2021 GVR Launch: Rukmini Sen Lecture Notes

Prajnya 2021 Gender Violence in India Report Launch

Rukmini Sen, AUD 25/11/21

Good morning everyone. My sincere thanks to Prajnya for having me be part of the launch of their flagship and extremely significant Gender Violence in India Report 2021. I am especially delighted that this launch coincides with the launch of the 16 days of activism and International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—today the 25th of November. While I am certain that most in this audience are aware, yet I would like to remind us that on, November 25, 1960, the three Mirabal sisters—Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa were brutally assassinated because of their identity as women and activists. Their only crime was having fought for their rights against the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo helped to organize and grow the underground movement challenging the regime. The state’s murder of the three sisters, aged 36, 34 and 25 on Nov. 25 1960, outraged the public and was a key trigger for Trujillo’s own assassination by a group of dissidents and former allies six months later. After the transition to democracy in the late 1970’s, the Butterflies, as Dominicans call the sisters, became symbols of both democratic and feminist resistance. On December 20, 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. Their goal was to eradicate violence against women and girls on a global scale. On February 7, 2000, the UN officially designated November 25th as the International day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Today starts the 16 days of activism, ending on December 10th, Human Rights Day. Remembering state impunity on any form of resistance and specifically being threatened by any form of resilient solidarities, I would like us to salute the fighting spirits of all women and people of multiple genders encountering, negotiating, surviving violence in their homes, workplaces, streets, or caught in the crossfires of ‘conflicts’. It is equally important to foreground the importance of care and support that is needed as we engage with violence. This year’s theme “Orange the World: End Violence against Women Now” aims to a) Advocate for inclusive, comprehensive and long-term strategies to prevent and eliminate VAW b)  Amplify the success stories demonstrating that VAWG is preventable c) Promote the leadership of women and girls in their diversity and their meaningful participation in policy making and decision making and d) Engage Generation Equality Forum commitment makers in your country or region to collaborate in the implementation of bold new commitments. Linking the UN theme and the Prajnya report findings in a co-relation, this talk is proposed to be divided into the following sections:

  1. Conceptual and methodological questions in Prajnya’s report
  2. Studying violence, researching violence
  3. Talking care alongside violence

Conceptual and methodological questions in Prajnya’s report

The most important aspect of the report, not just this year, but over the years is the use of NCRB data since 1955 to highlight the different categorisation of crimes against women. This quantitative classification, is a good example of both—numbers and narratives behind numbers. From which year a particular crime was identified and started getting calculated gives an indication on what is the kind of data that the NCRB is intending to collect. Also, enactment of specific laws lead to enumeration of certain kinds of criminal acts against women. The extent to which intersectional information is available is for crimes against SC and ST women (including outraging the modesty, kidnapping, rape), while girl children form a separate category in cyber crimes and minor girls in trafficking. Since 2018, identifying rape of a women with physical/mental disability and rape of pregnant woman is happening separately. There are sixteen categories of gender based violence that is discussed in the report following a consistent form—a) what is the nature of the violence in question, b) the manner in which international human rights conventions/protocols define this violence, c) data available on the violence from government sources, international agencies, Indian human rights fact finding reports d) existing laws and the specific provisions in the Indian Penal Code that address the gender based violence in question e) recent newspaper based reporting and news on the specific violence f) ways of accessing the criminal justice system when the specific violence has occurred and g) brief discussion on the decisions coming in recent judicial pronouncements around the violence. As someone who has been teaching and writing on gender based violence for many years now, this is a very comprehensive approach and also with the annual reports all available online, it is a valuable resource for researchers and practitioners to compare and see trajectories of violence over the years. The FIR ready reckoner as the Appendix is equally relevant and tells the reader the before and after of the FIR together with steps/processes/officers that needs to be remembered at the police station. While violence on women with disabilities specifically does not form a part of this report, I was wondering whether it can find some space, although this disaggregated data is not collected through NCRB, yet Prajnya together with Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre did come out with a report on sexual and gender based violence against women with disabilities in 2020, where the sites of violence was earmarked—public spaces, institutional contexts and violence related to structural inequality. I want to refer to a recent case Patan Jamal Vali v State of Andhra Pradesh in the Supreme Court of India arising out of Special Leave Petition. The case involved a 19-year-old blind woman who was raped by her brother’s friend. The court in its April judgment, rendered by Justice Chandrachud, using the lens of intersectionality where caste, gender and disability where all entangled, acknowledged the threat of sexual violence for women and girls with disabilities as “an all-too-familiar fixture of their lives.” It sets straight that women with disabilities are not weak, helpless, or incapable: “Such a negative presumption of disability translating into incapacity would be inconsistent with the forward-thinking conceptualization of disabled lives embodied in our law and, increasingly, albeit slowly, in our social consciousness.” The judgment went ahead to record that he National Crimes Record Bureau should seriously consider the possibility of maintaining disaggregated data on gender based violence women with disability. In another context, while since 2016 the NCRB is adding transgender among trafficked victims or those ‘rescued’ yet that may not truly represent the magnitude of crimes against transgender persons. A 2015 report by Sangama of Kerala, highlighted high rates of violence against transgender persons, particularly perpetrated by police personnel. More than half (52%) of the respondents said they had been harassed by the police and nearly all (96%) said they had not raised a complaint because of their gender identity. The government has not initiated any survey or census on important issues that affect the transgender community,” said Kalki Subramaniam, founder and director of Sahodari Foundation on the lack of countrywide data addressing transgender issues. “We have no data on how many transgender persons are educated, how many are uneducated, how many are homeless, how many live with their families and how many live on the streets. While more detailed discussions on violence against transgenders and women with disabilities would further enrich these reports, I sincerely hope that these reports will find a way into reading lists of students pursuing gender studies, interdisciplinary law courses, or human rights education, and make engagements not only with the content but also the methods in which the content is gathered.

