Roundabout: Girl you will sing once all is said and done
‘Girl you have been asked not to sing we know they held a matchstick under your tongue and singed your voice box but girl you will speak up…’
The poem ‘Girl you will sing’ by Hyderabad-based radical contemporary poet Nabina Das, one of the significant voices in Indian English poetry, gives expression to the scathing truth of feminine existence in a man’s world.
Das, who has authored five books of poetry and fiction, steers the song of resistance against the violence that women confront every day. This poem has inspired the title of a remarkable anthology of women poets of south Asia, which brings forth a heartfelt response from author Namita Gokhale: “A powerful anthology, which resonates with the wellsprings of feminine power, invoking the sisterhood of south Asian women, their strength as well as their vulnerability.”
This intense anthology, which calls attention to the violence faced by women in south Asia, features around 70 poets from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The representative poetry of well-known poets from the region and emerging poets is indeed a treatise on the way women negotiate their lives despite the harsh reality of gender-based violence.
It is indeed love’s labour for editor Sarita Jenamani, an Austria-based poet of Indian origin, a literary translator, anthologist and editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature: ‘Words and Worlds’.
In a moving introduction to this anthology, published by Dhauli Books, Jenamani talks of silence, speaking up and solidarity.
She says: “This is not an anthology of feminist poetry. This is a book that is home to all women’s voices rendered silent by the vicious trinity of oppression, denial and victim bashing that has allowed violence against women to escalate to an alarming magnitude and that is supported by the presence of a gender-biased social system prevalent in most parts of the world—a system that endorses and invented the tradition of silencing the victims.”
Her story in south Asia
The representative collection from India, which includes stalwarts such as Kamla Das, Anamika, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Priya Sharukai Chhabria, Shanta Acharya, Deepa Agrawal, K Srilata, Deepa Agrawal, Deepti Naval, Meena Alexander and Tishani Doshi, but of course opens with the woman’s anthem of protest penned by legendary Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, ‘Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu.’
Her famous ode to Waris Shah, a Sufi poet who penned the saga of the folk-legend of Heer, is remembered as the first dirge to the horrors of the Partition but it comes in a fresh translation by Aftab Husain, a poet of Pakistani origin also based in Austria: ‘Today, I invoke Waris Shah: Speak from your grave and add a new page to the Book of Love!’
The anthology has a fine selection of poems that cover a wide range of issues that confront women even in these times. Anju Makhija, a well-known poet of English, poignantly questions a woman being married to a man twice her age in the ‘Tale of the young bride’: ‘Born in nineteen hundred and sixty-eight/ in the crowded bustee of Dabirpura/ she wed one, born in nineteen hundred and thirty-four/ Nineteen hundred and thirty-four? Why him you ask, had she no dowry, no jewellery, no land?’
Come to the ebullient Arundhathi Subrananiam, recent winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, and she reveals the guerilla secrets of women battered by the men they love both in the institution of marriage and even outside: ‘I long for a poem/that will offer you/the enchanted balm of metaphor/rather than slick polyester clichés/ about women beaten by the men they love. But it is difficult.’
She closes this poem titled ‘At the doors of closed rooms’: ‘I cannot believe that love was even meant to be like this.’
Actor-poet Deepti Naval is included in the anthology with telling poems of mental depression and derangement of women and the reasons having spent a long time with women who were labelled ‘mad’ in the Ranchi Mental Hospital.
Poems from across the borders
There is some remarkable poetry from across the border in Pakistan featuring some very well-known women poets. Take for instance late Sara Shagufta, a poet who wrote in both Urdu and Punjabi and after a life of struggle and abuse she chose suicide. In ‘Woman and salt’ she writes: ‘From house to footpath nothing belongs to us…Honour is the spear they brand us with/Our tongues are tied with honour/If the salt of our bodies is tasted one night/We are considered for a whole life as tasteless bread’.
There are equally powerful voices from Bangladesh, Nepal and Srilanka. Traude Pollai-Vetscherra, former professor of culture and social anthropology, describes this book, which requires a couple of columns to do it justice, as an ambitious endeavour by south Asian poets that challenges established ways of thinking not only over the centuries but millennia.