Salma, Malathi Maithree, Uma Maheshwari, Sugitharani, Kutti Revathi - some of Tamil Nadu's well-known women poets are in the midst of a storm which has been raging since October 2003.
Ever since the women started expressing their feelings on sex, marriage, family and society in a bolder fashion, and started using words like yoni (vagina), mulaigal (breasts), kamam (desire) and suyappunarchi (masturbation) in their work, the men (including some of their partners) have objected and launched a campaign against them.
The men who are spearheading this campaign are film lyricists Palani Bharathi and Snehan, known to pen risqué film songs. After reading some of the women's Tamil poetry published in 'Kala Chuvadu' (Footprints of Time) in 2003, the men declared that these women "should be burnt". "They are writing such poetry because they are not satisfied sexually," they charged.
Well-know male poet Abdul Rehman also joined the attack and is believed to have said that the women were "inviting men" by writing such poems.
On the contrary, the women say their poems actually tell the man that a woman need not always welcome his advances; and that he is often harsh, indifferent and selfish. Their poems talk about a woman's loneliness and anger due to the selfish behavior of men.
Revathi, a scholar who has been associated with the state's feminist movement, named her second collection of poems 'Mulaigal'. Her title poem reads:
Breast or bubbles rising
In wet marshlands.
I wondrously watched and guarded
Their gradual swell and blooming
At the edges of my youth's season...
Saying nothing to anyone else
They sing along,
With me alone always,
During my penance
They seemed to want to break free
All in the fierce pull of lust they rise,
Engorged with memories of musical trance
Like two teardrops of unfulfilled love
That cannot ever be wiped away
They gather in a still pool and tumble.*
The poems of Salma, panchayat (council) head in a village near Tiruchirapalli, reflect deep anguish at the painful repetition of the sex act, which for her has become a price to be paid for sustaining family life. In her poem 'Oppandham' (Contract) she writes:
Mother tells me that all bedroom mistakes are mine...
History and time have clarified my status...
To get impure affection from you,
To discharge my responsibility to your child as a mother,
To get you to pay for sanitary napkins and birth control pills,
And if possible to lord over you for a while,
My knowing vagina widens itself.
Salma's husband has turned against her since the controversy arose and the Muslim community too is looking askance at her. But all this has not disturbed this Katha award winner, whose novel on a social theme is to published soon.
Asked why they are writing "erotic poetry", the women reply in one voice that it is an expression of their emotions. Sexual feelings are normal like any other. To them, writing poetry is life itself - not a livelihood, not a hobby. It is atma tripti (soul-contentment).
As Maithree's poem, 'Veru Pathai' (Different path), says:
Filled with trees, this path has no end
It is paved with our words
And will continue till there is one word left
To be spoken between you and me
Maithree's husband, a writer, has not abandoned her. A textile designer based in Pondicherry, she likes to depict the status of women in society. She writes in 'Veedugalal Ana Enam' (Society made of Houses):
All houses in the town are like women,
Windows are the eyes,
Vaginas the portals,
Waiting for a man for a lifetime...
Men who straddle houses
Do not develop women
And women who abide in time
Are not houses.
Sugitharani, a schoolteacher in Ranipet, took to writing to express the anger she felt since childhood for being discriminated against vis-a-vis her brothers.
Maithree says with economic independence, better education and social progress, a new language has emerged, which is often used by women like her. She says film songs are obscene and women poets are fighting this trend. And the male lyricists are just getting back at them like this.
Maithree recently sent a legal notice to Bharathi after he wrote against her in a Tamil magazine, 'Kungumam'. Bharathi sent an apology, which was published in Kungumam. Although Snehan has not forwarded any apology, the television channel that carried his comments on the poets last January has now invited Maithree and Sugitharani to voice their views on the show.
Revathi feels such comments ought to be ignored and the best way to fight is to write such poetry more often. The poets, along with their friends, have now formed an organization called Anangu, which means woman. They are planning a seminar in Chennai on March 20, aiming to "remove the slur cast on them and their work". If all else fails, they will go to court.
The state's senior poet, Krishnangini, has come out in their support. She says suppression has to end. Krishnangini attributes the violent reaction of the men to sheer jealousy. She says the men fear the women will now enter the field of film lyrics.
The women poets have also found support in former chief minister M Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi, who is also a writer. She says a police complaint should be registered against those who said that women poets should be burnt. "This is instigating violence and they should be booked."
Meanwhile, the editor and publisher of 'Kala Chuvadu', Kannan, says he has no plans to stop publishing these women writers or similar works of anyone else. "We enjoy doing it."
(*Translation of 'Mulaigal' from the Tamil, by Kalyanaraman. The author of this article has translated the other poems/verse.)