Studying violence, researching violence

Gail Omvedt, whom we lost earlier this year, in a classic contribution in 1990 Violence against Women: New Movements and New Theories in India makes two very fundamental arguments—a) the pervasive violence against women has an obvious economic function—in keeping women under control, in preventing them from going out of the home, forcing them to the most low paid or unpaid forms of labour and b) the close connection of violence with sexuality—does violence necessarily have a sexual character and is sexuality inherently linked to the force and dominance or can we locate social and historical facts that determine the nature of the linkage? And c) the need to look at different forms of violence confronted by different sections of women—the relationship between violence and caste/class/rural-urban divisions, nationality and other divisions. While Origins of Family, Private Property and the State by Frederich Engels gives us one kind of theoretical explanation about the interconnection between women-economy-exploitation; the other argument is got from the Phule-Periyar-Ambedkarite traditions and engaging with questions of marriage-sexuality and brahmanical patriarchy. Marriage, for Periyar, regulated and disciplined women’s familial and reproductive labour, even as it actively denied their desires and rights to a self-respecting life of their choice. As V Geetha wrote in her essay “The Story of a Marriage: Being a Tale of Self-Respect Unions and What Happened to Them”, self-Respect marriages refused the services of brahmin priests but did not insist that these should be replaced by either non-brahmin or Tamil priests. The Self-Respect marriage form was premised on the idea of revocability and with the freedom to part being inscribed into the marriage ideal, no guarantees could possibly be given or taken, except of course those which were voluntarily agreed upon by the couple in question7. Often these guarantees had to do with love, companionship and want and, in insisting on these as the founding premises of marriage. In the contexts of ‘honour’ killings and ‘love jihad’ talking about self respect marriages is a radical step as the Allahabad High Court pronounces in September 2021 that two adults have the rights to marry whoever they want, irrespective of their religion. The judgment adds, ‘As the present petition is a joint petition by the two individuals who claims to be in love with each other and are major, therefore, in our considered opinion, nobody, not even their parents, could object to their relationship’. What the judiciary is pronouncing today, is what we could remember Dr B R Ambedkar writing in his famous Annihilation of Caste (1936) speech, “I am convinced that the real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling—the feeling of being aliens—created by caste will not vanish”.

In a recently completed course on Marriage, Kinship and Family Forms in 2020, with undergraduate Sociology students at AUD, students said how they felt that the course had organically led to discussions on violence and feminism and had posed the question to me can we sociologically study family in separation from violence? This seemed to resonate with Kalpana Kannabiran’s point of departure in the edited book Violence Studies—Violence is embedded in our everyday. We encounter not only its overt, raw, and brutal nature but also the deeply buried invisible and insidious forms that normalise violence in the collective conscience, making it less noticeable and more tolerable.

On the other hand, while doing a course on ‘Violence: Feminist Critiques and Resistances’ with Gender Studies students in 2018 again at AUD, the ordinariness of violence, not the event-driven ones but the everyday ones, not the ones which only make ‘national’ headlines but also the ones that are projected as politicised or political, invariably the instances where intersectionality of the violence is evident—Hathras (about which Kalpana Kannabiran spoke in last year’s lecture) and Unnao (which finds mention twice in this year’s Prajnya report). Through this course we had done an exercise of ‘walking the city’ as a group of people with identifying themselves through multiple genders—in the evening, in an area which is historically significant (The Qutb and Mehrauli archaeological complex) and yet is not explored as a site for feminist ‘classroom’. My praxis was to walk is to know and knowing is the first step towards overcoming fear and developing a feminist consciousness. In the assignment, on of the students reflected ‘This took the form of an experiential walk because it not only assured us that public spaces are in reality supposed to be ‘public’ but because each one of us who shared this experience now holds the narrative that affirms faith in solidarity’.

I want to end this section by talking about the need to interrogate the legal language and practices through which violence is juridically expressed. Thinking with Professor Upendra Baxi (Taking Suffering Seriously) that it is important for one major institution of governance to take people’s miseries seriously. He says, “For these who take people’s sufferings seriously, there is no rejoicing; even revolutions provide transient occasions of celebration”. In the language and practice of law, the insistence on certainty, the need to translate the suffering or experience of violence into a language of reasonableness in order for it to be judicially recognised need to be questioned not just in the courts of law but also in the way law is taught. The French feminist Anne Leclerc wrote, “All I want is my voice, you let me speak, yes, but I don’t want your voice, I want my own….I have to reveal everything that you have so determinedly hidden….the only thing you demand insistently is our silence…” While clearly silence around violence against women has been broken in many ways, and that is also evident in the number of reported cases having gone up; yet they still continue in connection to social and state based hierarchies and definitely in connection to modes of accepted expressions of the violence.

Talking care alongside violence

I will conclude by pointing out something that we all are aware of—the shadow pandemic with the global health pandemic that we encountered. The National Commission for Women has noted there was a 46 per cent rise in complaints of crimes against women in the first eight months of 2021 over the corresponding period of last year. Of the 19,953 complaints received between January to July 2020, the highest number of 7,036 were recorded under the right to live with dignity clause, followed by 4,289 complaints of domestic violence and 2,923 complaints of harassment of married women or dowry harassment, the NCW said. The right to live with dignity clause takes into account the emotional abuse of women. Inclusion of emotional abuse under right to live with dignity is definitely a significant move and it brings me to argue that it is necessary to talk care, support, friendships together with discussions on violence. In my own 2020 piece in EPW Stay Home, Stay Safe: Interrogating Domestic Violence, I suggest that we need to push the contours of discussion to re-conceptualise home/domesticity—initiate talking about various kinds of shared residencies not only the ones formed through heterosexual monogamous marriage, and foreground the political importance of affordable, abuse-free community housing for women. And when I say this I am not talking about shelter homes but the right to housing and shelter. The pandemic, again, and more formidably proved to us how care and support networks outside of the familial became valuable—for surviving and sustaining. There is a need for feminist support groups and conversations at workplaces, much beyond the administrative requirements of setting up an Internal Complaints Committee. These support groups need to talk about everyday gendered misogyny in the wake of the concerns raised through #MeToo as well as the deeply troubling Tejpal judgment. The Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 gives a functional/service oriented understanding of care. Care as feeling is assumed and naturalised even within a legislative framework, while care in the affective sense is silenced. I propose that it is needed to articulate that ethics of care, taking into account the exploits of the care economy but also propagating a feminist politics of interdependence and care alongside violence for a sustainable just future.

Thanks again to Prajnya and wishing them the best for the all the subsequent 16 days activism programmes. 

Overlooking Sexual Intent – An Analysis of Satish Ragde versus the State of Maharashtra

By Chethana V

Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, child abuse

Indian society follows a cyclical pattern where there is a need for a law to protect certain section of the population and such a law is enacted. A few years after it is enforced, there are cries of “Abuse! Overuse!” after which the lens of social welfare is replaced with the microscope of doubt. Every aspect of that law is examined, and hyper-technicalities to cut through the true intent and purpose of that legislation are developed.

The case of Satish Ragde v State of Maharashtra came to the Bombay High court on appeal from an order of the Additional Sessions Judge, Nagpur and involved charges under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (referred to hereinafter as the POCSO Act). The Bombay High Court judgement that was pronounced on 19th January, 2021 has caused outrage. While multiple legal aspects of the judgement[1] and the nature of criminal law[2] have been discussed, this article examines the real world implications and the future of criminal trials in light of the present judgement. 

