In Conversation with Adivasi Poet Jacinta Kerketta

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Jacinta Kerketta is a young poet, writer and freelance journalist, belonging to an Oraon Adivasi community of West Singhbhum district. She writes in Hindi. In her poems, Jacinta highlights the injustices committed on the Adivasi communities, along with their struggles. Her poems are also important cultural and artistic documents of Adivasi worldviews. Jacinta is the author of two bi-lingual (Hindi and English) full-length collections of poems – Angor (Adivani, Kolkata) and Jodon Ki Jameen (Bharatiya Jnanpith, New Delhi). GroundXero talked to Jacinta Kerketta about her poems, the politics of her poetics, representation of Adivasis in the media, and the politics of literary festivals. The original interview was conducted in Hindi.


GroundXero: Can you begin by talking about yourself a little bit? (Your childhood, your schooling and student days, the Jharkhand of your childhood and youth, your youth).

Jacinta: I was born in a village called Khudposh, located on the banks of river Koel in West Singhbhum district. Our village is very close to Saranda forest, which is the biggest Sal forest in Asia. My father, Jay Prakash Kerketta, was a marathon athlete in his youth, and because of that, he got a job in the police department. Most of our time during that period was spent in the Santhal Pargana area. I attended schools in different places. Along with Santhal Parganas, I also got educated in the town of Betiya of West Champaran district (Bihar).

In 1999 we came to Chakradharpur near Chaibasa and here I studied from class eight to ten. Even before Jharkhand became a separate state, my mother returned back with the family to live in Khudposh village again. It’s only during my school days in Betiya, after we had moved there from Santhal Parganas, that I began to experience, for the first time, the behaviour of the people of the mainstream society with the Adivasis. I was darker than the other children. I realized, it’s also because of this reason that I was looked down upon. But then I began to keep the anger about these things out of my studies and I decided to compete with the Non-Adivasi children. In the school at Betiya, for the first time during exams, I came second in my class, and this gave me self-confidence. In 1999, when I came to Carmel High School at Chakradharpur, a lot of the girls there in the hostel were Adivasis from the Kolhan area.

I saw how in school the teachers often considered the Adivasi girls as inert, like a heap of mud. I vowed to destroy this notion. I made a different schedule for myself and made sure that above and beyond the routines of the hostel, I had some time for myself. I began to work towards an inner transformation. For example, I began to work towards reducing envy, rage, inner reaction and laziness and began to concentrate more on my studies.

(Angor: A book of poetry, by Jacinta Kerketta)

I resisted against the Adivasi girls cheating in the exams, so that they can approach life with dignity and honesty, standing on their own hard work. This is why, for most of the times, the Adivasi girls in the hostel did not like me. But my own hard work paid off, and in 8th class, I came first in the half-yearly exams. That was a huge achievement for an Adivasi girl living in the hostel. That was when I saw that the non-Adivasi teachers were not happy about my achievement and they were angry that I had left the non-Adivasi girls behind. I used to note down all these details. I was observing the inside and outside conditions of both the Adivasi and the non- Adivasi society. During my youth, I used to think a lot, and that’s why, I used to spend a lot of time alone. Even when I was a child, I didn’t have too many friends. But those children who became close and began to understand my travails, they remained close to me forever. And I began from childhood to understand the conditions even of the children.

I began to write from the time at Carmel High School at Chakradharpur. I wrote frequently for a magazine called Rahi, which used to be published from Ranchi, to be distributed in all the mission schools in the country, even at Andaman and Nicobar, and elsewhere. I made a few pen-friends during school days. I used to get a lot of letters from students in other states, telling me they liked my stories and poems. A lot of the students used to say that my writing influenced their life decisions. These reactions encouraged me to keep on writing. My writing began with a small poem, whose title was “Bachpan” (Childhood). Then, I began to write short stories about the state of the youth, the condition within the family etc. I wrote short stories for this magazine called Rahi for about five years. Some of the students who grew up with me, still remember me because of this magazine. This is the journey of my school days.

