The innate urge to be unstuck (English Women Poets and Indian politics)
by Usha Akella
I glimpse an element of protest in an unlikely poetry source known mostly for its ideal of chaste Indian womanhood. That epic is the ‘Ramayana,’ (24,000 verses; dated 4th--5th century BCE) considered the ‘adi kavi,’ (first poem) the oldest poetic expression of the Indian sensibility. Sita is asked to prove her innocence publicly by her spouse, the noble Rama, King of Ayodhya. She refuses the trial-by-fire test and prays to Mother Earth to be reclaimed. Such is her purity, the earth splits open in welcome. Sinking back into the innards of the earth mother she vanishes. Rama, noble and virtuous bound by kingly dharma of the time (right mode of action) willingly subjected his wife to public enquiry. Sita, responded as ‘woman’ not queen and protested the right of the king to publicly humiliate her a second time.
Fast forward to the emergence of India as a free nation in 1947. Ironically, the tables are turned. In 1975, the Indian Prime Minister, a woman/ruler, sows the seed breeding a plethora of protest poetry. India Gandhi’s declaration of emergency ushered in a bevy of poets heralding the Indian modernist Literary movement. Woman, Politics and Poetry are inextricably tied through the long course of India’s political history.
In general, Women’s poetry in India can be traced to the original tribal songs of its original inhabitants; the Pali songs of Buddhist nuns of the 6th Century B. C., the Sangam poets of Tamil like Andal and Auvaiyar, the devotional poets of the middle ages like Mirabai, Ratna Bai, Jana Bai, and Akkamahadevi, Muddupalani, Bahinabai, Mahlaq Bai Chanda and Sanoiya Hosannamma of 17th and 18th Centuries to Balamoni Amma (1909 –2004, Kamal Das’s mother) and the modernist-feminist trend in Indian English beginning with Kamala Das in a strident note.
India’s independence becomes the watershed mark for Indian English Poetry. Critics largely agree to a pre and post 1947 division of English poetry. India’s freedom fight is aligned with the journey of English from its status of ‘foreign’ to an indigenous language. Used by early social reformers in prose and poetry, English becomes the gift of colonialism to fight colonialism. Ironically, English poets still strain and protest their validity counterpoised against regional writers who scoff the idea of authentic Indianness in English writers.
The early 19th century (approx 1850-1900) marked the birth of English writing in Bengal as a language of protest. Indian poetry begins in Bengal with the British gaining stronghold. The initial poets were elite, poets from the upper classes. English poetry gradually moves out of Bengal to Bombay in a big way with publications of the Bombay Presidency poets. Nation uplift involved inextricably the uplift of women. The earliest social reformist writings in English during this phase addressed women’s issues. Raja Ram Mohan Roy penned his objections of the exploitation of women-dowry, childhood marriage etc. R.C Dutt, the poet interestingly criticized the superficiality of Western women’s liberation during this time.
Toru Dutt, stands out sharply as the woman poet of this time conveying a sense of love for the Indian soil and one can sense the rudiment voice of protest:
“He for his deeds shall get his due/ As I for mine: thus here each soul/ Is its own friend if it pursue/The right”
From 1900-1947: The first quarter of twentieth century was imitative of Romanticism and Victorianism. Romantic and new romantics emerged expressing nationalism and oriental thought. Tagore in addition to his honor as a mystical and nationalist poet is also considered a feminist writer by some scholars. His novels 'Choker Bali' (A Grain of Sand) and Ghare Bhaire (The Home and Outside) are known for its bold female characters. The woman poet of note here is Sarojini Naidu, contemporary of Tagore and Aurobindo. She earned the title ‘Nightingale of India.’ (first woman president of Indian National Congress) Nationalism, Spirituality, mysticism, romanticism, love for the country, Indian motifs and subject matter in English forms is the capsule her poetry takes.
Lightly, O lightly we bear her along, /She sways like a flower in the wind of our song; / She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream / She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream./ Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing / We bear her along like a pearl on a string.
---- ‘The Palanquin Bearers’ Sarojini Naidu
“You held a wine cup in your fingertips,/Lightly you raised it to indifferent lips,/Lightly you drank and flunk away the bowl…. /Alas! It was my soul ------ Sarojini Naidu
Another interesting observation is that the men poets of this time like Shri Aurobindo used goddess iconography to symbolize empowerment and resistance:
Mother Durga! Rider on the lion, trident in hand, thy body of beauty armor-clad, Mother, giver of victory. India awaits thee, eager to see the gracious form of thine. Listen, O Mother, descend upon earth, make thyself manifest in this land of India.
---- ‘Hymn to Durga’ Shri Aurobindo
The second quarter of twentieth century yielded a crop of poets voicing patriotism and the call to freedom like V.N. Bhushan and VK Gokak. Humanistic and Mystical trends abounded as well. In some sense the Marxist/Leftist viewpoint affected the evaluation of pre-Independence Literature. Largely, Criticism falls into a divide regarding pre-independence poetry. Applauded (C.D. Narasimaih and V.K. Gokak) and condemned (Parthasarthy and others) as lyrical, romantic and lacking realism.
PWA: The Progressive Writer’s Association, created between 1932-1936 in London and India functioned as an umbrella under which progressive writers all languages found shelter though dominantly Urdu. It poised itself as a ‘united front’ of writers against imperialism and a conduit to give voice to the social reactionary.
The women’s writers (prose and poetry) mentioned in the PWA docs are Rasheed Jahan, Ismat Chugtai, Usha Dutt, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Arpita Das, Sheila Bhatia, Binata Roy, Uma Chakaravarthy, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaldevi Chattopadhya, Siddiqa Begum Sevharvi, Anil D’Silva, Mahasweta Devi, Sulekha Sanyal and Anupama Niranjana.Kondapalli Koteswaramma (b. 1925) wrote poems for children about peasants and artisans in Telugu.
Occasionally the PWA male poets did address the subjugation of women:
"That which is not visible cannot be Exquisite/"The past hasn’t recognized your worth/You are capable of producing flames, not just tears…You will have to rewrite the theme of your History/Arise my love that we can walk together/"Destroy the idols of Custom, break the shackles of Tradition/Free yourself from the enfeeblement of Pleasure, the false ideas of Delicacy --- ‘Aurat’ by Kaifi Azmi
The third quarter of 20th century has seen the full bloom of the modernist trend. The modernist sensibility took root in the sixties in India. The post-Independence disillusionment in the 60s found the perfect vehicle in modernism.The years after 1947, brought no golden age but the third world rift with social challenges- displacement, corruption, poverty, population, modernization, erasure of the community base and the individual voice left to navigate loss, chaos and search for identity. Inward, Intellectual, ironical, sarcastic painful are the voices in the Indian wasteland.
In the bevy of male poets who emerged the woman poet who powerfully shook the Indian Literary scene was Kamala Das (the only woman poet anthologized by Parthasarathy in his seminal ‘Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets.’) Confessional, autobiographical, imagist, sexual, feminist, honest, her prose and poetry rose like a shooting star opening up possibilities for the woman’s voice in Indian English poetry. She was a trail blazer, controversial and condemned, celebrated and sought. Quest for the self was unabashedly a womanly self, fleshed in the body. The poignancy and vulnerability within her words pulsates. She was short-listed for the Nobel prize in 1984. Her poems are too many to quote, every one of them an emblem in the poetry of protest.
Consider this excerpt from one astounding poem that fuses gender issues, politics, mysticism, body consciousness, nationalist issues, language issues fluently. It articulates the modernist unease with English:
I don't know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with Nehru.
I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar,
I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one.
Don't write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, halfIndian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as I am human, don't
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair.
WhenI asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door, He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I shrank Pitifully.
Then … I wore a shirt and my
Brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don't sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don't play pretending games…
Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself I
In this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.
--- ‘An introduction’ by Kamala Das
In some sense Kamla Das’s poem breathtakingly announces that for a woman politics and protest are not contained only in outer socio-pol-econo structures; the fight against any kind of oppression involves a woman’s body. The boundary of what is political redefines itself as not just the individual, but the individual as flesh and spirit. She asks for no compromise. Her battle for equality insists the acceptance of body and flesh as real as nation and patriotism.
Her poetry recalls Mirabai, a 15th C mystical woman poet immortalized in contemporary India. Mostly spiritualized, what is forgotten is that her poems are as much erotic as they were sublimely spiritual as well as rebellious to the social more of the day. Recent translations of her work in the West have been done by Andrew Schelling. Robert Bly’s freewheeling version brings Kamala to mind:
Something has reached out and taken the beams of my eyes,/There is a longing, it is for his body, for every hair of that dark body,/All I was doing was being, and the dancing energy came by my house,/His face looks curiously like the moon, I saw it from the side, smiling,/My family says: “Don’t ever see him again!” And they imply things in a low voice/ But my eyes have their own voice; they laugh at rules, and know whose they are,/I believe I can bear on my shoulders whatever you want to say of me,/Mira says: Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?
