Feminism is the name of a unique battle. I write this with a momentous verdict just behind me. Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, has been convicted of murder and manslaughter almost a year after the May evening when he held his knee down on the neck of the handcuffed George Floyd for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds till Floyd’s heart gave away. Floyd was black, Chauvin white. The latter was suspected of passing a counterfeit currency note; you do the rest of the math. How does one human being do this to another?
In the last nine and a half minutes of his life, Floyd experienced violence whose many languages have not been a secret to women across India and throughout the world. George Floyd died on the streets of Minneapolis, at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, since then a hallowed spot of protest and remembrance. That too scripts a different trajectory of violence – and consequently, an arc of resistance that intersects as well as departs from racial oppression.
Violence against women, unforgettably metaphorised here in the poem by K Satchidanandan, for a great part, happens inside what people consider their safest space in the world. The home.
This is where the struggle of a woman, or someone minoritised by their sexual identity, becomes a unique one among the daily battles raged worldwide by people of oppressed racial, class, or caste backgrounds, even when different excluded identities merge to create many layers of unbelonging. The great part of the fight for the liberation of race, class, and caste happens in the public sphere, though they bleed into the private sphere incessantly. But for the vast majority of people in the world, a close and intimate relationship with someone from a different race, caste, and even class, primarily remains a matter of choice.
Rooted in the politics of intimacy, this feminist project is unique. No human individual inhabits a world where they have not been, at least for a period, been in an intimate relationship with someone from a different sex. Sleeping with the adversary never had a more primitive meaning – or sleeping inside the enemy, or sleeping with the enemy inside you – howsoever you want to name the male child inside the mother, or the mother with the male child inside her.
Feminists as wide-ranging as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in Sultana’s Dream and Valerie Solanas in the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting out Men) have variously imagined worlds free of men or male agency, and often for very good reason, but such acts of sexual cleansing have remained in the realm of the fictitious.
That is why the feminist and non-binary struggle remains one fought significantly, perhaps overwhelmingly, in the private sphere. Both history and reality around us tell us that it is also a crucial public battle, not merely for things like an equitable opportunity in the workplace or access to civil and democratic rights, but against the very public, historically entrenched order of patriarchy, which like an invisible and inevitable force, engulfs all sexes and genders.
That’s what Virginia Woolf called for in Three Guineas, to remake a hyper-masculine, heavily militarised public sphere in the image of the private sphere to which women had been historically restricted – to educate the former with the humbly earned virtues of the latter. Woolf’s vision of the world is androgynous, just as she imagined her character Orlando to be – Lord Orlando becomes Lady Orlando after a couple of hundred years of “his” life, to transform into the tall, boyish, sharp-featured, female author in wartime England that its actual creator would become herself.
Woolf’s androgyny also contained her bisexuality, or more appropriately, her queerness, the dissident desire that undoes traditional binaries between dominant forms of gender and sexual desire. We contain multitudes within us, scarcely a few among which can be accommodated by our lifestyle choices and social representation of ourselves.
Society would not be society if it were not norm-driven. What choice do we have but to live forever at a slight angle to socially crafted norms? What choice do men have but to become allies to the female and non-binary struggle against patriarchy that imprisons all sexes and sexualities – what choice but to plead for perpetual forgiveness for the havoc creaked by insidious as well as toxic masculinity?
An overwhelming number of men don’t ally themselves to this struggle, doubtless deluded by the illusion of advantage patriarchy offers them.
But this delusion keeps them poor and stunted, a long way from the realisation of their true potential and of the real worth of the human universe. McDuff, too, was woman-born – he was “but snatched from the womb early” – as we all are, early, late, or on time, entwined in a mutual company that is inextricably intimate, sweaty and prickly, pleasurable and unimaginably hurtful. What choice do we have but to worry about the lines that separate our gender and our desire into binary oppositions convenient for a society that remains patriarchal and heteronormative in the service of forces that are more powerful than human beings?
