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Rokkaiah, better known by her pseudonym Salma in Tamil literary circles, is not unused to emotional exile. When she was 12, she was pulled out of school and confined to her parents' home for daring to watch a film without permission. She spent nine years shuttered in her highly orthodox household in Thuvarankurichi, a small Trichy village, watching her childhood and adolescence washed away in a sea of isolation.
Her only release was poetry. She wrote not just of her loneliness but also of what it means to be caught in a woman's body in a stifling society. In 2000, when she first hit the literary circuit she wrote up a storm. Today, at 42, this radical poet still manages to raise conservative eyebrows with her rebellious streak. Her blunt verses about female sexuality are peppered with vivid physical images and words. She has been labelled obscene by contemporaries, her family and even friends.
Salma says: "I write about the problems that women face in conservative homes, their lives, and how social norms stifle even their smallest rights. It angers me and I write what I feel strongly about. "
Drawing a natural connection between a woman's body and her emotions, Salma says she hopes her poems will prompt women to question unfair customs. When men write about women, she adds, it is like an outsider peering into an unknown world.
Her poem, 'Contract', translated by N Kalyan Raman from its Tamil original 'Oppandam', speaks of the role a woman is expected to play in a marriage.
Salma, who heads the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board and is the mother of two grown up sons, drew a lot of flak for using words such as 'vagina'. The people from her village don't much care for poetry. They are happy with the status quo that her poems question. They still flinch at the fact that a Muslim woman writes about "these things".
But the voices of protest do not bother Salma. Says the poet: "Any woman, be she a dalit or a minority, who writes about her body will be rebuked. Everywhere, men oppose women when they write about their bodies and their feelings. They feel aggrieved and angered because they want women to conform to certain rules of behaviour. Women poets like me oppose this understanding. 'This is my body and I will talk about it the way I want to', is what we say. ' Writing is their path to liberation. "
Another poet who was faced a lot of brickbats for her gutsy body of work is 36-year-old Kutti Revathi. Trained as a medical practitioner of Siddha medicine, Revathi has been writing poetry for more than a decade now. Her second collection of poetry titled 'Mulaigal' (Breasts), which was released in 2002 was greeted with rage by male litterateurs in Tamil Nadu. Many who denounced the collection questioned her morals and demanded that she be slapped and humiliated in public.
"At the time, I was going through a big transition in my life. I was in my twenties, my father had passed away and my relationships with men were simply falling apart. I had to become stronger to face the chaos. Writing helped me build my persona because only words could liberate me. I left my career for this collection and concentrated only on poetry. It was as if it released me from a furnace, " she says.
Revathi sees her body as a landscape through which seasons pass. For her, how women look at their own bodies is a reflection of how they see themselves in society. Eight years since the release of her tumultuous work, the poet has become even more political in her use of the female body as a metaphor.
In 'The demons that afflict us', translated by N Kalyan Raman from the Tamil original 'Nammai Pidiththa Pisasugal', Revathi talks of sexual exploitation. The Tamil title is derived from a poem by legendary poet Subramaniya Bharathi.
Revathi is outraged by how the sensuality of a woman's body has been commodified in the market today. "I fear that many women brought up in this culture may not even be able to look at their own bodies with pride. They don't stop to think how much it grows and changes every day. In our society, a woman's body either turns into a stone as in mythology or becomes a plastic commodity. Women don't even stop to sustain their bodies with proper nourishment, physical or intellectual, most of the time, " she says.
Poets such as Revathi, Salma Malathy Maithri and Sukirtarani have actually opened up a healthy debate on gender politics and the gagging grip of patriarchy in Tamil literary circles. They have also inspired younger women writers such as Leena Manimekalai who says these poets held up the lantern for the next generation.
"Now, I am here as an electrode. These women gained fame for their work in the beginning of 2000 when non-Brahmin and Dalit women emerged as a force to reckon with in Tamil literature. Their outburst resulted from a long history of oppression and denial of knowledge, " she says. Poets such as Fahima Jahan, Thillai and Issath Rehana Azeem (who writes under the pseudonym Anar) are among those who have joined the movement later.
But have these fervent voices changed social realities? Not beyond a point, says writer and playwright V Padma who writes under the pseudonym Mangai. "Their poetry did lead to a lot of debates - both good and bad - but it had to be backed by parallel social, economic and cultural movements to create any kind of momentum. This was not the case. And the poets were not connected to any agenda-setting movements either. One could see sparks of the fire here and there in the poetry of Kutti Revathi and Malathi Maithri but no more than that," she says.
