I am a very shy person,” says Meena Kandasamy, 23-year-old writer and poet who has just published her first collection of poems ‘Touch’. But beneath this self-effacing front lies a great deal of strength and conviction, even rebellion.
Meena grew up on the IIT campus, a world far from Dalit activism and poetry. “Students were more bothered about calculus problems than people going hungry. There are enough doctors and engineers in the country; some should take up social causes,” she says. It is this idealism that made her reject traditional career paths and take up writing.
She started writing mainly about issues related to caste and communal discrimination. Her essays and literary criticism were published in magazines and journals such as ‘Biblio: A Review of Books’, ‘Communalism Combat’, ‘The Milli Gazette’, ‘Newsletter of the Indian Association for Women Studies and Post-Colonial Web’. “I write because I am powerless to change things. It is my way of reaching out to the world. It is very liberating to write. We can’t attend public meetings and rallies, but we can write,” she explains.
Around the same time, she also started editing ‘The Dalit’, a bimonthly magazine in Chennai. She learnt how to read Tamil so that she could translate Dalit literature from Tamil to English and translated a number of books including ‘Talisman: Extreme Emotions of Dalit Liberation’ and Tamil Eelam revolutionary poet Kasi Anandan’s collection of poems ‘Point Blank’.
Meena’s tryst with poetry began in 2002 when she wrote her first poem ‘Mascara’ about a modern-day devadasi. Two of her poems, ‘Mascara’ and ‘My Lover Speaks of Rape’, went on to win first prize in pan-Indian poetry contests. She also published poems in a number of journals including ‘The Little Magazine’ and the ‘Quarterly Literary Review Singapore’.
What gave her the confidence to publish a book, however, was Kamala Das’ validation.
“I sent Kamala Das my poems. She responded with a foreword — the only one she has ever written! That’s when I started looking for publishers.”
Meena’s poems, like her, have many sides. Some are rebellious, tongue-in-cheek and humourous while others are sad, brutal or hard-hitting. Many of them handle issues of caste and gender with startling honesty. In ‘Their Daughters’, she describes her great grandmother:
…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 colonise her…" She is not unaware of the consequences of such honesty either. “In India, people stereotype you when you call yourself a feminist. Outspoken women are always considered to be mad.”
Meena spends most of her time writing, reading and working on Dalit issues. A wistful note creeps into her voice when she speaks about friends.
“I don’t have many friends in my age group. That is a problem.” Then, she laughs quickly. “I feel like I am 23 going on 46.”
Currently, Meena is working on a PhD that combines her love for literature with her passion for the Dalit cause.
On the future, she says: “I want to be a writer. I also want to see a world without caste system.”