The Woman Ink: Conversation with Geeta Chhabra

Interviewed by Tasnima Yasmin

Geeta Chhabra

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Amritsar, Punjab-India. I did my primary education from Sacred Heart High School and my matriculation from Alexandra High School. I then went to Simla (now Shimla) for higher studies and joined St. Bede’s College – where I topped in my class in the Pre-University examinations.  I completed my Teacher’s Training Course (T.T.C.) along with two years of Senior College. 

After I got married, I sailed as a supernumerary with my spouse who was serving as a chief engineer on merchant navy ships. I got ample opportunities to visit numerous international ports, and those times by themselves were magnificent lessons of learning. Within a couple of years of sailing together on the high seas, we finally decided to settle ashore making our home in Mumbai.

How has your journey been so far in the world of contemporary Indian poetry?

To begin with, I was fortunate to have Nissim Ezekiel – one of the greatest modern (English) poets of the Indian sub-continent – as my mentor.  He opened newer doors for my passion for poetry-writing.  He was keenly attentive to see my strengths, and pointed out ways for improvement.  Behind all his guidance, I found him frank and kind.  He taught me how to look at the general picture-frame of verse.

What followed the sequence of things was a result of continuity – I spent hours in the coming three years at the P.E.N. All India Centre, Bombay (now Mumbai), going almost daily to Nissim Ezekiel.

The greatest reward of that period was the opportunity it gave me to show my work of years to a poet, editor, playwright, critic, professor – who had importantly established an influence on Indian Literature in English. I could not believe my luck! Now, I was writing more and more poems. Even when Alzheimer’s was identified and Nissim Ezekiel was shifted from his home to Shushrude Hospital, I remember that on some days he was so cheerful and alert that he would point out the minutest of mistakes in my work. By the time he was moved to a mini nursing home in Bandra, his condition had deteriorated, and I realized that he was hardly recognizable! And nor could he recognize me. It was very, very sad.

The period of his illness became the real source of making my literary activity come to a halt… a total halt. During this time, my husband and I had also made the business decision of partially investing our time in Dubai… the transition was one more distraction to keep me away from my pen.

When Dubai became my second home, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Shihab Ghanem; his name was well-known in the literary circle, and we began working together on the Arabic translations of my poems. 

Professor John Thieme (Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia-U.K.) has played a major role in guiding me and creating his own valuable impact on the work I have been compiling.  Our association goes back from the year 2011.

Over the course of years, the mutual exchanges with Dr. Amitabh Mitra (physician, South African poet and artist) have encouraged me to carry on my literary pursuits. 

You are the only Indian diasporic writer who is a resident of Dubai writing about the Gulf in the genre of poetry. So, what is it that made you choose this genre to pen your poetry collections?

Well, a couple of things connected, and I have to go back to the time when I met Nissim Ezekiel around 1989, and by the time he was seventy-eight-years old (in 2003), he was living in his own little tumultuous world, ravaged by Alzheimer.  As I have mentioned earlier, with my mentor’s deteriorating state, my ability and interest to compose verse evaporated; the meaning of poetry had become meaningless.

Perhaps I would not have written any poetry at all but for the glorious Arabian-sunset-scene that I surveyed one evening in Dubai, soon after my arrival in UAE. The rhyming thought came up rapidly and as the words surfaced in my mind, with childlike helplessness I dug into my clutch-bag for the tiny notebook and pencil to jot down those racing lines. What followed over the years has been a happy ending – or should I say a happy beginning of beginnings!  Moreover, in the same way as a painter derives pleasure from using his brush, than from having completed a picture, I was finding the process of settling down in Dubai magical. The place had some kind of boundless energy – its face was beautiful and good… the leaders had immaculate vision, and their leadership was shining in all the parts of governance.  I was moved and amazed to see the swift progress that was taking place in the UAE. I visited the landmarks in Dubai – I travelled to all the seven Emirates. The desert and the shifting dunes moved me in the direction of prayer – visiting the mosque and fasting during Ramadan were elevating because Hinduism has taught me to accept and respect all religions. For myself, I had found more of myself!  Perhaps it is a safe interpretation to say that week by week I was responding to the exuberant reality that I was in love with Dubai and with is keen realization, my pen was no more indifferent or low-keyed.  There was spring’s joy in my heart… and I was so carefree and motivated to write about the Gulf! I found the local people warm-hearted and their traditions and mine had some mutual qualities of positivity. This was another factor that drew me to write.

