Anamika has won the Sahitya Akademi award for the year 2020 for her poetry collection Tokri mein Digant: Therigatha 2014. She is a celebrated feminist poet writing in Hindi. I use the word “feminist” deliberately, because Anamika’s corpus of literary works has given a powerful voice to the women’s cause.

Feminist studies across the globe have celebrated the emergence of women writers in the literary canon, which has actually changed the optics. When lived experiences are shared by women through their writings, it empowers them to rip apart the social, political, economic and familial structures which have always denied them the right of being equals and made them feel subjugated.

Anamika has been writing for a long time but her poetry made significant inroads in the feminist discourse during the ’90s. The decade witnessed important turns of events in Indian society. With the global wave of economic liberalisation, society started to open up. Women began to stake their claim in the national equity.

Feminist thought was no longer limited to the assertion of self by women. They wanted larger participation in the mainstream socio-political rubric. Literary and cultural history were also on the threshold of a new era at this time. Voices from the margins were gaining ground and were being heard. Anamika’s poetry touches upon all these issues with a greater sensitivity.

Anamika is the author of eight collections of poetry, which include Anushtup, Doob-dhaan, Khurdari Hatheliyaan, Tokri mein Digant, and Paani ko Sab Yaad thaa. Her poems have been translated into English and compiled in a collection titled My Typewriter is My Piano. She is also a fiction writer, translator and literary critic, and has won numerous awards.

Anamika’s post-doctoral research is on this topic: “The Treatment of Love and Death in Post-War American Women Poets”. As a Fellow at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi, she worked on “The Proto-Feminist Hindi World: Mothers, Writers, Folklorists (1920-1947)“. Currently, she teaches English Literature at a college in the University of Delhi.

Restless interrogation

Like a painting on a wide canvas, Anamika’s poetry weaves images from varied elements. To a large extent, it is rooted in the folk and oral traditions of central east India. She effectively juxtaposes knowledge with everyday experiences of our lives and in the process throws open a plethora of absurdities, contradictions and ironies.

Using wit and pun as effective tools of language, she creates an interplay of images, sounds and words that directly challenge the feudalistic bastion of patriarchy. Although the poet firmly believes and stands up for the cause of each and every human being whose dignity is compromised by the oppressive social structures, in her own way, in poem after poem, she presents the paradoxical lives of women with graphic details.

Anamika’s poems seem to personify the phrase “the personal is political”. Her restless interrogation of the grand narrative of the “personal” within the family exposes the high moral grounds of patriarchy which is extremely abusive and inherently violent. The taming of women into the domestic household is a kind of violence that goes unrecorded.

Women are prepared for a life of service. Anamika’s poem titled “Without a Place” or “Bejagah” in Hindi, rightly paints the deplorable state:

Misquoting a shloka, our Sanskrit teacher said,
‘Women, nails and hair, once fallen, lose their place forever.’
Frozen on our seats, we girls wondered
‘Place, what could the place be?’
We are out of place already!

Weren’t we shown our place early
Right in the primary lessons –
‘Ram, get your book.’
‘Radha, go and cook.’
‘Radha bring the broom, clean your brother’s room.’
Once a little Radha got up,
‘That’s brother’s room, and mine?’
At this they all laughed and said,
You are our little sunshine! You can’t be allotted a room’.

— Translated by Arlene Zide.

The foundations of inequalities are laid within the family itself. Parents actually strengthen and nurture them. Anamika’s poems unearth the fissures present within. She is here to tell you the stories of women’s lives through her poems, narratives of various injustices meted out to them.

These poems speak about the collective presence of women, engaged in a struggle uncomplainingly. Their joys and sorrows, elations and depressions – all infused in their zest for life. Another popular poem is “Women” (“Striyaan”)

We were read
like the torn pages of children’s notebooks
made into cones to hold warm chanajorgaram…
They sensed us
the way you sense the sufferings of a distant relative
One day we said
we’re human too.
Read us carefully
one letter at a time
the way after your BA, you’d read a job ad.
Look at us
the way, shivering,
you’d gaze at the flames of a distant fire
Listen to us
as you would the unstruck music of the void
and understand the way you’d understand a newly-learned language.

— Translated by Arlene Zide.

Changing the optics

We need to decode what Anamika is doing by bringing these images into her poems. She is actually changing the optics. This is the female gaze, free of male gaze, it gives a new vision to the entire discourse. Anamika’s major concern is about the gender stereotypes which portray men to be aggressive, strong and powerful while women are presented as vulnerable, dumb dolls.

The whole process of domestication of women takes place within the family. In all these poems Anamika shares the pain of the female protagonist and underlines the inequalities based on gender. In many of her essays she has emphasised that we can only be equals when men are not made to be more masculine and the women are not projected as mere feminine. She feels that the equality or the equilibrium in relationships can only hold when we dismiss this surplus of anger and desire.

From parental home to marital, nothing much changes for a woman. On the contrary, in her marital home, she might not even be addressed as sunshine. The clutches of patriarchy are stronger. In this patriarchal social order, most tragic is the life of thePativrata”, which can be loosely translated as “the dedicated wife” or “the husband’s woman”.

