Wild Words – Four Tamil Poets – Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi & Sukirtharani (translated by Lakshmi Holmström)

In 2003, a group who had set themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, namely Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, they were charged with obscenity and immodesty. The controversy, outside of abusive letters, came to a head when the film-song writer Snehithan, appeared on television declaring that the women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive. Two filmmakers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayaasankar brought further publicity to the women writer’s cause by making a documentary SheWrite – bringing to the public’s notice the courageous stand the four women had taken.

The documentary apparently focuses on the controversy, however missing one important element, the poetry itself. As the “Translator’s Note” at the conclusion of this collection points out;
When we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relative meagre output are evident since classical times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genre, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since 1970….suddenly, in the 1990’s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. That was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.
This book was first published as a bi-lingual English Tamil work by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangum House “Wild Girls, Wicked Words” in 2012, with the English only edition “Wild Words” being published by Harper Perennial in 2015. It came to my attention purely because of the controversy surrounding the work and always being one to champion, or at least attempt to understand, marginal writers, this book was marked as a “must read”.
The collection opens with seventeen poems by Malathi Maithri, who grew up in a fishing village community with a strong tradition of independent working women. This upbringing coming immediately to the fore with the poem “Waves”. A poem in five sections all opening with “This is a house whose windows/open out to the sea” detailing the everyday activities. The metre and repetition forming word waves, replicating living by the sea and ordinary events like reading an email, cars screeching, all mingled with food and desire.
A tradition of Tamil poetry is the “Sangam”, the five landscapes, Kuṟunji thinai, Pālai thinai, Mullai thinai, Marudam thinai and Neydhal thinai, translating as the mountainous, desert, forest, cropland and seashore regions. Each of these regions have symbolic flowers, animals, crops, soils, roles, Gods and more. The words themselves actually translate as flowers of the regions, however for English translation it is customary to use the name of the landscape instead of the flower. For more details on the Sangam this wiki article is quite detailed; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape
In Malathi Maithri’s following poem, the tradition of the five landscapes comes to the fore:
My home
My little house is not
many leagues away, beyond the desert,
at the base of a beauteous mountain
set within a dense forest.
There certainly isn’t
a flowing stream beside it.
Nor is it at an estuary
within sight of the sea.
There is no room prepared,
ready to welcome me at any time.
My house is not
within any of the five landscapes.
I erect myself a palace,
all the same,
in the koel’s cage
where there is room for me
to rest, always.
Please do not seek
my address
elsewhere.
The tradition not being the domain of only male writers, our poet also has a home here, our poet also knows the traditions. A common theme throughout the four different poets is the awareness and openness about their bodies, Malathi Maithri’s poem “Cast away blood” describing the washing of underwear and menstrual blood.
As mentioned above, the natural world themes are common in Tamil poetry and the moon, stars, daylight and other natural world elements are all blended with family stories, her mother selling fish, walking village to village, her baby daughter, the joy of playing on a swing. All of these are grounded in the natural world but the reality of womanhood is always lurking and subjects such as menstrual blood, leaking breast, childbirth and stretch marks are not off limits.
Our next poet is Salma, a pseudonym, a self-educated writer, who kept her identity secret for years without her family of her (arranged) husband’s knowledge, the theme of solitude very much comes to the fore in the fifteen poems presented.
The rust of silence
While I wait for your words
a heavy silence falls
fills the space
uninterrupted.
Easier indeed
to trust to silence
than to trust in words
though silence itself has rusted.
Now a politician and activist and her writing no longer a secret we have strong feminist themes, such as in “A midnight tale” where the post childbirth decline of her body is described. “The contract” (a marriage contract) in simple language brings home the woman being a man’s chattel;
Always
my sister will repeat in anger
what Amma says more subtly:
That I am to blame
for all that goes wrong
in the bedroom.
Everyday, in the bedroom
these are the first words to greet me:
‘So what is it, today?’
Often
they are
the last words, too.
Here we have an activist poet, as our translator explains in the “Note”; “It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ’Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules.”
The third poet in the collection is Kutti Revathi, trained in Siddha medicine (a traditional medicine), she was not only a victim of gender bias but also the caste system;
Kutti Revathi distinguishes between the early feminist writers in Tamil and the poets of her own generation. Those early feminists, who certainly struggled hard to gain a voice, were nevertheless often from a privileged background. What is more, they tended to think of women as a single category, without cross-referencing gender with caste and class. The women poets of her generation, however, are often from subaltern groups. According to her, because the caste system insists on the rules that a woman must obey in terms of morality, these two dominations – male domination and caste domination – are not two separate entities but are intertwined, one within the other. For herself, she feels that disavowal of caste is central if we are to end the caste system and look to equality. (from the Translator’s Note)
Here the political comes to the fore, through poems such as “Suicide-soldier”;
Carp-eyed Selvi,
you are about to cast aside your own clothes
and lock them away, as if they are your body.
The mirror sets to right your nakedness
which you wear as your dress. You proceed
to assemble your uniform; your weapons
and suicide belt become your body now.
Siddha is ‘deeply influenced by the strain of Siddha thought which claims our bodies are ourselves: it is through the body that we understand the Natural world, gain knowledge of ourselves and achieve a connectedness with the universe.’ Here the opposite is true, the material is the body, which is about to be used to destroy the natural world. Other poems in her fifteen works presented are very much a homage to nature with day, night, rain, earth, flowers, vegetation, salt and seed all themes and subjects.
The final poet in the collection is Sukirtharani, with fourteen poems presented, when first starting as a poet her reading led her to other poets such as Kamala Das and the novels of Taslima Nasreen, it was then she realized that “a woman’s body had become the property of man. I realized that it was my first duty to redeem it. So my poetry began to put forward a politics of the body.” (taken from ‘My writing and I’ by Sukirtharani). Her upbringing was in the caste whose occupation was to take away the dead animals belonging to the upper caste people, bury and burn them for payment in rice, this is explored in a few poems, including;
I speak up bluntly
I shooed away crows
while flaying dead cows of their skin.
Stood for hours, waiting
to eat the town’s leavings –
then boasted that I ate hot, freshly cooked rice.
When I saw my father in the street
the leather drum slung from his neck,
I turned my face away
and passed him by.
Because I wouldn’t reveal
my father’s job, his income,
the teacher hit me.
Friendless, I sat alone
on the back bench, weeping,
though no one knew.
But now
if anyone asks me
I speak up bluntly:
I am a Paraichi.
Very much a poet who celebrates her independence, her lone voice and determination to overcome all impediments, this is clearly demonstrated in the following poem:
A faint smell of meat
In their minds
I, who smell faintly of meat,
my house where bones hang
stripped entirely of flesh,
and my street
where you 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.
As our translator, Lakshmi Holmström, points out in the detailed “Translator’s Note”, the lines from Sukirtharani’s poem “Nature’s fountainhead” are pertinent:
I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over.”
May the words of these bold poets spill over to broader audiences, may their fight for feminist poetry and free speech continue without threat and as readers may you support these brave and unique voices in their struggle to be heard.
A bold collection, a collection worth buying simply to support these writers let alone to read their poetic blend of Tamil tradition and modern feminist thought.
Source – personal copy

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