The inaccessible laid bare

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Poems, stories and biographies rich in imagery and lyrics reveal trends in regional literature.

Hot is the Moon; Arunthati Subramaniam Sparrow Publications; Rs 350

Sparrow Publications recently launched the first volume of a series of anthologies called Hot is the Moon, which will bring together the works of 87 women writing in 23 languages over five volumes. This one contains translations of short stories and poems by women writing in Tamil, Kannada, Tulu and Konkani. While some are familiar names—Kanaka Ha Ma, Salma, Kutti Revathi—others are new discoveries.

The book explores each woman’s life and approach to writing through a lengthy interview and presents a selection of her work. For those interested in writer’s lives (as much as their work), there is a lot of material here but its presentation leaves much to be desired. The interviews aim to illuminate women’s lives and histories but because they are largely unedited and in Q&A format, they ramble quite a bit. The writers are grouped together by language and this categorisation offers a whiff of contemporary trends in each region’s literature. One would have liked to see more about this perhaps in the way of an introduction to each section, in addition to the usual author biographies.

Familiar imagery

More interesting are the actual works and the thematic concerns they reflect. The worlds laid bare by these women are refreshingly familiar, their location immediately identifiable. Kanaka Ha Ma’s poems (translated by Arundhati Subramaniam), deal with brocade borders and sari ‘falls’ as metaphors for beauty and caution (‘The Brocade Border’), or with eunuchs, feminist plays and bhang in ‘Hot is the Moon’.

The imagery springs from our homes and streets even as the poems wind to more universal truths. Elsewhere, Kanaka Ha Ma has spoken of how her poetry is “virtually untranslatable” because of its keen attention to prosody.

Equally successful are N Kalyan Raman’s translations of works by Tamil poets Kutti Revathi and Salma. Revathi evokes the body and its harder realities powerfully in a poem like ‘Breasts’. Salma’s poetry has the velocity of straightforward language and original vision. She tackles marital sex in ‘Contract’, the decay of the body after childbirth in ‘Past Midnight’—ostensibly ‘feminist’ themes whose honesty is bolstered by haunting imagery. For example, in the latter, a man searches ‘through the familiar nudity of our nights’ for his wife’s beauty while she is unable to ‘repair or mend’ the body which is ‘not paper you can cut and graft’.

The short stories in the book display an affinity to the lives of those who live close to the ground. Banu Mushtaq’s ‘Mariam Bi’ about a woman who prepares the dead for burial demonstrates the practicalities of death and is laced with dark humour. Konkani writer Hema Naik’s ‘The Beggar Woman’ sensitively renders the common situation of a woman with a parasitic son-in-law and daughter, and makes us invest in the predicament. Tamil writer Vaasanthi’s story ‘Rally’ is a skilful portrayal of the mechanics of political rallies. Thimappa, a village man, migrates to Bangalore and finds himself what seems to be an easy job, marching and shouting at rallies. Translations of Kannada poet Vaidehi’s poems are less satisfactory — unwieldy and overly prosaic, wrung of all attention to sound.

The tropes in Tulu poet Suneetha Shetty’s work seem a trifle hackneyed though ‘Wonderment’ has a certain lyricism and childlike quality. The anthology is certainly worth reading though for the exposure it offers to writers who are otherwise inaccessible to some of us. Editor Arundhati Subramaniam says in her introduction that this is an invitation to hear ‘distinctive voices’. On that count, the book delivers.



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