Anger is the engine of Kandasamy’s poems.
MEENA KANDASAMY is a feisty new entrant into the duck-pool called Indian English poetry. In Touch, she makes a Rimbaudian attempt at clearing the decks and telling it straight. Plain-speaking is favoured over artfulness (“a hypocrisy named sophistication” she says). If one were to look for overarching themes, poems on love and caste dominate. Towards both she strikes a series of attitudes.
She documents bleak, familiar tales of caste oppression. She writes rousing songs promising vendettas — “we will singe the many skins you wear to the world/ the skins you change at work/ the skins called caste and/ the skins called race”. She reminds Eklavyans that “you don’t need your right thumb to pull a trigger or hurl a bomb”. She challenges Hindu religious philosophy and mythology. Could not the Advaita view about the ultimate merging of Atman and Brahman be taken to mean that “I Untouchable Outcaste Am God”? And what are Dharma and Karma? Nothing but rhyming words useful to classical poets. “All your life, you blame things you don’t understand/ on the word no one has ever understood”, she says of Dharma, while Karma makes one obsess stupidly “about the petty lineage of everything”. As for those who invoke the names of the rivers over their buckets of bath water, don’t they know that the rivers are, variously, polluted, disputed, dried up, or like Saraswati, non-existent? And some bits of religious litany have simply become meaningless from overuse — “Om is now obsolete – a kind of recurring mosquito buzz”.
Anger is the engine of Kandasamy’s poems and she is even more effective when that anger ripens into sarcasm. Often, though, what we get are juggernaut-like rants felling everything that happens to come in their way. One of the best poems in the collection — “Mohandas Karamchand” — is a lampooning of Gandhi via Sylvia Plath. A perfect echo of Plath’s “Daddy”, the poem shows how persuasiveness in poetry is as much a matter of cleverness with language as having a well-meaning agenda. Whatever ones feels about Gandhi, lines such as the following do their work: “You need a thorough review./Your tax-free salt stimulated our wounds/ We’re gonna sue you, the Congress shoe” and “You dubbed us … — “Harijans”/ goody-goody guys of a bigot god/Ram Ram hey Ram — boo”. They have a funny irreverence rather than a knowing contemptuousness.
Sadly, not all her poems achieve this harmony between voice and subject matter. In the love poems she is particularly susceptible to either a blinding effulgence or a melodramatic grief — “I shall cry wildly for whole/ Nights like the lament of lonely, old and greying seas.” Here she gives up all particularities and is content to celebrate the sublimeness of brown skin, anonymous lovers whose existence appears dependent on the whims of memory, strong, dark (and usually silent) men, and the joys of masochism. “You do not know if you are yielding or resisting” seems to be a recurrent fantasy — the line appears in at least three places. Also, violence and violation run right through her love poems, but again in a casual kind of way, not distinct enough to make one sit up, but deliberate enough to be noticed.
Echoes across time
She has an interesting poem called “Love and War” where she talks about how in (one assumes Tamil Sangam era) poems from 2,000 years ago, descriptions of love had a timelessness to them, while descriptions of war were located in a time and a place and a people. War was history because it had a beginning and an end while love was eternal. It is clear that this is the poetics she would like to employ when describing love. What she misses, I think, is that the effectiveness of this poetics derived not from its generality but from its universally applicable yet utterly unique distillations. As her own quotes show: “love was/ ‘the thing that made a girl’s bangles/ slip loose when her lord went away/grow tight when her lord returned’.” Who needs to know more about the girl and the lord in question when one has this small, unforgettable gem of an image?
Less is more
So, as always in poetry, less is more. Kandasamy often sees this. For instance, she has a marvellous poem called “Mulligatawny dreams” where instead of laboriously describing the pros and cons of writing in English she simply says — “i dream of an english/ full of the words of my language.” And later, “an english in small letters…an english with suffixes for respect…an english of tasting with five fingers”. She is adept at hitting the nail on the head but sometimes the garrulity of her poems means that the nail is missing altogether. She begins the collection with a flamboyant invitation — “come./ colonise me/ creep into the hollows/ of my landscape…” She ends it with one of her startling descriptions — an account of a female ancestor who with “her rice-white teeth tore/ Through layers of khaki, and golden white skin to spill the/ Bloodied guts of a British soldier who tried to colonise her”. I hope Meena Kandasamy goes in the direction set by that great-great-grandmother and writes more poems one can sink one’s teeth into. There is enough evidence in Touch to make me confident that she will.
Touch, Meena Kandasamy, Peacock Books, 2006, Rs. 145.