Flaming green of a morning that awaits rain
And my lover speaks of rape through silences,
Swallowed words and the shadowed tones
Of voice. Quivering, I fill in his blanks.
The composer of these powerfully poignant lines is Meena Kandasamy, the poet-author activist from Chennai. Unlike many other post-independent Indian English writers, who focus on the “sari-and-mango” genre, and romanticise about Indian domestic life and spices, adding to the “exoticism” of an Indian culture, Kandasamy’s poetry and prose burn with fury at the extreme injustices that women, especially lower caste women have to face, everyday in India.
Meena was born in 1984 and named Lllavenil by her parents. Given the rich academic environment she grew up in, it was natural that she developed an early interest in creative writing. She grew up in an extreme repressed Hindu family. If she did not put on the bindi, her father would ask, ‘Are you thinking of a Christian boyfriend?’ She did not wear my first jeans until she was 25. Her first poem, which she wrote at the age of 17, was about a sex worker. She chooses to speak about the female body, condemning patriarchal society for the brutalisation of the same. The explicit sexual imagery in her poems is liberated from the shackles of shame and guilt and is a mark of rebellion against a male centric dominant ideology.
Bridal red remains a fresh, flushing bruise across
Brown-yellow skinscapes, vibrant but made
Muted through years of silent, waiting skin.
I am absent. They talk of everyday assault that
Turns blue, violet and black in high-color symphony.
One of her famous books is a novel Ms Militancy, the preface of which is a testament of a society which has crushed women throughout the ages by a patriarchal ideology spanning across histories, myths and religion- “You are the repressed Ram from whom I run away repeatedly. You are Indra busy causing bloodshed…You are Manu robbing me of my right to live and learn and choose.You are sage Gautama turning your wife to stone. You are all the men for whom I would never mourn, never mourn. You are the conscience of the Hindu Society.” She instead, decides to twist these myths using their female characters as agents of protests. “My Maariamma bays for blood.My Kali kills. My Draupadi strips. My Sita climbs on to a stranger’s lap. All my women militate. They brave bombs, they belittle kings…Call me names if it comforts you. I no longer care.” Her women explore their sexualities without being curbed by guilt for it.
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 loneliness seems safer than a gentle night
In his arms. I return from the self-defence lessons:
Mistrust is the black-belted, loose white mechanism
Of survival against this groping world and I am
A convert too. Yet, in the way of all life, he could try
And take root, as I resist, and yield later, like the earth.
Kandasamy’s believes that violence plays a “universal” social role in India, despite its reputation for peaceful protest. “The landlord thinks he is going to discipline the Dalits. The father thinks he is disciplining the disobedient child. The husband thinks he is disciplining the defiant wife. Violence becomes an action for the general good, to teach. It isn’t an issue of anger management or power.”- she says in an interview.
She herself experienced an abusive marriage. Plus there were ample instances in her childhood when she encountered violence from teachers, school authorities or parents. At times, such harsh reprimand might have been unnecessary.
Open eyes, open hands, his open all-clear soul . . .
Has he learnt to live my life? Has he learnt never to harm?
We live a culture where the word “rape” is a household term. And I don’t just mean it to speak out in alarm about the events increasing events of rape we hear about, almost everyday. I mean also how people use “rape” as a casual regular term, to denote any kind of aggression. The recent Football World Cup showed the social media with comments and updates like Team A raped Team B. Sometimes one also hears remarks like the “Professor raped the students” meaning he taught something too difficult for the students to grasp. Recently I heard a rape joke- “If a man ogles at you, you should be flattered. It means you are pretty.” Being pretty thus has become synonymous to being raped.The point is people have started using such terms too lightly. The horror and sexual aggression the term denotes is implicitly endorsed by the use of the term. In such a culture Kandasamy’s poems ring true. We need to go back to thinking of “rape” as it really is- a horrible brutalisation of the body that can damage its victims permanently in many ways. The bold lines in the entire article are excerpts from her award winning poem- My Lover Speaks of Rape.