It was in 2019 that I met Megha Rao at the very first open mic I attended. I was enchanted by her piece which took me to lands I’d never known, seeing things I’d never seen. That’s what her poems are, they’re so much more than what they seem.
Her latest publication, Teething, is what she calls “a story told in verse.” You witness the story from the point of view of three children — Achu, Kochu, and Molu. They take you by the hand and show you their world. I grew attached to them and needed to know more. I had the privilege of speaking with Megha and asking her questions that never left my mind.
The book begins with a foreword written by Gurmehar Kaur. In it, she mentions that Megha “creates ‘art for life’s sake.'” I’ve heard of the French slogan ‘art pour l’art’ which translates to ‘art for art’s sake.’ This shift rang inside me and I wondered if it was intentional.
Megha Rao: I don’t think it was intentional at all. Whatever I’ve written, transcends just being beautiful artwork. It’s tied to so many things – the personal, the political; it cannot just be for aesthetics. I think that’s one of the reasons why Gurmehar said it was ‘art for life’s sake.’
When I’m writing, I don’t really focus on thinking whether something is for art’s sake or life’s sake. It’s not really me gravitating towards a particular philosophy, it was all very organic. A lot of the themes that I touch upon are so personal, like trauma, recovery, pain, childhood, everything – it’s very personal. But at the same time, art cannot be distanced from the political and so many of us are coming to learn that at this point, everything that we write about is about people, politics, it’s about how everything affects us. Whether it’s the road that we walk on or the garden that we look at. Everything is related to politics and I think that’s one thing that we cannot push aside.
The movement, ‘art for art’s sake,’ came about when people wanted to just create work and not make it about anything else. It exists because it exists, you don’t need to read too much into it; it exists because it’s beautiful and that’s about it. But in today’s era of radical postmodernism, that’s just not possible.
This took me back to the controversy that found itself in the front lines a few years ago — is it possible to separate art from the artist?
Megha Rao: Writing is tied in with your personality, you can’t separate that. So how can you be a bad person and write about all the great things in the world? How can you write about love, like Pablo Neruda did, but at the same time do something that is not an act of love but is something that is an act of violence?
If you did separate art from the artist, it would be very hypocritical and I don’t think you can do it; and I don’t think we should. That would lead to repressing a lot of voices that have stood up for themselves.
However, it is not impossible, a lot of people do it. Both narratives exist and must be acknowledged. The way I see it, if someone is a terrible person then we need to point that out but at the same time that doesn’t cancel the fact that they’re a great writer. But because of this, it’s important to not support them. For me, it is more important to be a good person than to be a good writer.
There was one thought process that kept screaming on top of the lungs from Megha’s point of view — writing is very personal. If you’ve read her work, you know how raw it is. But what does the journey of feeling something to penning it down look like?
Megha Rao: Whenever I’m going through something, I don’t necessarily write an entire poem or paragraph about it. I write lines here and there, and only come back to it after I’ve lived through that particular experience.
But at the same time, so much of poetry is also quite exaggerated and fiction-like. I know a lot of poems in ‘Teething,’ have nothing to do with me but at the same time they have so much to do with me. It’s like telling people – here is a story about someone else, not necessarily me, but we all know it’s about me; I get to get away with not pointing out that it’s me.
Poetry in that way, acts as a support system or safe space. It has its own barriers where people could read it and they know it’s coming from a very raw, vulnerable space but at the same time, it can’t name any names. You can talk about the personal without feeling exposed and that’s what I love about it.
‘Hide me’ is what Megha wrote in a piece called ‘Safe Space’ from the book. This drew me to wonder whether ‘Teething’ was her safe space?
Megha Rao: Not just ‘Teething,’ it’s all the poems that I write; whenever I write it’s always a safe space for me because I get to talk about things, again without feeling exposed. It’s also about taking control of your narrative. When you’re going through something, you go through it without really understanding what is happening. When you’re writing months after having lived through the experience, you get to control how you view yourself. You realize that you don’t need to talk about it as a victim but in any way that you want to, because when you’re writing, you’re the sole creator of it. It could be the perspective of the survivor or of someone who is completely detached.
