EMPTY INTERNAL SPACES: SOME INDIAN ENGLISH WOMEN POETS
am glad to have this opportunity to speak to such a distinguished group of
lovers and admirers of Indian English poetry.
My colleague and organizer the Seminar, Dr Rajni Singh wanted me to
reflect on some of the recent women poets from the perspective of a
practitioner of poetry as well as the
as a poet, and, if we claim a belonging
to what we call Indian English Writing, then we should ensure that we are not
dumped without being read or assessed, which is unfortunately not the case as we observe today. A little large
heartedness is necessary in our own interest, that is, for being remembered as
Indian English poets and writers. Otherwise, the cause will die, repeating the
praise for a handful of socalled well known poets, who think poetry
started with them and died with them. We also need to shed our ego.
as an academic, it pleases us to share with you that since we started the MPhil
programme in the Department of Humanites & Social Sciences here at ISM, we
have been encouraging students to write their dissertations on new, less known,
unknown Indian English poets and writers. They have already explored works of
such new poets and writers as R. Rabindranath Menon, Pronab Kumar Majumder,
Niranjan Mohanty, VVB Ramarao, Y.S. Rajan, APJ Abdul Kalam, S.L Peeran, Syed
Ameeruddin, Hazara Singh, P K Joy, D C Chambial, B Ahmad, Pashupati Jha, Vihang
Naik, Manas Bakshi, Biplab Majumdar, Tabish Khair, Manu Joseph, Raj Kamal Jha,
etc. Among the women poets and writers, our students have examined works
of Jaishree Mishra, Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni, Mani Rao, and others including Mamang Dai, S. Radhamani, Dipanwita
Mukerjee,Sudha Iyer, Nirmala Pillai, Venu Arora, Chitra Doijode, Prabha Mehta,
Asha Viswas, etc. We have encouraged scholars to write their PhD theses also on
new and less known poets and writers such as I K Sharma, Maha Nand Sharma, R K
this perspective, the seminar not only
celebrates the contribution of so many new and less known women
poets the main stream academia and media have been reluctant to talk
about, but it is also an exercise to
discover new talents for academic exploration. Many of them have been writing
and publishing against various odds.
there has been a male ‘look’, or
outlook, but the female response to that look (or outlook) is now an
active and powerful look; the women poets’ in-look, and outlook too, is
challenging; they examine, as their poetry reveals, their private and public
life, or everyday experiences boldly; they integrate the flesh into their
beliefs and representations just as they have been traditionally linking
themselves to their home, family, motherhood, social life, solitude, god,
nature, myths. With the profound changes that have taken place in their lives,
their choices, and their opportunities in the recent period, their status,
roles, occupation, and legal position, they now voice their own visions and
understanding of the everyday life, often cutting across cultures and
regions. When they portray their
sexuality, or comment on our sexual politics, they also tell us how woman is
also master of her own place in poetical creation.
new collections that I could lay my hands on demonstrate their sensitivities
and struggles that appeal for their lack of pedantry, moral commentary, or
unnecessary romanticizing. They exploit
the medium to understand the why or how of life on the one hand, and to enrich
and celebrate the female consciousness, redeeming their physical and spiritual
existence, on the other. They sound
warm, vibrant and capable.
also take note of certain obvious realities. Quite a number of our contemporary
poets-- male or female, and in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s, with a 20th
century consciousness—have learnt to live with a world in upheaval. They have
grown up in very disappointing external
conditions of living. It has been normal for them (in fact, it’s one of our
collective cultural traits as Indians) to think intuitively, and/or turn
personal, inward, godward, or spirit-ward; their capability lies in their
emotional sensitivity than in intellectual abstraction. It is not their escapism but an urge for changing the situation for
me begin with a couple of very recent instances reported in the media:
In the neighbouring Afghanistan,
some dozen Kabul women, who call poetry their sword, are determined to protect
their new-found freedom despite constant death threats from the Talibans. Poetry is their form of resistance in a
taboo-ridden, extremely conservative and almost illiterate society that treat
poetry writing as sin. Karima Shabrang,
for example, uses explicit images of intimacy: “I miss you… my hands are stretching
from the ruins of Kabul…I want to invite you to my room for delicious smoke...
and you will give me refuge in your
shivering red body.” More and more women
there are waging their fight for rights,
including their rights to write and be heard.
in a discussion in the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival, the author
of The Exiled,
shared her experiences in the changing Arab world and said: “The power men want
to have over women is the biggest obstacle in our society.” Fariba has written a lot of erotic poetry.
