Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Out of the Cocoon: An Analysis of the select poems of Meena Kandasamy.

Out of the Cocoon: An Analysis of the select poems of Meena Kandasamy.
                          India has a rich poetic history. Great epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are in poetic form. Most of the early works were devotional and were steeped in religion. These great works were written in Sanskrit and in classical Indian languages. The genesis of Indian poetry in English can be traced back to the arrival of the East India Company on the Indian soil. It emerged as a separate genre only after the Second World War. Early poems were imitative and were over loaded with western ideals. Poets like Nissim Ezekiel and Sarojini Naidu have created a space for Indian poetry in the world literary arena. Toru Dutt, Henry Derozio, Tajore, A.K.Ramanujan and R.Parthasarathy are some of the prominent poets. Through their efforts Indian poetry gradually became more Indianised. Early poems which dealt with the themes of personal and family issues gave way to poems that addressed social issues and thereby cleared the way for experimental poetry. Poets began to venture into new dimensions in poetry and this helped them shed all sorts of western influence.
Indian poetry has now become vast, rich and culturally sensitive. It has become Indian to the core and expresses the collective consciousness of India. It reflects our cultural and communal heritage and our age-old traditions. Our glorious past and present are exposed in all their beauty. Poets have become adept in expressing the pains and passions of the people. They cross borders to capture realities of life. By poignantly expressing the difficulties of the marginalised, poets give voice to the voiceless.  
            Even after decades of powerful poetic rendition and reception, it is lugubrious to accept the fact that this genre is still over looked. Only early poets and popular ones are acclaimed. Budding poets and not-so-popular ones like O.P. Bhatnagar, I.K.Sharma, Maha Nand Sharma, Krishna Srinivas, and many such poets are not recognised by people though most of them have significantly contributed to Indian poetry in English. Women poets are pushed to the margin except for a few fortunate poets like Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Das, Sujatha Bhatt and Mamta kalia to mention a few, who made their voice heard in spite of all obstacles.  
                         Dalit literature is an emerging category in Indian writing. The contributors have braved all hardships and have put their works in the forefront. The Dalits were underestimated and looked down upon for ages but through perseverance they were able to withstand the stones hurled at them. Now they have created an identity for themselves and have also captured a space for them in Indian English literature. Some non-Dailt writers have also come forward to represent the cause of the Dalits.
                      In the early stages of Indian writing in English, when men expressed the problems of women, it was argued that it will be more appropriate and genuine if women express their problems, as it will have a personal touch which can make works more authentic. When the non-Dalits wrote about the Dalits, the same argument came up and this encouraged the Dalits to take their pen to fight for their cause. Dalits writers began writing in the 1950s. They wrote short stories, novels and drama and there was considerable flow of Dalit literary writing in the 1960s.
 In the early days of the post-Independence era, Dalits were treated like sub humans. Though their status has risen considerably in the recent past, the pain caused by the stings of inhuman treatment remains deep within and the discrimination has not been completely done away with. The Dalit writers express the social reality of appalling caste oppression, untouchability and poverty through their writings. Their passionate depiction of crude society has touched the hearts of many a man around the world.    
                     The first modern Dalit fiction was written by P.Sivakamy and writers like Bhama, Abimaani Poomani, Sukirtharani, Prathibha Jayachandran,Chanakya, Dharman, Yazhan Adhi are notable Dalit writers. These writers have made Dalit writing a distinct part of Indian Literature. Through their works they express their inexpressible and unfathomable bitter experience and feelings which are worth noticing.
            Dalit literature is often compared with African-American literature as they share a common fate. Bitterness and agony are the trademarks of their writings. They raise their voices of protest against all forms of exploitation through their writings. Writing is their revenge. Early Dalit writings were largely in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil but very recently they have shifted to English. Some of their works in vernacular languages have also been translated into English.
            A woman in a Dalit community is a “Dalit among the Dalits” (). In spite of being far more sidelined than men, Dalit women have also contributed sufficiently to Dalit literature. One such young, energetic and rebellious young woman is Meena Kandasamy. She is a poet, activist and translator. Her works focus on caste oppression and women’s issues. She has published two collections of poems – Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). She has also authored a number of essays on social and political issues. Her poems “Mascara” and “My Lover Speaks of Rape” have won first prizes in All India Poetry competitions. Her poems have appeared in a number of national and international journals. Presently she is writing her first novel The Gypsy Goddess.
            She addresses multi-faceted problems in her community and champions women’s rights through her multilayered poems and essays. According to her, poetry heals her and helps in channelising her anger. Her poems are revolutionary and there is fire in her words. She is bold and assertive and expresses her ideas without fear or favour. She expresses strong will power and determination. She is certainly not an advocator of Gandhian non-violence. For her freedom is only through rebellion. One can feel her anger and sarcasm while reading her poems.
This paper aims to bring to light the psychological pressures and emotional trauma in Meena Kandasamy’s select poems and her attempts to empower women by granting them with a ‘new identity’ in a society that continues to segregate women and thwarts all her endeavours.  A few of her poems from her second collection Ms Militancy – “Backstreet Girls”, “Dead Women Walking”, “Firewalkers”, “Moon-gazers”, “Ms Militancy”, “One Eyed” and “Princess-in-Exile”  - are discussed and analysed.
