“Their daughters”- A poem by Meena Kandasamy

Paracetamol legends I know
For rising fevers, as pain-relievers—

Of my people—father’s father’s mother’s
Mother, dark lush hair caressing her ankles
Sometimes, sweeping earth, deep-honey skin,
Amber eyes—not beauty alone they say—she
Married a man who murdered thirteen men and one
Lonely summer afternoon her rice-white teeth tore
Through layers of khaki, and golden white skin to spill
The bloodied guts of a British soldier who tried to colonize her. . .

Of my land—uniform blue open skies,
Mad-artist palettes of green lands and lily-filled lakes that
Mirror all—not peace or tranquil alone, he shudders—some
Young woman near my father’s home, with a drunken husband
Who never changed; she bore his beatings everyday until on one
Stormy night, in fury, she killed him by stomping his seedbags. . .

We: their daughters.
We: the daughters of their soil.

We, mostly, write.

I like the poem not just for its essentially feminist theme but for the distinct way the English language is used to convey the oppression of women by men .It is as if Indian women are a subject class themselves,not forming a part of the Indian community. English in India is the language of the dominant class ,not just when India was under the British rule but even after the colonial rulers had gone leaving their language as an instrument for gaining economic and social superiority over the less privileged sections. Thus it is interesting to see how the feminist poets use the oppressor’s language to fight oppression. We mostly write. In English.

Now first of all a woman in India has to come to terms with her birth as a less preferred gender and once born and accepted into the family,has to lead her life as a poor second . Her voice is stifled in a dominantly patriarchal society of fathers,husbands,sons. Her pain is a continuous one, that can only be dulled by a paracetamol, that is not aimed at curing the underlying cause .

Such paracetamol reliefs are drawn from the family’s collective conscious -the legends of women in the family who had overthrown an oppressive male regime . But they are only temporary reliefs and the fact that we are daughters of their soil does not provide a permanent cure. So we write,mostly.

Now ,what are the legends? This woman was a pretty one with a dark lustrous hair that touched her ankles and “sometimes sweeping earth”(that is when the hair is not bound in an obedient knot), and amber eyes. Some times she lets hair down, so it can sweep the earth.

But she is not merely beautiful but has a murderer husband, who has killed thirteen men.But that is hardly a consolation because a white soldier violated her trying to colonise her. But she did not take it lying down and just bit her rice-white teeth in his khakhi , through his white gold skin , spilled his guts out .Just pit a honey-brown skin color, a rice-white teeth against khakhi on a gold white skin, the bloodied guts of the same red color that is below skins of all colors. What a medley of colors!

She is indeed a legend just like the freedom fighters of India who had fought the British and successfully drove them out. The British would colonise countries , while their soldiers colonised helpless subject women on lonely afternoons. The oppression of women is at two levels -one at the level of humanity forming 50% of the subject race and the other as a member of the female sex always at the receiving end of male brutality.

Love the use of the word”colonise”. A man’s predatory sexuality is no different from an oppressive colonial regime. Colonise signifies adding newer women to the colonial power’s sexual conquests.

The second legend is of our land whose tranquil beauty is not what it seems on the artist’s palette- a mad artist’s palette of green lands and lily-filled lakes that mirror all-so translucent as to give a feeling of still beauty. The beauty hides an ugliness behind, the picture of a woman who bore her daily beatings from husband patiently for years till one fine evening she killed him by stomping on his seedbags. Isnt it a gratifying thing that our ancestor woman could finally assert herself against a husband’s mindless violence? She has to be a larger than a life version of a Indian woman.

The violence of the husband is drawn largely from a virile male ego that humiliates by conquering the female body and subjecting it to his will. The only antidote is to castrate him and remove the root cause of his ego. So she grabs him by his seedbags and stomps on them till they are no more. Violence against violence. The seedbags are emptied of all seed that is the source of his male ego. A larger than life heroine , of whom we daughters are proud inheritors.

We are their daughters :: ( of a woman of long hair who bit rice teeth in khakhi)
We are the daughters of their soil :: (the soil that produced the seedbag stomping woman)

“Freedom” -A poem by Jayanta Mohapatra

At times, as I watch,
it seems as though my country’s body
floats down somewhere on the river.

Left alone, I grow into
a half-disembodied bamboo,
its lower part sunk
into itself on the bank.

Here, old widows and dying men
cherish their freedom,
bowing time after time in obstinate prayers.

