Does body-centric poetry written by women poets change the patriarchal equalling of the female body and mind?

The imagery of quitting one’s given body and re-housing oneself in a new, pristine body seems to be a recurring feature of feminist poetry today, as seen in the extensive collection of women’s poetry brought out by the Ramanika Foundation in its recent two-volume publication. The poems are either Hindi originals or translated into Hindi from regional languages including English. This body-centred flight of the poetic fancy and imagination draws attention to one of the major accusations levelled by the feminist discourse: a woman’s being in patriarchal set ups is confined to and defined by her body. Physiology is psychology, by the assumptions of this set up. The question raised by this poetry of the body being written by the women poetsis whether it changes and re-writes this patriarchal equalling of the female body and mind.

One would say that the re-writing is not absent, but present in an abstruse, metaphysical way: not in concrete, tit for tat dialectic terms. Take “Voh Apni Deh Mey Laut Ayegi” (She Will Come Home to her Body to Roost) by Gagan Gill. It can be paraphrased thus: ‘she’, the narrating poetic voice cum poetic persona visualises, almost prophesies, her return ‘there’, the place within herself where she’s been waiting for ages, where live ‘taboo dreams’ waiting for the running amok of desires (ichchaon ke pagal honay ke intezaar mein.) In this hideaway she will, one day, desire ‘that’ in her thoughts. She will desire it ‘like the dream that she has always seen only with open eyes… As if, to desire was a curse, an unceasing lament, or a delirium of the soul. As if to just desire without demanding desire in return was a shield against pain and also against pleasure, against the pain of pleasure’.

This desire without demand does not confront in the pithy, hard-hitting way that it needs to, the patriarchal credo of equating woman’s psychology with her physiology. It might be said that the poet’s intention was not that of countering this patriarchal statement. Yet, there are enough tonal registrations in the poem suggesting the engagement of the poet narrator with the implications of this patriarchal concept.

The whole poem sounds like a throwback to the concept, emanating as a reaction to it. As one reads the impassioned lines, of the ‘voh’, (she) who will desire the ‘usey’ (that) in a yogic, non-desiring way, one cannot help wondering what set off this resolve of abstinence, of weeding out desire from body, of de-linking body from desire. In the lines “…as though to desire is a curse/an unending wail/is but a conversation with the self”, the throw and density of voice have a retrospective fervour to them, as though the poet-persona is coming to grips with a rankling statement of belittlement. And then, in the subsequent lines, “(as though) to desire (in a desire-less, undemanding way) is a shield against pleasure (sukh)” — i.e, the standard, blunting and deadening fulfilments of pleasure — ‘and also a shield against pain’ — the pain of non-fulfilment which is an ever present danger — the whole set up in which desire is gratified, is made worthwhile by tangible returns in physical terms is denounced in bold, ringing tones.

What can be the provocation for this proclaiming, denouncing stance? The word deh (body), which pervades the poem specifically as well as metaphorically, beats in your ears with a persistence you cannot stay deaf to. It is a charged word, awakening you to its dialectic implications and gendered usage in patriarchal discourses. The proclamations invoke the feminist questioning of the patriarchal assertion about woman's body and mind. The poem joins forces with the former in singing counter-tones to the latter.

This is one way of answering the assertion. A more direct and robust answer is provided in “No one Knows” (Koi Nahee Jaanta) by Ranjana Shrivastav. At one level the poem seems escapist and fantasist. Its essence rests on the poet’s belief that a woman can “create for herself another body separate from her given, visible body”.

Secret skill

Many more lines emphasise this secret psychic skill of “sloughing off the skin of her body” and “going away somewhere far”. “Woman grows in the soil of her own mind/raises a body to suit her moods”. However, the romanticism of these and other such lines are toned down and brings in a simple strength in lines like these: “You seek woman in her body/And woman, quitting body’s skin/moves off far/It is on the limp body of the woman within her skin that/with the cracking whip of your primitive desires you make deep scars.” Then, in the last lines — “living in her willed and summoned body no one knows/when she steers herself out of the jungle that is her home” — the patriarchal order is told of its purblind state in heated yet crisp and collected tones.

Do these lyrical and interiorised recitals of feminine experiences form a response that matches the masterful, guttural and doubt-free tone of the statement that equates woman’s body with her mind? To achieve this the interiorisation has to emerge exteriorised in a de-personalised, collective-representative statement, which avers with indignation the subaltern standing accorded woman in patriarchal dispensations, and in the same breath comes clear of it. A statement for instance, such as “A Room of One's Own”, that singles out and targets subalternism, and squarely negates it. The pang of socio-cultural impositions and the secret glee of personal prevailing over them that ring in the articulations of the poems considered here have to harden into the firm diction of polemics even while operating within the realms of poetry. There is reason to believe, from the examples such as those considered here, that this breakthrough will come about eventually.

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