No wonder male poets here speak in voices that long to be feminine or bemoan the failure to be so. In Amit Shankar Saha’s poem, it becomes the necessary dream of “The Outsider” even as the voice carries a cry of futility: “I cannot write a feminist poem / for my mother is dead.” Death on the other end, of a child in her womb, drapes the dark around Boudhayan Mukherjee’s poetic voice in “Elegy.” Fluid gender is a rich crown of thorns for Chand, speaking starkly: “My gender fucks with your mind and categories / And wants to fuck you.”
But a man’s body is always that of a woman’s too; its intimate debt is not just to a mother, but to others like her, aunts and grandmothers who give birth to kin many times over, who nourish us through our lives, and far beyond their own.
In Sumallya Mukhopadhyay’s poems, myths in the family stretch, expand into infinity, become planetary, while Manik Sharma’s poetic voice imagines the voices of their grandpa and grandma: “They were angry at each other for getting old, and / for having crumpled skin that read like trashed paper.”
But a quotidian refrain, no less powerful: “I hardly ever saw my mother. I was with you” drives the music in Souradeep Roy’s poem about the nourishing spectre of a grandmother, claiming kinship with Subhrasankar Das’s unforgettable, “Zero,” where a beloved aunt catches fish as if they were fingers that had slipped away.
The lyric of the woman as dwelling in continuity with nature, a powerful running strain in this collection, also recalls the poetry of Kinshuk Gupta, where flora and fauna, snakes and plant-tendril, the animate and the inanimate entangle to haunting beauty, and the words of Amlanjyoti Goswami, which paint the image of the newlywed girl about to leave the home she remembers as “mud banks, sunlit alleys,” and “silver flying fishes.” Houses bare their souls, especially when people leave or new people arrive to join their fold. “The old house blushed / Twilight hues painting a shy smile” in Raja Chakraborty’s poem, “Of Houses” when the newlywed wife crosses the threshold to call the house her own.
But visceral intimacy is not limited to mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. There is another woman who clears the debris of everyday life, soaks its dirt and grime, whose brutal reality is deified time and again in these poems. It is the invisible omnipresence of the other divinity, the woman as a domestic labourer, the household help, whether kindred or hired. The powerful futility of her cry is recorded in Abhay K’s “A Maid’s Monologue,” as well as in the gnarled kitchen of the old woman in Aditya Shankar’s moving poem of “wrinkled hands” and “dirt” that “takes over the rims of her casseroles and tumblers.”
The raging lyricism of the excerpts from Khal Torabully’s “Voices from the Aapravasi Ghat” crystallises the historical violence done to the coolie woman as well as her brutal question: “How can an object of Desire be a subject of Empire? / How Sahib?” The construction worker who piles bricks atop her head in Goirick Brahmachari’s “As I Watch the Road” lights, at the end of a tiring day, her bidi, in a gesture where disdain and despair melt into each other interminably.
Ankush Banerjee tells a mythical story of labor and abuse – of the woman whose limp body was dragged out of a pond one day, who, resuscitated, was named Kalindi, to become a maid to the family. But she also becomes a myth that dwarfs the real, as Yajnaseni in Dibyajyoti Sarma’s powerful lines: “What would you do, Yajnaseni? / Cook your flesh? Cook the flesh of your daughters?”
Sexual labour remains unmentionable that continues to bind certain women to public or domestic forms of exploitation, whether for marriage or commerce.
Basab Mondal creates a poem about “the moll carrying the unborn / in the dark of her womb,” where the haunting shadow of a streetwalking woman attains a mythical unreality. In “The Silent Lane,” Milan Mondal etches the evening of a prostitute who is ready to accept any patron, “for bargaining is useless.” The shadow of a streetwalker in narrow, dusky alleys is an image that draws me like a magnet, especially the life of a prostitute as a performer.
The darkness associated with the life of an actress as seen through the eyes of her young son shaped one of my own novels, one especially dear to me for reasons hard to explain. Here too, domesticity is no safe refuge for a woman from sexual oppression. This comes viscerally alive in Paresh Tiwari’s poem, “Surviving Marital Rape,” where the most significant option for the victim is to say “‘No.’ Loud enough for the walls to come crashing down.” As predatorial greed makes the doe’s flesh her greatest enemy, the world of male lust renders a woman’s body her enemy, a vicious paradox heart-rendingly captured in Durga Prasad Panda’s poem, “Her Body.”