I. Brief Facts of the Case 

The case of the prosecution is that the accused took the child (who was aged 12 years old when the offence was committed) to his house under the pretext of giving her a fruit and proceeded to touch her breasts and attempted to remove her clothes. The mother of the minor child went looking for her, as the child did not come home. She noticed the accused coming down the stairs, and when she asked him for the whereabouts of her daughter, he denied knowing anything about it. However, the mother went outside his house and found the door bolted. When she unlocked it, the minor child was inside his house and was crying. After hearing her daughter, the mother took the minor child to the police station, where an FIR against the accused was lodged.

At the end of the trial, the accused was found guilty by the Sessions Court for commission of offences including Section 354 of the IPC (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), and Section 7 of the POCSO Act (Sexual Assault).

II. Judgement of the High Court 

The High Court acknowledged the following facts: 

  • That the minor girl’s age was 12 years at the time of occurrence of the crime.
  • That the testimony of the minor child and the mother corroborates what happened at the scene of the crime.
  • The accused pressed the breast of the child, and tried to remove her salwar.

The High Court then proceeds to examine whether ‘pressing of breast’ and ‘attempt to remove salwar’ would fall within the definition of ‘sexual assault’ as defined under Section 7 and punishable under Section 8 of the POCSO Act.

Section 7 of the POCSO Act states – “Whoever, with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus or breast of the child or makes the child touch the vagina, penis, anus or breast of such person or any other person, or does any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact without penetration is said to commit sexual assault.”

The High Court held that the actions of the accused would not fall under Section 7 of the POCSO Act and acquitted the accused under the POCSO Act, confirmed the conviction under the above mentioned sections of the Indian Penal Code, and reduced his sentence.

III. POCSO Act as a Special Legislation

Prior to the enactment of the POCSO Act in 2012, crimes against children could be tried under the Indian Penal Code. The Indian Penal Code is an archaic colonial legislation, some fragments of which we are still battling as a progressive society. 

The IPC is also a highly gendered legislation, and the gender binary is very apparent. If a girl child was sexually assaulted prior to the enactment of the POCSO Act, the relevant provisions that could be used to convict the accused were – rape, and outraging the modesty of a woman. 

Prior to 2012, if a male child was sexually assaulted, and if the act was penetrative, the act could fall within the purview of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminialises unnatural sex. A minor male child could not report a case of non-penetrative sexual assault under the IPC, as there was no provision for that. The absence of a gender-neutral law that would protect children from sexual offences was felt, and the POCSO Act was enacted in 2012. 

The preamble of the POCSO Act begins with – “An Act to protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography and provide for establishment of Special Courts for trial of such offences…”.

Some unique features of the POCSO Act are:

1. It is a gender-neutral legislation – it only refers to the perpetrator as “person”, and the victim as “child” (any person below 18 years of age).

2. It deals with:  –

  • Sexual Assault (explained above).
  • Penetrative Sexual Assault (if the penis or any object is interted into any part of the child’s body).
  • Aggravated Penetrative Sexual Assault (when a police officer/ member of the armed forces/ public servant/ staff of hospital/ staff of educational institution commits sexual assault on a child).
  • Sexual Harassment (harassment through words or gestures, showing a child porn, making the child exhibit any part of its body).

3. It does not use the words “rape”, “eve-teasing”, or “outraging modesty” like we see in the Indian Penal Code. This legislation has been created with the intent to ensure that technicalities and descriptions do not come in the way of the act being considered an offence.

4. A special court and a special public prosecutor will deal with offences under the POCSO Act.

While there may be overlaps between offences under the POCSO Act and the IPC, they are distinct laws that were enacted keeping different purposes in mind[3].

IV. Analysis of the Judgement

A. Emphasis on “Skin-to-Skin” Contact

Bombay High Court – “…In the instant case, having regard to the nature of the alleged act by the appellant and having regard to the circumstances, in the opinion of this Court, the alleged act fit into the definition of the offence as defined in Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code…” (paragraph 20) 

Section 354 of the IPC states – Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will there by outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine. 

Assume that there is a case where a person tries to touch a minor boy by feeling his genitals over the child’s pants; this case cannot fall under Section 354 of the IPC as the gender of the minor child will prevent the same. However, going by the Bombay High Court’s reasoning of “skin-to-skin contact” in the present case, such cases will also not fall under Section 7 of the POCSO Act. Relegation of offences to the Indian Penal Code to the exclusion of the POCSO Act will have a direct impact on cases of sexual assault against male children, and children who do not conform to the traditional gender binary. 

Section 7 does not define physical contact. It can also be argued that the POCSO Act is firm in its silence about outlining the degrees of such physical contact, and creating the distinction of “skin-to-skin” or “over the clothes” sets a dangerous precedent as such interpretation goes beyond the letter of the law. 

B. Sexual Intent 

Bombay High Court – “…Admittedly, it is not the case of the prosecution that the appellant removed her top and pressed her breast. As such, there is no direct physical contact i.e. skin-to-skin with sexual intent without penetration.” (paragraph 26)

The intent to commit a crime is a cornerstone of criminal jurisprudence. In Section 7 of the POCSO Act, the term “sexual intent” is explicitly mentioned. 

It is clear from the facts of the present case that the accused removed the child from the mother’s custody under false pretences, took her to a place where she was alone with him, touched her breasts and tried to remove her salwar. This is not just a case of brushing past the child’s breasts, or inadvertently touching her. This is a calculated and deliberate attempt of isolating the child from her mother and committing these sexually motivated acts.  

The High Court has not given importance to the intention behind the act of touching a minor girl’s breasts, and this is a dangerous precedent. Many cases of child sexual harassment occur within the family structure, and the perpetrator is usually somebody known to the child. A common form of sexual assault is touching the breasts or the child’s genitals through the clothes in a swift manner that will not appear abnormal to the world that is watching. Children may not always be mature or aware to realise the motivation behind such touches or actions, and thus, it is the duty of the Court to infer such intention from the facts and circumstances.

C. Observations about the Nature of Punishment under the POCSO Act

Bombay High Court – “…The punishment provided for offence of ‘sexual assault’ is imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine. Considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence, in the opinion of this Court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required…” (paragraph 18)

It is a settled legal principle that in cases tried under the POCSO Act, a conviction can lie on the basis of the victim’s testimony alone, as long as the same is coherent and stable. In the present case, the High Court has not disputed the victim’s testimony, and has even mentioned that the accused could not discredit the minor child as a competent witness. 

Under these circumstances, it is strange that the High Court should want “stricter proof”. In addition, the present judgement almost makes it seem like since the punishment under the POCSO Act is stringent, the accused should not be convicted under it. It is also disconcerting to note that the High Court did not consider touching a minor girl child’s breasts a serious allegation, and wanted something “more serious”.  If Courts start creating a hierarchy of crimes against children on the basis of a very subjective interpretation of the “seriousness” of the crime, it will defeat the entire purpose of an enactment that intends to prevent all crimes that fall under its broad scope. 

Further, the purpose of any criminal legislation is deterrence. This is more so in the case of the POCSO Act, a legislation that was created because the existing criminal law framework was both insufficient and ineffective in dealing with crimes against children. 

The nature of punishment cannot be a reason for acquittal. Yes, the nature of punishment under the POCSO Act is stringent, and that is because the crime that it addresses is that serious. 

D. Effect of this Judgement in Court Proceedings

In any criminal trial, witnesses are crucial to both the prosecution as well as the accused. The accused will be given an opportunity to cross examine the witnesses through a lawyer. Unlike movies where the witness confesses to the crime under the protagonist lawyer’s brilliant cross examination, real-life court situations involves more of breaking into a sweat because of the lack of ventilation than breaking under pressure. 

In trials under the POCSO Act, the minor child will have to narrate the sequence of events to different stakeholders. The minor child will also be cross examined by the accused’s lawyer. While there are provisions for a child-friendly court where the minor child will not have to see the accused and with the least amount of discomfort for the child, the child will have to answer some unpleasant but crucial questions regarding the incident.

The effect of this judgement can be felt in Sessions courts across the country, where the child will be asked if the accused put their hand inside their clothing, or outside it, and to describe the exact nature of the touch. In many cases, fear and shock may prevent a child from remembering exactly how they were assaulted. For children below the age of six, they may not even register or understand the significance of a touch over or under their clothes to convey the same clearly. 

While the law does not expect the child to remember or answer in excruciating detail, this ‘direct physical contact’ test will definitely affect the way POCSO trials are conducted. 

V. Conclusion 

The Bombay High Court judgement, unless appealed, will create an additional standard for offences under the POCSO Act that was not intended in the first place, and will also detrimentally affect future trials and proceedings. Exceptions cannot be carved out against the grain of the enactment, and hyper technicalities cannot substitute the word of the law. 

Chethana is a lawyer practising in Chennai. She deals with cases in the family courts, trial courts, and in the Madras High Court. Her e-mail ID is advchethana@gmail.com

Views expressed in the article are personal and the author’s own. 


[1] Mandhani, Apoorva. ‘”Absurd interpretation” — experts say HC’s POCSO order in groping case wrong on many levels’. The Print. 25 January 2021. https://theprint.in/judiciary/absurd-interpretation-experts-say-hcs-pocso-order-in-groping-case-wrong-on-many-levels/591873/.

[2] Chander, Mani. ‘Why Bombay HC’s “sexual assault under POCSO needs skin-to-skin contact” observation is deeply problematic’. Times of India. 25 January 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/why-the-bombay-high-courts-judgment-acquitting-man-under-pocso-is-completely-flawed/articleshow/80437238.cms.

[3] Ralph, John S. ‘The Distinction Between Section 7 of the POCSO Act and Section 354 of the IPC’. Live Law. 26 January 2021. https://www.livelaw.in/columns/pocso-section-7-section-354-ipc-sexual-assault-bombay-high-court-skin-to-skin-168924.

Four Good Words: Sivakami Velliangiri

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Sivakami Velliangiri’s first poems were published in Youth Times in 1977 and ’78. She has been invited to read at ‘The Semester-At-Sea from Pittsburgh,’ and Muse India’s ‘Hyderabad Literary Festival.’ Her poems have been featured in four Anthologies. Her electronic Chapbook ‘’In My Midriff’, was published by The Lily Review. ‘How We Measured Time’ is her first book of poems.

Chattai

The first time grandma wore a blouse,
she felt she had tarnished her brown skin.
All the men folk knew of the thin bare shoulders.
She ran to the temple and confessed
that she had merely obeyed the Maharani’s orders.
 
Sure she had lost her native natural gloss
when she carried rice pots on her head
(the anthapura boasted a female barber
who shaved off armpits and whatever).
 
The Maharani bade her women wear blouses
even to the temple. What my grandma missed
was the breeze on her skin. What she acquired
was a certain coy feeling and a sense of hiding
 
which was akin to sin.
 
[The anthapura was the harem of an Indian palace.]


Silent Cooking and Noisy Munching
 
When I came to my husband’s hometown
I saw for the first time old women with gagged mouths
cooking for the gods, in silence.
 
Their breath did not pollute the offerings,
nor their spittle desecrate the dishes
only their arms swayed and perhaps their eyeballs.
I thought how unlike the witches of Macbeth
they looked, for these women moved about with grace
their mind fine tuned to the Dhivya Prasadam.
Not any woman can cook for the gods.
One must be chaste and pure, like unadulterated ghee
boil like jaggery and rise like milk. In short,
it takes thirty years to graduate.
 
So for thirty years I have done my silent cooking
made manna with words and said simply
in my heart of hearts, eat god eat
line by line, crunchy words, palatable punctuations
tangy rhythms moulded with meaning, and
thoughts weaned in silence but spoken as poems.


What She Said to Her Girlfriend
 
Though my lord has given me
a palace in every city
to match the seasonal mood
with interiors like an Inside Outside magazine
and furniture that speaks of star war design
I wish he had also thought of a poison apple tree
at the back door of the house
where I could whisper and confess to it
all he had done to me the previous night.


 

Four Good Words: Vinita Agrawal

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Vinita Agrawal is an award winning author of four books of poetry. She has edited an anthology on climate change titled Open Your Eyes. She has curated literary events for PEN MUMBAI. She is on the advisory board of the Tagore literary prize.

Bespoken

So many nameless daughters lost
that we cannot begin to look for them.
Their absence encased
in the prayers of those who survived.

The sun shines for the ‘master’ of the house
while ‘she’ remains twinned to darkness;
small barred windows
hinting at far off blue skies.

Some days, she makes it to adult literacy classes
Her face bruised.
The ellipsis of a veil
bending her story into the archives of flesh.

Victory does not lie in silence,
but in speaking up.
Mitigation, in rubbing the blood
off the morning mirror,

and feeling it throb in veins
like a train ploughing tracks.
Her battles fought –
word by word, act by act.

Woman, girl, female foetus…
the world stands hushed before you
like the air of stillness before a storm;
say whatever it is that you have to say.


Woman

Like a plastic palmyra showcased at the front door
A rag doll – gloved, thumb-printed, buttressed
bruised, soughed, oboe-d
and at the end of it all – grey like the ash of a rose.

Rabbit-like. Fearful, frightened.
Babbling, burbling, dripping
scurrying, stumbling, succumbing
until reduced to a sobbing choir of broken hummingbirds.

