As women make their mark in every field, Sangeeta Kampani’s new book of poems, My Daughter’s Wedding, offers us a peep into the lives of Indian women: some shrugging off sexism, some slaving away in the kitchen, some resisting injustice with passion, all of them ingesting patriarchy’s poison.

The poem “Poisoned Ink” critiques systemic patriarchy, which leaves its imprint on every generation. Daughters, suffocated by their mother’s fears, wrestle for their freedom. Young and carefree, they want to emulate latest trends. Mothers, subdued by life, watch their daughters with a wary eye. Anxious for their child’s safety, they occasionally slip in a critical remark. When the rebel daughter grows up, she turns into a replica of her own timid mother. Compelled by the urge to protect her daughter from danger, she succumbs to the forces that operated on her own mother. This mother-daughter tragedy is scripted in patriarchy’s poisoned ink:

And the vintage story goes on,
Fear feeds on fear
It is really a miracle
How you and me and her,
How generations,
How all of us
Stick to our mythic, primal task of being a protector and nurturer
How we all suffocate each other
And yet, how much we are all in sync,
Perpetuating our story in society’s poisoned ink.

The injustices of patriarchy

The eponymous poem, “My Daughter’s Wedding”, reflects the strain of melancholy beneath the mirth and merriment of a wedding. The wedding card is designed by the bride herself. Inscribed with Kahlil Gibran’s verses, it conveys the tender hopes of the young woman. The season is spring. Like the bride, nature is in full bloom. The mother, who has lived through all seasons of life and seen all shades of patriarchy, broods over her daughter’s fate. A fat pay-cheque cannot win the daughter equality. Nor can it prepare her for the countless adjustments she’ll have to make at her in-laws’ place:

Would she be able to handle the eternal story of a million expectations,
a million adjustments,
of constant appraisals,
of constant judgements…

The mother’s silent wails seem to drown out the celebratory songs. The reader is transported to a time when passion will fade and patriarchy will bare its fangs. Kampani reveals the prosaic side of life in her limpid and flowing verse. She makes you feel the force and fervour of a mother’s love.

“Tree Pose” depicts the plight of a woman struggling to balance the roles and responsibilities thrust upon her. Forever running, forever serving, she empties herself out to keep others happy. Aspiring to be a man’s equal only doubles her workload. Precariously perched, she find it difficult to identify with her multiple identities:

I was born a daughter
but trained to lead multiple lives
always perilously perched
on the edge of the ladder,
connecting, conjoining my multiple identities
juggling, shuffling
and endless roles

“The Golden Door” leads us into the world of young girls who pluck and handle flowers that bloom in plush drawing rooms. Oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the poor, whose silent labour sustains their luxurious lives, the rich pick and choose the most exotic flowers. The speaker of the poem, who comes from “elitist pastures”, admits her ignorance of the process that makes those flowers available. The delicate hands of girls, who wilt in poverty, gather those blossoms that spread cheer in our lives. The poem compels the reader to spare a thought for those hapless girls, who long for a normal childhood:

Yesterday, out of habit,
I again picked a fresh basket,
but hidden in each rose,
was a small girl from the margins;
her sore fingers crying for crayons,
her tiny hands itching to hold a book,
and her heart yearning for a golden door,
that takes her to a land,
she has never seen before!

The simplicity of Kampani’s verse makes it both accessible and powerful. She exposes the ugly truths of a sexist and unequal society with unflinching directness and great finesse. Like a nimble craftsman, she carves out exquisite pieces from the minutiae of everyday life. In “The Great Indian Kitchen”, she enters the domain and prison of housewives, revealing the drama and drudgery of managing a family:

Some days, she was the queen
Other days, a mere slave
Her fortunes would see-saw from day to day.
Mrs Sharma managed a large family
And the Great Indian Kitchen
She knew that her efficiency and performance out there could make or mar her
From Parantha to Dosa,
From Biryani to Korma,
She doled it all out with the skills of a magician.

“The Colourful Love Life of Ms Grewal” lights up the entire collection. Ms Grewal’s radiant personality rises before you; her spirit infuses the luminous and lively poem. Talking about her ex-boyfriends with candour, she manages to raise eyebrows at a gathering. The disquiet reveals society’s double standards: men can flirt and share their exploits but women are expected to put up a demure front. Unruffled by this obvious hypocrisy, Ms Grewal leaves the party in style.

A poem that deserves a close read is “Me Too”, which offers a scathing critique of a rape victim’s trial by society. As the pressure mounts and the tongues start wagging, the woman’s howl of protest becomes a whimper. She attracts opprobrium, while the man escapes without a blot on his image:

Like Medusa, she was portrayed as a cruel monster,
A symbol of evil,
Not a symbol of power.
Patriarchy was quick to close in on its clan
The verdict was the same –
It cannot be, he is an honourable man!

The poem “Misba Khatoon” celebrates the liberating effect of football on a girl with humble roots but high hopes. As the girl sweats it out on the field, she learns valuable life lessons: how to hold one’s ground and “dribble past patriarchy”. In “DNA of Feminism”, Kampani proposes a concept that allows women to be the way they choose to be. They don’t have to reject their femininity and become gender-neutral, nor do they need to conform to anybody’s notion of womanhood. Women can be “appealing, pleasing, daring, maternal, reliable, efficient, sensual, sexual, mysterious” all at once. Feminism must win us the right to be our authentic selves.

Existential conundrums

Though gender is a prominent theme in the collection, there are pieces of verse that explore other themes. “Grey as Grey” is a gritty look at the mayhem unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic and its poor handling – countless corpses and immeasurable grief; crematoriums packed beyond belief; the stench of death; the sick gasping for breath. The reader is forced to relive those dark days, which are already in danger of fading from public memory:

Society’s nuts and bolts 
Gone all askew
A line of shrouds 
Graveyards full... 
Unending is the queue.
All this brush with chaos... 
My spine is broken
How do I shed this Albatross! 
I am told not to lose hope
Tell me,
How to remain positive
So strong is the billowing smoke.

“The Resilient Refugee” is based on the poet’s own inherited trauma. The poem revisits the travails of “midnight’s dispossessed children”, all “[u]nited in adversity”. It evokes the gory birth of the “two kin-nations”, whose history was determined by processes that “echo even today”. The poem is a salute to the human spirit, which can survive the blows of a horrendous fate.

With deep compassion, Kampani reveals the existential conundrums faced by ordinary mortals. In the poem “Rukmani”, an innocent hill girl is faced with a “cosmic question”: To be or not to be. The war raging inside her mind takes its toll. Her mother’s steadfast heart refuses to believe her daughter is gone. The poem provokes reflection on the transience of life and the tenacity of faith.

“Conversations” brings into focus the ennui that has seeped into our lives, thanks to the digitisation of human connections and the dearth of intimate conversations. It takes a wistful look at an age when conversations, fuelled by camaraderie, breathed life into existence. This was before WhatsApp forwards and dry text messages stole the joys of a tête-à-tête:

Every day, ennui eats into me
Leaving me forlorn, hollow, empty,
Besieged by anxiety
Wistfully I remember the time gone by....
Time when life and conversations flowed,
Those murmurous summer afternoons
When we would measure out our life in coffee spoons…

The poem dedicated to Kampani’s home injects a note of nostalgia into the collection. Despite the ravages of time, the structure is a reservoir of fond memories. Hailing from a nondescript town, the poet fell for the charm and glitz of Delhi. Even so, she retains a firm connection with her roots. She offers us a collection that is grounded, soulful, and eminently readable.

My Daughter’s Wedding: Poems on Women, Patriarchy, and More, Sangeeta Kampani, Notion Press.