The poet as citizen | Interview with Meena Kandasamy on her new poetry collection, ‘Tomorrow Someone will Arrest You’

India has irrepressible main character energy, says Meena Kandasamy, explaining why she chose to frame her dissent poems as an independent section in her new collection

Updated - March 21, 2024 04:52 pm IST

Published - March 21, 2024 02:04 pm IST

Poet and author Meena Kandasamy.

Poet and author Meena Kandasamy. | Photo Credit: Varun Vasudevan

It is a haunting blend of rage and resilience, angst and dissent. There are parts dripping with defiance, moments of levity and a sense of poignancy. And together, they serve a purpose far beyond the pleasing aesthetics of art. In Tomorrow Someone will Arrest You (Juggernaut Books), Meena Kandasamy captures the raw, intense realities of contemporary India in less abstract terms. She navigates the personal and political in what seems like a poetic pursuit to set the narrative right, especially when there is propaganda in place to misguide and manipulate. But the author says her poetry is more of a “philosophical-intellectual- emotional love child” and not part of any conscious mission to battle the menace of disinformation.

“Purely from a political communication perspective, we need to combat false propaganda with data points, historical analysis, fact-checks, first-person testimonies, ground reports, and such like. A poem cannot be birthed at the factual level — that sort of stenography would only lend itself to banality,” says Kandasamy. She believes it the civic duty of every Indian citizen to battle this menace of disinformation, as she draws heavily from political intolerance, caste-based violence, sexuality and cultural identity in her works. “There cannot be a more urgent task for public intellectuals, independent media and the secular opposition. As an aside, it is also extremely fascinating how a word has taken on such a meaning in the span of a century. In the 1920s, propaganda would widely mean taking the message of the working class struggle around the world. A word so associated with Leninist imagination has become a stand-in for the most ruthless, corporate-controlled fake-news factories we see at work today.”

Confronting oppression

Tomorrow Someone will Arrest You is divided into five parts: ‘The Poet’, ‘Her Comrade’, ‘Her Lovers’, ‘Her Friends’ and ‘Her Country’. The book talks about the seven stages of love called hubunsishqaquidatibaadatjunoon and maut, before plunging the reader into the horror of honour killing. They dared to defy, but ended up dead — this is how forbidden love that disobeys caste divides is punished. While the poem ‘Tomorrow Someone will Arrest You’ was written following the arrest of Kerala activists Jaison Cooper and Thushar Nirmal Sarathi under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA) Act in 2015, ‘Sangharsh Karna Hai’ is about Jyothi Singh, the Delhi gang rape victim.

The last part of the collection, ‘Her Country’, is a powerful, no-holds-barred explosion of dissent. Kandasamy says a poet is also a citizen who confronts oppression the same way everyone else does. “When I was going through the poems I had written in the last decade, I realised that India had such irrepressible main character energy — I had to frame those poems as an independent section. Whether it is the widespread misogyny and rape culture, the clampdown on every remaining speck of the freedom of expression, the regimentation of personal choices or the repression unleashed on the marginalised — we are either victims or witnesses, often both.”

When asked if there is a particular point in her life when she decided to enter this intellectual and political minefield, Kandasamy says we cannot afford the luxury of decision-making any more. “We have been dragged into this not of our own volition, we have been dragged into it because of who we are, what beliefs we hold. To resist and to dissent then is an act of survival. Every poem is like this little trinket you can hold in the palm of your hand — this, these words, this thought, this person — did not yield; they did not break; they could not be broken.” She adds that those who are consciously entering this intellectual-political battlefield are the apologists for the oppressive forces. “The Goebbels-like right-wing attempts to capture art, literature, cinema is premeditated — these newly minted, fully sponsored foot-soldiers will counter all resistance literature as anti-national, unpatriotic, seditious.”

Room for hope

‘We are Not Citizens’ starts with a couplet from Tamil Bhakti poet Appar (Thirunavukkarasar), and Kandasamy says things have been in free fall for a while. “We are under the illusion that we have so much more social media and other communication channels — everything screams individual expression, a person is a brand, etc. — but opinions and news exist in silos and echo-chambers, and at the slightest sign of trouble, your account/ reach is restricted/ withheld. So you cannot say what you want to say because there is the threat of cases, arrests, clampdowns — or, you are screaming into the algorithmically stage-managed void,” she says.

The anthology beautifully weaves the political with the personal and the two realms seem to work in perfect sync leaving some space for hope amidst all the unrest. Quiz her about the autobiographical nature of her works and the author says she’s decided to keep her poetry as real as possible after dabbling in fiction. “Everybody keeps reading the narrative voice as the poet’s own voice, the character as a stand-in for the author. I resisted a great deal, and then decided that I’ll own up to every version of me, including the imaginary ones,” she concludes.

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