She is his colour-card for abuse
one shade for every kind;
to rape, demean, curb, thrash, burn, mutilate, violate, intimidate,
a fertile ground for the plough of his madness.

She is no one. She is nothing.
She is dry yellow grass, an invasive weed
sawdust, thorn, nettle.
an abandoned trellis on which he pegs his evils.

But really, she is none of these.
She is a cause to be fought for in her own voice.
Though sandpapered by scars of a thousand hard years
her resilience is still intact.

Woman – she shines in a light of her own – ever evolving
weaving a special bond with her sisterhood
no veil, no hijab, no purdah can conceal her strength
nothing can keep her down.

She is Ma Durga, Ma Kali, Ling Bhairavi
Jwala, Amba, Bhavani
the fierce rider of tigers, spewer of fire
killer of demons, drinker of blood.

She is the twin of every aspect that exists in the universe
the half of the whole called man
She is Shakti. The bearer of souls.
Because of her man exists.


Some Things I Knew The Day I Was Born

I’d craft phrases
To please your delicate ego

Never tell you what I really thought or how I felt
only what you wished to hear

I’d disappear inside my home
nor you or the children would care to look for me

I’d nurture modest dreams, mildly defining who I was
but not in a way that might threaten your kingdom

I’d dress demurely, cover my legs and shoulders
curb the desires marbling somewhere around my navel

I’d choke on my own wild silence
on some dark nights of stark solitude

Being born female is a crime
I’d be so soundless that I might not be at all

Worst of all, duplicity would be my greatest talent
hypocrisy and fakery my biggest virtues

So it would go on, without respite
everyday – a blank page

Some things I knew the day I was born


Four Good Words: Vatsala

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A retired Systems Engineer from IIT Madras, Vatsala’s books include two poetry collections Suyam (Sneha, 2000) and Naan Yenn Kavingar Aaga Villai? (Ahuthi and Panikudam, 2018), two novels Vattathul (Uyirmai, 2006) and Kannukkul Satru Payaniththu (Bharati Puthakalayam, 2016) as well as a collection of short stories Chinna Chinna Izhai (Bharathi Puthakalayam, 2018). Her poems in English translation have appeared in in The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (Viking/Penguin, 2009) as well as in Interior Decoration: Poems by 54 Women From 10 Languages (Women Unlimited, 2010).

நான் ஏன் கவிஞராகவில்லை?

நீங்கள் கேட்ட பிறகுதான் சிந்தித்துப் பார்க்கிறேன்
நான் ஏன் கவிஞராகவில்லை?

தோண்டிப் பார்த்தால்
எந்த ஆதாரமும் கிடைக்கவில்லை
நான் கவிஞரில்லை என்பதற்கு
உங்களை ஒன்று கேட்க வேண்டும்
செத்துப் போன கவிதைகள் கணக்கில் சேருமோ?
கருவிலேயே கரைந்து போனதால்
அவற்றை உருவகப்படுத்த முடியவில்லை
அவை உதித்ததை அப்பொழுது அறியாததால்
உதய நேரங்களை குறித்து வைக்கவில்லை

ஆனால்
சிலவற்றின் இறப்பு நேரங்கள்
இப்பொழுது தெளிவாகியுள்ளன

சிறு வயதில் துணி மடித்து வைத்த நேர்த்தியை
பாட்டி பாராட்டிய போது ஒன்று…
அண்ணன்மாரின் அடங்காப் பசிக்கும்
அப்பாவின் நீண்ட நாக்கிற்கும்
ஈடு கொடுக்கத் திணறிய அம்மாவுக்கிரங்கி
கரண்டியை கையிலெடுக்கையில் ஓரிரண்டு…

கழுத்தில் மஞ்சள் சரடேறுவதற்காக
பொன் சரட்டிற்கு காசு சேர்க்க
தட்டச்சு யந்திரத்துடன் தோழமை பூண்டேனே
அப்பொழுது சில…

சலிப்புத் தட்டுகிறதா?
இனி சுருங்கச் சொல்லுகிறேன்
கைக்குழந்தைகளின் மலம் கழுவி
செல்வங்களுக்கு பாடம் சொல்லி
மகனின் வெளி நாட்டுப் பட்டத்திற்கு பணம் சேர்த்து
அமெரிக்க மருமகனின் பாதம் கழுவும் கணவனுக்கு
பக்கபலமாய் நிற்பதற்குள்
மறைந்து போன கவிதைகள் சில நூறு

அவை உயிர் பெற்று உருப்பெற்றால்
நான் கவிஞர்

இல்லையெனில்
அடுத்த மாதம் அவர் வருஷாப்தீகம் முடிந்து
பச்சை அட்டை செல்வங்கள் தங்களூர் திரும்பிய பின்
மரத்துப் போன உணர்வுகளை நீவிவிட்டு
கண்ணுக்குள்ளே சற்று பயணித்து
மூச்சை முழுமையாக விடுவித்து
நான் புத்தம்புதிய கவிஞரானாலும் ஆகலாம்

Why didn’t I become a poet?
Naan yen kavignar aga villai

Translated by K Srilata and Subashree Krishnaswamy (featured in Interior Decoration: Poems by 54 Women in 10 Languages. New Delhi: Women Unlimited: 2011)

It’s only after you asked me
that I wondered:
why I never became a poet.

Digging deep,
I found no evidence
that I wasn’t one.
I’d like to ask you something:
do dead poems count?
Since they dissolved
while still unborn,
I couldn’t give them shape.
I wasn’t aware of their inception,
so I never recorded their time of birth.

But, with some, their time of death
is clear to me now.

One died when my grandmother praised
the neat way I folded the clothes.
A couple when
I picked up the ladle,
sorry for my mother,
who struggled with my brothers’ voracious greed
and my father’s fastidious tongue.
A few passed away when
I befriended a typewriter
to save up for a gold chain,
just so a yellow thread could be tied
round my neck.

Bored, are you?
I will keep it short then.
A hundred vanished as I
washed my babies’ bottoms,
tutored my darling children,
saved up for my son’s overseas education,
stood by my husband as he washed the feet
of the son-in-law from America.
If they all come to life and take shape,
a poet, I will be.

If not, next month,
after his death anniversary,
when my greencard darlings go back home,
after my numb feelings are massaged and
I journey a bit into my eyes
and release my breath completely,
who knows,
I might become a brand new poet.