While children scream
with this desire for freedom
to transform the world
without even laying hands on it.

In my blindness, at times I fear
I’d wander back to either of them.
In order for me not to lose face,
it is necessary for me to be alone.

Not to meet the woman and her child
in that remote village in the hills
who never had even a little rice
for their one daily meal these fifty years.

And not to see the uncaught, bloodied light
of sunsets cling to the tall white columns
of Parliament House.

In the new temple man has built nearby,
the priest is the one who knows freedom,
while God hides in the dark like an alien.

And each day I keep looking for the light
shadows find excuses to keep.

Trying to find the only freedom I know,
the freedom of the body when it’s alone.

The freedom of the silent shale, the moonless coal,
the beds of streams of the sleeping god.

I keep the ashes away,
try not to wear them on my forehead.

Freedom is the leitmotif in the poem- a different type of freedom from what we usually understand.The poet draws upon the Indian belief system about death as freedom from the body, the bondage of the world,from the physical aspect of life.The imagery of the poem is largely concerned with death and its associated activities .

..my country’s body floats down somewhere on the river

A body is cremated on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi and its half-burnt remains are left in the river to float down somewhere.Nobody knows where the remains finally land, may be, in the vastness of the ocean , the ultimate destiny for the river.“somewhere” is unspecified destination in the vast expanse of space.

The body here is not an individual human being but an entire country, a collection of human beings ,now a mere body floating along on the river to an unspecified destination.

Inasmuch as the body is freely floating on the river it is freed from its bondage of mortal life.

The country is now free in another sense. It is now, in 1997, fifty years of freedom from the colonial rule. What if the woman and her child had no sufficient rice even for a daily -one meal , all these fifty years. Freedom from foreign rule did not give them freedom from hunger.

Old widows in Brindavan or Varanasi are free of their worldly attachments. Their kin have abandoned them and they had to live alone in desolation, uncared for and unloved. But don’t our old widows and dying men cherish their freedom bowing time after time in obstinate prayers ?

Obstinate prayers are said despite the hopelessness of the situation with an eternal hope that some day God will listen to them and grant a miracle to lift them out of their misery.

While the old and dying pray for their deliverance, the young too pray to change the world even before they have faced it. They have their notions of Utopia , to which the poet cannot subscribe . Nor can he join the old and the dying in their desire for freedom from bondage.This way he is left to be alone and not meet the starving woman and child or try to find a political solution to the economic and social ills of the society by resorting to the parliament.

In the new temple man has built nearby,
the priest is the one who knows freedom,
while God hides in the dark like an alien
.

Beautiful lines .It is the priest who is free against God in the temple, who hides in a dark corner of the temple.The priest retains his own freedom and enjoys the freedom to let God interact with the devotees as and when he wants it . He alone has the power to decide God’s availability to the devotees.

The priest is our man and one of us.God is an alien , accessible to us only through this middleman of a priest.

A very interesting juxtaposition is achieved by contrasting things/people who have a choice with those who do not have it.

I watch (freedom to watch and not participate) ::Country is lifeless body with no freedom to watch or participate .
Upper part of bamboo is free::lower part of bamboo is sunk into itself.
Old women and dying men pray for release from physical bondage::Young children want to be in it and transform it.
Priest is free to move about :: God has to hide in a corner.
I keep looking for light that is hid in shadows:shadows keep looking for excuses to keep light
I try to find the only freedom I know(no choice): the freedom of the body to be alone(choice)

Let us list below all the things involved with freedom or lack of it
:

Country’s body has to float down the river
left alone :freedom to be alone
bamboo sunk in itself in the lower half
it is necessary for me to be left alone,not meet…etc
old women and dying men cherish their freedom but how? By bowing in obstinate prayers(no freedom to do otherwise)
children scream their desire for freedom to change the world
the poet has no choice other than to be alone.Otherwise he has to see this,this..
priest knows freedom but not his God who has no choice
the freedom of the body to be alone
the freedom of the silent shale, a freedom of which the shale is not aware, a freedom that means little.

“Indian women”- A poem by Shiv K Kumar

In this triple-baked continent
women don’t etch angry eyebrows
on mud walls.
Patiently they sit
like empty pitchers
on the mouth of the village well
pleating hope in each braid of their mississippi-long hair
looking deep into the water’s mirror
for the moisture in their eyes.
With zodiac doodlings on the sands
they guard their tattooed thighs
Waiting for their men’s return
till even the shadows
roll up their contours and are gone beyond the hills.