GX: When and how did you decide to become a journalist?

J: I used to write stories and poems during school life. But I had never thought about joining the field of journalism. In 1999, when I entered the eighth class in Carmel High School at Chakradharpur, I often used to visit my village.

At that time, there was an incident in Manoharpur town. An Adivasi man and an elderly Adivasi woman who were working in their fields, were attacked by 10-20 non-Adivasi armed men of the Rajwade clan. The Adivasis were beaten, chased and dragged out of the field to the main road, where the man was killed. It was alleged that the two had sacrificed a girl child for the sake of better crops. The newspapers, too, had published the same story.

Later, on my father’s enquiry, the police told him as a confidential matter, that someone had raped and killed the girl and thrown her body onto the fields of that Adivasi person and later came with a group of 10-20 people to kill the latter, thus giving the story a different turn, and getting away with it. I don’t know whether the real culprits were punished ever or not. But the older woman was thrown into prison. When she came out of the prison, she died. Mother told us about this incident, and then I learnt that the victims were no other than my uncle and my grandmother, who had gotten killed.

I shuddered, listening to this heart-wrenching tale. My mother told me, the police keep doing rounds in my village, and the villagers were in mourning. They were simply reluctant to let any non-Adivasi outsider enter the village. Mother told me, the killers were exactly those non-Adivasis, with whom my uncle had been on friendly terms, and they even used to come to the village to drink hariya, and they knew the times when my uncle was there in his fields. When I got to hear about the news that has been circulated in the newspapers, I began to think, who will write such stories from our perspective. The newspaper is theirs. The power, too, belongs to them. It was then that it struck me that I should study journalism, and that I should work for the newspapers. It was in school itself that I decided that all my life I would work as a writer in such capacities, and I am continuing to live that resolution.

GX: Tell us a little bit about your journey towards your first book of poems? Was there a specific incident that inspired you?

J: The first poem I wrote was about my mother and childhood. The title of which was ‘‘Bachpan’’. It was a small poem which was published for the first time in Rahi Magazine in 1999. That was my first publication in a magazine, and it gave me encouragement to go ahead and write more. Writing this poem had a lot to do with my own childhood and the family situation. My parents didn’t share an amicable relationship. My father often used to drink and he would fight with my mother. But we were living within the mainstream society in Bihar, and a lot of new and bad things were coming into our family lives. Slowly, my father, like other men, began to be oppressive towards my mother. Like she should eat only after her husband. She shouldn’t speak to other men. And these were the dicta that the girls in our house were also asked to follow. On the one hand, he was suffering from discrimination in the police department because he was an Adivasi. He used to fight those discriminations. He would also fight against bribery. And he left his job precisely because of these reasons. But on the other hand, somehow, he had adopted a certain behaviour towards women who are considered to be the weaker sex in that other society. I witnessed it all.

Then my older brother, too, began to act in the same way. My brother wasn’t ready to accept education for girls. He was against girls leaving home, working outside of home, getting higher education and talking to boys. As a result, he became violent. These incidents had a deep impact on me. We were growing up in this environment and were also trying to cope with it. That is, is how I started to write. Simultaneously, I also began to understand how the detriments of the mainstream society are having negative effects on the Adivasi communities. My mother always gave much importance to girls’ education, and struggled a lot for our education.

O ancestral spirits! 
How now do we escape,
From the conspiracies of time,
Concocted on the flames
That from the the sweltering earth rise?
Where all is slowly being roasted alive,
The air, the forests, and the soil,
And man – in body and in mind?
Lament in Songs (Geeton Ke Bilaap)

GX: How did you prepare yourself for this moment? Did you begin by writing in journals and magazines? If not, what other paths to becoming a writer did you take?

