragraph. And that's it. That's the first paragraph. I just spend a few, maybe a minute just talking about this, leading to the second. So you see it syntax is such that it makes us read it twice, immediately. So that's almost following Robert Frost expectation of the poem, that for it to be a poem, one must want to rush to the start of the poem immediately after having reached the last word of the last line. So this is what broadsky is able to make us do in the first paragraphs, he gives it the nervous system of a boy of the politic. And there's no easy supply of information. The title in any case is already confounding. And following that lead is this paragraph of two sentences. He's given us two quasi cliches. We've heard these phrase too many times. They don't take us they don't pinch us. He follows it with a simile and along simile or that the baby unable to hold the basketball. So after the extraction of the cliches, what we take from the first paragraph is in total, just one thing, a basketball falling off a little human's hands. And we immediately ask ourselves, is this the less than one? Or what is the relationship between the less than one and this image of the ball? eluting tiny human hands. So let me read the second paragraph. It's also very short. And this is how it goes. I remember rather little of my life. And what I do remember is of small consequence. Most of the thoughts I now recall, as having been interesting to me, or their significance to the time when they occurred, if any do not, they have no doubt been expressed much better by someone else. A writers biography is in his twists of language. I remember for instance, that when I was about 10, or 1111, it occurred to me that Marx's did that existence conditions consciousness was true only for as long as it takes consciousness to acquire the art of estrangement. Thereafter, consciousness is on its own, and can both condition and ignore existence. At that age. This was surely a discovery, but one hardly worth recording, and surely it had been better stated by others. And what does it really matter who first grant the mental cuneiform of which existence conditions consciousness is a perfect example. So if the first paragraph comes from what we may roughly call the theoretical, the second is an explication of the axiomatic of the first paragraph. Having made a cliched observation about the selective nature of memory, he now moves to an archive. He knows fairly well which is himself. And having done so he almost nervously as one can notice in the sentences, he almost nervously offers. What we say offers a disclaimer, that it's a small and inconsequential archive. And that seemingly easy truism a writers biography is in his tweets of language, and a few things here the use of biography, not autobiography. And then the obvious consequential thought isn't as essay, sorry, isn't this essay, an autobiographical one? And we know that yes, it is. But why this essay is not just autobiography, but indeed biographies. In that sentence, we're going to meet the history of a people's language on why it turned and twisted, and look this way and that why burnt or became affiliated and how people say, bombarded by a recurring and even boring and terrifying optic, created a language of poetry and the poetry. It's just one difference for for instance, when I read Mandelstam, one of my favorite poets, and I'm forced to think of this Russian Jewish poets death in a gulag, in the far east of the Soviet Union, at an age that is so close to what my age is now, only because he refused to tow the party line, he criticized Stalin in his writing continuously as you know, I think of how Russian bots and Russian poetry, particularly of the first in the first half of the 20th century, were forced to invent new kinds of language to survive both as person and as poet. So a writer's biography is really in the twists of language, whether it is Brodsky's or Mandelsons or Akhmatova.


Jessica Swoboda  18:21

In that previous answer, you are speaking about how writing is something that broadsky turns to and that his contemporaries are turning to for these powerful reasons. And so I just wanted to know if you could say a bit more about what Brodsky sees as art's role in not only a totalitarian society, but also in a time of war. 


Sumana Roy  18:42

That yeah, thank you. I was hoping that one of you would ask me this, because this essay is what it is for me because it exists, as I've been saying, on so many planes. So the role of art, but more specifically, the role of the pooetic, which is the subject of a Brodsky's, investigation and examination and even self examination as it were, what he sees around him, I think, has the character of a bad poem. I'm sorry for saying this and perhaps will be judged for saying it. But everything, all the rooms, all rooms look alike. He says, you know, when describing how all the classrooms were the same, how the all the principal's offices and all the offices and so on how everything I think he says is interrogation chamber. So all these all the offices, all the schools, all the classrooms and all the schools look like, the interrogation chamber, the interrogation chamber is his phrase, as you know, and what he does his I think, at least in my reading, Jess, he takes the figure of the interrogation chamber and dislocates it from Russia. He moves it to different spaces of the poetic. So everything becomes interrogation chamber, every possible space, including a poem, Brodsky intends for us, I think to make that conclusion ourselves. At one point I think he says the decor in these rooms, I think I can't remember whether he says rooms or offices, the decor in these rooms was maddening. And the only respite, the only space where he found some respite, he says, from these offices from this continuous or continuing optic, was in the wooden peasant huts. And I have always read this as, it is as if that this is what a poem ought to be, that a poem ought to be not that office, but that wooden peasant hut that unexpectedness, so Brodsky without knowing it, or perhaps consciously, I shouldn't presume, begins to reject the neatness and order of what all of them were being force fed, particularly visually. At some point, he says, We will never travel by our fantasies because we had just too much reality to deal with. And he mentioned how young boys such as himself, he and his friends, and relatives, chose a socialist realist painting, I can't remember the title of the painting, it might have been admission, to the Komsomol admission. I'm sorry, I just can't remember the title of the painting. And it has a woman where only two or three inches of her tie is visible, and Brodsky and the young boys turn to it to do the work of pornography as it were. So he's making us question the idea of freedom and escape repeatedly, freedom and escape, not from Russia, per se, but from a cert but from certain idea and ideology of thinking, of living, of creating, of creativity. So when he writes about life in prison, he makes his reader think of it analogical in terms of art of the poetry of the possible limits of the poetry. So I think he says that the formula for prison is a lack of space counterbalanced by a surplus of time. So Brodsky's enemy is not so much the KGB, his interrogator, but quote unquote, order.