--‘All I was doing was breathing’ by Mira Bai translated by Robert Bly
Menka Shivdasni’s surrealistic quixotic touch is nevertheless feminist:
…I found some wings—/ Who knew where they had been all those years?/They were slightly dirty,/But once I got used/To their rusty screech/ I found/they worked/ I am making friends with the birds now. ‘Bird Woman.’
Contemporary women’s political poetry doesn’t lose sight of the outer arc. Meena Kadasamy is cited as the first English poet in the history of Dalit literature. (Dalit literature is the body of work referring to lower caste subjugation) She retells nationalist, religious, social and cultural narratives:
The god Brahma is a four-faced, dour-faced father figure/ who fucked up our lives.
We understand /Why upper caste Gods/And their good-girl much-married, father-fucked,/Virgin vegetarian oh so-pure Goddesses/Borne in their golden chariots/Don’t come to our streets.
And in ‘Evil spirits’ (excerpt) she says of the dalits:
Anyway, there isn't a lot of life in our bodies./We are souls. Wandering souls. Still, once/Ghost-tasted, we rot away. We rot away./Remember, rotting is a long procedure.../Day by day, we grow coffin cold and slowly/Life creeps out, a lazy earthworm./At last, we die./We die.
Pramila Venkateswaran cites another social movement:
Damn your calculating mind,/offering money that will cremate us/on non-existent land/your civilized tongue fabricates./Now it is easy for you to
imagine our death, erase it as you/turn on the light to flood your day/with a new water line, bank, sky,/our bodies, props for metal/and cement mountains./The sun is hard today./The crows gather, loud.
-----‘Hunger Vigil (for Narmada Bachau Andolan hunger strikers)’
The frequent and present day political turbulence in the eight states of North East India has been addressed by women poets of that region. Uddipana Goswami, Mamang Dai, Mona Zote, Temsula Aao, Irom Sarmila etc. Uddipana’s collection “We called the River Red: Poetry from a violent Homeland” addresses insurgency, migration, conflicts, militarization, nationalism, displacement etc. Her website is (http://www.jajabori-mon.blogspot.com/)
In ‘Rez’ by Mona Zote:
A boy and his gun: that’s an image will do/To sum up our times/To define the red lakes/And razor blade hills of our mind./ Out here this place never changes, never will/We will keep choosing grey salt, bad roads,/Some thin yellow flowers to grieve, alcohol over friendship…/Cash for peace, God’s grin of despair. If you think I’m starting to regret/Sticking around and kicking at the tombstones/(if not pulling out the ak-47)/Remember/ the water lilies will bind you back.
Excruciating poverty in the Mumbai metropolis is voiced in this one:
We are nameless, faceless/concealed in cartoons/Cradled in rags/our children/dread bulldozers…Attempts are made to obliterate us/ But we are adroit/too adept at existing/on nothing.
---‘Another stack of huts.’ By Marilyn Bayros Noronha
Diaspora poetry adds another layer of complexity to protest. Debjani Chatterjee’s poems can be brief and sharp as a pinpoint. The politics of erasure and identity are tackled in this one:
Before she stepped into the classroom:/she removed coat, mittens and chunni,*/mentally undid her shoes for entry/to a temple of secular mystery.
She also shed her:/Language, name, identity;/Donnes the mask of neat conformity,/Prepared for lessons in cultural anonymity.
--- ‘An Asian child enters a British classroom’ by Debjani Chatterjee
Identity/quest, ingredients of Protest poetry takes the form of rewriting religious iconography and rendering the sacred as profane as in Michelle Cahill’s poems. In ‘Parvati in Darlinghurst’ Shiva is humanized mercilessly:
We scorned the Puranas, our tryst no Himalayan/ cave, but a hotel bed I had draped with stockings… All I wanted was a good time, I swear as the river/is my sister ,that this guy was not my sun or my sky/
With equal nonchalance Cahill reclaims Kali in ‘Kali from abroad’ with pride swelling her iconic meaning with contemporary relevance from everyday jargon and media references: our contemporary Judge Judy having a bad hair day.