J: From 2013 onwards, I stopped working as a journalist for newspapers. But I continued as an independent, freelance journalist. I was travelling around and continued to write. Gulel.com published few of my articles, one report was even published by Tehelka. And also in some other journals and magazines. After I received the UNDP Fellowship in 2014, I began to travel to other villages in Jharkhand beyond Santhal Parganas. All along, I was continuously writing poems. But now, in my poems, it’s not just the mother who occupied the central place. I write about the struggles of the Adivasi communities, the oppression they face in the name of development, their trials and their histories. Prior to that, I had done a six month research project, and together with three other friends, I had visited all the districts of Jharkhand.

In 2014, Shri Prakash Shukla, professor of the Hindi Department of Benares Hindu University and editor of the bi-yearly literary magazine Parichay, had come to Ranchi. When he heard my poems, he wanted to publish them in Parichay. In 2014, eight poems were published in Parichay. After that, five poems were published in the prestigious journal Naya Gnanodaya, published by Bharatiya Gnanpith, with a special note by the editor.

I read some of the poems that were published in this magazine in a seminar in Orissa. I had gone to this seminar at the insistence of the famous Jharkhandi documentary filmmaker, Meghnath. The seminar was organized by an Adivasi solidarity network from Germany, and it was called Adivasi Coordination. It was in that seminar that I met Ruby Hembram, and Luis Gomez of Adivaani Publishing. They talked to me about publishing a collection of poems, and I agreed. Once the seminar was over, the organizer of the seminar, Johannes Laping, asked to see the poems I had read there. A few days later, his email arrived. It was a really thoughtful note. He wrote, that many years ago, he had cried seeing his mother on her deathbed, and it is after reading these poems, that he found that his eyes were welling up. He asked for the permission to translate these poems into German, and Draupadi Verlag agreed to publish them in Germany. That’s how, in 2015, first GLUT, a Hindi-German edition of my poems, was published. Later, during the same year, adivaani Publishing, Kolkata, came out with the Hindi-English version — Angor.

GX: You are a journalist and a poet. To what extent does your work as a journalist inform your work as a poet and vice versa? Do you ever see any contradictions in the two roles? What does poetry allow you to do that journalism doesn’t?

J: When I was a journalist, I always thought that when Adivasi journalists are working in the newspaper, it is an opportunity to report Adivasi issues in a correct manner. And sometimes through your presence, a correct presentation of Adivasi issues can get into the newspaper editors’ meetings. But as one continues to work, one feels, even while working for the newspaper, one can’t bring much change, and that, in reality, we are just doing our paid jobs. We are just happy with a by-line in a story and keep finding our happiness within such activities.

I feel, poetry’s reach is bigger than that of journalism. Poetry gave me a chance to communicate my concerns to the people all over the world. Because poetry is not just writing about one community, one city, one country. It takes up the entire world and the issues of humanity. When you are a journalist, you focus on facts. You even try to be impartial. But human beings also have feelings inside. Where will all these feelings go? In what form will they come out? Poetry’s work is to give an extensive space to the feelings and to such inner realities. The people whom I couldn’t reach as a journalist, I can now reach as a poet. I have my own autonomy as a poet, poems make an individual human being braver and bolder. As a journalist, one develops a capacity to stay awake all the time and to observe things . This capacity is helpful also when writing poetry. A poem equally wakes one up at night, finds its own expression, and so there is no respite.

As an independent journalist and as a poet, I am roaming around in the villages and I am working there. And when I write, then, beyond uncovering things, I also try to ensure that the news of the problems of the people should reach the higher levels. With the help of other Adivasi journalists, I am helping to take people’s problems to the higher authorities. When they can have direct discussions and a problem can be taken to the competent bureaucrat in charge, and then as a result of this, some villagers get help, then I feel satisfied.

GX: In Indian mainstream media, Adivasi issues are almost totally absent, as are issues of jal-jangal-jameen, in the struggle for which the Adivasi communities have been at the forefront. Can you please speak of this issue as you have experienced it as a journalist? What are the struggles that Adivasi journalists have to face in the world of Hindi-language journalism?