Jessica Swoboda  22:48

Now seems like a good time to turn to the second passage you selected. Can you read that for us, please?


Sumana Roy  22:56

I guess there was always some me inside that small, a later, somewhat bigger shell around which everything was happening. Inside that shell, the entity which one calls I never changed, and never stopped watching what was going on outside. I'm not trying to hint apples inside. What I'm saying is that the passage of time does not much affect that entity. To get a global grade to operate a milling machine to be beaten up at an interrogation or to lecture on Kelly Marcus in a classroom is essentially the same. This is what makes one feel a bit astonished when one when one grows up, and finds oneself tackling the tasks that is supposed to be handled by grownups. The dissatisfaction of a child with his parents control over him and the panic of an adult confronting a responsibility are of the same nature. One is neither of these figures. One is perhaps less than one.


Zach Fine  24:06

It's a rather striking equivalency he draws there when he says, to get a low grade to operate a milling machine to be beaten up at an interrogation or to lecture on calamitous in a classroom is essentially the same. How are they essentially the same? What about them is, you know, grouped together there?


Sumana Roy  24:24

Ah, yes. So what he's doing is he in almost a Hansel and Gretel like manner, he scatters these and he gathers them in the next paragraph, and I'll just read the last sentence of this next paragraph. I have the book with me. Where So, Zach, you'll notice in the next paragraph, he is again bringing two kinds of equivalences which are not equivalences if you are in banking, or if you fly an aircraft, you know that you gain a substantial amount of expertise and so on. And we know that. And then he transposes this to what he calls the business of writing. And where he says, what one accumulates is not expertise, but uncertainties, which is what another name for craft? And then towards the end of the paragraph, he says, But to answer your question, so he says, So, I would be lying if I resorted to chronology, or to anything that suggests a linear process. And then this school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic. So, it's a revolutionary thing to say, right? That what one accumulates is the business of writing is not expertise, but uncertainties to define craft in this way. So if this is what craft is what to people like us, people like me, who are now earning a living trying to teach creative writing and craft and so on, what can we teach them? So if not, if craft is an accumulation, not of expertise, but of uncertainties, how do we hone our craft as that repeatedly stabbed phrase goes? I've read the sentence within with the two cells inside me. So the first one, for instance, is the creative practice practitioner in me, agreeing with every bit of it, high fiving Brodsky as it were, knowing every bit of it to be true. Yes, yes, yes, creative practice is a constant wrestle, and negotiation with uncertainty. And every single moment is outside intention, and creating cannot be a premeditated act, and so on. But there's also the novice creative writing teacher in me, who's earning her living by teaching what often, if not always feels like a fraud discipline, what can I really teach my students, I can only give them practice, like a singer or an athlete needs to fall back to the sentence that you go to that he's apart from subverting the idea of craft, particularly in a place like America, where the word craft is now almost used in a religious stone, something drotsky began to spot early. He's dismantling as you notice, hierarchies repeatedly, such as in doing away with the idea of linearity, and chronology that is sacred to even literary historians, school, factory, prison, academia, getting low grades, all of these abroad in the same space, without overt histories, of relationships mentioned for that is how the mind and art behaves. So art is not constitutional. In that sense, there is no order of relationships. And hence, I would go back to the same thing, and hence the government's need to Team both the art and the artists, the message and the messenger because they are uncontrollable, both the mind and art and politic practice.