What kind of challenges did you have to face as a member of the Indian diaspora writing from the Gulf region?

I did not face any challenges. The whole experience has been calm and fulfilling. I did not see very much time going by before my poems were gladly accepted by Dr. Shihab Ghanem for translation into the Arabic language. He was very spontaneous, and it was a very special moment when he said that we could work together… I cherish our friendship.

Your poetry has been rapidly translated into Arabic and published in several dailies in the Gulf. Even An Indian Ode To The Emirates has the Arabic translation of the poems running parallel to the original English ones. Do you think that translation can increase dialogue and discussion about your work or do you fear that a lot may be lost in translation?

My translated poems have been published in reputed Arabic newspapers, books and journals – Al Thaqafiah, Al Ittihad, Al Bayan, Al Khaleej Cultural Supplement, Al Rafed Magazine, Likai Tarsom Sawrat Tayer – book by Dr. Shihab Ghanem.

I feel, translated works make our world richer – giving us access to the literature of other countries.  A good work of translation has always survived… eternally survived.

It is true that something can get lost in the translated work, but there are translators and translators! In the case of my book:  An Indian Ode To The Emirates, Dr. Shihab Ghanem has done true justice to my actual expression.

He stands tall in the literary world… he has published more than 62 books, including 24 volumes of translations of verse from Arabic to English to English to Arabic.

Your poetry collection An Indian Ode To The Emirates has several poems from the perspective of a long term Indian resident in Dubai. In fact, the entire collection is dedicated to the everlasting ties between India and the United Arab Emirates. Do you think that poetry or literature can serve as the soft power of cultural exchange between the two countries who are symbiotically related in the contemporary global scenario?

It has been a joy to compile the forty poems, and dedicate them to the everlasting ties between India and the UAE.  My joy is enhanced by the fact that my first book has been chosen by Tasnima Yasmin for her PhD Thesis.  I wish her the best in every way.

Coming back to the everlasting ties between India and Dubai – in my childhood I had heard fascinating stories from my elders of centuries-old friendship between both the countries; it was interesting to study the way the two nations made use of each other’s inter-dependency. Arab traders brought to the Indian shores pearls, dates and horses, and in exchange they took back in their dhows grains, cloth and spices. How much enrichment it must have brought for the populations!

When I moved to Dubai in 1991, I observed relationships between my country and UAE flourished more than ever and people to people contacts had increased. Naturally my fondness for my adopted home grew. Subsequently, poems in praise of UAE were born making the visual and the verbal very clearly etched in my inner eye.  The whole experience has been extra special – beyond my imagination. Yes, I am convinced once more that poetry or literature can play a crucial role (directly and indirectly) in not only serving as the soft power of cultural exchange between the two countries who are symbiotically related – poetry and literature can sow the seeds of peace and harmony throughout our Universe.

You have a poem in this collection titled To Dubai – My Second Home. What does home signify to you as an Indian living in Dubai?

In the poem, To Dubai – My Second Home, I am firmly aware of my bearings in the newly adopted homeland and I can see distinct contrasts between Dubai and Mumbai where I spent a major portion of my life.

I am articulate to evaluate and define my feelings in this poem. I go through the scenes that play out in my personal daily life… the economic equations, the park, the mosque, the desert’s landscape; amidst all of these, though I yearn for my motherland, the new environment does not inhibit my Indianness in any way and my development is thoroughly integrated with the elements within the city, and I realize that Dubai has already grown on me and is a whole source offering me affection and security.  My religious, spiritual ideas blend well with the particular commonality that I have never felt spiritual discord here.  The vital point of my reflections in the poem is that whenever I am hearing the azan – the divine call from the mosque, I am relating to the same God – One and Only God – God of all creations.