 

மாலை

எனக்கு மாலை பிடிக்கும்
சாம்பல் நிறம் பிடிக்கும்
‘டீன் ஏஜ்’ பருவம் பிடிக்கும்
வாசற்படி பிடிக்கும்
நரசிம்மனை பிடிக்கும்

குழந்தை பருவம் அழகாயிருந்தது
எனக்கு எல்லோரையும் பிடித்தது
எல்லோருக்கும் என்னை பிடித்தது
எனக்கு பட்டு வேஷ்டி அணுவித்து கிருஷ்ணனாக
பார்த்து மகிழ்ந்தனர்

பட்டுப் பாவாடை, சட்டை, சங்கிலி, வளையுடன்
என்னை புகைப்படம் எடுத்து
சட்டமிட்டு மாட்டி மகிழ்ந்தார்கள்
(பிறகு அப்பா அதை உடைத்து குப்பையில் போட்டுவிட்டார்)

பள்ளிக்கூடம் பிடித்தது
படிப்பது பிடித்தது
பிறகு படிப்பது மட்டும்
***
முதலில் நடை ஒரு பிரச்னையாயிற்று
பிறகு குரல்
பிறகு எல்லாமே

யாருக்கும் என்னை பிடிக்கவில்லை
எனக்கு எல்லோரிடமும் பயம்
அப்பாவுக்கு எப்பொழுதும் கோபம்
அம்மா கோயில்களுக்கு கூட்டிச் சென்றாள்
அடிக்கடி அழுதாள்
பாட்டி திருப்பதி சாமிக்கு முடிந்து வைத்தாள்

பள்ளிக்கு போவது நின்றது
வீட்டில் சிறைப்பட சம்மதித்தேன்
வெளியே விரட்டப் படாமலிருக்க

கணக்கு டீச்சர் வந்தாள்
ஒரு நாள் பூராவும் வாதாடி தோற்றாள்

மனநல மருத்துவரிடம் அழைத்துச் சென்றார்கள்
அவர் அம்மாவுக்கும் அப்பாவுக்கும் மருத்துவம் பார்த்தார்
என்னை கேட்டார்
”உனக்கு ஆணாக இருக்கப் பிடிக்குமா?
பெண்ணாக இருக்கப் பிடிக்குமா?”
நான் சொன்னேன்
”எனக்கு இப்படியே இருக்கப் பிடிக்கும்”
அப்பாவும் அம்மாவும் தலையில் அடித்துக் கொண்டார்கள்
***
இன்று பேராசிரியர் பணிக்கு விண்ணப்பிக்கையில்
கம்பீரமாக பதிவு செய்கிறேன்
திருநங்கை

எனக்கு மாலை பிடிக்கும்

Twilight

Maalai


Translated by K Srilata (featured in K Srilata and Fiona Bolger edited All the Worlds Between: A Collaborative Poetry Project Between India and Ireland. New Delhi: Yoda, 2017)

I

These are a few things I am fond of:
Twilight,
the colour Grey,
teenage years,
thresholds,
and Narasimha.

It was a happy childhood.
I was fond of everyone,
and they, of me.
In their hands, I became Krishna.
They would get me to wear a silk veshti,
and feast on the sight.

Sometimes, it was a silk skirt,
a blouse,
chain and bangles
they would get me to wear.
They would photograph me
have the pictures framed.
Later, Appa smashed them
and threw them in the bin.

School I was fond of.
My books too.
Later, the only thing that remained
was my fondness for my books.

II

At first, it was the way I walked.
Soon, it was my voice.
And then, everything.

They were no longer fond of me.
All that remained in me was fear.
Appa was always angry.
Amma did the temple rounds with me.
She cried often.
As for Paati, she tied a coin
in a piece of turmeric cloth
and offered it
to the Lord of Tirupathi.

And then, they stopped me from going to school.
For fear of being thrown out,
I consented to this house arrest.

My Math teacher pleaded with them.
They paid no attention to her.

They took me to the counsellor.
He counselled them instead.
“What would you rather be?” he asked, turning to me, “A man or a woman?”
“I would rather stay as I am”, I said.
Appa and amma shook their heads in despair…

III

Today,
in the forms I fill out,
I write:
Third gender
with pride.

I am fond of twilight.

Four Good Words: Vasanthi Swetha

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Vasanthi Swetha works in the field of behavioral economics by the day and is most often caught looking at the moon by the night. On no moon nights, she writes. Vasanthi has been writing and performing poetry for about eight years now. She runs a page called A Dreamer’s Destination, where you can find her soul in bits and pieces of poetry. She believes in the magic of words and verses, and is trying to explore the art through  diverse mediums.

#1 The Butterfly Effect

A yellow butterfly tickles my neck
and settles on my collarbone,
I turn into a statue with a racing heart,
my eyes focusses on its meticulous spots,
my breath softer into its wings,
a tiny little creature carries so many parts of the earth
decides to settle on my body today,
when it flies away
the yellow will remain
it will take a little of my brown,
and some one will try painting it white;
we’ll both remember the hurricane
this time
is at home,
in the resistance to surrender to
to canopies of shame
the sun hasn’t broken into yet,
but small courageous butterflies have.

#2 Silence

Do you remember
the loudest thunder
you’ve heard in your life?
I don’t.

But I remember
all the silences
I have held too close to my chest
fearing
any syllable that escapes my lips
might sound like the begining of a war,
and then you ask –
why didn’t you
speak up earlier?

If I did
what would you have done?
Believed?

#3 Paper Cuts

Paper cuts
are maybe
revenge for every axe
that touched trees
without consent.

#4 The Women in My Poetry

I hope the women in my poetry are made of whatever they want to be,
I hope my words don’t
butcher their silence,
I hope my poems
give them the space to sit however they want to and help them
lean on and diminish the noise of debates
about bleeding bodies of women
butdon’t look at these women as the primary stakeholders,
I hope my poems
let them choose their own words
of pain, of cramps or of rest,
I hope my poem
is a hot water bag,
I hope my poem
is a bed to stretch and sleep or to read
without having to reiterate that
women’s bodies are not a scale
that measures strength and tolerance,
I hope my poem
is a sound proof room
on days my women
don’t want to listen to
any of you.

#5  I am my first love story

I am my first love story,
that’s where I’ll place my bookmark,
for all the men and women
who come after.

Four Good Words: Tishani Doshi

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Tishani Doshi is an award-winning poet, novelist and dancer. Her most recent books are Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Poetry Award, and a novel, Small Days and Nights, shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Tata Fiction Award. A God at the Door (poems), is forthcoming in spring 2021.

I Found a Village and in it Were All our Missing Women
I.M. Margaret Mascarenhas

I found a village and in it were all our missing women,
holding guns to the heads of birds.

They’d heard the voting had begun,
that it had been going on for years without them.

They knew their sisters had been bribed
with gas cylinders and bicycles, that even grandmas

grabbed bags of rice in exchange at the ballot.
They showed no resentment.

Left all their gold to the descendants
of a Mongolian war princess with whom they shared

a minor percent of DNA. I found a village, a republic,
the size of a small island country with a history

of autogenic massacre. In it were all our missing women.
They’d been sending proof of their existence —

copies of birth and not-quite-dead certificates
to offices of the registrar.