Zach Fine  27:54

We also were wanted to talk about an essay that you wrote, called, "We Are all Mamata Now" that you wrote for in 2012. And we were wondering if you could tell us about how it relates to Brodsky's essay and how Brodsky informed your your writing?


Sumana Roy  28:13

Mukhopadhyay, a Bengali Marxist poet, wrote a poem which had the line ombre shawl by Lenin, which translates to we are all learning more than a decade ago when I wanted to write about the changing culture in Bengal. After 34 years of a communist government in West Bengal, the state where I live, the left front came to power when I was two years old. I shared this just to emphasize that I grew up in a communist state, where offices and even houses had photos of Lenin and Marx everywhere. So that we came to think of how we as children became to think of having a beard as being the sign of a true communist. Brodsky had to flee to America to save his life. Bengalis, professionals, engineers in particular, but also teachers and doctors and other professionals fled to America to get alive, being called was dying. And I still remember I was a child. I still remember the anger and controversy the Indian Prime Minister's words of that time caused, I heard adults around me discuss with anger and outrage, how the Indian Prime Minister at that time, Rajiv Gandhi, in disjunct does disenchantment and disgust with the left France with the communist government's policies, how he had called Calcutta a dying city. The only way out seems to be the United States. So this became a formula for resident Bengalis, you know, parents of a friend's, for instance, who began raising children, sending them to schools and colleges in spite of all the financial hardships, just so that they could have a new life in America. So years of left frontline education policies, the corrupt practice of jobs given to Communist Party gatherers had resulted in a culture of emptiness. The body or the language which had been born into a beautiful modern language had changed as had the ethos and ways of living. And that is what I tried to document that. I tried to document that in an essay, so when we stood there, the poet had said, we are handwritten, we are all Lenin. I have replaced Lenin with Mamata, Mamata Banerjee, the new chief minister of the state of West Bengal, whose photos have become ubiquitous. They are everywhere they had replaced Lenin and there was more. Mamata Banerjee sorry, is white it has a white thin blue border. It provides the colors for all government buildings. So if you come to Venga, you find that all its government or official buildings are now all painted blue and white and inversion of the sky. That is what so we are all mama that that was the title of my essay. And I hadn't imagined that anyone from the party, the Trinamool Congress Party in this case, would read the essay you know, it is still hard for me to imagine Indian politicians reading essays and I was duly punished. I have to resign from my government job soon after. But in this India from where I'm speaking to you, Mamata Banerjee is not alone. It is impossible to not meet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the newspaper every morning. And I do not mean news reports but advertisements of the government's achievements, his achievements since 2014 when the BJP came to power. So the culture that Brodsky writes about of sightings of Lenin, the endless propaganda, it has become a formula for all political parties and their leaders in India. Before Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi, with all the differences in their political ideologies, there was the Congress leader and the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who very famously said, India is Indira. So there's a surname of visibility that should always remain activated. And the family that she came from Nehru and the Gandhi surnames, mark the names of institutions all over India. So the name of the International Airport in Delhi, the name of a huge, very well known University in Delhi, many universities, colleges, hospitals, schools, government schemes. So I share this, and I'll end here I'll share this to empathize. Sorry, emphasize that though Brodsky is writing about Stalinist Russia, his observations hold true for governments of all kinds everywhere. It is the nature I think of administrators to be narcissistic, to want to clone themselves as their nation. It is, I think, a natural extension.


Jessica Swoboda  33:02

So in that previous answer, you were speaking both to the aesthetic and the political. And can you say a bit more about what you see as the relationship between aesthetics and politics in your own work?


