Thursday, March 28, 2013

W.H.Auden: 'This Lunar Beauty'

Because yesterday's full, spring moon, buttery disc that it was. Also, because this is a poem that should be read aloud and I've been looking at poems for too long now. Delighted also, at it's slow increase, so lunar. Time is inches, yes; but also lines.

This Lunar Beauty

This lunar beauty
Has no history
Is complete and early;
If beauty later
Bear any feature
It had a lover
And is another.

This like a dream
Keeps other time
And daytime is
The loss of this;
For time is inches
And the heart's changes
Where ghost has haunted
Lost and wanted.

But this was never
A ghost's endeavour
Nor finished this,
Was ghost at ease;
And till it pass
Love shall not near
The sweetness here
Nor sorrow take
His endless look.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Wild Girls Wicked Words

This short review appeared in Mint last week. I've had massive power outages and connectivity problems, so haven't posted this until now.

I really should write or keep the longer versions of reviews to put on the blog. I had a lot more to say about this book, but I edited it down and didn't keep the longer review.

Wild Girls Wicked Words: Poems of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi & Sukirtharani
Edited & Translated by Lakshmi Holmström
Kalachuvadu Publications [Sangam House]. Rs. 295. Pp: 230

Every year, around 8 March the world sketches a tribute to women. Each year the gestures seem more hollow and meaningless, a gimmick to sell anything from facials and makeovers to health-checks and insurance. At least since the Delhi rape, it has become clear that far from achieving equality, women in India face even more challenges than the popular narrative would have us believe.

A whole decade ago in Tamil Nadu, there was widespread outrage in literary circles at the publication of Kutti Revathi’s book of poems, Mulaigal (Breasts). Around the same time, other women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma and Sukirtharani were also publishing poems that spoke about the bodies and desires of women and about wanting a space to call their own. Whatever pious noises about violence against women we are hearing now, things were different in 2003. Back then, these women received death threats and, as Lakshmi Holmström recounts in the introduction to this volume, one film lyricist even said they “should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.”

Ah, that trusty debating strategy used by men in times of social upheaval: kerosene (See also: acid).

That these women continued to write undeterred by threats says much more for their individual courage and perseverance than it does for society as a whole. In the decade since, each of these four women have published more collections of poems and have continued to write about whatever they wanted to, regardless of the compulsions of their private or public lives.

Wild Girls Wicked Words, translated and edited by Holmström, ironically references the indignation of the literary establishment in Tamil Nadu. It is a bilingual collection of selected poems that, while still being appetisers, are substantial enough to give the reader an idea of the kind of poetry these women write, with biographical notes to provide context.

The poems are about the things you might expect – the bodies of women, the relationship of women with their lovers, their children; and about landscape, so intimately tied to the idea of poetry in Tamil literature since the earliest Sangam poetry. But the originality of the ideas and images and tonal variety give these poems depth and edge, making one pause often to absorb and re-read a line.

The first poem, ‘She who threads the skies’ by Malathi Maithri, begins thus: “As the sky fills/the empty shell/after a bird has hatched,/ so desire fills everything.”

These women are unafraid both of desire and of declaring it. “I watched over them in amazement”, Kutti Revathi says simply in her poem ‘Breasts’. In another poem about meeting her lover, she invokes one of Sangam poetry’s most famous lines: “red earth and pouring rain”.

Indeed, for all the contemporary cadences of their poetry, these poets are often in dialogue with the tradition of Tamil poetry; sometimes, as in Malathi’s or Sukirtharani’s poems, they are sardonic; but these poets see themselves as writers who are intimately tied to both place and language. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a portion of the poems in this collection are about Sri Lanka and more specifically about the civil war. These poems are poignant and anguished but are never mere harangues.