Shereen Feki, the author of Sex and the
Citadel, stressed that social behavior is closely linked with what happens
behind the closed doors of bedrooms. To quote her, “Sexuality is a rich way of
looking at society. What happens inside bedrooms is related to outside life. If
we don’t allow freedom in private lives, it won’t be achieved in public
to express themselves freely and creatively is something most women find hard
to have, but some of them, not necessarily subscribing to feminist practices
have honestly and boldly shown how their modernity lies in their attempt to
change “thinking and growing.”
Women poets in India have been opening
up and talking about their intimate lives since Kamala Das challenged taboos,
conservative norms and male dominance before herself disappearing behind the
veil. They know well how hard it is to tackle the taboos around sex and sexual
expression, yet they make their sexuality a positive presence as they structure
what is “letting off steam” or release of tension, or self-analysis or social
poet like Joyshri Lobo (Bittersweet,
1989), for example, feels deeply hurt by the way a woman is treated and made to
suffer “self-righteous wrath.” Her anger is representative of every woman
when she questions: “Is the entrance to my womb/all that you crave
for?/Are the sounds of love/All that you can offer me?/Have I no mind/ no
secret emotions,/no hidden longings?/Do I not crave for/words, for similes/for
many worldly conversations?/…since when have I become / a piece—decorative,
useful/To be given an occasional rub,/cleaned and varnished,/Discarded when age
mellows the glitter/And dust dirties the once smooth surface?” (‘Lament of an
Indian Woman’). Like others, she too
raises her voice against her being a nobody: “A debris of household
drudgery/mechanized, momentary sex/a cold limp handhold,” “a slave to Indian manhood.”
such as Prabha Mehta, Purabi Patnaik, Vijaya Goel, Mani Rao, Anuradha Nalapet,
Venu Arora, Kamal Gurtaj Singh, Renu Singh Parmar, Chandni Kapur, etc are open,
bold and honest. They have energy to fight discrimination and stigma just as
they question others’ stereotypes and prejudices. They react against being
neglected, against hypocrisy, oral duplicity, false ethical and cultural
values, and challenge the community’s norms and attitudes about sex and
sexpression. They are intuitive, interpretative, and evaluative of the
contemporary social, political and economic realities and present texts that
reflect their responses to the flux of experiences.
Poets such as
Rita Malhotra, Monima Chudhury, Tara Patel, Jyotirmayee Mohapatra, Madhavi Lata
Agarwal, Shilpa Vishwanath, Jelena Narayanan, Sunanda Mukherjee, and others
invite us to understand them vis-à-vis the realities of their mental and
physical sufferings, betrayal and infidelity in marital life, denial of sensual
fulfillment, false sense of pride or fear of shame, physical isolation and
sexual neglect, and desperate struggle for a meaning in life and living. Their critique reveals the chauvinistic
attitude vis-à-vis the male/female emotions trapped in human body which prompts
a strong assertiveness, exposing their secret self besides showing disapproval
of what predominates in our private and social set up. Expression of sex helps
them achieve some kind of liberating effects against the various forms of
‘structural oppression’ emanating from male dominance, authority and conviction
on the one hand, and a variety of contradictory cultural, social, sexual and
aesthetic attitude, on the other.
poets, like their male counterparts, seek to know themselves as composites,
contradictory, and even incompatible. They understand that each of us is many
different people – serious and frivolous, bold and timorous, loud and quiet, aggressive and abashed. They
too write to express themselves, accommodating a variety of differences, including inner and outer
conflicts, sufferings and celebrations, even as they appear marginalized.