When it first arrived on the scene this body-centric poetry carried a lot of shock value. Soon, it opened up a literary space where the language of the body became very 'in'. "We were all struggling to arrive at a view of the body that was not judgmental or affirmed notions of heterosexual patriarchy. But this literary movement is leading to a tug-of-war situation of sorts now, " Mangai says, referring to the debate within the literati on whether the genre is evolving or remained static due to its lack of connect with other movements. "But finally, I think one has to judge a poem on its merit and the new values that we create through creativity and art, " she adds.
This form of feminist poetry has moved beyond the confines of the state and has, in fact, reached Tamil literary circles in Sri Lanka. Revathi has just finished editing 'Mullivaaikaalukkup pin' [' After Mullivaikal' - Mullivaikal is where the Eelam war ended], a collection of verses by Sri Lankan Tamil women writers. It is due for release this year. Having survived decades of conflict and war, these women, are uninhibited in their writings.
"We connected over platforms like blogs. Sri Lankan Tamil literature is rich and vibrant. And these women talk about how they have been oppressed and exploited by the war and the men. They have none of the hesitation we had when we started out. Their literature is earthy and Lankan women are free in the way they talk about their bodies. It brings new insights and perspectives into Tamil literature, " she says.
Revathi is proud of how far the seeds she and her sister poets sowed have sprouted. "We motivated others with our work, even those who were invisible and far away. A single, powerful word or idea can impact women anywhere, " she says smiling.
karthika. gopalakrishnan@timesgroup. com
THE DEMONS THAT AFFLICT US
Sister. . . like potters, let's fashion
Many more breasts now,
When breasts brought to life by stoning
And at knife-point are being consumed.
There are no fences to protect these,
Now the world's newest foodgrains.
Why do vultures indulge
In the plunder of grain?
The old woman's breasts, alive through
Eating the sun and enjoying open spaces,
Hang down, pushing against her heart,
Like demons that afflict her.
Those demons, too, are but boundary maps
Of a dried up history.
We shall not turn breasts that once were
Water ponds to quench our thirst
Into vessels for unending agony.
We'll turn them into stone someday
And fling them away using slings.
We'll wander, even with a lone breast,
Bearing the weight of the sun.
'Desire is a dirty word for a woman to use'
Leena Manimekalai believes in a freedom that is complete. The young documentary filmmaker, who has made nine films and published two collections of poetry, was in the news recently for stirring up controversy with her work
What in your poem 'Ulagin Azhakiya Muthal Penn' (' World's first beautiful girl' ) provoked the Hindu Makkal Katchi to call it obscene?
The problem lies with the linguistic codes embedded in a culture. Desire can be a dirty word to some religious and ideological fanatics but not to a poet. For me, poetry is translating desire. I am attracted to both men and women and am pro-choice with regard to sexuality. I write this, I practise it and try to live free. I can only talk about change when I live free. As an artiste, it is impossible for me to be faithful to power structures, including ideologies.
Do you think such works have helped widen society's views on women's bodies in some way?
Of course. A woman's body is under the constant vigil by institutions like the state, religion, family and caste. Her roles as a wife, mother, sister and the like are inscribed on her body. When women resist the construct and try to write as an act of subversion, they are left with the patriarchal tool called language. When a woman becomes aware, she raises questions, the conflict intensifies and change happens. Poetry certainly helps women become self-aware. A lot of my female readers, particularly young women, have written and spoken to me about how poetry helped them negotiate the guilt to which they have been conditioned about their bodies, desire and identities.
CONTRACT (Salma writes about everyday events in a woman's life)
My sister hisses at me in anger
What my mother whispers tactfully:
That all failures
On the conjugal bed
The first words I hear
Every night in the bedroom:
'What's it tonight?'
These are, most often,
The final words too
A finger points to whorish barter
Upon the air of timorous nights, awaiting redemption
From ten million glowing stars,
Float words of wise counsel
Unable to feed its young,
The cat sobs like a child;
And its wail
Seizes hold of my liver
Might have complaints
My stand, though,
Has been made clear
By Time and History
A little of your love,
Muddy though it might be
To fulfil My duties
As the mother of your child
To have you bring
Sanitary towels and contraceptives
From the outside world;
And to seek more such petty favours
To order you around a bit,
If I could
To affirm a little
Of my authority
My vagina opens,
Knowing all that it should
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