Sukirtharani’s poetry is perhaps the most stark and angry of the four, standing as it does at the intersection of Dalit and feminist writing. In her poem ‘Translating her’, she says:

They ask me what the song means/ prying, eager, as if checking out/ the sex of a newly born./ I translate her poverty/  the hunger she eats,/  the hunger she expels

Salma’s experiences as a Muslim, a woman writing in secret and wanting to explore both solitude and selfhood (thanimai/thanmai) are better known via her novel The Hour Past Midnight, which takes its title from the poem ‘A midnight tale’, collected here. Images of confinement act as counterpoint to the imagined peace of a simple solitude. But sitting at the edges of domesticity is a chilling truth:

In this universe/ there may be many creatures/ alone with their prey/ living amicably together/ leading pleasant lives. (‘An evening, another evening’)

‘Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy’, declared Malathi Maithri in 2001. This collection demonstrates that this is being done, both with passion and craft.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Vasudha Nagaraj talk on the Justice Verma Committee Report

Though the Justice Verma Committee Report [pdf] (which, last I heard, the Ministry of Home Affairs had taken off their website) came out in January this year - just under a month after the Delhi rape - the thing everyone is watching is the wilfully obstuse Ordinance that the GoI might pass any day now.

Regardless, what the Committee did was remarkable.

So, for this month's talk in the Goethe Zentrum's monthly Lecture Series, they've invited AP High Court advocate, and activist Vasudha Nagaraj to tease out the implications of the Report as well as talk about the govt. Ordinance on Sexual Assault.

Date & Time: Wednesday 13 March. 6.30pm.
Location: Goethe Zentrum, Journalist Colony, Road No. 3, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad.

It's going to be a bit strange, but I'll be reading some of my poems before the talk.

Do come if you can.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Every single leaf

One new neighbour has just cut down a peltophorum because it ruins the view of her shiny new house with the weird landscaping and All! Glass! exterior. Another tree nearby has had branches cut off to make way for a pole that will have their personal transformer perched on it.

At other times we have heard other neighbours complain that:

1) The trees shed too many leaves and their servants (yes) complain about having to keep sweeping.

2) The trees cut off all the sun. Apparently this is a bad thing.

3) There's no place to park because of trees on the pavement.

I'm actually surprised that they don't cut down trees during Diwali, because, you know, rockets.

Meanwhile, spring continues. The Tabibuia have flamed their yellow and are shedding. The figs have come and gone. The pungamaram's tender green is everywhere. The badam has finished with the red and has settled into summer's bright green. The rain trees still drop long seed pods that always, always, embed themselves into the softening tar on the road which, given the state of it, is an improvement.

Soon, even the leaves that so annoy our neighbours will cease to fall, though every cut branch and trunk will continue to put out shoots.

Clearly this last is something our neighbours will not stand for. Hence this:

Completely besides the point that this tree was outside a GHMC park and it wasn't for any of the people around here to burn it down.

I don't want to move. I'm wondering how I can persuade my neighbours that the desert - any desert - is the best place for them. 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Review: Sita's Ascent

Last week's Sunday Guardian has my review of Vayu Naidu's Sita's Ascent.

Suddenly there's a lot of Ramayana- related writing going around. There was Zubaan's anthology of speculative fiction about the Ramayana called Breaking the Bow. (I'm sad to say I've only read one story from it but will get around to it eventually). I'd been meaning to get Arshia Sattar's translation of the Valmiki Ramayana for some time now and used my mother's birthday recently to get it and her book of essays as well. Most recently - like, this morning - I finished Samhita Arni's The Missing Queen.

I feel I shouldn't mix up a straight review post with my thoughts on Arni's book, which were decidedly mixed; but I guess, I hope, I'll get around to it. Eventually. (Why does this sound like something I've said before? Oh wait.)


In her endnote to Sita’s Ascent, storyteller and performer Vayu Naidu explains that one of her aims in writing the novella was to explore the ‘function of memory as a metaphor for ‘re-membering’ a dismembered story because it is told to us infrequently and in parts’.

As anyone growing up with stories from the epics knows, every telling is a new one – not just a remembering and a reclaiming, but a re-visioning. In Sita’s Ascent memory is the primary hallucinogen, unlocking the past in a dream-like manner.

