Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets
Translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmström
This is a powerful collection of poems by four Tamil women, all of them ostracized not too long ago for writing what was called vulgar poetry. Upholders of ancient Tamil tradition demanded these books be burnt, and these women be stopped from writing pornographic content. The women had tried to take back the discourse around body and sexuality, and rewrite the existing scene with their observations on gender and caste. They spoke of desires and the female anatomy in their poems, of sex both consensual and forced, of the society that derived perverse satisfaction from robbing them of their voices. They were labelled obscene, lacking the propriety and modesty that makes a good Tamil woman.
The poets featured in this translation are Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Each poet is distinct with respect to the themes she takes up, and the imagery she conjures. I discovered I was partial to Salma’s and Sukirtharani’s poems, the former for descriptions of how she wrests for herself space both physical and mental in a patriarchal Muslim world, and the latter for her outspokenness as a Parai woman. Of the four, I was somewhat familiar with Salma’s work previously, having read her essay in the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories.
Take a look at the poem Paths by Salma:
Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.
And here is one by Sukirtharani, titled A faint smell of meat:
In their minds
I, who smell faintly of meat,
my house where bones hang
and my street
where young men wander without restraint
making loud music
from coconut shells strung with skin
are all at the furthest point of our town.
But I, I keep assuring them
we stand at the forefront.
I wish the original Tamil text had been printed alongside, because I spent too much time compulsively translating the poems back to Tamil in my head. I am not sure why I did that.
I also enjoyed the translator’s note at the end. It helps establish a context for both poem and poet, giving us fresh insight into how their circumstances have shaped their unique voices. There is nothing I can say about Lakshmi Holmström that hasn’t been said before. She is responsible for bringing many Tamil literary works to a wider audience, she is the one who led me to Ambai, it is through her I started to realize how a good translator inhabits the voice and character of the author being translated. While reading this book, I learnt that she passed away last year. I carried with me a twinge of sadness and regret. Only for a while though, until life carried me in its currents and asked me to pay attention to more mundane events.
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
I often think about how to explain caste to an outsider, and I always fall back on “It’s like racism, except it is not based on the colour of your skin.” This is the line of reasoning the author takes as well. Systemic oppression assumes different forms in different places, but what remains constant is its ugly nature. This issue is one of my big obsessions, having experienced both the privilege of the system, and its suffocating grip.
Ants Among Elephants is the narrative of one family’s story, as seen through the lens of a changing India, from before Independence to now. Born into a caste of untouchable landless labourers in Andhra Pradesh, the author moves to the United States as an adult; and realizes what she thought of as a normal way of life is in fact a fantastical story of survival. In tracing her family’s roots, she goes all the way back to the nineteenth century when her ancestors lived as nomads, worshipping their personal deities, unaware of caste; and how they stumbled onto caste Hindu land where they were robbed of their dignity. She talks about her grandfather who became a school teacher owing to the work of Canadian missionaries, her charismatic uncle who was a revolutionary and an important member of the Naxal movement. She writes about her mother, who in spite of working as a lecturer in college, was oppressed by her husband, brothers, employers and society at large.
There are some interesting themes explored in the book – how colonialism was beneficial in some ways, for instance. Fighting a common enemy helped people overlook the differences they saw among themselves. But this unity is short-lived, and one of the characters wonders who the independence is for. She examines the plight of a Dalit woman, the invisible among the oppressed. She looks at the cycle of poverty, the frustration and the helplessness of the people, the obeisance that is forced into them.
I found the book to be littered with explanations meant for a foreign audience, and this kind of thing tends to annoy me. I do not like reading meanings and factoids in brackets, describing what a panche is, or who a vadina is. I also do not like it when the author continues to set a foundation within the text for the reader to understand the work better, I believe it is the reader’s responsibility to understand the writer’s world by reading supplementary material.
I was reminded of My Father Baliah while reading this book – another Dalit family’s history told to us within the framework of a changing India.