J: First of all, within the media institutions, Adivasi journalists are normally kept away from the issues of jal-jangal-jameen. This is done because of the general suspicion that the Adivasi journalist will not remain objective on these issues and will be a little too emotional while dealing with them. But the non-Adivasis who are responsible for looking into the Adivasi issues, often come with pre-determined biases, They don’t have any deep understanding about the Adivasi society. The newspapers mostly use the number of their readers to consolidate their advertisements. So that’s why they are forced to publish something or other on the Adivasi issues, so that they can retain a certain number of readers within the Adivasi community. But that does not mean that the media stands with these communities in their struggles for jal-jangal-jameen. Their primary agenda remains to establish and strengthen their own position on these issues.

GX: Why do you write in Hindi, instead of in an Adivasi language?

J: In this country, the majority of people generally understand two languages – Hindi and English. No one would understand my language. Even most people in my own community do not understand their own mother-language. There have remained some people who understand our own language, but they tend to be scattered. And they can read and understand Hindi as well. There is a need here to write in a language that will be understood by those who are responsible for the conditions which the Adivasi society has to endure, and the reasons for which there is so much conflict. And these are the people who are able to understand what I have to say in Hindi as well as in English. This is why, I thought, it is important to publish my poems in two languages – Hindi and English.

GX: Many of your poems in Angor document the ravages being wrought by the so-called notions of “development.” I am specifically thinking of the poems “O Shahar”, “Saranda ki Phool”, “Gito ki Bilap,” “Vikas ki Dhul” and “Bandh se Bandhi Dhan ki Baliya.” But, in fact, the whole collection can be described as a commentary against the prevalent understanding of development being propagated by the corporations and the Indian State. Can you please elaborate a little bit on the challenges you faced as a poet in terms of craft, technique and language, when writing about such political issues?

J: I don’t feel scared in writing in my poems the accounts of people who are suffering the brunt of the so-called development. Because what I am writing is true. I don’t lift things from imagination. But, I do pay attention to the fact that when these things, they appear in poems, they should do so in a poetic manner.

Leaving behind their homes,
Their soil, their bales of straw,
Fleeing the roof over their heads, they often ask,
O, City!
Are you ever wrenched by the very roots
In the name of so-called progress?
O, City! (O Shahar)

GX: Although many of your poems contain a very strong “I, the “I” is never just one person. Sometimes, it seems like the “I” in the poem is referring to the poet herself, sometimes the “I” appears as the voice of a young Adivasi mother, sometimes it’s a little Adivasi girl, and sometimes, it’s a militant Adivasi woman-warrior. What prompted you to bind together in one book so many different “I”s?

J: When my own “I” speaks in the poems, then this “I” begins to feel the emotions of any other “I” just as itself. But I want to communicate to the readers this kind of feeling through the “I”. I always try to feel the other “I”s and then document them in my poems. In this process of writing with my own and others’ — all these “I”s — I can feel the pain of others as “I”, and then through these respective “I”s, others can also feel in the same way. We often feel ourselves in others’ stories. That’s why I have tried to cast this deep feeling in the form of “I” in my poems. In every poem, rather than searching for the other, the “I” is involved in other kinds of “I” s. We have to destroy the illusion that we can stay neutral in front of these things and issues.

GX: What role does the history of Adivasi resistance play in your poems? Can you please talk a bit in reference to such poems as “Hul ki Hatya” and “Mere Hatho ke Hathiyar”?

J: Adivasi history has highly influenced me because this community has always fought against tendencies and forces that have wanted to enslave other human beings. Today, the Adivasi community is understanding and fighting against the designs of enslaving human beings in a different way in the name of development and industrialisation. Many great thinkers have, and are talking about human freedom, socialism, etc., but the Adivasis have actually practiced these ideas in their everyday lives. And in their struggle, they have sacrificed a lot, but they never compromised. Their struggle continues. Adivasis believe that humans are just one part of nature, and they should just take only that amount of natural wealth that they need to live their lives. Everything is part of nature, like rivers, mountains, birds and animals etc. Human beings should be concerned about the lives of these other entities also. This belief keeps Adivasi communities in close contact with nature and strengthens their belief in the life and the right of others to live. That is why, in my poems, I write against that tendency of such forces, which want to enslave humans of a lower class, just for the benefit of a handful of people.