To be married is an honour for her but her position in the family is such that she is forced to quietly accept the abuses and violence targeted at her. While her husband always enjoys the privileged position. Anamika uses the image of colonial social structure to describe the hierarchies in a patriarchal household. I wish to discuss this poem in detail which explores the complicated relationship between the man and the wife similar in pattern, to a structured relationship between the ruler and his subjects:

As in the British empire
The sun never set
In their home
A scorching sunshine would not rest.

Even when the master, her husband, was away
He was there.
Like the imprint of his claws, stamp and stamp-paper,
Strewn all over were his towel, stick, chappals-shoes
Always present were his hiccups, burps and snores
Frowns, threats and abuses to the full

The master entered the house with a roar

— Translated by Rekha Sethi.

Each woman writer has her own way of dealing with patriarchy. At times based on this engagement one can locate the writer as moderate or radical or by any other such feminist tag. Though the writer herself might not structure one’s creativity in these rigid theoretical paradigms. This very poem is unique in more than one way. It talks of the structure of patriarchal household. In the second part of the poem:

A few days later
Someone read to her Gandhi’s biography
The influence of Satyagraha was such
That to protest unreasonable beatings
She would resort to long fasts
Four, five, seven evenings
She went without a morsel
Waiting in vain, for someone to show affection
Then one night when head would roll gin gin
With reeling head in her hand,
She dragged herself to the kitchen
Slowly picked up the stale roti to break her fast
Biting slowly with the salt borrowed from her tears

— Translated by Rekha Sethi.

In this part, the woman’s revolt has been equated to Gandhi’s salt satyagraha both salt and satyagraha being used in intertextual framework to expand the horizon of the meaning. What is more intriguing is the third part of the same poem.

She talks to herself
He works too hard and is also unwell
Where will he find the strength in his chest
To shout so loud, abuse or hit – poor thing!
And slowly, I have been tamed to think
‘In vain is the quarrel with an invalid’
I have now mastered forgiveness
I find his snores to be a humming song
I listen carefully, maybe he calls me in his dreams
Maybe he wants to say something which my ears
Have longed to hear, each day, for years
Something that can change the picture of my life
As plentiful rain on parched sand!

— Translated by Rekha Sethi.

To decode this part of the poem where the wife is still longing to hear the words of love, I look at the line, “I have now mastered forgiveness”. It is not easy to rebel, but it requires greater courage to forgive. The Pativrata of this poem is a woman with a husband who is not there as a companion. Instead, throughout his lifetime. he has been a man who knows certain rules of patriarchal life and the ways to enforce them, and yet she chooses to forgive him.

Wit as a tool

Anamika’s poems are all about the fine-print of these relationships which are unjust and oppressive. At the same time they are also about a woman’s courage who defies and challenges this authority. An almost iconic line from one of her very popular poems, “Door” (“Darwaza”) reads, “I was a door / The more they banged on me / The more I opened up.” (Translation: Ritu Menon.)

Here I am also reminded of a text by Krishna Sobti Ai, Ladki (“Listen, Girl”) The narrative of a woman’s life in this book is summed up by saying, “The churning a woman goes through when she steps into domesticity is no less than the jolts of an earthquake.” Patriarchy operates in a manner that shatters the self-confidence of a woman and curbs her individuality.

If the husband is a good human being – like Anamika says, “Men are not beyond repair” – he can be gentle with no unnecessary restrictions or claims on a woman’s life, but the family tradition has to be strictly adhered to, not leaving much space for woman’s own desires and aspirations.

These poems may not seem to be loud voices of protest. Anamika uses wit as a tool for rejection of these structures and argues for a powerful resistance. She presents a parallel history when she contextualises the everyday narratives of women, connecting them to the long tradition of oral and folk, unravelling its embedded history.

This is how the Buddhist theries (nuns), aunts of the neighbourhood, and old deserted women appear in her poems expressing the great epical tragedy of women’s lives in this rigid patriarchal social order. Her poems transcend the period from 600 BCE, the time of the Buddhist nuns, to the girls on the streets in the present times, be it young sex-workers or the ones who make a living by ironing clothes of the people with greater means.

As a poet Anamika’s sympathy lies with all those who are deprived, marginalised or have been seduced by the system, who lost their dignity or have never felt loved. These could be characters from the classics, or ordinary people in the real world who have been rendered so very lonely.

Anamika’s feminist stance is not merely a simplified strategy of presenting men and women as binary opposites. Rather, she believes in spreading a mat – what she calls a chatai bichhana. It becomes a metaphor for disrupting all hierarchies and locating a woman in an all-inclusive world where other binaries of class, caste and gender are rendered meaningless.

In her search for the strategies of liberation, Anamika’s approach is multi-layered. On the one hand she juxtaposes cultural histories to the real-world problems of the present, and on the other she identifies the “feminine strength” through universal sisterhood, realisation and assertion of the “self” discovering “khudi” – the inner self. The keyword to this world of poetry is compassion, just as Anamika writes in her poem on Amrapali Buddha: ‘Only compassion will prevail”.