?Feminist poetry is everybody?s poetry?

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 20.02.05
Freedom Song in a Minor Key
On a windy day like this
The rain clouds descend
Rough, tough, male

And the gulmohur
Forgets she is a tree
Rooted to the ground

Everything else thrusts
Upwards, red gold kites
Terriers’ pricking ears

Alert to a drum of thunder
Eagles, and stiffish buds
On small, petulant plants

These rise to teasing bait
The short glamour of sex
Then why not the gulmohur?

Why not she?

Today, the sky is a bowl
Each ribbed gulmohur leaf
An imprisoned angelfish

Swimming round and round
In the cold, grey lucence
Of the hooligan monsoon

But unable to escape, play
Her deft wit off against
A loutish rain cloud

The gulmohur loses heart
Sheds her vivacious fins
Her wild, scarlet flowers

Is this the nature of a tree
To be tied down eternally
Or can the gulmohur be free

Can she?

Excerpted from Yellow Hibiscus, by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, with permission from the publishers, Penguin Books India

Words are like prisoners for Rukmini Bhaya Nair. Chaining them to a rhyme, tying them up like slaves.


Or, neatly carving them up, she does all this and more, as only executioners and poets can.

But talking to Nair is not the same as reading her poems. Nair the poet is brutal with words. Nair the person has the frank earnestness of a newborn baby?s bawl. Yet there is a coy softness to her conviction. And the softness doesn?t desert her even when she turns into an impassioned lawyer defending her art.

Her latest collection of verse, Yellow Hibiscus: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2004), has received both bouquets and brickbats. But Nair understands the importance of not being too touchy about the latter. ?Criticism is not an enemy of poetry but an ally,? she says gently. ?Criticism and poetry are like friends having a conversation.?

It is a cold winter morning in Delhi and we are sitting in Nair?s sparse, fifth-floor chamber in the unpoetic Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), where she teaches linguistics and English. As a child, in her own expression, Nair was ?a hoarder? of words. Words have repaid her since then. Now chasing their roots like a determined archaeologist is her amiable employment. ?I write poetry to discover the limits of the language,? she says.

Nair grew up in a house overflowing with poetry, singing and conversation and Jamini Roys on the walls. Little surprise, the muse came early. She recalls writing her first poem when eight years old in a diary with ?a grey plastic cover?. But listening to her Bengali father ? her mother is a Goan and her husband a Malayali ? read out Samuel Taylor Coleridge?s Kubla Khan beneath a mango tree in Ranchi was a more enduring childhood memory of hers.

Nair graphically remembers the moment: the sound of drums coming from an Adivasi settlement nearby and the words wafting in the air. ?At that moment, the Xanadu of Kubla Khan didn't appear to be an esoteric place,? she recalls.

Hers was a childhood spent travelling to different parts of India ? Nair was born in Vishakapatnam, lived briefly in New Delhi?s Sujan Singh Park and went to Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta ? as her father had a transferable job. But fate was constantly conspiring to lure her to poetry.

The seduction came in the form of a long-playing gramophone record her father brought from the US. Some of the finest 20th-century poets in English had recited their own verse in the album. For someone still in her pre-teens and very much in love with words, listening to the voices of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Louis Macneice was an indelible experience. In one of the poems, recalls Nair, Yeats read out Innisfree, a poem about an imagined, idyllic place, in a rasping, almost dying voice. ?It not only made me realise how the cadences of poetry work, but also how a poem is independent of the poet,? she says.

Not all experiences in her early years were poetic. As a teenager on vacation with her family to Dhaka, Nair fell into the Ganges from the steamer in the dead of the night. She didn?t known how to swim and had to be rescued. Nair recalls, ?Falling into the bottom of the river and coming up again is like coming through a very narrow passage of death. And, then life doesn?t seem the same again.?

Death, though, is not a major pre-occupation in her verse, though it occasionally visits it. What is immediately evident about her poems is the smart wordplay. Noted Indo-Anglian poet Adil Jussawalla once described her craft so: ?She uses words as some folk dancers use sticks, to suggest both confinement and/or open space, depending on how the sticks are angled.?

But Nair?s craft is much more than the poise of words and a felicity of feelings. Her poetry is also characterised by a multi-layered exploration of gender politics. In her verse resides an awareness of the woman. At least one reviewer has said that as a poet, her feminism gets the better of her.

Nair, though, believes that gender is not a confining category but a liberating category. ?The most important thing about being a feminist is to understand that you are not limited by your feminism such that you have to keep talking about women's rights and underlining those,? she says. ?Because in the end the question of women?s rights is the question of everybody?s rights. The question of women?s poetry is a matter of everybody?s poetry.

The feminism in her muse owes a lot to her mother and grandmother, two women of conviction and character. Her mother was born into Catholicism and was ex-communicated for marrying a Hindu. Her grandmother lost her husband and daughter in the great Bihar earthquake of 1934 but emerged from the trauma a survivor. The way women cope with tragedies; their sense of assertion and tolerance are a part of Nair?s being and her poetry.

So is exploring forbidden terrain. In Nair?s poems, gods are not sacred and divine. They are ordinary and fallible. A writer reading out her poem, Kali, in Lucknow felt threatened because her portrayal of Shiva wasn?t that of an ascetic but somebody interested in apsaras. In her Ayodhya Cantos, which she wrote after a visit to the town following the Babri Masjid demolition, she turned Sita into a 12-year-old girl who serves tea to Hanuman. ?If you reconfigure a myth, you see patterns of oppression, suppression and idealism,? she says.

But for Nair, poetry has also been a form of dialogue. Over the years, in response to the verse she has recited at gatherings, people as varied as an Italian poet and a Haryanvi farmer have written poems back to her. The phenomenon intrigues her. ?It?s interesting how a poem sets off a spark,? she says. Keeping that spark alive is an important part of her creative mission.