A set of poems in the collection draws a theme around the women saints of the Bhakti tradition, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Andal, and Mira. Separated by centuries, language, and geography, these women shared a common will. Evading marriage, they lived their lives outside the margins drawn for women. They roamed the streets, wrote poetry, sang and danced. Their lives and how they ended are not always clear to us but their poetry has become immortal. So erotic is the Nachiyar Thirumozhi that the fifteen year old Andal composed, that it has been suppressed in preference to the more acceptable, although still urgent in its appeal, the Thirupavai. Celebrated for their unwavering pursuit of the male gods, Shiva, Perumal, and Krishna, these women and their lives are still troubling enigmas today that deserve some unpacking.
And Kandasamy unpacks. In ways that are arresting and bold, she explodes the myths that have put the women saints, and thereby all women, in their place. With phrases that provoke she makes these saints merely human, who bleed and suffer and haunt. What drove these women to such sexual frenzy and the compulsion to scream it into their poetry?
Here is Andal sacrilegiously admiring herself in the garland meant for the deity, as retold by Kandasamy:
the guilt glazed love lay on Andal's breasts.
thick and heavy as him.
frightened with force
and locked away, she conjured him every night,
her empurumaan, her emperor-man.
recklessness on speed-dial, she became
a rape romantic. He, a bodice ripper.
Here is Karaikal Ammayar who went out naked in the world and walked on her hands all the way to the hills of Kailash. Blessed by Shiva she became a demon-goddess haunting cremation grounds.
i am a dead woman walking asylum corridors,
with faltering step, with felted, flying hair,
with hollowed cheeks that offset bulging eyes,
with welts on my wrists, with creasing skin,
with seizures of speech and song, with a single story
between my sobbing pendulous breasts.
And that story in her breast is the betrayal by her husband who, frightened by her “miracles,” abandons her stealthily and makes his life with another woman in another city.
Lying on her back—waiting
To be full, filled and fulfilled—
Mira sings a siren-song
To summon Krishna.
The collection, Ms. Militancy, opens with the poem titled “A cunning stunt” played upon by the “man of words” who names her yoni and calls it the
abode, home, nest, lair, stable,
and he opens my legs wider
and shoves more and shoves
harder and I am torn apart
to contain the meanings of
family, race, stock, and caste
and form of existence
and station fixed by birth”
It is clear then that to combat this unseemly burden forced upon women, words need to be deployed by poets.
In her preface to the book, Meena Kandasamy finds catharsis in this act of retelling the myths in ways alternate to the traditional narrative Hindus have come to believe as the truth. It is a way to forgive, by “Twisting your story to the scariest extent allows me the liberty of trying to trust you.”
Here is Sita, “Princess-in-exile”:
“Scorned, she sought refuge in spirituality,
and was carried away by a new-age guru
with saffron clothes and caramel words.
Years later, her husband won her back
but by then, she was adept at walkouts,
she had perfected the vanishing act.”
One may wonder why resurrect these women from a dead past when we have other female role models, women so powerful they rock our world, our political destiny, commerce?
There are urgent and important reasons to question and destroy these myths that have grown around the women to silence their scream at the injustice of their condition and who went insane doing so. These myths cloak the horrible conditions that these ancient women endured in a gauzy and palatable saintliness, something to shape our sense of self around these idolized notions of womanhood that finally, and with certainty, cripple us. We still today murder girl babies and we prefer male fetuses; women bear their babies in unspeakable conditions, just like Sita did. India's infant mortality rate is shameful.
This kind of alternate telling of myths has always been with us, transcending cultures and religions, and geography. In suffering we are all sisters. Every woman may need to make that journey by herself, if not to change the world, then to change her self. Kandasamy is only following on the conventions of marginalized women in rural India everywhere who have for a long time used Sita to voice their own sorrows and condition of powerlessness in poetry. Here is Nabaneeta Deb Sen in her essay in Manushi about the various alternate telling of the Ramayana:
“In the women's retellings, the Brahminical Rama myth is blasted automatically though, probably, unwittingly. Here, Rama comes through as a harsh, uncaring and weak-willed husband, a far cry from the ideal man. The women do not mind calling him names such as pashanda or papisthi or directly attacking him by saying, "Rama, you've lost your mind" ("Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash"). This is possible because the women's songs are outside the canon. Women's Sita myth where Sita is a woman, flourishes only on the periphery. The male Sita myth where she is a devi, continues in the mainstream. In the women's retelling, Sita is no rebel; she is still the yielding, suffering wife, but she speaks of her sufferings, of injustice, of loneliness and sorrow.”
(from Lady Sings the Blues: When Women Retell the Ramayana, Manushi Issue 108)
But what is different in Kandasamy’s work is the way it hovers over the sexualization of spirituality in all these stories and episodes. While the other various subversive retelling are often hidden to us because of linguistic borders, this voice in English is confrontational and stark, and yet somehow speaks in all the languages of India.
There are other noteworthy poems in the collection that are political, that speak from a dalit stand and in solidarity with the struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamils. While these also stand out in the awesome beauty of their expression, the rhetoric is predictable in their thrust and lack the energy and spark in a deeply personal way that the feminist ones do. We can certainly look forward to more from Meena Kandasamy and to the way her writing matures.
Book Description: Meena Kandasamy writes angrily, often eloquently, about the politics of the body and caste in contemporary Indian society.
More about Meena Kandasamy
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