I knew there was something in the air when I felt like reading poetry aloud early this morning. There was a restless feeling too, that just wouldn’t go away. And a sense of yearning that made me go through a lot of old notes and files, and look up people not lately contacted. In short, there was a spirit about, that bespoke of past times and passed beings, and of a sense of loss. Suddenly, it came to me out of nowhere, a flash.
A quick look-up confirmed it: it’s the anniversary of the death of Reetika Vazirani. What a death it was, when that news first broke. And now looking back at a distance, what a life – a life of the mind – it was!
Reetika was born in Patiala, State of Punjab, India, to a talented and ambitious dentist, an Oral Surgeon in fact, and a lady diplomat. The Vazirani family came to the USA when Reetika was just 7 years old. The family moved around quite a bit, a dozen times as Reetika was growing up in America, getting adjusted to a new land, new life, and a new herself. The little girl had strong impressions of growing up to become a teenager in those days, most famously described in this oft’ quoted poem:
“Daddy always cautioned me
how many rupees it took to get
a dollar; and when I bought my first
Chanel lipstick, it was as if
I might have bought a cow in India.
It was always like that-what I
could have had were we in Delhi.
So that on holiday at Reno Road
he’d hint that Washington was not
like home. That’s why he didn’t want
me window-shopping downtown”
Tragedy seems to have struck Reetika early. A certain darkness was with her, her whole life. She was a gifted person, sensitive, smart and talented. She was fluent in English, French and Hindi, but was never quite comfortable in any particular culture or sure of what life had in store for her. She tried the sciences, she tried the humanities, and only perchance ended up a poet.
Her life ended tragically, horribly. It wasn’t merely that she took her own life, she also took away the life of the one she gave life to.
India-born poet Reetika Vazirani and her two-year-old son were found dead with their wrists slashed at their house in a posh section of the US capital.
Vazirani, who used verse to describe her experience as a child and as an Indian immigrant was staying with her son Jehan for the summer in the the Chevy Chase home of her friend and novelist Howard Norman and poet Jane Shore, who are spending the summer at their home in Vermont.
Police have found a note from the scene with references to the boy’s father, Pulitzer prize winning poet and Princeton University professor Yusef Komunyakaa.
Police called the deaths an apparent murder-suicide, pending an official ruling, The Washington Post reported quoting sources.
Neighbours and friends told reporters that there had been signs that Vazirani was distraught.
Reetika’s life was saturated with sadness and tragedy. Here is Jane Albertson, a most unlikely biographer of Reetika.
Calling her Reetika bothers me. See, she wasn’t my friend, or my colleague. In fact, I never knew Reetika. I only knew of her. And I mean that I only knew her work, her poetry, a blue fire burning across a page. I came across her work completely by accident [sic]
In 1968, Reetika and the Vaziranis, her four brothers and sisters and her parents, migrated from Punjab to Silver Spring, MD. At the age of twelve, her father, a Professor of Dentistry at Howard University, committed suicide (Shea, 40). [sic]
Though the strain of his passing ate at the family’s hopes, they did not speak about his death, the mother’s silence a contagion amongst the children. In the 2003 Poets and Writers interview, Vazirani continues to explain that until she was 26, she was emotionally numb, having “…no sense that there was a place for me in the world except in books” (40). Though her father’s suicide was, in Reetika’s terms, a “complete rejection,” his act begins Vazirani’s journey toward definition, not a place for her in the world, but a way to live in the world that doesn’t want you. [sic]
For Vazirani, the intellectual space of the migrant experience and the physical space of the migrant body cannot be metabolized (Morris, 5). She says in her essay, The Art of Breathing, “I didn’t have the cultural confidence to be proud…I felt like a foreigner in my home” (Budhos). In Vazirani, we find the immigrant confronting and conjoining those spaces, those weighty silences alive in the unspoken anxiety of the Indian living in the West, and, importantly, living the West.
The Internet became quickly filled with tributes and life stories when news of her death first broke.
Here is a tribute from someone who knew and worked with her.
This is my elegy for a woman with whom I worked, all too briefly, but whose abundant gifts as a writer, teacher and colleague have been a source of joy and inspiration. She had a precise, analytical approach to craft that reflected the scientific training of the aspiring physician she had once been. Beneath that, however, she was passionate, vulnerable and sometimes brutally frank, but never mean-spirited. We spoke together of what it was to be mother, artist, worker, lover — how it can seem that, without some overarching faith, to be all of these things at once is to be none of them fully — at least not in a way that feeds you, helps you to carry on.
In the community of poets, her work was widely read and respected. Vazirani’s second book, World Hotel(Copper Canyon, 2002) won the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her first book, White Elephantswon the 1996 Barnard New Women Poets Prize. Other honors included a 1994 “Discovery/The Nation” Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Poets & Writers Exchange Program Award, and the Glenna Luschei/Prairie Schooner Award. Her work has been published in such venues as Agni, Antioch Review, Callaloo, Partisan Review, and Ploughshares. Professor Kim’s Notes.