Sumana Roy  33:17

So oftentimes, as you know, Jess, I write about plant life. And oftentimes, I have been asked, What do you not care enough for humans, that you feel the need to write about plant life, for instance, and my impulse is neither coming from, for instance, environmental activism, not from the Environmental Humanities, not from the botanical, but something very close to love. And if love is philosophical, I would say that it is philosophical as well. It is coming from a place of philosophical botany, but from a place of deep affection that I myself don't understand. And in this case, I do not understand or I refuse to understand or make a distinction between how writing about humans is different from or let me just say this, and then of course, we have writing about plants. I do not make a distinction in the way I write about a plant in this room, the plant behind you, Jess, in your room. And you for instance, I would write about the two of you in with the same degree of affection, and all the other attendant emotions, I would say. So I think my politics comes from the fact that I'm here I would go back to Brodsky in just in a little way. I realized, and not too long ago, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, that I had been raised by a culture, because I grew up in the provinces, and this is where I'm speaking to you from, where the attention was always elsewhere on metropolitan centers of power, wherever that location might be, I somehow became interested in what is traditionally called the background. So I realized that I had been photographing wars in, in this region, I live in northern Bengal, without really understanding why, wherever I would go, it is possible that I might forget that you are wearing the color of your sweater is orange or saffron. But I'll certainly remember the plants in the background, Jess. So I suffer from what the averse of what Matthew Hall called plant blindness, for instance, I suffer from the opposite. And what I suffer from is a condition where I am addicted to the background. So whether it's people people not noticed, people on the margins, and I see margins, by which I do not like this. Do I see it without being attacked? I know that the two of you will understand because I'm aware of your temperament as writers and critics. The marginalized is such an overused term, I'm not using marginalized in that sense. But the fact that when I look at a work of art, I see what has happened to art after the Renaissance, and what portraiture has done to it, where everything besides the human has been relegated, either to the margins, or to the background, so that when there are almost no humans in the frame, we've had to invent a kind of genre as it were. So this is landscape painting, and so on. So this has happened in the case of artists, well, how does it relate to my politics, the way I write about so having a let me phrase it this way, I haven't lived among and etiolated people, where there has never been the light. Not just the spotlight, but not when there has never been the light of attention. I think my writing comes the language of that writing. And the writing itself, the subject of the writing, comes from that space of what is conventionally untrue, traditionally seen as the background.


Zach Fine  37:47

And Sumana, can I ask you, so I think you're the first guest we've had on Selected Essays who, and correct me if I've misunderstood, but you said that you lost your job in government based on the essay that you wrote. And I'm wondering how that's affected your practice as an essay writer, as somebody who writes under the sign of threat in that way? How has that shaped you as a writer?


Sumana Roy  38:15

So this essay, I think, was published, I can't remember now it was published in 2011, or 12. And so what the government did was in response, so I belonged to the government college network. So this was a transferable position. And they began transferring me what is called in an informal way, punishment postings zones, you know, where the environment is not easy, particularly they were setting up new colleges in places, which did not have, for instance, not just basic educational needs first infrastructure. But he posted me to a place where I was the only woman on faculty, and they were no ladies toilets, women's toilets, for instance. So posting me to these places that were called in the informal language of bureaucracy, or in this particular network punishment postings. It was just forcing me to resign instead of them, actually. So as I said, creating a very hostile environment, Zach, and then I resigned in March 2016. And one of the ways the system continue can continue to harass you is by not accepting your resignation, by which it means, which implies sorry that you cannot travel out of the country. I tried my best and I pleaded for the resignation to be accepted. And fortunately, I just think I was very fortunate. Not all people are. My resignation was accepted. So I was without a job for a couple of years and at that point of time. You asked me how it affected my practice. As an essay writer, the poem and the essay are my favorite forms, my favorite habitats. And I remember that was also the time I wrote a poem or found a poem using a phrase that the right wing government in India, or the BJP government, was using a lot. They were saying for anything, any kind of disagreements that that you showed in your writing, or, you know, the way you lived in a tweet or so on, some member of the government more often, you know, its online army, as it were, would say, go to Pakistan. So I wrote a poem around that time, I think, the same year, where I, you know, smuggle this phrase, the title of the poem is "Go to Pakistan." Did it embolden me as a writer, I would say, Zach, it had the opposite effect on me, a contrary to what I think the government would have liked. It did give me a lot of freedom. As an employee of the government, we were supposed to always show the government our work. Before we sent it out for publication. I was able to be free. After that, in the sense that I no longer needed to show anyone my writing except the editors. Is it an easy time to write, Zach? No, it isn't. Many of my contemporaries are in jail in India, writers, essays, poets. There are warrants and arrest warrants often against stand up comedians, you know that any state, any government is scared of the comic, of the comedic, of comedians. So, we have, it's not an easy place to write from, Zach.


Zach Fine  42:04

Well, Sumana, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Selected Essays. We really appreciate having you here.


Jessica Swoboda  42:10

Yes, thank you so much.


Sumana Roy  42:11

Thank you. Thank you for having me, Jessica and Zach.


Jessica Swoboda  42:16

thanks, everyone for joining us for this episode of Selected Essays. We'd like to thank John Trevaskis for editing the podcast and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits for contributing the original music. As always subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and please subscribe to The Point. There's a discount code for listeners in the show notes. If you have questions, comments or anything else, send an email to selected essays at the point mag dot com. We'd love to hear from you. Until next time, listeners.

Joseph Brodsky's life and poetry
“Less Than One” and its impact on aesthetics and politics
• Memory, language, and authorship
Poetry, language and resistance in Soviet Russia
Creative writing and cultural identity
Politics, aesthetics and identity in India