The poem is about the infinite patience that the Indian women practice in their lives while they go through a triple-baked suffering at the hands of the sun , sex and poverty. The continent refers to the Indian subcontinent with a long history of political and historical upheavals and a highly patriarchal society structure , in which women are the most oppressed lot. They do not etch angry eyebrows on mud walls,because within homes their status remains that of passive receivers of others’ angry emotions .Within the walls of their homes they are also the passive receivers of male love without their own participation , being bound to preserving their chastity for the men who consider them as their private property.

guarding their tattooed thighs”-tattooed probably refers to the name of the male owner etched on the thighs to indicate ownership. Juxtapose this with the angry eyebrows not etched on the mud walls. Not etched on the mud walls indicates a family situation in which only the patriarchal male elders have a right to raise eye-brows and have them etched on the mud walls. Angry eyebrows etched on walls indicate power of the male over the female who has no such power to get angry with anybody. The female has only the duty to preserve the sanctum of her femaleness by guarding her thighs against possible intruders. The guarding is done not for herself but for the man whose name is tattooed on her thighs to indicate ownership.

Patience is the virtue most cherished in our women.

“patiently they sit like empty pitchers on the mouth of the village well”

A beautiful image that at once evokes the typical Indian village woman who spends much of her time like an empty pitcher on the mouth of the village well. Firstly , it is the woman who fills the home’s water pots by trekking long distances to fetch water for the family. She herself sits on the mouth of the village well like an empty pitcher waiting for her turn to collect water. But the water there is just a trickle and is not deep enough to reflect her image with her eyes filled with tell-tale tears. She is only pleating her long (Mississipi-long) hair in braids of hope.

‘With zodiac doodlings on the sand” is a highly evocative image of a typical Indian woman who scrawls zodiac shaped figures in the sand with the toe of her foot while she lowers her shy eyes, thinking of her man who is away beyond the hills. She will wait for him there till even the shadows roll up their contours and are gone beyond the hills. A beautiful image.

Some interesting usages :

etching on mud walls

Mud walls indicate poverty , a condition which does not affect the women alone but all the members of the household. But the man can etch his eye-brows on the mud walls and the women cannot.They are the recipients of the anger flowing from the male eyebrows. Etching indicates a slightly raised letters/figures , an egocentric status.

Triple-baked :

The harsh sun makes the woman trek long distances to bring water.In the process she is herself baked like the pitcher. She sits long hours like the empty pitcher on the village well’s mouth waiting for her turn to drop the bucket down the well to collect water. She is triple-baked -by the sun, by her conjugal duties (letting her man to extort love from her), by the excruciating poverty of her family. The other meaning probably is that with her husband away she has become the target of the village gossip: “on the village well’s mouth”

Doodlings on the sand:

A beautiful usage. The woman is probably unlettered but can doodle on the sand with her toe, idly waiting for her man ,while her eyes are lowered in female shyness.

Till even the shadows roll up their contours and are gone beyond the hills:

Exquisite image. It is now dusk and all the women have already left the well for their homes. The shadows have vanished and the sun has sunk beneath the hills. The woman is still waiting.

“The Maggots”- A poem by Kamala Das

At sunset, on the river ban, Krishna
Loved her for the last time and left…

That night in her husband’s arms, Radha felt
So dead that he asked, What is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses, love? And she said,
No, not at all, but thought, What is
It to the corpse if the maggots nip?

[from The Descendants]
Kamala Das

One of the finest of Kamala Das, a forthright female(not feminist) poet of India ,equally comfortable in her mother-tongue Malayalam and in English, the poem strikes one for the terseness of her language and the beautiful narrative form she has adopted here in this poem. First , the narrative form.

The poem begins at the beginning. Krishna had loved Radha that evening on the river ban. “Loved” is a usage that suggests a continuous emotion .How could Krishna have loved her for the last time? Was it that he made love to her for the last time, a sensual act by a lover to his beloved and is one- time? No.If that were so ,he would not have loved her and left.

The narrative goes on to what happened in the night after Krishna had loved and left.Her husband made love to her (not loved her) . In his arms Radha felt so dead that his kisses felt like maggots on a corpse.Did she mind the kisses,a considerate husband would ask.No. Not at all.It hardly mattered to Radha who was already dead to any love.After Krishna had left Radha became dead to any love.The kisses were just maggots on her corpse.Did the corpse feel the maggots nipping it?