That’s why ‘Teething,’ or writing poetry in general, for me has been a very sacred space where I could dump every emotion and still feel comfortable. When you’re putting everything in that, it suddenly stops being a boiling cauldron, but rather, it becomes a beautiful treasure chest. Poetry was that – it was me taking everything that cost me shame and pain, and making it into something beautiful.
So much of poetry is built on metaphors. ‘A paradox, and yet, a mirror,’ reads Megha’s piece — ‘The Art of Metaphors.’ They aren’t words, they’re phrases you hang on to during different times. I know I have mine, does Megha have hers?
Megha Rao: I really love metaphors because as poets, everything is so magical. Anybody who is not a poet would look at a sunset and say — ‘that’s a beautiful sunset.’ But a poet would look at that and think — ‘Oh that is God spilling wine on the sky’s party dress.’
That’s the beauty of it, one thing may not necessarily be one thing.
For me, a metaphor that I really loved was one by Emily Dickinson where she says — ‘hope is the thing with feathers.’ It is such a phenomenal thing. Even when there’s nothing to look forward to, there’s hope. And to call it a thing with feathers, makes it seem like no matter what, that’s the one thing that can fly, and sing, like a bird.
What underlies that is freedom. A space to breathe, be in your skin, that’s what poetry is. But with poetry being built on vulnerability comes the idea of romanticizing brokenness. Through her piece, ‘Raja Ravi Verma,’ Megha addresses that it isn’t the broken pieces that are beautiful, but it’s us. Why does that romanticization exist in the first place?
Megha Rao: The only place you can talk about brokenness without feeling shame or confusion, without judging yourself, is poetry. It’s the only place where you can put all of that and there’s the only thing that can carry it without falling apart. It’s very easy to romanticize it.
We call those broken pieces of us, beautiful, because when we’re broken, we still want to see ourselves as beautiful people, we still want to see beauty. It’s like getting used to something as scary as depression – someone attaching depression to their identity, because they don’t know any better. It’s so important to tell people that their trauma is not their identity.
Sometimes, it becomes their safe space, because they’re so familiar with it and I think that’s what brokenness in poetry has become.
I try my best not to romanticize my work, anything that’s unhealthy – at least, now I’m learning to not do that. But I know where it comes from, and that’s why in ‘Raja Ravi Verma,’ I wrote that. The brokenness is not beautiful, the person carrying it is beautiful. They want to feel beautiful even when they’re at their lowest, that’s why they think that the broken parts are beautiful. But that’s not true, they could be so much more beautiful, if they worked towards recovery.
‘Teething’ is all about recovery — recognizing one’s trauma and living through it. In the book, it’s Achu, Kochu, and Molu. I wasn’t the only one attached to these characters, Megha is too. But when you’re attached to your characters, doesn’t putting them in difficult situations [via the poems] bring out the protective side? Did putting the three children in that spot, put Megha in a difficult spot?
Megha Rao: One of the reasons I was protective of them was because they were already caught in those situations. So that completely defined them for me. So much of our identities are built on our experiences in life. A baby for example, doesn’t really have an identity until it starts growing up, meeting people, seeing things, going through things, and for me, Kochu, Achu and Molu, started becoming so much more like people when I saw what they’d been put through and how they reacted to it. The kind of emotions running through them, their vulnerabilities, their strengths, where they exhibited courage and that’s where they made me really love them.
When I say I’m protective of them, I also mean that I don’t want to hide them from life’s experiences because I believe just like all children, they should be out there. completely into the world because I do not want to put them in a well or a box. But at the same time, I wanted to go out there and make the world a safer space for them. You see that happening with women too, someone telling them to stay home vs someone genuinely wanting to make the world a safer space for them. I understand when people, especially parents say – ‘I’m protective of you, so I don’t want you to go out at night.’ But instead, if they said – ‘You want to go out? Okay, let me just come along, even I want to go somewhere.’ There’s a difference. I think that’s what I did, I followed these characters wherever they went, just to make sure that they were okay.
