In the neighbouring Afghanistan, some dozen Kabul women, who call poetry their sword, are determined to protect their new-found freedom despite constant death threats from the Talibans. Poetry is their form of resistance in a taboo-ridden, extremely conservative and almost illiterate society that treat poetry writing as sin. Karima Shabrang, for example, uses explicit images of intimacy: “I miss you… my hands are stretching from the ruins of Kabul…I want to invite you to my room for delicious smoke... and you will give me refuge in your shivering red body.” More and more women there are waging their fight for rights, including their rights to write and be heard.
You must login to vote
Participating in a discussion in the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival, the author of The Exiled, Fariba Hachtroudi, shared her experiences in the changing Arab world and said: “The power men want to have over women is the biggest obstacle in our society.” Fariba has written a lot of erotic poetry. Shereen Feki, the author of Sex and the Citadel, stressed that social behavior is closely linked with what happens behind the closed doors of bedrooms. To quote her, “Sexuality is a rich way of looking at society. What happens inside bedrooms is related to outside life. If we don’t allow freedom in private lives, it won’t be achieved in public sphere.”
Freedom to express themselves freely and creatively is something most women find hard to have, but some of them, not necessarily subscribing to feminist practices have honestly and boldly shown how their modernity lies in their attempt to change “thinking and growing.”
Women poets in India have been opening up and talking about their intimate lives since Kamala Das challenged taboos, conservative norms and male dominance before herself disappearing behind the veil. They know well how hard it is to tackle the taboos around sex and sexual expression, yet they make their sexuality a positive presence as they structure what is “letting off steam” or release of tension, or self-analysis or social criticism.
A poet like Joyshri Lobo (Bittersweet, 1989), for example, feels deeply hurt by the way a woman is treated and made to suffer “self-righteous wrath.” Her anger is representative of every woman when she questions: “Is the entrance to my womb/all that you crave for?/Are the sounds of love/All that you can offer me?/Have I no mind/ no secret emotions,/no hidden longings?/Do I not crave for/words, for similes/for many worldly conversations?/…since when have I become / a piece—decorative, useful/To be given an occasional rub,/cleaned and varnished,/Discarded when age mellows the glitter/And dust dirties the once smooth surface?” (‘Lament of an Indian Woman’). Like others, she too raises her voice against her being a nobody: “A debris of household drudgery/mechanized, momentary sex/a cold limp handhold,” “a slave to Indian manhood.”
Poets such as Prabha Mehta, Purabi Patnaik, Vijaya Goel, Mani Rao, Anuradha Nalapet, Venu Arora, Kamal Gurtaj Singh, Renu Singh Parmar, Chandni Kapur, etc are open, bold and honest. They have energy to fight discrimination and stigma just as they question others’ stereotypes and prejudices. They react against being neglected, against hypocrisy, oral duplicity, false ethical and cultural values, and challenge the community’s norms and attitudes about sex and sexpression. They are intuitive, interpretative, and evaluative of the contemporary social, political and economic realities and present texts that reflect their responses to the flux of experiences.
Poets such as Rita Malhotra, Monima Chudhury, Tara Patel, Jyotirmayee Mohapatra, Madhavi Lata Agarwal, Shilpa Vishwanath, Jelena Narayanan, Sunanda Mukherjee, and others invite us to understand them vis-à-vis the realities of their mental and physical sufferings, betrayal and infidelity in marital life, denial of sensual fulfillment, false sense of pride or fear of shame, physical isolation and sexual neglect, and desperate struggle for a meaning in life and living. Their critique reveals the chauvinistic attitude vis-à-vis the male/female emotions trapped in human body which prompts a strong assertiveness, exposing their secret self besides showing disapproval of what predominates in our private and social set up. Expression of sex helps them achieve some kind of liberating effects against the various forms of ‘structural oppression’ emanating from male dominance, authority and conviction on the one hand, and a variety of contradictory cultural, social, sexual and aesthetic attitude, on the other.
Women poets, like their male counterparts, seek to know themselves as composites, contradictory, and even incompatible. They understand that each of us is many different people – serious and frivolous, bold and timorous, loud and quiet, aggressive and abashed. They too write to express themselves, accommodating a variety of differences, including inner and outer conflicts, sufferings and celebrations, even as they appear marginalized.
