Suvarnarekha: An Anthology of Indian Women Poets Writing in English.
Dr. Nandini Sahu (Editor), Gurgaon: The Poetry Society of India. 2014. Pages 277. Price- Rs.480.
While delving into the poetic world of Survarnarekha - the recently published anthology of Indian Women Poets Writing in English edited by Dr Nandini Sahu - I was instantly reminded of a quote by Helen Cixous, the noted French feminist philosopher: “And why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.” One finds inspiration in the words of Cixous and a whole generation of feminist scholars who assert that the very act of writing is a liberating moment for women that can release them from the grip of silence and erasure forced onto them by the patriarchal order. Even as the term “Women’s Writing” has become embedded in popular academic and literary discourses one should be sensitive to the wide heterogeneity and diversity of “Women’s Writing” across time and space. What defines the uniqueness of Women’s Writing? Can there be a universal narrative of women’s oppression and marginalization, of struggle and empowerment? And how do we conceptualize the relationship between literary aesthetics and politics in the context of Women’s Writing? Just as feminism over the decades has self-critically transcended its “monolithism” thereby creating the space for plural feminism(s) across class, race, caste, ethnic and national identities, similarly the corpus of Women’s Writing should be examined in the light of such critical and positive changes.
Survarnarekha has offered a platform for the myriad expressions of those powerful Indian women poets writing in English to express their voices woven into one magical symphony of rebellion, of celebration, and of creation. In her deeply analytical and thought-provoking “Preface” Nandini Sahu clearly states the reasons for not confining this anthology merely to the “canonical poets”. “The term canonical has both positive and negative implications, it can very well have a subjective construal”, Sahu says. I too endorse her argument for I believe that the concept of canon entails a pre-supposed sense of hierarchy. And to break this order of hierarchy between the “old” and the “new”, between the “established” and the “emergent” is indeed a very positive gesture for the literary world at large. Suvanarekha offers a wide spectrum of 103 poets starting from the verses of Toru Dutt-the first Indian woman English poet -to those young and contemporary voices. And by doing so the rich anthology allows one to chart the trajectory of the two genre of writing—not just (Indian) Women’s poetry but also Indian Poetry in English. In other words Suvanarekha becomes a poetic narrative of gender and language while telling us how literary expression connects the two.
The poets in the anthology articulate a whole gamut of emotions and experiences through the use of subtle and often surreal images such as the evocation of memories through landscapes, invocation of mythological figures to comment on patriarchal violence, and a quest for spiritualism amidst the mundane moments of life. In poems such as Lalita Noronha’s “From Bombay to Baltimore: Thirty Years Later”, Rumki Basu’s “Your Land and My Land”, and Usha Kishore’s “Monsoon Nights” there is a return to a nostalgic past as the poet experiences a sense of cultural dislocation in the context of a contemporary diasporic and migratory experiences. As Noronha puts it —
“And still I search between continents
Between sky and sky,
Between then and now
The poet is caught in the flux of ever shifting and changing realities and therefore the idea of a “home” becomes elusive. Usha Kishore voices a similar predicament — “I call motherland, where eyes meet eyes / in greeting and languages melt in smiles.” The poet brilliantly juxtaposes the childhood memories of her grandmother’s tales with the imagined space of a motherland.
The intertwining of physical landscape with the imagery of the female body also emerges as a powerful trope in the collection of poems. Lakshmi Kannan’s “Gloriamanias: The Song of the Seven Seas” reminded me of the Hilda’s Doolittle’s Imagist poems. Kannan uses the image of the violent sea waves to reflect the violence experienced by the female body and how this struggle eventually creates a feeling of empowerment. As the concluding lines affirm —
“Daughters of the ocean, each one of them,
female born to a female energy. Zoetic.”
Mamang Dai’s poems “This Summer-The Cicada’s Song” , and “The Wind and the Rain” are filled with a lyrical Romanticism where the poet invokes the memories of a primordial landscape, pure and unviolated, and where time itself acquires a mythical dimension. She poignantly portrays the devastating impact of political violence both on the landscape as well as on the rural communities in Arunachal Pradesh.
“The old men are saying they can see
fields of darkness and fields of light.
One day, they say, the winds will sing
songs of slaughter, and tenderness.”