As a writer, it’s difficult to have the space to make sure you’re okay — constant scrutiny doesn’t work so well. Currently on a break, Megha has turned to Tumblr to express herself anonymously and privately — a virtual, personal diary. You learn so much about yourself through journaling, Megha did too.
Megha Rao: My biggest fear is being so exposed and observed by the world that I’ll never be able to create authentic art again. That’s why I have to disappear; it’s so important to just step back and when I’m writing on my secret Tumblr, with a random name I’ve given it – with nothing related to my name, it doesn’t have the baggage of all my previous work or whatever I’ve created that’s brought me up here. Just writing for the practice itself, without having any identity attached to it, at least not the identity which after a point becomes so commercial to the world – you start writing so fresh, you write as you are. You write fierce, raw, vulnerable stuff.
I don’t want to conform to what people view my pieces as. I want to experiment; I want to move around.
It’s this new trend people follow where they elevate everyone into stars and it’s so exaggerated. For me, I want my writing to be the star, and not me. That’s something I’ve had to learn along the way. Using that secret Tumblr has made me realize that no matter what, it’s what I create that needs to be in the spotlight – not my name, not me. I’m proud that I write the things that I write, and I want my name to be associated with all the beautiful things that I create, but I want the work to be known and not the name – that comes later. It’s so important as a writer, to not be observed; we do the observing.
Observing is second to nature for poets. You notice things people might overlook; they spark an idea for poems. ‘Spoonerism,’ although standing as the last piece of the book, was the first one Megha wrote for the book. How did the idea find her?
Megha Rao: Spoonerism is this thing where you take any word or phrase and turn it around and end up having a different meaning, a different set of words. Even in the poem where Kochu says — ‘bone itch’ but it’s actually ‘no bitch.’ Achu tells her lover, ‘much tea’ but then it becomes ‘touch me.’
I had no idea what spoonerism was until one day my father was telling me about it. He had brought his friends, a bunch of boys, over for lunch and his grandmother was there. They were talking in these riddles — in spoonerism. Saying things, turning them around and I think all of it were dirty jokes. They were giggling because they thought his grandmother wouldn’t understand. But in the end, in our mother tongue, she says – ‘pass salt’ but she turns it around and says whatever it is that she is supposed to say in our mother tongue. They all looked at her with real surprise, because they did not expect her to employ that they were using spoonerism. They realized that she understood every little dirty thing they said.
When I wrote the piece, I didn’t think I could write anything funny at that point of time because that was my worst year and the worst month. I was spiraling, and I was on medication. When my dad told me this story, it triggered something, and I attached all that I was going through to the topic it speaks about, which is why it became so unfunny.
I remember from 2019, Megha performed a piece about fireflies and how that’s something that the people from the city do not see. The poem stuck with me and through the years to ‘Teething,’ there was one thing that kept repeating itself in Megha’s work — fireflies. What attaches her to them?
Megha Rao: When I was a child, my grandparents lived in this small rural place called Thrikkannamangal in Kottarakkara. It was a kind of place where there were too many power cuts. Power would just go off every night and no one would expect it to come back, no one would care, no one would call the electrical department. It was just understood, every day, at least once, it was going to happen. When that happened every night, the entire family would step outside and sit on the veranda. The entire sky was lit with fireflies, and they were fearless, they would even come and sit on your skin. All the children would catch them and play with them. It was such a beautiful sight; I don’t think and I don’t remember seeing anything like that after they moved out of that house.
Where I live in Kerala is quite isolated. You come across a lot of snakes, butterflies, but fireflies? Very rare. Maybe one if you’re lucky. I think it’s so vital to talk about them because so much of ‘Teething’ is about childhood and this is one very profound childhood memory that stuck for me. Everything I wrote was based on my memory of living there with my grandparents. I think that’s the connection, I don’t think there’s any sort of symbolism but it’s just a sliver of my own memory about what I’ve seen, especially when I was a kid.
For me, ‘Teething’ is a mirror, showing me all that I’ve been through, asking me to acknowledge it, embrace it. It meant something different for Megha, and it will mean something different for you. It’s a metaphor which lets you hold on to what resonates with you.