Pramila Venkateswaran,a contemporary Diaspora Indian English poet voices Draupadi, another woman protagonist in the other great epic ‘The Mahabharata.’ Myth is constantly being reworked with an aim to dispel the very archetypal behavior it gives rise to, modulating the woman’s voice:
You talk of grand things,/like getting your kingdom back,/but what of your dharma toward me/,your Draupadi? And love?/I want the simple,/the beginning when love created/the universe and the universe replied./I do not want the poetry of incandescence,/exotic,grand truths, revelations/I do not want to walk into a horizon lined/with fences of fire. My spirit is resilient, no doubt,/despite my rape at that demon’s wild hands,/your silence colder than death./Listen, I’ll be no pawn, no mute./It’s time for you to let go, Yudhishthira,/of your cock-eyed dharma;/I’m through.
(excerpt) Draupadi’s Dharma.
Sudeep Sen avers that the contemporary Indian English poet is freed from colonial hang ups and from the necessity of political poetry and can widen her arc with ease. However, as we examined in this paper, contemporary Indian English poetry in India and abroad has not distanced itself from protest. The eye of the poet can’t turn blind or avoid black. Within the human self is an innate urge to be unstuck and thankfully we can at least, in the words of Prageeta Sharma, be stuck in the words of poetry:
We can be stuck in poetry/in the things/needing attributes when/we can’t color them away.
1. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences ( 2009) Vol 1, No 2, 281-301 281. Post Independence Indian English Poetry. Shaleen Kumar Singh, Ph.D., C S J M University Kanpur, India.
2. Background to Indian English Poetry http://www.tmv.edu.in/ Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth Disatnce Education
3. Anthems of Resistance: Progressive Urdu Poetry. Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir
4. Sudeep Sen interview Time s of India. Sudeep Sen: The best English poetry by Indians is as good as Indian fiction, Times of India Srijana Mitra Das. Sep 19, 2012:
5. The Harper Collins Book. English Poetry. Edited by Sudeep Sen.
6. Signposts, Bengali Poetry since Independence. Edited by Prabal Kumar Basu. Rupa, p ress, India.
7. Grace and Mercy in her Wild Hair. Selected poems to the mother goddess. Translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely. Foreword by Andrew Schelling. Hohm Press.
8.The country without a post office. By Agha Shahid Ali. Norton Press. USA.
10. The Dance of the Peacock. An Anthology of English Poetry from India. Edited by Vivekananda Jha.
11. Various websites for compilation of poetry.
12. http://www.the-criterion.com/V4/n1/Purnima.pdf ‘Poetry of protest and confession: The poetry of Kamala Das.’ By Purnima Bali
13. http://www.academicjournals.org/ The real feminists in Indian English Writing: Kamala Das and Imitaz Dharkar.
14. Venomous Touch: Meena Kandasamy and the Poetics of Dalit Resistance by Abin Chakraborty
1850-1900: Henry Derorizo, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Toru Dutt, R.N. Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Kashiprasad Ghose, Gorro Chand Dutt, R.C Dutt
1900-1947: Meherji, A.F. Khabardar, N.B. Thadhani, Nizamat Jung, Ananda Acharya, Sarojini Naidu, Tagore, Aurobindo and Harindranath Chattopadhyay
Second quarter, 20th c: V.N. Bhushan, S.R. Dongerkery, T.P. Kailasam, N. Krishna Murti, V.K Gokak,A, Nolini Kant Gupta, Dilip Kumar Roy, E.L. Vaswani, Nirodvaran, K.D. Sethna, Nishi Kanto, and Themis.
PWA Poets: Sahir Ludhianvi, Kishwar Naheed. Josh Malihabadi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Israr-ul-Haq Majaz, Kaifi Azmi, Premchand, Ali Sardar Jafri, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Majrooh Sultanpuri,and Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Mohammad Iqbal and Rabindranath lent, Sri Sri, Umashankar Joshi, Gurbaksh Singh, Anna Bhau Sathe.
Third quarter, 20th C: Dilip Chitre, Kamla das, Amrit Gangar. Jayant Mahapatra, Nissim Ezekiel, Neeraj Sinha, Melani Silgardo, I.K. Sharma, G.V.J. Prasad, Nag Bhushan Patnayak, Navroz Modi, A.N. Dwivedi, Nar Deo Sharma, O.P. Bhatnagar, D.H. Kabadi, R.C. Shukla, Arun kolatkar, Pritish Nandy, Bibhu Padhi, Niranjan Mohanty, R.K. Singh, Keki N. Daruwala, and Baldev Mirza, Jussawalla, Das, Mehrotra, Ramanujan, Patel, Nandy.