Viswas, who has absorbed numerous suppressed tensions, griefs and ups and downs
in life, is aware of her vulnerability as a woman. She expresses her concern
about everything that matters to an ordinary person: “Life was always/too overbearing/I neither had chance/Nor choice
to decide/My name, surname.” Though she values love and treasures its memories,
she recalls in plain irony how before she could even learn “the grammar of his
face/in the sentence of his body/…analyzing
his gestures/synthesizing his moods/…/He raised a big structure/of
surface ambiguities/That left us unfortunate parallel lines” (‘The Misunderstanding’). She discovers she
has been “left a fresco/on a broken wall” (‘In the Blues’). The inner storm she endures makes her wonder:
“How could I hum of happiness/from devasted, dark ruins?” and “why do fate and
I meet/always at wrong angles?” The ‘trinity’ of “the ego, the world and the
entropy” haunts her (‘Agony).
Kaur thinks and feels “the rhythm of life/which is not smooth/to be set in a
pattern.” She understands the design “at deeper level/planned and schemed by
Maker” just as she is aware of transitoriness of the drama, the “foolishness of
grabbings, maneuverings/leaving materials,
She images the process of her personal growth vis-à-vis the complex of
egoistic clashes, lack of mutual understanding, and weakening values of
fidelity, honesty, commitment and love. Thus, she seeks to “open the silent
chamber of her creative and critical self.”
The poems in her collections, Reflections
(2001) and Images (2002) present a
matured and confident voice with serious thoughts and reflections rooted in
self-experience, observation, understanding, and idealism.
Mukherjee reflects her personal disappointments and disillusion with love,
marriage and life: “I realized that love meant/Torture, treachery, and
polygamy/That love means selfish sadism/… Now I know/The real meaning of
love/And also, that/Woman must handle it with care.” The “countless injuries,” and selfish sadism
that her narrator has suffered in love make her “terror-stricken heart” so
vunerable that she feels “empty” as a woman. In her moments of self-pity and
disgust she even challenges God, who, in his male form, could never understand
the sufferings and tortures a woman is made to undergo. If God could ever have
a female form, He would realize “that the heaviness of time/is often heavier
than life.” In her personal and lyrical
voice is pronounced deep discontentment, disillusion, uncertainty, and
unhappiness with not only the near and dear ones but also the “faithless
world,” humanity, and life itself.
Dancer-dreamer poet, Indrayanee
Mukherjee strikes a different note in her maiden collection, Images that Catch the Eye (2004): “The
colour of her lips leaves an impression/on the cup she drinks from/…she touches
her mouth to the rim of the mug./It is a relief from the cold, the weather
outside” (‘Coffee Shop’); “A placid wave and streaks of the sun bleached sky./
A gust of heavy fiery wind and a lone peddler on his cycle peddles by./ A
narrow straight curvature of the road…/ and yet another story unfods the
lateral planes of a contrast/ that a city called Benares lives by.” (‘Benares’)
and “The truth of the masks/The
sentiment of a foetus tucked away in its mother’s womb./All of it is my
own, personally etched brutality.” (Why these verses reek of misery?’)
new poet, who strikes a strong feminine presence, is Jelena Narayanan
(Chennai). Her The Gold Comb and Other
Poems (2003) with delicate feelings and passionate yearnings images love
with commitment: “When the white musty walls/ Begin to close themselves upon
me,/The air becomes humid/Wrapping
itself around my body/Slowly, with unchanging rhythm;/ I think of your/And I
drown myself” (‘I Think of You’) and “…my being without you/Is wrong”
(“Apartness’). Jelena is intensely personal and lyrical, with whispers of the
soul in her articulation of both happy and sad feelings in various moments of man-woman relationship.