What they received in response was a rake
and a cobweb in a box.

The rake was used to comb the sugarcane fields
for wombs lost in accidental hysterectomies.

The cobweb box became an installation
to represent the curious feeling

of sitting backwards on a train — of life
pulling away from you even as you longed to surge ahead.

They were not fatalistic. Could say apocalyptic fatigue
and extinction crisis in quick succession

after several rounds of Mai Tais.
I found a village with a sacred tree

shot free of all its refugees,
in whose branches our missing women had hung

coloured passport photos of themselves.
Now listen

A woman is not a bird or chick or anything with wings,
but a woman knows the sound of wind

and how it moves its massive thighs against your skin.
The sound of house swallowed by sinkhole,

crater, tunnel, quicksand, quake.
The collective whoosh of a disappearing,

the way a gun might miss its target,
the way 21 million might just vanish.

Four Good Words: Swarna Rajagopalan

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Swarna Rajagopalan is still not calling herself a poet. She usually goes by her licensed identity (“political scientist”) or her organisational ones (“Prajnya,” “WRN,” and so on) or her native place, Bombay
or her politics (peace activist, feminist), while writing and wanting desperately to write more. But here she is, in this collection, anyway.

JUSTICE

Our Lady of Justice

Along the seashore,
on the sides of roads,
you stand mute witness
to decades of mutually inflicted pain.

Beyond you, lies the other witness—
that rippled shimmering
hard-working ocean capable of enduring
the highest and the lowest tides with equanimity.

You have both seen everything,
the silent Madonna
and the dispassionate waves.

How can you be silent, I lament?
I drive by,
putting names together with attacks and atrocities.
You saw it all happen.
The fuming and the festering,
the eruption and the hostilities.
You saw the chases and the encounters,
the shooting and the suicides,
the grief, the grief, the endless, numbing grief.
It happened before you, my lady,
as you stood in the many chapels that dot the beaches.

Our lady of suffering.
Our lady, star of the sea.
Our lady of perpetual succour.
You did not stop the suffering.
I do not know what your reasons are.

I do not know either
what makes these people
who saw you watch their suffering
without intervention,
come back to you with their petitions
and their tears and the belief that you care,
and to build and tend to these,
your sea-side and road-side homes.

They know you saw everything.
Perhaps they come back to you
in the belief
that when they are long-gone
and all these commissions of inquiry
are history,
you will remember,
you will track,
and in your own infinitely compassionate way,
you finally will bring justice.

Our lady of hope.
Our lady of light.
Our lady of peace.


 

EQUALITY

This difficult word

I rummage through
decades of words
spun and spilt
at an assortment of altars
–love, anger, anxiety,
beauty, sorrow
and even, words—
but the word I invoke mot
at work
is conspicuously absent.

Equality.

Apparently,
equality has never
moved my soul
to lyrical eloquence.

I wonder why.

Is it the inequality
I enjoy?
The warm cocoon of
the world I take for granted
–this is how my life will surely be—
and whose disappearance
I cannot in fact imagine?
Or when I try,
end up closing my eyes tight.
As it was writ,
so, do I enjoy.
That is all.

Or is it the equality
I have never enjoyed
so that I have nothing
to wax eloquent about?
A place for everyone
and everyone in their place,
especially us women.

“All other things remaining equal”
–all other things, not us—
well, I don’t know how to end that
because nothing is actually equal, is it?

Really, you want me to spin poetry
out of a word with the romance
of a central government office block?
Out of a word that is as joyful
as a levelling weight that flattens us?
A word that is so abstract that
most of us would be hard-pressed
to tell you what it signifies?

What is it about this word
that when I utter it in a workshop
stars sparkle and bells ring around me
but sitting with pen, paper and “equality,”
there are few things less inspiring?

Then I have to wonder—
how are we going to build
a world of equality
when we cannot even write
a few beautiful words about it?


 

LIBERTY

Hey there!
Are you looking
for me
in
age-appropriate
stage-appropriate
wage-appropriate
rage-appropriate
cages
in roles
as perfectly snug
as square pegs in round holes

clad in
the colours of your
expectations
the fabric of your
stereotypes?
Unfold the map
that leads you to me.

Beyond all these things,
most of which I do not
understand,

If you would only look
carefully,
If you would only let
me speak,
If you would only listen,
with open mind and heart

_there is just me.

Here I am,
as I am.


 

FRATERNITY

When sisters gather

Sisters gather,
sisters who are strangers,
in the hope of finding themselves
in each other.

Sisters gather,
and stories are exchanged,
mumbling, halting, then gushing
like a torrent unstoppable…
stories in spate.

Sisters gather,
sceptical about sorority,
defensive about their anxiety,
urgently in need of hope
and each other.
Will you be the one to heed my need?

Sisters gather,
having forgotten nothing
about the last dozen times they
squabbled, fought, argued—
the Cold Wars that thaw
with the first tickle of laughter
and the first trickle of tears.

Sisters gather,
to grieve over other sisters,
spent, lost, felled,
and to lament the silence over their fate.
When you are cut, I bleed,
they tell each other.

Sisters gather,
and promise each other
that they will not forget.
Not the ones who disappeared.
Not the ones who died.
Not the abandonment or violence.
Not each other.

Sisters gather
over the baby’s crib,
gushing, cooing and remembering
why they are here.
This baby, and all the others, deserve better
than we have got.

Sisters gather
to partake of food, wine, love and empathy,
to celebrate each other,
generously, and in solidarity.
When sisters gather,
they change the world.


 

Which hands are yours?

Hands that touch to heal.
Hands that strike a deal.
Hands that stroke to feel.

Hands stretch out in hope.
Hands throw out a rope.
Hands reach out to grope.

Hands won’t let you trip.
Hands tighten their grip.
Hands wander to rip.

Helping hands that never flinch.
Hands that seek a clinch.
Hands that skulk to pinch.

Hands that make great art.
Hands that stand apart.
Hands that break your heart.

Hands that help you up.
Hands form your back-up.
Hands that spike your cup.

Hands that shape the earth.
Hands that lift your skirt.
Hands that know to hurt.

Hands that hold you safe.
Hands that probe your shape.
Hands that commit rape.

Hands you hold in trust.
Hands enforce their lust.
Hands turn trust to dust.

Hands that care and share.
Of other hands, beware.
They are everywhere.

Which hands are yours?

Four Good Words: Sukrita Paul Kumar

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A noted poet and critic, Sukrita Paul Kumar (born in Kenya) was an invited poet and Fellow at the
prestigious International Writing Programme, Iowa, USA. She is a former Fellow of the Indian
Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and honorary faculty at Durrell Centre at Corfu, Greece. She has
published several collections of poetry, translations and critical works.