Asha Viswas, who has absorbed numerous suppressed tensions, griefs and ups and downs in life, is aware of her vulnerability as a woman. She expresses her concern about everything that matters to an ordinary person: “Life was always/too overbearing/I neither had chance/Nor choice to decide/My name, surname.” Though she values love and treasures its memories, she recalls in plain irony how before she could even learn “the grammar of his face/in the sentence of his body/…analyzing his gestures/synthesizing his moods/…/He raised a big structure/of surface ambiguities/That left us unfortunate parallel lines” (‘The Misunderstanding’). She discovers she has been “left a fresco/on a broken wall” (‘In the Blues’). The inner storm she endures makes her wonder: “How could I hum of happiness/from devasted, dark ruins?” and “why do fate and I meet/always at wrong angles?” The ‘trinity’ of “the ego, the world and the entropy” haunts her (‘Agony).
Tejinder Kaur thinks and feels “the rhythm of life/which is not smooth/to be set in a pattern.” She understands the design “at deeper level/planned and schemed by Maker” just as she is aware of transitoriness of the drama, the “foolishness of grabbings, maneuverings/leaving materials, carrying/accumulated imprints.” She images the process of her personal growth vis-à-vis the complex of egoistic clashes, lack of mutual understanding, and weakening values of fidelity, honesty, commitment and love. Thus, she seeks to “open the silent chamber of her creative and critical self.” The poems in her collections, Reflections (2001) and Images (2002) present a matured and confident voice with serious thoughts and reflections rooted in self-experience, observation, understanding, and idealism.
Sunanda Mukherjee reflects her personal disappointments and disillusion with love, marriage and life: “I realized that love meant/Torture, treachery, and polygamy/That love means selfish sadism/… Now I know/The real meaning of love/And also, that/Woman must handle it with care.” The “countless injuries,” and selfish sadism that her narrator has suffered in love make her “terror-stricken heart” so vunerable that she feels “empty” as a woman. In her moments of self-pity and disgust she even challenges God, who, in his male form, could never understand the sufferings and tortures a woman is made to undergo. If God could ever have a female form, He would realize “that the heaviness of time/is often heavier than life.” In her personal and lyrical voice is pronounced deep discontentment, disillusion, uncertainty, and unhappiness with not only the near and dear ones but also the “faithless world,” humanity, and life itself.
Dancer-dreamer poet, Indrayanee Mukherjee strikes a different note in her maiden collection, Images that Catch the Eye (2004): “The colour of her lips leaves an impression/on the cup she drinks from/…she touches her mouth to the rim of the mug./It is a relief from the cold, the weather outside” (‘Coffee Shop’); “A placid wave and streaks of the sun bleached sky./ A gust of heavy fiery wind and a lone peddler on his cycle peddles by./ A narrow straight curvature of the road…/ and yet another story unfods the lateral planes of a contrast/ that a city called Benares lives by.” (‘Benares’) and “The truth of the masks/The sentiment of a foetus tucked away in its mother’s womb./All of it is my own, personally etched brutality.” (Why these verses reek of misery?’)
Another new poet, who strikes a strong feminine presence, is Jelena Narayanan (Chennai). Her The Gold Comb and Other Poems (2003) with delicate feelings and passionate yearnings images love with commitment: “When the white musty walls/ Begin to close themselves upon me,/The air becomes humid/Wrapping itself around my body/Slowly, with unchanging rhythm;/ I think of your/And I drown myself” (‘I Think of You’) and “…my being without you/Is wrong” (“Apartness’). Jelena is intensely personal and lyrical, with whispers of the soul in her articulation of both happy and sad feelings in various moments of man-woman relationship.
Shilpa Viswanath’s debut collection Pause (2001) evinces her keen interest in social issues: She observes “rocket motors , coolies,/devotees with dreams/ In different episodes” alongside “Mothers in menopause,/Daughters in adolescence./Cross roads, cranky minds.” (No Matter what’) . She recognizes and uses well, what she calls “in neighborly lingo” to mirror the world around her.
There are over a dozen others who effectively respond to chaos and degeneration in all walks of life, lopsided values, hypocrisy, inner tensions, isolation, socio-economic hardship, feeling of void and/or sense of lack of meaning and purpose in life today. In varying forms and rhythms, most women poets introspect and self-question, sharing their mind and memory, which is qualitatively superior to most male-poets writing in English today. Frankly speaking, they exhibit a better word power and stronger sense appeal. They tend to be introvert and explore themselves with awareness of women’s degradation, exploitation, subordination and/or brutality and injustice to them simply for being women. They seek freedom from the strangling confinement of the male-structured society and use poetry to experience peace of mind: “My perceptions are dulled/And my spirit struggles to escape/The caged bird in me,” says Shwetasree Majumder (‘Confinement’). They exude faith in themselves vis-à-vis their identity, sex relationship, and concern for women’s dignity. They know their anchor and reason ‘to be’ and recreate “the jigsaw that is life,” without excluding nature, love, home, society, god or future. They sound more honest, more sincere, “freer, wider, larger/and infinitely lonelier,” to quote from Shwetasree Majumder’s poem ‘Epilogue’.
