The Politics of Poetry

April 29, 2011 12:00 am | Updated September 28, 2016 07:17 pm IST

CHATLINE What makes Meena Kandasamy angry? Baradwaj Rangan talks to the poet, translator, novelist and activist

T here's something entirely appropriate about the lassi that Meena Kandasamy orders one April afternoon. It isn't just that a merciless sun is beating down upon us, sneaking up even in the shade we've settled into. It's also the rage bubbling beneath the surface of her small frame, threatening to erupt any instant. She needs that lassi like the Fukushima facility needs coolant. She also needs her poetry. “You don't know how it heals you, but it heals you,” she says. “It helps you channelise your anger.”

Looking at this young woman, all of 26, exuding a gypsy-beauty in jeans and a light top matching her purplish earrings and a cotton stole thrown casually around her shoulders, you wouldn't know she needs healing. But she insists it's not about personal healing. “I think society needs healing. Something like the caste system is society wounding itself. Every time you accept your superiority it's because you don't want to be wounded in some way, and you have at least this one thing to be proud about. But to feel proud, you go and hurt somebody else. This is the cycle.”

She enumerates the other ways in which society wounds itself — with domestic violence, with child sexual abuse, with the hatred around us. “These are all things that need healing.” At her most excited, her sentences wrap around an ascending series of notes that makes it appear that she's the one asking the questions.

Sometime after school, Meena began volunteering with the Dalit Media Network. She says it wasn't just empathy that made her interested in Dalit causes. “It's also about being very shrewd and looking at the fault lines. You go to the OBC leaders, and they are very proud of the fact that they are OBCs. They hate Brahmins, and yet they are not accepting of Dalits.”

It was someone similar, a Nobel-winning non-accepter of Dalits, who spurred Meena's foray into journalism. “When I read Naipaul, he came across as really slum-o-phobic. He says crazy things about the caste system. How did this guy get the Nobel Prize? That's how I wrote my first article, ‘Casteist. Communalist. Racist. And Now, A Nobel Laureate'.”

A different writer who made news around the same time elicits an altogether different reaction. Talking about Arundhati Roy, Meena positively coos with admiration, seeming for the first time the girl-woman her age would seem to indicate. “All of a sudden, it was a post-Arundhati Roy world. After her Booker happened, it became a cool thing for girls to want to write.” She says she can still reel off sentences from The God of Small Things , and she does. “Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it.” That's a good sentence, I say. She agrees.

Meena is currently writing her first novel — The Gypsy Goddess , inspired by her ancestral deity Kurathi Amman — but her early attempts at the form were abandoned hastily. “A novel is not something you can write at 17. You can write excellent first chapters, but beyond that do you really want to stay with those people?”


Poetry, she says, is more convenient. “It's not unwieldy and large.” Meena started writing her own poetry at 17. Her first poem was about a sex worker. “I don't know why I wrote this kind of poem. I think it's a lot of reading feminist literature and things like that.” I ask her if she remembers what triggered this sudden outburst of poetry. She laughs and says, “I think things just started because I'm ultra-sensitive.” She sobers up. “I don't know. I think I'm a deeply disturbed, deeply angry person.”

Her favourite poem is Mulligatawny Dreams , in which she dreams of an English language that “shall tire a white man's tongue” and where “small children practice with smooth round pebbles in their mouth to the spell the right zha.”

With so many poems published, with so much fame at such a young age, I wonder if she's finally happy, if her writing has finally healed her wounds and alleviated her anger. She thinks for a moment and says, “I'm not sure what happy means. When I feel happy, I feel empty. It's a crazy situation. Misery is a very solid emotion. You can hold on to it and cry. But happiness, you can let go of it. You don't know where it went. Misery, you can save it and keep it and...” I suggest, “Make poems out of it?” She laughs, “Yeah. It's very nice to be melancholic and miserable.”

I conclude that she's a Romantic at heart, a Byronic heroine even, completely at odds with the activist persona that prompts people like me to meet her. She should be writing about lost lovers amidst swooning sunsets. She laughs again.

“I never imagined this kind of success,” she says. “It's really success. There's no other way to put it.” I ask if she's really honest about herself, the way artists are supposed to be in the pursuit of great art. For the first time during the interview, she plays cute. “Am I allowed to lie?” she asks. And then she says, “Of course I'm honest.”

A novel is not something you can write at 17. You can write excellent first chapters, but beyond that do you really want to stay with those people?

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