Brinksmanship in feminist literature.
When Salma declared that her vagina opens in ‘full knowledge of all this,’ or when Kutti Revathi decided to call her poetry collection ‘the breasts’, they were not doing anything that was not done by Andal or Avvaiyar. If, in the first century A.D., Sangam’s Avvaiyar pined for a man who lay between her breasts, deciding to leave for harsher paths; Andal, in the eighth century, was determined to remove and throw her feckless breasts on the Lord who remains indifferent.
Several centuries later, a bunch of women poets emerge to reclaim the voices of feminine brazenness lost in the patriarchal arrogation of Tamil literary space. Significant among them are Salma, Sukirtharani, Kutti Revathi and Malathi Maithri. Their voices sought to shock the male psyche out of the feminine comfort zones — ranging from culinary delights to maternal deification — they were so used to that some even demanded that the voices be silenced by way of lynching. These women were categorised as bad girls who wrote body poetry, juxtaposed against good girls who wrote normal poetry.
Emerging from a society that constantly teaches its women to hate their bodies, the voices of these brave women attempted to bring about an intimacy between self and the body. Their voices challenged the patriarchy that deified accepted norms, questioned a system hardened by centuries and shocked a culturally hardened society into accepting them, if grudgingly.
What binds them is the assertion of synonymy in their voices; what sets them apart is their unique treatment of issues that affect women in particular and the society in general.
Salma’s poetry is largely about negotiating her space in a rigidly male-dominated set-up. ‘The contract’, arguably the most famous of her poems, perhaps exemplifies this best: ….To hold a little authority over you/If possible/To strengthen what authority I have/Just a little/In full knowledge of all this/My vagina opens.
Sukirtharani’s poetry travels between her twin identities of being born a woman and a Dalit. They are at once the celebration of female body and a castigation of an oppressive system.
After recounting several instances of humiliation, Sukirtharani ends her poem ‘I speak up bluntly’ with an emphatic declaration: But now/If anyone asks me/I speak up bluntly:/I am a Paraichi.
Born into a fisher family that accords a certain degree of independence to women, Malathi Maithri’s poetry is strikingly haunted by the sea and its myriad colours. Her daughter threads the sky in one poem and, in another, a little girl dreams of becoming a ‘snow-storm and a raging wave, joyous stream and feasting forest, and great exploding volcano.’
In the vast expanse of Malathi’s poetry, women of various hues attempt to retrieve their lost souls. From a mad woman blissfully unaware of the overwhelming cacophony of consumerism, to a Shaivaite woman poet who chooses to transform herself into a demon, Malathi’s language holds the key to transgression that had remained evasive for over centuries.
By daring to write on breasts, Kutti Revathi, perhaps, best exemplified the inevitable connect between a woman and her body. Among the four, Revathi’s poetry stands out for its eroticism.
In ‘breasts’, she speaks of how At the thrust and pull of lust/Like the proud ascent of music/They stand erect and/like two teardrops,/Which cannot be wiped away/When love is thwarted,/They fill, and they overflow.
Besides the body poetry, which is also political in its own way, the writers deal with a range of issues, including interpreting the mythological women characters through a feminist lens and offering a gender perspective on issues that are treated otherwise.
Showcasing the quintessence of each writer by carefully choosing among the body of works available is a challenge that Lakshmi Holmstrom handles with élan.
In a translation that remains brilliantly faithful to the original, Holmstrom epitomises the very voices that talked up a storm in Tamil literary space a decade ago.
This bilingual edition — Wild Girls Wicked Words — only reasserts the voices with a greater emphasis. Sukirtharani perhaps aptly put it: The more you confine me, the more I will spill over.