Rita Nath Keshri reveals a very sensitive mind: “I am married to a house/whose doors shut me in./Her fire ordeal was only once/But mine is repeated” and “But the stone-breakers, do they see/My mind’s vast arid zone/Through which howl/ the desert winds?” Keshri is one of the thirteen poets, including Maria Netto, Themis, K.M. Shantha, Seema Devi, and U.R. Anusha from Pondicherry , who make up P.Raja’s anthology, In Celebration: Women Poets of Pondicherry (2003) and voice the same spiritual themes as experienced in Sri Aurobindo Ashram poets. They are meditative an d interpretative, sharing the larger sentiments expressed by other women poets. They are also personal and lyrical, echoing spiritual feelings and sensations in their daily living and experiences, and celebrating their inner consciousness despite ugliness of man’s mind and disharmony all around.
A Kashmiri woman poet, Syeda Afshana, who boldly disapproves of politicians and people who hold anti-women views, is critical of the media for reducing Kashmir to “propaganda symbolism.” She touches themes such as bloodshed, violence, insurgency, loss, sacrifice, and relationship. It is, however, her “different” attitude that makes her notable. Her sadness is evident when she says: “A scream that is/only mine, just mine,/and has remained unchanged/since times immemorial.” (The Fugitive Sunshine, p. 24).
Menka Shivadasani, who recently edited Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry (Big Bridge Press, 2013), mentions in her Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990) several disturbing experiences, arising out of living alone in a small flat (in Mumbai) and the anxieties of a single woman’s life vis-à-vis the sordid world of sex, drugs, broken relationship etc. She sounds remarkable with twists in her faith just as she is strongly aware of her restive spirit, inner tensions, and sexuality. To quote from her poem ‘Epitaph’: “My religion calls for blood,/redness draped across the eyes,/wrapped tight around the skin…./The story begins like a wrinkle on the face/and does not end/when the wrinkles freeze./ But that is when the surface/ turns to white and I hold my pain/ in its plastic tube/ let the fluid fall.”
Writing in response to the gang rape of a 23 years old girl in New Delhi about a year ago, Chandni Singh feels part of every woman that gets raped. Let me read her poem ‘I am a Woman in India’:
I have had my breasts fondled.
Not by a lover,
but strangers on a bus.
I have been gyrated against
as I navigate the city:
packed like sardines
they are more depraved than animals.
I have had penises flashed at me
whose owners I know not;
they only come with a pair of lust-laced eyes
and a soulless smile.
I can hold my own on issues
about the environment.
I can wax eloquent about literature and music.
I am told, I am the future;
and for a moment I am bent into believing
in the bubble I have bought into.
But every morning,
My ego slouches
as it is castrated at the hands of
I have lost count:
there are too many to fight.
I may be liberated. And educated,
but my fire has been doused.
Neither rhetoric nor review can
bring me solace.
And so, I turn the other cheek.
I have become deaf to the whistles and
blind to the lewdness.
I adjust my dupatta
and look straight ahead
as they line the streets and pucker their mouths.
I am just a woman in India.
The poets anthologized in Eunice D’Souza’s anthology, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, 2001 and Shivadasani’s Big Bridge Anthology (2013) collectively present women poets as a vibrant community. Their metaphors and images invariably reflect their inner landscape as much as their responses to what they observe or experience externally.
Now let me conclude. As they create discourse of themselves as the opposite sex and present a feminine perspective, many of them sound committed to their home, family, children, motherhood, social life, and solitude, often voicing their own vision and understanding which cuts across cultures and regions. They articulate womanhood and female sexuality to comment on the male-structured norms and sexual politics and appear in control of themselves, transcending their body or feminity and respecting the woman in themselves. They turn inside out and reveal what is personal yet universal in their different roles as mother, wife, daughter, and feeling the agony of the spirit while trying to know “who am I?” As they look back or reflect their present-- be it job-stress, role-playing, domestic responsibility, life’s riches, personal losses, or death-fear—as female, some of them appear critical of the stereotyped sex-role and confinement of women within the domestic space just as some others try to balance their personal and social existence through a memory of lived experiences. Some of them voice a strong family bond, sense of togetherness, sense of family unity vis-à-vis their inner conflicts and/or spiritual hunger.
