Many of India’s best known women poets, as well as some of its less familiar ones are to be found in this landmark volume of 54 women poets from ten languages. Its rich and varied selection presents a feast of poetry in translation presents a feast of poetry in translations that are remarkable for their fidelity and poetic rendering.
An experience of womanhood may be the locus of this anthology, but modes of expression vary by circumstance.
Some women locate freedom in the sky, while others talk of being a witch, or of dance, or food. Some speak of the pain of husbands and the love of children, others of a lover’s touch, and the value of mother’s, work, and writing. Their voices are tinged, or satisfaction, regret or ironic resignation. As women and as poets, they offer advice, consolation, perspective – and startling insight.
A colossus like Kamala Das or Gauri Deshpande finds an echo in Mandakranta Sen, or Malika Amar Sheikh – even, unexpectedly, in Mamang Dai or Pratibha Nandakumar. Amrita Bharati’s intensely solitary interior landscape is counterpointed by the searing imagery of Salma; Savithri, Rajeevan’s oblique subversion with Jameela Nishat’s overt dissent.
Myth, fable, contemporary reality, fantasy and folklore are the sinew and substance of poems that range from the fact of discrimination to the exhilaration of discovering the power to the word. Exhilaration and discovery, then, are what inform the spirit of this unusual offering.
Women’s World is an international network of feminist that addresses issues of gender-based censorship. Its aim is to analyse conditions in our various countries, and to develop a strategy for work on these issues internationally. Women’s World (India) is a national network of women writers that deals with diverse issues in women’s writing, in all Indian languages and all genres, through workshops and discussion groups, and with other organizations of women writers.
Between 1999 and 2006, a most unusual and unique series of workshops, with over 200 women writers in ten major regional languages, were held in different cities across the country. This was an initiative of Women’s WORLD (India), a free speech network of writers, literary critics and some editors, that is concerned with women’s writing and the gendered nature of censorship. Our women and censorship project evolved from, and is part of, Women’s World Organisation for Rights, Literature and Development, a network that seeks to catalyse global feminist work on the right to free expression.
What is it that connects women to writing? And what is it that defines and determines the contours of that writing? What are the limits of the freedom that women are allowed in self- expression? Is a poem or a short story like an exotic sweet, or a neatly embroidered handwork, or a well—trained voice, to be displayed on occasion as a sign of feminine accomplishment? Marked by measured cadences and neatly drawn lines--never flamboyant, never demanding attention, just gently drawing praise with modest, womanly grace. What do women write? VV hat is it they cannot write about? Who reads them? Who publishes them? Are some languages more privileged than others? Some genres more accessible?
These were the questions and con fusions that haunted us during and after our workshops in Urdu, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bangla, English and Tamil, that brought up new issues and allowed fresh insights into the nature of censorship that women face. The thread that ran through most of them was disconnection: the disconnect between what women said and what they wrote; between their spoken words and their silences; between their husbands and fathers’ apparent encouragement and support, and their explicit, disapproving silence when a norm was violated. Between women as the subject matter of writing, and women as subjects and writers. Between language, literature and social movements, and the emergence of women’s voices. Between language and gender, gender and genre.
The primary purpose of these interactions was to collectively determine whether or not female creative writers in India face any form of censorship (direct or indirect) from any quarter: the state, the market, community leaders, society at large, families, even themselves. We wished to explore the idea that gender—based censorship, embedded in a range of social and cultural mechanisms that invalidate women’s experience and exclude them from political discourse, is often far more pervasive and far more difficult to confront than official suppression. We wanted to examine how critical the silencing of women, and the use of systematic force — direct or indirect- to ensure that silence, is to the maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchal power.
The range and depth of discussions, and the sharing of experiences during these workshops, were astonishing and gratifying in their richness and complexity. Once begun it was difficult to stop the flow, to disentangle the personal from the familial; from the social and cultural; and indeed, from the political. Impossible not to take caste and community into account when talking about literature and language; or about religion and sexuality. Abundantly clear, when discussing the novel, short story or poem that women’s choice of genre is so often determined by time and space, by the constraints of domesticity, by a life of repeated interruption.
Towards the end of this initial phase of our project, we published two volumes of in—depth interviews with 35 of our participating writers: Storylines: Conversations with Women Writers in 2003, and Just Between Us: Women Speak about their Writing in 2004. This anthology is an attempt to present a selection of poems from the ten languages of our workshops by the poets in our group, with the addition of a few who were unable to attend for one reason or another. It goes without saying that the selection is subjective; that we were constrained by the difficulty of getting satisfactory translations; that some languages are better represented than others; that no single volume can possibly do justice to the vast amount of poetry written by women in India.
We plead guilty to all these; but hope that what is offered here will be tempting enough, and satisfying enough, to encourage the translation and publication of many more poets and many more volumes, slim or otherwise, of which this is just the beginning.
A genuinely fine poetry volume in several Indian languages casts its own special spell on the reader. Just watching each language sail into such an anthology with its ballast—its local symbols, conventions, its own particular way of articulating a feeling—is fascinating. Take Urdu for instance, the victim of deliberate neglect over the last 60 years in India. Jameela Nishat writes for the poet Vali Dakhani, whose grave was razed and a road built over it during the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Wandering in the body’s city
the wounded man
lay at the heart’s threshold
He knew that the cheek too is a garden
but its fragrance is beyond the mind’s reach
You won’t find such lines in other languages—the cheek as garden, or lying down ‘at the heart’s threshold’. Later we have ‘Hands raised in prayer! Cut down! The rosary of pearly tears/ Now a chain of iron links.’ This is the way much, or at least a part, of Urdu poetry is written, the emotional tempo raised, the lamentation shrill (as in Arabic and Persian) and the symbolism stark. Another poem of hers, again on the killings in Gujarat, starts with the lines “The red of my palms/ Wasn’t henna but blood'. Symbolism couldn’t be more obvious or more hard—hitting.
Sometimes liberty moves towards the edge of license. Gagan Gill, the fine Hindi poet, starts off a poem with, “In the days of the dead, sometimes our mothers would descend from the sky} One can see what she’s getting at; the mothers worrying over the food, the indifferent fathers descending later. Yet the libations in the end are only offered to the fathers. The point is, does one need this rain of mothers and fathers to make this point? These descents from the sky and “the days of the dead’ could leave the reader uneasy. Similarly, Nishat states “Rising one by one the corpses set out! Bathed in the light of the western moon. . .’ Couldn’t we do without the corpses marching away or parents drizzling from the heavens? But this is panache, liberty, style, whatever you call it, that Indian language poetry gives itself over to at times.
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