                   “Backstreet Girls” is a poem addressed to the moral police. This poem breaks all shackles and grants independence to women. They don’t have to play by the rules anymore. Like men, they too can act according to their will. They can choose their own roles – ‘sluts, gluttons, bitches, witches and shrews’. No more can they be kept within the iron bars of culture and tradition. No Manu can limit or contain them. Men can no longer choose them for wives but they are the ones who pick up and “strip random men”. The poem ends with a note. “We (women) are not the ones you can sentence for life.” (14) This is the freedom Meena Kandasamy wants to achieve for her people.
              In “Dead Woman Walking” she approaches the story of Karaikal Ammayar, a mythological figure who was deeply in love with her lord shiva, in different perspective. To Meena Kandasamy, Karaikal Ammayar is not someone who deserted her husband to be with her lord but she was a wretched woman deserted by her husband. She was once a beautiful wife of a merchant but he became doubtful of his wife’s talent in providing delicious meals. Instead of understanding “the magic of my (her) multiplying love” (17) he took her to be a mystic and left her to marry “a fresh and formless wife”. She became a dead woman but this story kept on throbbing in her heart. Her pain is aptly captured in the line,
“I wept in vain, i wailed, i walked on my head, i went to god” (17)
She wept until her weeping turned into wailing. In an effort to recover from her loss, she turned all her attention to her god Shiva for consolation, but even that was criticised by the society. Though some called her “mother” many considered her as a mad woman which forced her into the “land of the living dead” (17) where she lived with “faltering step, felted flying hair..... hollowed cheeks....bulging eyes” (17) This poem captures the hardships and emotional stress of the downtrodden, abandoned women. Karaikal Ammayar represents the Dali women who are sexually exploited by men. They were forced to carry the scarlet letter of shame and blame whereas the exploiters escape with clean hands. The poem poignantly tells us how such women die even while they are physically alive.
                ‘Firewalkers’ is also a powerful rendition of the plight of poor women who are exploited by people belonging to upper classes. Shattering the traditional image, goddess Maari is portrayed as an exploiter who gains pleasure from the pains of her believers. Marri is a mania who needs blood to drench her hair and her devotees are the dream – chasers, the firewalkers” (22) . They offer their bodies to be burnt and whipped. This is the supplication, “the pain is the prayer” which along with blood appeases the goddess. Maari in “firewalkers” is none other than the inhuman oppressors of the dalits.                                 
            “Moon-gazers” depicts the unquestionable superiority of non-dalits over the dalits. The poet brings in a classroom situation in which the teacher talks about a bird that watches the moon throughout the night. When a girl questions what the bird does on new moon days, she is seen as impudent and is mocked at. She sinks into the teacher’s limitless eyes without ever reaching the surface. This is the common fate shared by all the dalits. They are forced to oblige without any question and made to lead a passive life devoid of any sign of existence.
            “Ms Militancy”, the title poem of this volume, is based on Kannaki, the heroine of the Tamil Classic Silapathikaram. This poem is a call to women to be revolutionary and courageous like the heroine herself. Though Kannaki is deeply affected by her husband’s betrayal, she readily accepts him when he returns from his dancer mistress’s lap. She supports him by giving him one of her anklets to start a fresh life. The ‘Kannaki’ in the first part of this poem is very devoted and loyal when judged by the standards of Tamil culture, which advocates patriarchal dominance. But the rage she displays at the death of her husband shows that she is not a passive, submissive Kannaki but a bold, assertive revolutionist. She gains the justice which her husband, a patriarchal figure failed to get. Justice alone can’t suffice her anger and she burns down the entire city by
            “... a bomb
            of her left breast...” (36)
She comes out of her cocoon when her situation demands it. Such a militant woman is the woman Meena Kandasamy’s dreams of. Such is her faith in herself and in women. By coming to the forefront and voicing her protest at a very young age, she has set herself as a model for downtrodden, subjugated women.
            In her short poem “One-eyed”, she gives an example of the various atrocities committed against the Dalit women. The pot, the glass and the water she the thirst of a person but he the teacher, the doctor, the school and the press see the violation of rules and are indifferent to the needs of people. Human beings fail to understand their fellow beings what the inanimate things where able to comprehend. Dhanam’s world was “torn in half” (41) when she tasted he forbidden water at the cost of her left eye.
            “Princess in Exile” is about Sita, the chaste queen. Meena Kandasamy’s Sita is no longer a chaste woman. She doesn’t want women to follow the rules laid by the patriarchal society. Her Sita has perfected the art of vanishing from the day she was kidnapped. Her constant “walkout” is her way of taking revenge on her husband who was not careful enough to protect her or even to rescue her within a short time span.
            The poet herself has a militant spirit. She takes up myths and characters from Tamil Classics and demythifies them by providing them with an identity entirely different from their original one. As a woman, she has forced her way to the forefront to represent her community through her powerful language and rebellious writing. Her voice is like the voice of her African-American counterparts. It is powerful enough to break boundaries and shatter the walls of Jericho. Her art is not “art for art’s sake”; it is “art for life’s sake.” Most of her themes and her choice of diction are taboos in the cultural context of India. This can be justified because crude realities cannot be explained in sophisticated forms and language. As Ranjit Hoskote puts it in his review of “Ms Miltiancy” in The Biblio, “There is considerable current of surprise and elusiveness that does battle with the strain of predictability in Kandasamy’s poetry; even when she rehearses a well established choreography of feminist self-assertion, she does so with a sharp eye for detail, a grasp of worldly insight, and an appetite for phrasal shape-shifting.” Anyone who reads her poems can firmly predict that this woman will definitely do her best to uplift the status of her community and of women. Her poems testimony her stance in Dalit literature and in Indian English Literature.

Works Cited
Primary Source:
Kandasamy, Meena. Ms Militancy. New Delhi: Navayanya Publishing, 2010.

Secondary Sources:
Rangan, Baradwaj. “The Politics of Poetry”. The Hindu. Metroplus. April 28,2011.
Kandasamy, Meena. “let-there-be-light”. Web. Date.
“Meena Kandasamy”.

(Presented in the National Seminar on Indian Writing in English organised by the Research Department of English, VHNSN College, Virudhunagar on 14th March, 2012)

1 comment: