Melony Bethala

Poetry Communities and Indian Womanhood

Melony Bethala

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Since India’s independence in 1947, there has been a growing number of Indian poets writing English. Their ingenuity in ‘nativising’ the language and interest in depicting the localities and nuances of everyday life have earned Indian writers a place in the contemporary poetry canon. In spite of these developments, the work of Indian women poets remains on the periphery of public readership and literary criticism both in India and abroad. While my doctoral research is a comparative study of women poets from India and Ireland, this piece turns specifically to the work of Indian women poets to explore some of the challenges they face in the publication of their poems and to look at how they engage with representations of women in India. In the first section, I look at some issues surrounding the publication of Indian women’s poetry in English as well as networks which have fostered a growth in contemporary women’s writing in recent years. The second section explores the poetry of Sujata Bhatt by looking at how she engages with national and historical representations of women through poems about her own relationship with her mother.

Contemporary Indian woman poets writing in English face several challenges in regard to the publication and politicization of her work. Unlike novelists and short story writers such as Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri who have gained international acclaim by bringing Indian stories and the Indian English idiom to a global readership, female poets writing in English do not share the same voluminous distribution of their books. In their anthology Women Writing in India (1993), Susie Tharu and K. Lalita chose to exclude women writing in English on the basis that their work ‘would be more easily available to the reader’, which is untrue.[1] Poet and critic Eunice de Souza proved otherwise when she discussed the development of her anthology Nine Indian Women Poets (2001) and the difficulty she faced in acquiring books by the writers she wished to include. She states:

Even libraries [in India] which are required by law to stock all books published in India have virtually nothing because publishers do not concern themselves with this law. Publishing co-operatives created by poets have created beautiful books, reasonably priced, but their distribution system is usually very poor. Friends living abroad eventually helped me out by mailing Indian books to India.[2]

De Souza’s experience is not isolated; I found the same was true in the initial stages of my research into her poetry, as well as that of Kamala Das, Melanie Silgardo and Sujata Bhatt. Not only have I scoured the internet for second-hand copies of their books, but in order to acquire one particular collection of poems by Silgardo, I discovered the only way to do so was to contact the poet herself.

Aside from the more obvious issues of breaking into and staying in print, Indian woman poets face the challenge that their work is perceived to be ‘inauthentic’ to some extent because they write in English, which ‘continues to carry the taint of the language of the rapacious white invader, the colonizer, the oppressor’ as the poet Smita Argawal argues in her anthology Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English (2014)[3]. Bruce King observes that ‘English is the language of those who govern, communicate, produce and make decisions at the national level’,[4] but Renate Papke notes that ‘the Indian poet writing in English still has to face the critique that she/he is writing for an international rather than a national audience’.[5] Before independence, nationalists and conservative groups in India regarded English to be the language of the colonial ruler and urged the use of ‘native’ regional languages instead.[6] English became the medium of higher education in 1835,[7] and although it is widely used on the sub-continent today, Indian poets writing in the language continue to face the criticism that they write for an elitist audience.[8] They are also limited by the ‘assumption that poetry can only be expressed in the mother tongue’,[9] which is presumed to be a regional or local dialect, yet a number of poets writing in English, including de Souza and Silgardo, come from English-speaking families and were educated in English, and they perceive it to be their ‘mother tongue’. 

Indian Women Poets and Publishing

Indian poetry in English began to be more prevalent in 1947 when C. R. Mandy, an Irishman, became the editor of Illustrated Weekly of India and transformed it into a modern-day literary journal which encouraged contributions from local writers.[10] Bruce King’s Modern Indian Poetry in English (2001) traces the history of post-independence Indian poetry in English and examines how a handful of prominent writers—Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, Gieve Patel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, R. Parthasarathy, and Kamala Das —gained insight from one another, published one another’s work and encouraged new writing in the years following independence.[11] While there was much support within this group of writers, Kamala Das was the only female poet to be actively involved in publishing and writing Indian poetry in English. Das’s work was considered to be revolutionary for women’s writing in India because of her depictions of sexuality, marriage and the female body as well as her use of ‘confessional’ verse.[12]  She was the first Indian woman writer to ‘collapse the distance between poet and poetry’,[13] whose work responded to social and political transformations that impacted women’s lives in newly independent India.

In spite of Das’s contribution to Indian English poetry, her work was marginalized in the contemporary poetry scene. When Arvind Krishna Mehrotra edited his iconic anthology The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1993), he chose to include the work of only one female poet Eunice de Souza, who he believed was the only woman to meet his ‘high standards of poetic technique, a body of published works and a preference for imagist poetry’.[14] The anthology was praised for its detailed analysis of Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Daruwalla, Seth and others, but the exclusion of Kamala Das and other female writers conveyed the insularity of the publishing industry. The next generation of writers to publish in English included poets such as Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo, who would change the course of publishing women’s poetry in India. King’s single chapter on ‘Women’s Voices’ examines the work of de Souza alongside Mamta Kalia, Melanie Silgardo and Kamala Das, women who King believes were the major female poets at the time when his critical study was published.

De Souza, like many other Indian poets, comes from an English-speaking family. Her poems are derived from memories of her Goan Catholic childhood in Pune and deal with issues of religious ‘repression, prejudices, ignorance, social injustice and women’s places in marriage and family’.[15] While she is unmarried and childless, her poems address women’s roles in their families and religious institutions as well as the patriarchal nature of Indian society.[16] De Souza’s first volume of poetry Fix (1979) was published by Newground, a poetry co-operative started by poets Melanie Silgardo, Raul D’Gama Rose and Santan Rodrigues.[17] Newground was a short-lived project, which published four volumes in total, but it was considered to be a significant part of a poetry movement in Mumbai because it exhibited new work by Indian poets writing in English and brought the voices of women poets to the public.[18]

In 2001 De Souza responded to Mehrotra’s volume with the publication of her anthology Nine Indian Women Poets in the hope that the book would showcase the work of significant women writers from Catholic, Parsi, Hindu and Muslim backgrounds.[19] De Souza’s collection includes her own work as well as that of Silgardo, Das, Bhatt and others to demonstrate a variety of poetic styles, syntax, language and reasons for writing in English. Since the publication ofthe anthology, de Souza has published other volumes of poetry and novels, as well as two other edited anthologies on women’s writing, Purdah (2004) and Women’s Voices: Selections from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English (2004). She also co-authored the comprehensive anthology These My Words: the Penguin Book of Indian Poetry (2012) with Silgardo. Having experienced firsthand the marginalisation of poetry by women writing in English, de Souza responded by not only ensuring the publication of Indian women’s poetry but by also engaging in literary criticism of their work to gain a wider readership for Indian women poets. 

Melanie Silgardo is de Souza’s former student, and similarities can be seen between her poetry and that of her mentor. She is a Goan Catholic from Pune and also comes from an English-speaking family. Her work was an important part of the poetry scene in Mumbai during the 1970s.[20] Silgardo’s poems demonstrate a similar ‘visual craft and economy’ as that demonstrated by de Souza,[21] though they have a more ominous tone. After her poems appeared alongside D’Gama and Rodrigues in Three Poets (1978) published by Newground, Silgardo completed a single collection of poems Skies of Design (1985) and went on to work as an editor for the feminist publishing house Virago Press in the UK. Silgardo was at Virago during the late 1980s to mid 1990s when ‘women’s publishing houses were being put on the line to justify their existence’.[22] She was asked to consult with clients of colour and even worked on a major collection of a century of Arab women’s writing titled Opening the Gates (1990).[23] While she continues to work in publishing and teaches creative writing, Silgardo has not published another collection of poetry, which she links to self-criticism and a lack of time to produce new writing.[24] The absence of a new collection may also be linked to her distance from friends and writing influences in India.

In spite of not having published in recent years, Silgardo remains an important figure in contemporary women’s poetry in English, both for her poems and for her interest in publishing women’s writing. De Souza and Silgardo have gone on to careers as editors and critics who have greatly influenced the publication of women’s poetry in India. Their friendship and experiences as poets and editors suggest the significance of women’s involvement in the publication, distribution and readership of contemporary Indian women’s literature in English.  In exploring these dimensions of de Souza’s and Silgardo’s lives, I want to comprehend how communities and friendships between women have encouraged a growth in Indian women’s poetry in recent years. Undoubtedly, social and political developments surrounding women’s experiences have also brought more awareness to women’s writing, and these changes help us look at the details of women’s lives as part of a national tradition.

Women’s experiences in the poetry of Sujata Bhatt

Having explored some of the developments and influences in Indian women’s poetry after independence, I turn now to the work of Sujata Bhatt, who is of a younger generation than Das, de Souza and Silgardo, but whose poems engage with representations of women as mothers and preservers of a national culture and traditions. Bhatt moved away from India at a young age, having grown up in the United States and moved to Germany after marriage,[25] but her poems reflect a sense of loss in leaving Gujarat, which she explores through idealisations of Indian motherhood and women’s roles in the home. Her poem ‘My Mother’s Way of Wearing a Sari’ from the collection Augatora (2000) capitalises on childhood memories, as Bhatt correlates her mother’s way of dressing with a ‘simple’ way of life that she no longer has now that she resides abroad. Bhatt’s desire to return to her childhood in India is evident through the voice of a child speaker in the poem who watches her mother put on the traditional dress: “She wraps the sari around herself / in less than three minutes and sometimes / I wish she would start all over again.”[26]

Although her mother rushes to begin her day’s work around the house, we perceive an overlap of representations of women’s public and private roles in the home, for her mother only wears saris made of khadi, a “hand-spun, hand-woven cotton”, which the poem implies Bhatt’s mother made herself.[27] The making of khadi holds political significance, for this type of cotton is a Gandhian symbol of women’s involvement in the nationalist movement. The making of khadi brought the public realm of the movement into the private space of the home because women could be actively involved in the movement for independence by making clothes from cotton in resistance to British-taxed goods.[28] Her mother’s choice in wearing the simple khadi instead of more delicate silk suggests the woman’s autonomy in making her own decisions; it also implies that she works hard for the betterment of her family, both attributes which Bhatt seems to admire.

Bhatt idealises her mother’s role as the preserver of Indian culture in other poems such as ‘History is a Broken Narrative’, also from Augatora and ‘Gale Force Winds’ from Pure Lizard (2008), both of which depict her mother in traditional roles in the home—in the first instance, her teaching Bhatt their native languages of Gujarati and Marathi and, in the second, her cooking, which Bhatt attempts to emulate in her own life abroad. ‘History is a Broken Narrative’ is a multi-layered poem which explores Bhatt’s experience of being out of ‘out-of-language’,[29] as Salman Rushdie calls it, as her family moved between the United States and India when she was a child. The poem centres on Bhatt’s experience of learning English and the alphabets of her own native languages of Gujarati and Marathi at the same time; she continues to think in different languages and fuse her native languages with English in her poems.[30] In ‘History is a Broken Narrative’, Bhatt associates her mother with their culture and language: ‘Afternoons my mother / led me through our old alphabet – / I felt as if the different scripts /belonged together’.[31] In learning her native languages from her mother, Bhatt feels connected to her Indian heritage and homeland, even though she lived abroad. Suruchi Thapar-Björkert and Louise Ryan point out that religion and vernacular language are defining elements of Indian culture.[32] In her mother’s passing on their native languages to Bhatt, the poet affirms a relationship between representations of her mother and those of the mother tongue and motherland. While Bhatt writes in English, she continues to feel connected to her Indian heritage through these languages and her relationship with her mother.

These idealisations of her mother are furthered by Bhatt’s desire to become like her and maintain family traditions in her own life abroad. In ‘Gale Force Winds’ from Pure Lizard, Bhatt attempts to reproduce her Indian culture in Germany by using the same spices her mother once used in India, which is seen in the following lines:

          I’m refilling jars with spices.

                                         As I release them,

          as I pour them from paper into glass,

          I recall my mother’s instructions,

          her recipes, her ginger cures

                                     for almost every ailment.[33]

In using the same spices her mother once used to cook, Bhatt not only feels closer to her heritage, but she also believes she can become like her mother. By depicting her mother in this domestic role of cooking traditional recipes, Bhatt idealises her mother’s responsibilities in the home and obscures the experiences her mother may have faced in maintaining their Indian culture while the family adjusted to life abroad.  Bhatt’s desire to preserve her heritage simplifies her mother’s responsibilities to her family by placing her mother in domestic roles and portraying her as the preserver of Indian culture and traditions. Nevertheless, these poems demonstrate the significant influence that her mother had on her personal life as well as creative development as a poet.

In this final poem, I look at Bhatt’s desire to represent her mother’s experience of Partition as part of Indian history. Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin discuss the significance of women’s stories as part of history in their study Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (1998). They note that, ‘Different sorts of telling reveal different truths, and the “fragment” is significant precisely because it is marginal rather than mainstream, particular (even individual), rather than general, and because it presents history from below’.[34] This statement suggests the importance of bringing women’s narratives into a national history, which Bhatt does through a poem about her mother’s experience of the partition of British India.

The poem ‘Partition’ from Augatora explores Bhatt’s mother’s memories of growing up in Ahmedabad, a major city located just southeast of what is now the Pakistan Indian border. Given the title of the poem, it is clear that Bhatt wants her mother’s story to be seen as part of the greater narrative of Partition history, and the poem reveals her mother’s experience through a retelling of a story that is passed on from mother to daughter. Bhatt brings the violence and suffering of this period to the forefront of the poem through descriptions of the sounds in her city: ‘she could hear the cries of the people / stranded in the Ahmedabad railway station’, but her mother was young and afraid of becoming involved, so she stayed at home away from the violence.[35] Unlike other women in her family, such as her aunt who went to the train station everyday, Bhatt’s mother was physically uninvolved in aiding others during this upheaval. Nevertheless, she is still haunted by the memories of that time, which Bhatt attempts to capture in the poem.[36]  Her mother’s reluctance in recalling this memory reveals the significance of women’s stories in the narratives of Indian history, and suggests that at times the only way to include them is by women passing on their stories through oral history.

The second part of the poem moves from her mother’s memories of Partition to Bhatt’s own experience of sitting with her mother and hearing the story. She says:

              Now, when my mother

              tells me this at midnight

              in her kitchen – she is

              seventy-years-old and India

              is ‘fifty’. ‘But, of course

              India is older than that,’ she says,

              ‘India was always there.[37]

In shifting the perspective of the poem from her mother’s memory to Bhatt’s experience of hearing it, we are able to perceive the social and historical frame of the poem, which places her mother’s memory and Bhatt’s role as the storyteller within a greater narrative.  Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin note the significance of hearing women’s stories of Partition, even if they are only in the form of a story, because women’s everyday experiences and memories of Partition are just as important as documented historical facts of that time.[38]  Bhatt’s inclusion of her mother’s words in the poem holds personal significance, for in relating their conversation, she places herself within her own family history and in a national history. Bhatt’s ‘Partition’ depicts this personal story as an important aspect of Indian history and signifies her desire to portray the experiences of the women in her family.

Bhatt’s poems about her mother show us the importance of perceiving women’s stories as part of a national history, but they also reveal the simple details of her mother’s life as an Indian woman. The relationship between mother and daughter indicated by these poems undoubtedly influenced Bhatt’s creative work, and in turn, Bhatt reflects upon these memories in her poetry.  Similar influences can be seen in the friendship between de Souza and Silgardo, who not only published and encouraged one another’s work, but have also gone on to influence younger generations of women poets in India. The communities built by these women through personal relationships and poetic influences indicate the importance of women’s roles in bringing greater awareness to the work of Indian women poets writing in English.

Melony Bethala is from New Orleans and currently resides in the UK. She is a PhD candidate at the University of York where her research compares contemporary Irish and Indian women poets writing in English. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and her poems have appeared in The Honest Ulsterman, The Narrator, When Women Waken, Abridged, and the anthology A Thoroughly Good Blue.

[1] Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita. Women Writing in India Volume II: The 20th Century (New York: The Feminist Press, 1993), xxiii.

[2] De Souza, Eunice. Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), 5.

[3] Agarwal, Smita. Marginalized: Indian Poetry in English (New York: Rodopi, 2014), 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Papke, Renate, Poems at the Edge of Difference: Mothering in New English Poetry by Women (Göttingen: University of Göttingen, 2008).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Agarwal, Marginalized, 6.

[8] Agarwal, Marginalized, 4.

[9] Papke, Mothering in Poetry, 55.

[10] King. Modern Indian Poetry, 12.

[11] King, Modern Indian Poetry, 9.

[12] King, Modern Indian Poetry, 147.

[13] King, Modern Indian Poetry, 21.

[14] Papke, Mothering in Poetry, 67.

[15] Papke, Mothering in Poetry, 68.

[16] Ibid.

[17] De Souza, Nine Indian Women, 37.

[18] Anjum Hasan, ‘“Your Missing Person”: Clearing House and the Bombay Poets,’ The Caravan, Nov 1, 2010, 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Papke, Mothering in Poetry, 72.

[21] Ibid.

[22] De Souza, Talking Poems: Conversations with Poets  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 124.

[23] Ibid.

[24] De Souza, Talking Poems, 127.

[25] Bertram, Vicki, “Sujata Bhatt in Conversation,” PN Review 138 27, no. 4 (2001): 1.

[26] Bhatt, Sujata, Augatora (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000), 91.

[27] Bhatt, Augatora 91.

[28] Thapar, Suruchi. “Women as Activists, Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review 44 (1993): 86.

[29] Rushdie, Salman, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (New York: Penguin, 1992), 12.

[30] Bertram, ‘Sujata Bhatt in Conversation’: 7.

[31] Bhatt, Augatora, 41.

[32] Thapar-Björkert and Ryan, “Mother India/Mother Ireland: Comparative Gendered Dialogues of Colonialism and Nationalism in the Earl 20th Century,” Women’s Studies International Forum 25, no.3 (2002): 306.

[33] Bhatt, Pure Lizard, 41.

[34] Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin. Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998), 8.

[35] Bhatt, Augatora, 34.

[36] Bhatt, Augatora, 34.

[37] Bhatt, Augatora, 34.

[38] Menon and Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries, 10.