The story begins with the pregnant Sita being delivered to Valmiki’s ashram by Lakshmana. She thinks she’s on a visit, and though Lakshmana knows better, he chooses silence. In the shock of abandonment, Sita begins to fail until Valmiki pulls her out. Sita begins to live in the ashram and Lava and Kusa are born and grow up, the older people pass on the baton of remembering as if they were runners in a relay race.

Naidu has clearly immersed herself not just in stories from the Ramayana but also in the critical texts about the epic, and in ways of writing about epics. It is easy to see in the structure of the book – each chapter given over to one character – the form of the older Yuganta by Iravati Karve. In the sourcing of stories, Naidu cites Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas, especially Velcheru Narayana Rao’s essay on the Telugu songs about the Ramayana sung by women in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu writes as one who is fully aware of the multiplicity of narratives and perspectives.

And yet, oddly, the multiplicity of perspectives does not always produce a variety of psychological responses in the narrators. Sita’s love, her well-managed anger and infinite capacity to endure comes across less as steadfastness and more as passive acquiescence. Surpanakka’s anger is entirely avoided because what she recounts is Sita’s swayamvara and Ravana’s failure at it. In Naidu’s narrative, she is Ravana’s sister first and always; never the desirable and desiring woman punished for her outspokenness. If there is some kind of push-back, it comes from Urmila, who rebels by disguising herself and escaping from the palace to live with Sita in the ashram.

The question I find myself asking is, can a retelling of the Ramayana in the 21st century entirely ignore feminist critiques of the epic? There are, after all, demonstrable ways to write against the grain of the central and indisputably patriarchal narrative: just to take the example of one writer, Volga’s story ‘Liberated’ (‘Vimukta’ in Telugu) reinterprets Urmila’s years of supposed sleep as one intense, solitary meditation out of which she emerges liberated and strong; in another story, ‘Reunion’ (‘Samagamam’ in Telugu) Surpanakha and Sita meet in the forest and find deep empathy for each other.

Given how vividly these characters recall the past, it is surprising how little they examine the reasons for the actions of the people involved. The one exception is Lakshmana. In an incident drawn from the Velcheru Narayana Rao essay, Naidu has Lakshmana fall into an ecstasy of laughter when he sees the goddess Nidra approach him in court. As he laughs, Lakshmana watches and calibrates everyone’s reaction to him – each person imagines Lakshmana is laughing at him and begins to examine his conscience.

Not just this incident, but the guilt Lakshmana feels in having precipitated the entire war by attacking Surpanakka, his self-pitying and horrific justifications – ‘I had been provoked’ – then and later, when he draws the lakshman rekha around Sita – ‘I had never seen her eyes flash fire and her mouth utter such filth. Did she say that to provoke me? – are chilling, but give us psychological depth where we have grown used to archetypes.

A part of the problem lies in the choice of medium. I can see how the impressionistic narrative structure would work as performance and storytelling. As a novella, though, the tone is sometimes disconcertingly casual and colloquial, sometimes mystical and mostly slanted towards the now-tired tropes of the bhakti tradition.

Which is why the actual event of Sita’s ‘ascent’, her final refusal to undergo another test of chastity/purity/loyalty is elided over entirely in this book: when Lava and Kusa finish recounting the Ramayana to the man they do not yet know is their father, Naidu considers the story resolved – ‘The leaves shivered and there was a stream of light where she stood. There was no pain or need for reconciliation. Sita had ascended time cycles.’

If that isn’t a cop-out I don’t know what is.

In another recent retelling of another epic, Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, the narrator is the river goddess Ganga who is surrounded by a sceptical, disruptive, bawdy audience. To them she says early in the narrative: ‘Much is made of unflagging optimism – that blind, bouncy state which understands neither cause nor effect.’

I wish any one of the narrators in Naidu’s book had a grain of this kind of self-awareness. It would have raised the book from a tolerable and not unreadable tale to one worth returning to, as any epic worth its salt should be.