When Snakes Came for Shelter

(Dedicated to Freedom Nyamubaya)

Fighting the war of independence
My soldier friend, Sunungukai,
Lay sleeping alongside
Snakes who
Came for shelter, into her tent
In the black rainy nights

Unable to find their holes
In the marshes of the forests
0f Zimbabwe

Her long dark limbs
Glistened
And entwined in the coiling
snakes
As darkness slithered
Towards the break of dawn
Haunting Salvador Dali

During such nights
As if in peacetimes
Sunungukai found herself secure
In deep tunnels
Rolled back
Into the womb of her mother
Or in the arms
Of the lover she never found

Standing stiff on their ends
Her hair did not split when
still silent snakes
hissed in sleep,

Theirs and her own instinct
She knew, told the truth

She smelt no danger
Nor did they,
there’d be no holding the venom
if they did

(ii)

In the same war
As male soldiers entered her tent,
She trusted her instinct
When she felt the chill
Slide down her spine,
on the same marshes
of the dark forests,

“But I am on your side”, her lips uttered
“The war is over, don’t you know”
-announced their male glee.

Enemies again,
They came upon her
One by one, and then all together,
In celebration.

The war continued for
Sunungukai.


 

From
We the Homeless

The foetus in the sobbing womb
of the girl child is

an offspring of terror
of the skies:
thunder, lightening, hail storms
falling over her;

Of the knife rubbing
just a little deeper
on her throbbing throat

Her face a rock,
Eyes turned into stones,
A mother without a heart
She wants to give birth

To defy death
And put the society
in the docks


 

DRAUPADI ON A HUNT

1.

I am on the lookout

Is this where I might find
What I am looking for

Yes this way
Not that way

Draupadi stomped out
of Mahabharata
became a squirrel and
climbed up the tree
as did Manto’s
Toba Tek Singh

Look down
Is this Hindustan or Pakistan?

Barbed wire between
the two lovers
real as their love

2.

On all fours do I crawl
Holding on to the earth’s call

Not to fly, nor abandon them
Not to forget the one and only
Nor the rest of them

Rumbling and whispering
with all the tales and myths
gurgling in the earth’s belly

I am on the lookout


 

WOMEN ON A MOTORBIKE

Sisters and daughters, even mothers
Are hurled into daily abuses and jokes

Trapped in muscular gaze
Frozen as soft targets in epics
dolls in cinema
Excuses for duals
Cause for battle in the past
And the Present

Possessed as furniture
Items of jewellery
Kept in vaults
In the royal cellars of history

While Sita greets Savitri
Singing songs of captivity
Shedding tears of loss and regret

The two women on the motorbike
Lal Ded and Akka Mahadevi
Whizz pass through centuries
Multiplying in numbers
As also in Shakti

Each one searching
for her own path
Her own tune…

Four Good Words: K. Srilata

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A Professor of English at IIT Madras, K Srilata was a writer in residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland, Yeonhui Art Space, Seoul and Sangam house. She has five collections of poetry, the latest of which, The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, was published by Poetrywala in 2019. Srilata has a novel titled Table for Four (Penguin, India) and is co-editor of the anthology Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry.

A Woman of Letters

Some days what I want to be is a woman of letters,
to retire to my study and be
solitary.
I can see it all:
that desk – neat, rectangular, coffee brown,
its drawers seductive and deep,
holding secrets from another age,
on it some paper, a pen and an ink well,
and a bookcase filled with every kind of book –
Austen definitely and Dickinson and Chugthtai…

No adolescent daughters abandoning dresses in contemptuous heaps.
No grubby sons, their dirty socks like bombs under my books.
No spouses, no mothers, nor mothers-in-law
with their urgent thoughts.
Sometimes all I want to be is a woman of letters.
Between chores, the very idea makes me weep.

Boxes Have That Effect

All evening, I have been considering boxes.
Hand-crafted ones, compelling and impractical,
the sort that jam easily.
I drop my earrings into one of them,
its blue-bird shimmer
gone before you know it.

I have lived in them all my life,
boxes in which I have become,
with a dangerous degree of precision,
this, that, the other, or etcetra.
I have noted the contents of their insides,
Not bad boxes to be in and yet,
I have clawed at their lids
like some death-row prisoner.

Not in the Picture

I

Adoption agency file.
Her first photograph. The only one in the file.
Passport size. Taken at age eleven months.
Studio backdrop: faded orange and dust you can smell.
There is no prior story. Nothing before
the orange and the dust.
Except a thick sky of blankness.

“Why didn’t they do more than follow procedure? Why didn’t they do more than stick a bottle of milk into her tiny, seeking mouth? Why didn’t they do more than wrap a towel around her elfin thin body?”

I am greedy. I want something larger than orange and dust. I want a sky with fluffy white clouds. I am greedy for some infant cuteness. I want pictures of the day they found her.
Glossy, flattering ones I can enlarge,
slide into albums,
design coffee mugs out of,
seal into her life and mine.
Didn’t they have a bloody camera?
Now what will I tell her?

“What did I look like as a baby, amma?”
Why are there no photographs of me as a little baby, amma?”
“Maybe, they didn’t have a camera, love. Or maybe they did but someone dropped it and it shattered into a million pieces.”
“But they could have stuck it back together.”
“That’s not so easy!”
“Why didn’t they simply get a new one, amma?”

II.

Five years ago. A new-found first cousin on my father’s side tells me about a photograph in his family album. “We are all in it,” he says, “Your parents and mine, my sister, me, and you, with your cute, shining pate and no hair. You had just come back from Tirupati, post-tonsure. Must have been soon after your first birthday.”

I want to see that photograph.
I don’t want to see that photograph.
I will never see that photograph.
I am too busy burying the kernel of a father who has been absent, loud and long, these last thirty five years.

“I have often wondered,” ventures my cousin, “what became of my baby cousin with her Tirupati-tonsured head. But now I know!”


III.

I am leafing through an old album. My mother isn’t home. The shock of a picture with one edge snipped off. There’s only two of us – me and my mother. A tiny bit of someone’s elbow. I know, without being told, whose.

IV.

I am ten. My cousin’s a year old. We are playing on the beach. My uncle produces a camera. I hurry into the frame. Greed again.
“Let me get one of Arvind first,” my uncle says. I step aside. Afterwards, I refuse to have my picture taken.

V.

My wedding. My mother, having raised me single-handedly, has hired a professional photographer. When the album arrives, we find she is not in any of the pictures.

VI.

“It is sharp as an ice pick,”
I tell a politely puzzled friend over dinner,
“this desire,
for certain photographs. If you are not watchful,
it can stab you through the heart”.