This is her official biography page at a poetry website.
Recipient of a 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second book, World Hotel (Copper Canyon, 2002), and a Barnard New Women Poets Prize for White Elephants(1996),
Reetika Vazirani was educated at Wellesley College and received her M.F.A. from the University of Virginia where she was a Hoyns Fellow. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, Best American Poetry 2000, The Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Meridian, The Nation, Paris Review, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and others.
She was a recipient of a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Poets & Writers Exchange Program Award, and the Glenna Luschei/Prairie Schooner Award for her essay, “The Art of Breathing,” which appears in the anthology How We Live our Yoga (Beacon, 2001). She has been a Contributing and Advisory Editor for Shenandoah and was the guest poetry editor of two issues. She was a Book Review Editor for Callaloo and a Senior Poetry Editor of Catamaran, a journal featuring work by artists from South Asia.
REETIKA – DEPRESSION – WRITING
It is said that depression is the midnight disease of the artistic. To be gifted with sadness and melancholia is a blessing to a soul so sensitive as to suffer the nuances of human feelings, unencumbered by the vicissitudes of mundane existence and preoccupations of the corpus. We all suffer, but also long to record. It is given to the best of us, the talented few to articulate it all for the rest of us. The human soul sings, and longs to sing out loud. To be able to articulate those feelings, to be chosen to be thus talented, that is the choice of the gods, the gift of life, the blessing of being an artist.
Reetika Vazirani is that special gift, specially for those who straddle the culture divide.
SUICIDE – DEPRESSION
Ms. Paula Span, an author and on death, dying, and suicide wrote an insightful article for Washington Post Magazine, A Failing Light. That article proved to be so popular, there was an online live chat with Span. The original WaPo link is hard to work with, but the post can be accessed here, thanks to Mahbubul Karim (Sohel). Span weaves a narrative combining Reetika’s life story – the most detailed biographical sketch yet – and literary endeavors , with hints at the forces at play in the inner life of the struggling poet. (An alternative source, also with a full reprint of A Failing Light is Chowk, thaks to Samina Sha.)
After her father’s death and her mother’s remarriage four years later, Reetika spent a long time feeling “numb,” she told Renee Shea, who interviewed her for Poets Writers magazine in 2002. “I had no sense that there was a place for me in the world except in books.”
The letters she wrote her friend and adviser E. Ethelbert Miller in the late ’80s and ’90s show her struggling to get noticed, to get published, to connect with the world of culture and literature where she clearly felt she belonged.
She was living, instead, with her husband, John Jordan — a family friend and aspiring musician she’d married in 1989 — in Nashville and then Blacksburg, Va. She was sending her submissions to small literary journals, getting turned down, sending them out again, all the while scrounging for money for postage and photocopying.
By 1994, important publications had begun to accept her work, but she still sounded frustrated. To make ends meet, she’d been working at Pier 1 Imports, then at a bookstore; she taught English at private schools. Restive in her marriage (it ended in 1997), she was starting to think about the graduate writing program at U-Va. “I guess it’s partly the panic of being 32 having no job, no future,” she fretted in a postcard.
Marilyn Hacker, who had discovered her work among the 800 submissions she received each month as editor of the Kenyon Review, was taken with “the novelistic eye for detail and character and landscape, the spoken voices with different inflections.” It was Hacker who awarded Reetika the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, which put her on the map and got White Elephants published.
Establishing a poetry career requires a combination of courage and foolhardiness. Success is likely to bring neither fortune nor fame, yet the competition is ferocious and growing.
Certain key numbers are tiny. Print run of Reetika’s second book: 3,000 copies. Advance paid by the publisher, the nonprofit Copper Canyon Press: probably about $2,500. Circulation of the nation’s largest poetry magazine: about 12,000.
She had an instinct, too, for finding protective older poets to guide and advance her, like Ethelbert Miller, Washington’s Mr. Poetry, who arranged her first readings, and Rita Dove, who included her in the Best American Poetry collection in 2000.
Though she and Komunyakaa never married (she told friends that he was willing but she’d declined), she did want to give their relationship every chance, to give Jehan a family. She left Sweet Briar a year earlier than planned and moved into Komunyakaa’s big old house in Trenton in the spring of 2001. But the place seemed “cavernous,” she complained; the neighborhood felt dangerous; she was far from friends and family. The relationship — about which she was discreet — evidently wasn’t working. She began to talk about being afraid, though she never said exactly what frightened her.