Viswanath’s debut collection Pause
(2001) evinces her keen interest in social issues: She observes “rocket motors
, coolies,/devotees with dreams/ In different episodes” alongside “Mothers in
menopause,/Daughters in adolescence./Cross roads, cranky minds.” (No Matter
what’) . She recognizes and uses well, what she calls “in neighborly lingo” to
mirror the world around her.
are over a dozen others who effectively respond to chaos and degeneration in
all walks of life, lopsided values, hypocrisy, inner tensions, isolation,
socio-economic hardship, feeling of void and/or sense of lack of meaning and
purpose in life today. In varying forms
and rhythms, most women poets introspect and self-question, sharing their mind
and memory, which is qualitatively superior to most male-poets writing in
English today. Frankly speaking, they
exhibit a better word power and stronger sense appeal. They tend to be
introvert and explore themselves with awareness of women’s degradation, exploitation,
subordination and/or brutality and injustice to them simply for being
women. They seek freedom from the
strangling confinement of the male-structured society and use poetry to
experience peace of mind: “My perceptions are dulled/And my spirit struggles to
escape/The caged bird in me,” says Shwetasree Majumder (‘Confinement’). They
exude faith in themselves vis-à-vis their identity, sex relationship, and
concern for women’s dignity. They know
their anchor and reason ‘to be’ and
recreate “the jigsaw that is life,” without excluding nature, love, home,
society, god or future. They sound more
honest, more sincere, “freer, wider, larger/and infinitely lonelier,” to quote
from Shwetasree Majumder’s poem
Nath Keshri reveals a very sensitive mind: “I am married to a house/whose doors
shut me in./Her fire ordeal was only once/But mine is repeated” and “But the stone-breakers, do they see/My
mind’s vast arid zone/Through which howl/ the desert winds?” Keshri is one of
the thirteen poets, including Maria Netto, Themis, K.M. Shantha, Seema Devi,
and U.R. Anusha from Pondicherry , who make up P.Raja’s anthology, In Celebration: Women Poets of Pondicherry
(2003) and voice the same spiritual themes as experienced in Sri Aurobindo
Ashram poets. They are meditative an d
interpretative, sharing the larger sentiments expressed by other women
poets. They are also personal and lyrical, echoing spiritual
feelings and sensations in their daily living and experiences, and
celebrating their inner consciousness despite ugliness of man’s mind and
disharmony all around.
Kashmiri woman poet, Syeda Afshana, who boldly disapproves of politicians and
people who hold anti-women views, is critical of the media for reducing Kashmir
to “propaganda symbolism.” She touches themes such as bloodshed, violence,
insurgency, loss, sacrifice, and relationship.
It is, however, her “different” attitude that makes her notable.
Her sadness is evident when she says: “A scream that is/only mine, just
mine,/and has remained unchanged/since times immemorial.” (The Fugitive Sunshine, p. 24).
Shivadasani, who recently edited Anthology
of Contemporary Indian Poetry (Big Bridge Press, 2013), mentions in her Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990) several
disturbing experiences, arising out of living alone in a small flat (in Mumbai)
and the anxieties of a single woman’s life vis-à-vis the sordid world of sex,
drugs, broken relationship etc. She
sounds remarkable with twists in her faith just as she is strongly aware of her
restive spirit, inner tensions, and sexuality. To quote from her poem ‘Epitaph’: “My religion calls for blood,/redness draped
across the eyes,/wrapped tight around the skin…./The story begins like a
wrinkle on the face/and does not end/when the wrinkles freeze./ But that is
when the surface/ turns to white and I hold
my pain/ in its plastic tube/ let the fluid fall.”
in response to the gang rape of a 23 years old girl in New Delhi about a year
ago, Chandni Singh feels part of every woman that gets raped. Let me read her
poem ‘I am a Woman in India’:
I have had my breasts fondled.
Not by a lover,
but strangers on a bus.
I have been gyrated against
as I navigate the city:
packed like sardines
they are more depraved than animals.