To what extent does Dubai inspire your creativity?

Environment is a big influencer to leave a mark in our lives. Dubai has not only left a great impression on me but it also inspires my creativity in multi-ways. The city is bright and persistently progressing. The leaders emerge as thinkers of a special mode and type. I did not know and could not ever fantom how people of different visage, coming from diverse backgrounds, could live in such perfect harmony – like they live in Dubai (and UAE). These are the decisive qualities that urged me to bring out my first book: An Indian Ode To The Emirates.

As a poet, do you rely more on ideas received from your immediate environment? How do you go about the process of writing your poems from the conception of the idea to the creation of the written word?

I believe that intense moments of pain and joy usually bring out instant rhyme from my heart.  Having said that, my important admission is that there is no hard and fast rule for me. Sometimes an emotional incident might get buried temporarily and surface after months or years to convert into verse. At another time, my conscience, or, the lack of courage can hamper my decision to record although my soul is yearning to find ultimate, direct contact with the outside.

I can sit by the window with the best view to gaze upon – what does that mean? Will poetry flow with garlands of sweet roses? There is no certainty of that; my experience says… the burst of creativeness can often be very fickle and that is the unpleasant truth.  I am solely speaking about my own self.

How would you describe your writing style?

For me, an experience is the most effective tool to bring me close to reality.  It is in such a situation that my poems have been responsible in giving me unstoppable strength to express. The question that did really arise in my mind a few years back was – whether I should continue composing poems only.

Through the years, my multi-faceted experiences have transformed into poetry and prose.

Since I stand before all the variety of life, this gives me the chance to scrutinize and understand factors of optimism and pessimism; again and again, I find myself face to face with the centuries-old issues of mankind.  I clearly see wars, conflict, poverty, greed and despair staring into my eyes. There is a silver lining of hope and healing, too.  There is goodness in the world. All these forces accumulate in the depths of my mind and persuade me to write.

How different is An Indian Ode To The Emirates from your other two poetry collections Smash My Glass and No Journey Ends?

All the three books are different from each other.

An Indian Ode To The Emirates stands apart. It is woven around the love for my adopted homeland. It is bi-lingual – my English poems are translated into the Arabic language by the eminent poet from Dubai – Dr. Shihab Ghanem.

In my second book and the third book, prose has been introduced.

No Journey Ends carries my second collection, containing poems that were composed years ago.  I deal with the various aspects (happy and gloomy) that impact my life.

Smash My Glass takes sombre shades. The title-poem of the collection sets the tone for what will follow… the unfairness of life… the huge disparities between my own lifestyle and the city’s deprived poor.  I also wrestle with my conscience and my helplessness in suffering the suffering of others. But I am not hopeless… ultimately a narrative of ‘resurgence’ finds light to remove despondency and gloom.

What the books have in common is the precious contribution of Professor John Thieme (Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia-U.K.) by the way of a Forward and Introductions.  What the books have in common are the pictorial elements.

Do you think that your first published poetry collection An Indian Ode To The Emirates will always hold a special place in your heart?

As you are aware, all of us have to labor to bring out our work and share it in public space; the same applies for poets and writers. My work is not the idea of any accident; every book is precious. But it can happen sometimes that you are totally struck by the deepest of affection for a particular book because the book takes a persistent and special place in your heart and mind. I think, An Indian Ode To The Emirates comes in those possibilities.

What are your upcoming literary endeavours?

I am looking forward to publishing two books.  Currently I am working on a book where my Amritsar childhood memories weave a particular past – the chapters open up different windows on the complexities and injustices of society, among them – caste discrimination, untouchability, the all-pervasive gender inequalities and much more….

The other book is essentially a children’s book with vibrant images of animals.

Being an avid blogger, it is my pleasure to share the link of my blog

Tasnima Yasmin is an Indian poet and book critic. Her poetry collections include Silhouette and Other Poems (2019) and My Little Book of Nonsensical Poetry (2020). Her poetry has been published in Indian and international literary magazines, journals and anthologies. She is presently pursuing her PhD in India. She can be contacted at

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