The idea of the tortured artist is such a centuries-old cliche that it’s tempting to dismiss it. Writers themselves bridle at it. Surely accountants and electricians are equally prone to psychopathology? “The making of a monument to these madwomen poets,” Meena Alexander protests, anticipating the inevitable comparisons to Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, both suicides, “I think that’s terrible.” And it’s true that most artists don’t suffer from mood disorders, while most people who do aren’t particularly creative.
Despite her reputation for an endearing openness, Reetika was actually selective about her disclosures. She confided lots of details to lots of people, but almost no one knew everything. People who’d felt close to her for years didn’t know about her father’s suicide. Girlfriends outside the literary world sometimes heard more about her relationships than longtime poet friends.
I have so far quoted extensively from Paula Span’s exquisite article. Surely, these blockquotes don’t convey it all, being but a miniscule self-selection out of an extensive, probitive narrative. Others could extract different paragraphs, obviously, but that’s not the point. Here, see what follows, a chilling account of the final moments. Paula shows us from the inside, not a journalist, but a er, as herself a writert:
Sunday, July 13. Reetika — now housesitting in Washington at the comfortable Quesada Street home of poet Jane Shore and novelist Howard Norman — took Jehan to services at Denise King-Miller’s church in Georgetown. She’d been drawn to religion more lately; in Williamsburg, she’d joined a Bible study group. Reetika loved the service, but on the phone with Susan Sears that evening, she was weepy. “She felt hopeless,” Sears says.
Monday, July 14. She invited herself to the Miller home for dinner, bringing salmon, broccoli and cherries from Whole Foods. While they chatted, Denise fixed the meal. (“That was delicious,” Jehan declared afterward.) She was leaning toward Emory again, Reetika revealed, because Jehan had been accepted into an excellent preschool.
Tuesday, July 15. Jay Mandal, a New York photographer friend who took her publicity photos, visited Reetika while he was in Washington on a one-day assignment. “I think I want to kill myself,” she confessed to him. Once he realized she wasn’t joking, Mandal called a psychologist he knew in the District, leaving messages (not returned in time) at his office, his home, on his cell phone: A friend needs your help.
That same day, the Rev. Percival D’Silva received a message at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament down the street: A woman needed to speak to a priest.
He’d seen Reetika before, D’Silva realized as she sat in the brocade wing chair in his quiet office; he’d waved at her as she strolled in the neighborhood with her little boy. Maybe she felt drawn to him, though she wasn’t Catholic, because he was also Indian American. Or perhaps the church itself — an imposing Gothic structure with a bell tower — promised sanctuary. She also knocked on a neighbor’s door that day and asked to borrow a Bible.
“On the outside, she seemed pretty calm. But from what she was telling me, I could see she was disturbed. At times there were tears in her eyes,” D’Silva remembers. After 39 years in the priesthood, he thought he could recognize depression. He asked Reetika, several times, to make no decisions that could harm her — “Put things on hold” — and she agreed. He promised to locate and lend her a book, Spiritual Help for Depression.
Wednesday, July 16. Reetika awakened her friend Diane Taylor with a 7:15 a.m. call. “Diane, I’m going to hurt myself and Jehan,” she said in a whispery voice. Call the suicide hot line right now, Taylor urged.
“No, they’ll put me on drugs, and they’ll put me in the hospital,” Reetika said.
“No, they won’t.”
“Yes, yes, they will.”
Then call that minister you know there, Taylor said, changing tactics, and call me right back.
But the minister, Denise King-Miller, was out and didn’t hear Reetika’s message, “I think I’m going to hurt myself,” until several hours later.
An acquaintance Reetika was scheduled to lunch with on Thursday also got a confusing call. She was having an “emergency,” Reetika said, so the woman, a poet who knew Jane Shore and had a key to the house, should just let herself in. Her apparent role was to discover the bodies.
The Live Online discussion with Paula Spann that covered a number of aspects of Reetika Vazirani death in particular and her mental state in general can be accessed here. Thankfully, this link still works, hope WaPo will keep it viable.
According to the website of her alma mater, Reetika Vazirani’s posthumous collection of poetry, Radha Says, will be published sometime around November of 2009. The release will coincide with the debut of a new literary house Drunken Boat Media.
In the wake of her death, poet Uma Parameswaran was moved to write:
As we circle the flame the Muses have taken to themselves,
Let us pray they grant us the courage, if our time should come,
to let go of our woman strength, our mother love,
our poet pride of honeyed nuances that drop silent into flowers
so subtly no one else can see, hear, feel their awe-ful urgency.
The courage to let go of all and scream loud and clear
HELP ME! NOW!
I already feel better, having composed this elegy for a beautiful soul I never met. It is my fond hope that Reetika Vazirani is resting in peace somewhere in that timeless place, weaving lovely cosmic lyrics.
For, once a poet, forever forlorn. Plus, the universe is listening, really, Reetika!