A man who saw the poet Meena Kandasamy read out from her latest poetry collection, Ms. Militancy, at the Jaipur Literary Festival this January apparently felt threatened enough to post his reactions on his Facebook wall: “Watched a so called poetry reading session of a so called dalit-feminist-poet from chennai! The so called poem and the so called reading postures quite resembled that of w***** invitation to clients on roadsides! She addressed herself as a dalit-feminist! All the way i wondered, what did dalitism and feminism had to do in that poem, which literally worshiped group sex practice!!” Perhaps it is unfair to give such reactionary words more circulation than they deserve but they do give us an entry point to the kind of poems that Meena Kandasamy writes (definitely not pornography) and a counterpoint from ‘real' life to our notions of ourselves as a ‘progressive' society. I don't know what that Facebook person's idea of poetry really is but if yours is anywhere remotely in alignment with his, perhaps you shouldn't be reading this collection. Or, come to think of it, perhaps you need to read it more than anyone else...
No easy passage
It won't be an easy passage if your politics are mainstream, let alone conservative. As a woman dalit poet, Meena Kandasamy writes angrily, often eloquently, about the politics of the body and caste in contemporary Indian society. Necessarily, what she sees is different from the images we have constructed for ourselves. It was Ambedkar who said that “women are the gateways of the caste system”. Kandasamy is intensely aware of how the female body is used as an instrument of control, by naming it, fixing it and locating it within a discourse whose concerns are very different. Talking about the female self and body in ways not ‘allowed' by this discourse becomes a way of reclaiming it, of declaring one's independence from this discourse:
Tongues untied, we swallow suns.
Sure as sluts, we strip random men.
Sleepless. There's stardust on our lids.
Naked. There's self-love on our minds.
And yes, my dears, we are all friends.
There will be no blood on our bridal beds.
We are not the ones you will choose for wives.
We are not the ones you can sentence for life.
And it goes hand it hand with an irreverent taking apart of the contradictions, hypocrisies and pretences she finds around her everywhere in life, literature and the mythologies of the mainstream. But it's not all mockery, for, she can also write with chilling clarity about the way things still are. Sample this:
the pot sees just another noisy child
the glass sees an eager and clumsy hand
the water sees a parched throat slaking thirst
but the teacher sees a girl breaking the rule
the doctor sees a medical emergency
the school sees a potential embarrassment
the press sees a headline and a photofeature
dhanam sees a world torn in half.
her left eye, lid open but light slapped away,
the price for a taste of that touchable water.
In other poems, she writes with a gay abandon that comes from the liberating knowledge that she doesn't have to play by your rules anymore. Her poems mock the countless edifices of tradition, culture and literature that had been/are complicit in keeping a whole people invisible and worse for centuries. In spite of the delight in wordplay, the startling phrases that catch you unawares and ambush you as you turn a corner (there's that delightful emperuman, Emperor-man), her poems are mostly simple, direct, effective and often violent. Because it takes violence to rip apart structures that have kept you down, structures that have become invisible, transparent and part of the ‘natural' order of things to those who don't have to live with its stifling oppressiveness. Actually, Meena Kandasamy does a favour to people like that gentleman on Facebook by enabling them to see again. For, acceptance could be the first step towards change, for oneself and others.
For herself, it is through rebellion that the path to freedom lies, to other more enabling possibilities. As she puts it poignantly in the ‘ foreword': “I have to write poetry to be heard, I have to turn insane to stay alive....Telling my story another way lets me forgive you. Twisting your story to the scariest extent allows me the liberty of trying to trust you. I work to not only get back at you, I actually fight to get back to myself.” The possibility of redemption, then, through the rubble of rebellion, both for her and us. But if her poetry only shocks or offends us, if we can only mourn the past that has been shown up for what it is, the possibility of reconfiguring our world and living spaces and discourses on a more equal and just footing would be lost, yet again...