But almost every woman poet seems to give the message that women need not feel diffident or inferior and try to be bold enough to venture into new areas even if they find themselves standing at the edge, lonely, or dependent. They express an alternative motive and impulse for social action at a very personal level, an urge for changing the situation for themselves, or for being in peace with oneself. They seek to create a new culture as they rationalize how we ought to live in future.
1. Lobo, Joyshree. 1989. Bittersweet. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
2. Mehta, Prabha. 1994. Expressions of Love. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
3. Rao, Mani. 1993. Catapult Season. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
4. --------. 2006. 100 Poems: 1985-2005. Hong Kong: Chameleon Presss.
5. --------. 2010. Ghost Masters. Hong Kong: Chameleon Press.
6. Nalapet, Anuradha. 1994. Nothing is Safe. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
7. Viswas, Asha. 1996. Melting Memories. Delhi: K.K. Publications.
8. Goel, Vijaya. 1993. The Autumn Flowers. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
9. Arora, Venu. 1993. Mire. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
10. Parmar, Renu Singh. 1993. Mindscape. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
11. Patnaik, Purabi. 1994. Quest. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
12. Das, Kamala. 1991. The Descendants, 2nd ed. Calcutta: WritersWorkshop.
13. Kapoor, Chandni. 2004. The Looking Glass: Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
14. Mohanty, Niranjan (ed). 1992. Voices: Indian Poetry in English. Berhampur: Poetry Pubication.
15. Singh, R.K. 2006. Voices of the Present: Critical Essays on Some Indian English Poets. Jaipur: Book Enclave.
16. --------- (ed.). 1997. Anger in Action: Explorations of Anger in Indian English Writing. New Delhi: Bahri Publications.
17. --------. 2001. Kamala Das and Some Other Recent Indian English Poets: Expression of Female Sexuality. Creative Forum, Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4, July-December, pp. 5-16.
18. -------. 2013. Wisdom of the Body: Some Reflections. In SenSexual: A Unique Anthology (ed: Susana Mayer), Vol. I. USA: Sensexual Press (http://www.sensxualpress.com)
19. ------. 1999. Recent Indian English Poetry: A Critical Reflection of a Chorus of Voices. Cyber Literature, Vol. III, No.1, March, pp. 6-8.
20. Netto, Maria. 2005. Tabula Rasa. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books.
21. Narayanan, Jelena. 2003. The Gold Comb and Other Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
22. Iyer, Sudha. 2003. On the Edge. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
23. Raja, P. (ed). 2003. In Celebration: Women Poets of Pondicherry. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books.
24. Raja, P. and Keshari, Rita Nath (eds.). 2007. Busy Bee Book of Contemporary Indian English Poetry. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books.
25. Raghupathi, K.V.(ed.). 2009. Brave New Wave:21 Indian English Poets. Jaipur: Book Enclave.
26. Jha, Vivekanand (ed.). 2013. The Dance of the Peacock: An Anthology of English Poetry From India. Canada: Hidden Brook Press.
27. Mishra, Binod and Singh, Charu Sheel (eds.). 2013. Exiled Among Natives: An Anthology of Contermporary Poetry. New Delhi: Adhyayan Publishers.
28. Prem, P.C.K. and Chambial, D.C. (eds). 2011. English Poetry in India: A Secular Viewpoint. Jaipur: Aavishkar Publishers.
29. Radhamani, S. 2003. Man and Media. Poet, Vol. 44, No.7, July, p. 24.
30. Mukherjee, Sunanda. 2003. Moment and Other Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
31. Choudhury, Monima. 2002. Impression. Sasaram: Creative Writers Circle.
32. Kaur, Tejinder. 2001. Reflections. Ranchi: Writers Forum.
33. --------. 2002. Images. Ranchi: Writers Forum.
34. Shivadasani, Menka. 1996-97. Epitaph. Literature Alive, Winter, p.77.
35. ---------. (ed). 2013. Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Big Bridge Press
36. D’Soua, Eunice. (ed).2001. Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
37. Agarwal, Madhvi Lata. 2003. Myriad Colours. Bangalore: Bizz Buzz.
38. Dai, Mamang. 2004. River Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
39. Malhotra, Rita. 2004. Images of Love. New Delhi: Virgo Publication.
40. Verma, Meenakshi. 2004. Mute Voices. Maranda: Poetcrit Publication.
41. Singh, Chandni. I am a Woman in India. http://www.themindfulword.org/2013/woman-in-india-poem-chandni-singh#alKOFbBfvf8pGUDK.99
R K Singh