GX: Do you think of your poems as a form of Adivasi history in the absence of adequate representations and distorted representations of Adivasis in mainstream media and literature? If yes, what kind of history are you attempting to write? If not, why not?

J: There are many books on Adivasi history, and many people have written about that. People of the mainstream society also have written about this. But even then I feel, there has not been a proper explanation of Adivasi philosophy with and from an Adivasi perspective. But there is a need for a true description of Adivasi philosophy and a need to establish it in this world. And I am confident this will happen in the coming years.

GX: Who are the writers and thinkers who have influenced you to become the poet and journalist you are today?

J: I have been writing stories and poems since my school days. But later, a poem named “Adivasi Ladki” written by senior poet Vinod Kumar Shukla had a huge influence on me. The poems of Chandrakant Devtale and Kedarnath Singh had left profound impact on me, as had the poems of the German poet Bertolt Brecht.

GX: We met in an alternative, independent literary festival (People’s Literary Festival), where we began by talking about the ways in which corporations like Vedanta and Tata, while being involved in huge land-grab projects and economic genocide, are trying to create “lit-washed” images of themselves by organizing literary festivals. Can you please elaborate a little bit on the interrelationship between corporate greed, literary festivals and the struggle for jal-jangal-jameen today for all writers today, but especially Adivasi writers?

J: If the corporate houses can own and run newspapers and magazines, they can also organize literary fests, and, they are indeed doing so. Earlier, I didn’t have much knowledge about these festivals. But I felt that in a corporate-organized literary fest, it matters very little what story or poem an Adivasi writer is reading. What they succeed to do is to show, that you are with them. And that’s enough to reduce the credibility of whatever you are writing. When I came to the People’s Literary Fest in Kolkata, for the first time, I heard open discussions against corporate houses who are trying to grab Adivasi lands in many areas, as also in Niyamgiri. I have never heard such open discussions at any other literary festival. People’s Literary Fest is an excellent initiative, that stands against the corporate-sponsored literary festivals, and through poems, stories, music and songs, speaks about the ground realities, the real issues of the people. There was always a need for such spaces, and especially right now, the need for such independent literary festivals is even more.

GX: What role can alternative literary festivals (such as PLF) play in this regard?

J: Initiatives like People’s Literary Fest do the work of spreading literature with a clear message to the common people. This is a really important work task for our times. Literature should not remain amongst only those people who have sufficient time, and who pick up ordinary people’s lives only for their literary work, but those writings never go to the people they are about. This is a gap that can be bridged by initiatives like People’s Literary Festival. They can work towards spreading what is written for both the masses and the people in power. This can lead to a better understanding, and it gives a us a chance and a space for writers connected to realities on the ground to express their creative views.

GX: Can you talk a little bit about the state of independent Adivasi publishing in India today? (especially in Hindi)

J: In Hindi, there are very few Adivasi publishers. But, there is a need for more.

GX: Do you have any plans of ever writing in your mother-language?

J: It is my dream that one day I will write poems in my mother-language. I am slowly going back to it. I am planning to stay for some time in the Oraon Adivasi community and will study the language, and I hope, soon I will come forward with poems in my mother language. Because, what I have understood after spending some time on the structure of my own language is, this language provides a lot more freedom to women to express themselves when compared to other languages. This special character is very different from Hindi. Such a language should not be allowed to become extinct. And any individual Adivasi who has moved away from his/her own language for whatever reason, should come back to it sooner or later. The wisdom of the ancestors can be better understood in one’s own language.


This interview has been republished from – Groundero, August 13, 2018 and can be accessed here.

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Editorial Team of Adivasi Resurgence.

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