The narrative form adopted is beautiful.The first two lines tersely deal with the events that happened before what unfolds in the next stanza, which is about the love act between Radha and her husband. The first two lines are a preface to what the poem speaks about in the next stanza.

The event of love making between Radha and her husband is dealt with not in a third party narrative style but as a dialogue:

what is wrong,
Do you mind my kisses,love?

And she said
No,not all.

(but thought)

What is it to the corpse if the maggots nip?

The maggot thing Radha merely thought.She did not say it to her husband, So we have a prior event of Krishna having loved and left,told in a third party narration. Then we have a narrative of what happened in the night by a dialogue between Radha and her husband , followed by what Radha thought, i.e. what happened inside her. A beautiful narrative form.

“She felt so dead that he asked…” is layered with meaning. Love(not love making) is what makes you alive. The moment Krishna loved and left Radha felt like a corpse to all sensations. The husband’s kisses are mere maggots feeding on her dead body. So she thought. She did not say it. But she felt so dead that…made all that clear.

“Astronomer”- A poem by A.K.Ramanujan

Sky-man in a manhole
with astronomy for dream,
astrology for nightmare;

fat man full of proverbs,
the language of lean years,
living in square after

almanac square
prefiguring the day
of windfall and landslide

through a calculus
of good hours,
clutching at the tear

in his birthday shirt
as at a hole
in his mildewed horoscope,

squinting at the parallax
of black planets,
his Tiger, his Hare

moving in Sanskrit zodiacs,
forever troubled
by the fractions, the kidneys

in his Tamil flesh,
his body the Great Bear
dipping for the honey,

the woman-smell
in the small curly hair
down there.

 
A. K. Ramanujan
Love A.K.’s short poems like this. A thumb nail sketch of an astronomer-astrologist , a Tamilian home-grown scholar who dabbles in the twin subjects of astrology and astronomy. Not that the subjects are inter-related but in our culture the man who fixes the auspicious time for your son’s marriage or your grandson’s school entry is also an astronomer of sorts, who claims knowledge of the skies. A sky man in a manhole. He knows the Great Bear constellation ,with a great bear of a body with a hunger for the female flesh, the woman smell down under.

Great bear dipping for the honey

A lovely image.Bears are known for their love of honey. This bear dips for the honey in the small curly hair down there.Exquisite .Mark the physical act of “dipping” in the woman smell down there.

The bear image extends from the Great Bear of the stars from the high sky (Sky Man) to the man in his hole , with astronomy for dream, astrology for nightmare. The sensual imagery used here contrasts with the airy words of the man who speaks authoritatively from the astral charts (squares of zodiacs) precisely pinpointing the influence of the stars on our lives.But he is a poor man who has astronomy for a living ,trying to grapple with the holes in his own shirt. For ever troubled by the fractions, he deals only in whole numbers and has a language of the “lean years”.

When called upon to point the stars has to squint at the black stars in a parallax , at his Tiger and his Hare because their position appears different each time. He combines the knowledge of astronomy fitfully with astrology to make his living. His constellations are always in a state of flux based upon the squares of his almanac ,which themselves reflect the changing views of the sky.

The sky man is essentially an earthy soul who dips just like the Great Bear for its honey down there.

“Tamil” – A poem by R.Parthasarathy

A simple poem, this has some very fine imagery. The poet  R.Parthasarathy comes back to his mother tongue after a generation of  being chained to “English”. Chained is the right word here, because after the English had left the country the political chains slipped away but the cultural ones still remained by way of a legacy education with a premium on proficiency in English which alone took the younger generation to new heights of  career advancement and  exposure to global opportunities.

The poet is painfully aware of his own severely limited skills in the mother tongue,speaking in a tired language “wrenched from its sleep” in the Kural (classical Tamil text). I love the ‘wrenched from its sleep’ , a sort of forced language from a classical text, far away from a living language such as is spoken in the daily life of today. Although the poet is ‘at the end of his Dravidic tether, he still hungers for the language but  his “teeth,palate,lips”  find its agglutinative touch quite unfamiliar.

The Tamil that is spoken in the celluloid word leaves him further befuddled. In the tinsel world the language is “reeling”  down its plush corridors. Language is such an emotive issue and people like him who have a love for the ancient language find it difficult to come to terms with their gradual alienation from it.

“Kavi” – A Telugu poem by Varavara Rao

 

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