I have had
penises flashed at me
whose owners I know not;
they only come with a pair of lust-laced eyes
and a soulless smile.
I can hold my own on issues
about the environment.
I can wax eloquent about literature and music.
I am told, I am the future;
and for a moment I am bent into believing
in the bubble I have bought into.
But every morning,
My ego slouches
as it is castrated at the hands of
I have lost count:
there are too many to fight.
I may be liberated. And educated,
but my fire has been doused.
Neither rhetoric nor review can
bring me solace.
And so, I turn the other cheek.
I have become deaf to the whistles and
blind to the lewdness.
I adjust my dupatta
and look straight ahead
as they line the streets and pucker their mouths.
The poets anthologized in Eunice
D’Souza’s anthology, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology,
2001 and Shivadasani’s Big Bridge Anthology (2013) collectively present women
poets as a vibrant community. Their metaphors and images invariably reflect
their inner landscape as much as their responses to what they observe or
let me conclude. As they create
discourse of themselves as the opposite sex and present a feminine perspective,
many of them sound committed to their
home, family, children, motherhood, social life, and solitude, often voicing
their own vision and understanding which cuts across cultures and regions. They
articulate womanhood and female sexuality to comment on the male-structured
norms and sexual politics and appear in control of themselves, transcending
their body or feminity and respecting the woman in themselves. They turn inside
out and reveal what is personal yet universal in their different roles as
mother, wife, daughter, and feeling the agony of the spirit while trying to
know “who am I?” As they look back or reflect their present-- be it job-stress, role-playing, domestic
responsibility, life’s riches, personal losses, or death-fear—as female, some
of them appear critical of the stereotyped sex-role and confinement of women
within the domestic space just as some others try to balance their personal and
social existence through a memory of lived experiences. Some of them voice a
strong family bond,
sense of togetherness, sense of family unity vis-à-vis their inner conflicts
and/or spiritual hunger.
almost every woman poet seems to give the message that women need not feel
diffident or inferior and try to be bold enough to venture into new areas even if they find themselves standing
at the edge, lonely, or dependent. They
express an alternative motive and impulse for social action at a very personal
level, an urge for changing the situation for themselves, or for being in peace
with oneself. They seek to create a new
culture as they rationalize how we ought to live in future.
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--------. 2006. 100
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Nalapet, Anuradha. 1994. Nothing is Safe. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
Viswas, Asha. 1996. Melting
Memories. Delhi: K.K. Publications.
Goel, Vijaya. 1993. The
Autumn Flowers. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
Arora, Venu. 1993. Mire.
Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
Renu Singh. 1993. Mindscape.
Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
Purabi. 1994. Quest. Calcutta:
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ed. Calcutta: WritersWorkshop.
Chandni. 2004. The Looking Glass:
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Niranjan (ed). 1992. Voices: Indian
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R.K. 2006. Voices of the Present: Critical Essays on Some Indian English Poets.
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2001. Kamala Das and Some Other Recent Indian English Poets: Expression of
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1999. Recent Indian English Poetry: A Critical Reflection of a Chorus of
Voices. Cyber Literature, Vol. III,
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Maria. 2005. Tabula Rasa.
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Jelena. 2003. The Gold Comb and Other
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Peacock: An Anthology of English Poetry From India. Canada: Hidden Brook
Binod and Singh, Charu Sheel (eds.). 2013.
Exiled Among Natives: An Anthology of Contermporary Poetry. New Delhi:
P.C.K. and Chambial, D.C. (eds). 2011. English Poetry in India: A Secular
Viewpoint. Jaipur: Aavishkar Publishers.
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Sunanda. 2003. Moment and Other Poems.
Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
Monima. 2002. Impression. Sasaram:
Creative Writers Circle.
Tejinder. 2001. Reflections. Ranchi:
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Madhvi Lata. 2003. Myriad Colours.
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Mamang. 2004. River Poems. Kolkata:
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Meenakshi. 2004. Mute Voices.
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