Menka Shivdasani’s “Earth Mother” depicts the feminine and maternal experiences of pain and suffering by using the archetypal image of the earth as a nurturing mother. There is a strong use of symbolism where the tree suggests the possibility of a phallic and by extension patriarchal violence —
has grown inside you for too long,
and thrusts its way outside
in obscene ways”
Reena Prasad’s “She Lives On” also deploys the tree image but in her poem it symbolizes the aging body of a woman who defines the twilight hours of her life in terms of an intense stoicism and acceptance of the truths of life.
Sahu observes that “Indian women poets write ecofeminist poems most eloquently.” And so the anthology itself has been named after “Suvarnarekha”- the river flowing from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal and thereby suggesting the connection between the nourishing aspect of the river and the creative power of the feminine. In the poems that I have cited one sees the strong connection between the violation of ecology/nature and the oppression of women as they both operate within the repressive apparatus of patriarchy. Ecofeminism then becomes an enabling theoretical tool to address some of these issues especially in the Indian context where we have a long history of women’s participation in environmental movements.
Mythology emerges as a significant poetic trope in Suvarnarekha as observed in a set of poems such as Gopa Nayak’s “My Budding Womanhood”, Michelle Cahill’s “ Parvati in Darlinghurst”, Nandini Sahu’s “Draupadi”, Ranu Uniyal’s “Ahalya to Ram” and Shefali Shah Choksi’s “Gandhari Explains”. In these poems female figures from popular Hindu mythology have been invoked and there is a process of feminist re-telling at work where the patriarchal reading of the myths has been challenged and subverted. Nayak in “My Budding Womanhood” identifies herself with Kunti, Ahalya and Sita who are not seen as submissive objects of male domination but as active and transgressive agents who affirm their desires. Cahill’s “Parvati in Darlinghurst” comically debunks the figure of Shiva where Parvati as an urbane and sophisticated woman questions the authority of her husband. Sahu’s “Draupadi” de-mystifies the patriarchal narrative of the epic where Drapuadi is seen only as a victim and where a sense of individuality is denied to her. Through Draupadi the poet also offers a critique of the power structures of patriarchy. Shefali Shah Choksi uses the figure of Gandhari from the Mahabharata where she is endowed with a voice of her own. The poem ends in an epiphanic moment where Gandhari finds redemption through her daughter who however remains unnamed.
Some of the poets have used the confessional mode in order to portray how violence works as a key element in women’s marginalization. Anu Joshi’s “Faces” exposes the psychological nature of violence where a woman is constantly forced to wear the fake faces of social customs while casting aside her genuine self —
“till I was the empress of a thousand faces,
tired of killing and creating,
marring and healing.”
Sagari Chabbra’s “Monument” documents the histories of political violence where the “I’ speaker becomes the collective voice of women who have suffered under the universal oppression of patriarchal power. The poet points out — “His phallus is the gun/ the gun his phallus” thereby conflating the narratives of military and sexual violence.
Sanjukta Dasgupta offers a panacea to the brutality of violence in her mystical poem “Where There is No Love” —
“Where there is no love
Like guns in Baghdad.”
As Suvarnarekha explores the politics and poetics of gender and language, Kamala Das’s “An Introduction” celebrates the freedom of the female poet in choosing a language of her own that can best define her subjectivity. Both language and gender are socially constructed and so there is a need to break out from these polarities. As Das says —
“The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness
All mine, mine alone.”
Ruth Vanita’s “Love, Like, Hate, Adore” engages with the position of the queer artist in contemporary Indian society. This poem becomes highly relevant in the light of the controversy around Article 377 and the crimininalization of homosexuality along with other non-normative, queer sexualities in India. The poem marks a shift in tone from “You can take the lesbian out of India” to a moment of re-affirmation where “the lesbian is still writing verse in India”. Vanita who is a noted scholar and queer activist hints at the constraining effect of moral censorship on artistic and sexual freedom and yet there is a need to carve out spaces of dissent and resistance through art itself.
On the whole Suvarnarekha offers those manifold verses where the personal inevitably becomes the political, where silence is transformed into moments of subversion, where a nostalgic past promises an optimistic future. I have been able to gloss over some selected poems in this review though needless to say all the poets in the anthology are equally remarkable with their own unique style, poetic grace and vision. Nandini Sahu’s pain staking efforts as the editor are commendable. Anil Tato’s aesthetic cover design with the diverse shades and colours of femininity prepares the readers for the literary treat awaiting them in Suvarnarekha.