‘Voices of Emergency’ compiled by John Olive Perry: Dilip Chitre, Kamla das, Amrit Gangar. Jayant Mahapatra, Nissim Ezekiel, Neeraj Sinha, Melani Silgardo, I.K. Sharma, G.V.J. Prasad, Nag Bhushan Patnayak, Navroz Modi, A.N. Dwivedi, Nar Deo Sharma, O.P. Bhatnagar, D.H. Kabadi, R.C. Shukla, Arun kolatkar, Pritish Nandy, Bibhu Padhi, Niranjan Mohanty, R.K. Singh, Keki N. Daruwala, and Baldev Mirza
Modernist poets, 60s-70s: Adil Jussawalla, Das, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, A.K Ramanujan, Patel, Pritish Nandy, Kamala Das, Eunice de Souza and Shiv Kumar, Agha Shahid Ali, Saleem Peeradina, Manohar Shetty, Vikram Seth and Imtiaz Dharker, Keki Daruwalla, Parthasrathy, Dom Moraes and Dilip Chitre.
Present: Melanie Silgardo, Bibhu Padhi, , Sanjiv Bhatla, Charmayne De Souza, Hoshang Merchant, Tara Patel.
Present: Dance of the peacock, An anthology of English Poetry from India, Edited by Dr. Vivekananda Jha: Over 150 poets listed.
Present: The Harper Collins Book. English Poetry. Edited by Sudeep Sen: Aditi Makhado, A J Thomas, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Kumar, Anand Thakore, ANanya S. Guha, Anindita Sengupta, Anita Nair, Anjum Hasan, ANupama Raju, Arundhati Subramaniam, Aryanil Mukherjee, Bhanu Kapil,Bibhu Padhi, C.P. Surenderan, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Daljit Nagra, David Dabydeen, Debkani Chatterjee, Deepankar Khiwani, Desmond L. Karmawphlang, Diane Mehta,Gayatri Majumdar, H. Masud Taj, Imitiaz Dharkar, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, John Siddique, Judith Lal, Karthika Nair, Kavita Jindal, Kazim Ali, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Leela Gandhi, Mahendra Solanki, Makarand Paranjape, Mani Rao, Marilyn Noronha, Maya Rani Khosla, Meena Alexander, Menka Shivdasani, Michelle Cahill, Michelle Yasmin Valladares, Monica Ferrell, Monica Mody, Neelanjana Banerjee, Prageeta Sharma,Prisiclla Uppal, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Purvi Shah, R. Raja Rao, Rabindra K. Swain, Raman Mundair, Ranjit Hoskote, Ravi Shankar, Reetika Vazirani, Reshma Aquil, Rishma Dunlop, Robin S. Ngangom, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Sampurna Chattarji,Sandeep Parmar, Shanta Acharya, Sharmila Voorakkara, Siddhartha Bose, Smita Agarwal, Sridala Swami, Srikant Reddy, Srilata K, Subhashini Kaligotla, Sudeep Sen, Sudesh Mishra, Sujata Bhatt,SUmmi Kaipa, Tabish Khair,Thachim Poyil Rajeevan, Tisahni Doshi, Usha Akella, Usha Kishore, Vijay Nambisan, Vijay Seshadri, Vikas K. Menon, Vikram Seth, Vivek Narayanan.
US Diaspora: Pramila Venkateswaran, Reetika Vazirani, Vandana Khanna,Mohammad Faisal Hadi, Maya Khosla,Tanuja Mehrotra, Vijay Seshadri, Bhanu Kapil, Kazim Ali,Summi Kaipa,Vikas Menon,Minal Hajratwala, Sejal Shah, Neelanjana Banerjee,Amarnath Ravva, Mytili, Jagannathan, Srikant Reddy,Prageeta Sharma, Sasha Kamini Parmasad, Vivek Jain, Ro Gunetilleke, Amitava Kumar, Sachin B. Patel, Bushra Rahman, Usha Akella, Shailja Patel, Ravi Shankar, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ravi Chnadra, Ralph Nazareth, Meena Alexander, Faisal Mohyuddin,Dilruba Ahmad, Bhargavi C. Mandava, Reena Narayan, Homraj Acharya, R.Parthasarathy.