Society’s admission of violence against women continues to be riddled with ironies.
Allan Kolski Horwitz’s poem “Census” narrates a dystopian accounting of battered women, where “standing in front of the enumerators / it was almost like being famous / this being counted as if you count.” But in Ammar Aziz’s poetic voice, there is no anodyne of anonymity, as it is the father who beats the mother, as that’s the norm in that town, “Where women / Often became nightingales / Disappearing into the stars.”
Sexual onslaught takes on a vitriolic form when bolstered by caste privilege. Chandramohan Sathyanathan gives pointed shape to caste-driven oppression of sexual freedom in his poem “On Inter-caste Love” and paints a flaming picture of the Dalit woman poet: “Her book of poems / is a treatise on disheveled hair / and tresses on fire.” Madhu Raghavendra outlines, in the cryptic language of commerce, the hypocrisies of sex and caste that shape matrimonial ads. The nurturing sexual power of women throbs to violent life in another poem he writes, where women withhold sex to end war: “I am a woman; I can freeze civil wars / between my thighs / let your arousal increase / peace. / Once we win over your gory arms / let’s make love in peace.”
Maaz Bin Bilal, too, travels to parts of the world where the oppression and the liberation of women are conditioned by yet another inexorable determinant, religion: “Yeah, you’re right, I drove that Audi, / in prison, I am, I am the woman of Saudi!”
When a man takes an honest and searing look at a woman and her journey, the female form appears no less mythical than real.
Alan Britt’s “Myth of the Baker’s Daughter” is an Ovidian work where “They say the owl / used to be a baker’s daughter / with wild hyacinth hair.” Metamorphosis becomes an intricate, artistic process in Alvin Pang’s poetry; between plant, women, and sculpture, a different awakening arrives in Amal Joseph Mathew’s lines, where “The painter recalls the face of god; it is a woman.” Bibhu Padhi writes a poem like a silhouette, “All through the long night,” where light and shadow recreate the entropy of human life.
Debarshi Mitra’s “Genesis” articulates an origin story that also feels like an apocalypse, where the endless expanse of one’s memory is a sea that mysteriously contains the unborn. Ra Sh writes witty poems of the quick and disastrous myth of our sexual identities where at the end of the catastrophe, “Emasculated Androgen and / stitched up Estrogen have fled. / They are said to be living / in an island named / Dopamine.”
The abstract gets slithering body in Riccardo Duranti’s minute carvings of poems while “She felt her mind curling up / around the wind / and a kite was born out of her will.” Dustin Pickering’s sharp, corrosive poems trade words for bullets, shatter male diplomacy to evoke the ritual potential of women warriors. The true reservoir in Gopal Lahiri’s poem “Dark Reservoir” is the human mind, swirled to turbulence by feelings, images, and memory.
Folklore might claim lizards as bringing good luck, but in Inam Hussain Begg Mullick’s poem of tender reality, “Fear of lizards,” revulsion for rats, lizards, and cockroaches shapes identifiable memorable forms. The ploy to place the mind above the body was a masculine one, and Soumik Kumar De, in “An Ode to Skin,” lays bare the power of naked skin, its infinite capacity for pleasure and suffering.
Human relationships, in these poems, holds the weight of futurity and the ethereal breath of pastness. Old women, young girls, strangers with vacant stares who claim kinship by sharing the earth with you, perhaps anonymous physical proximity.
The old woman in “Bed No 187,” in Sankhet Mhatre’s poem asks, “If I die here, will you take me back to my village?” The time comes when “She smiled and wrapped her wrinkles around me / like that is the only gift she could give / before going to sleep.” Youth, too, holds the deep power of promise. “The Girl of Fifteen,” in the poem named after her by Sarabjeet Garcha, “dares / the tarmac vapours rising up / to become her noonday bandanna,” making fierce generosity the very core of her being: “She writes the one rule / only a woman knows by birth: / In my house, nobody dies of hunger.”
For Vivekanand Selvaraj, Bharat Mata, in the poem named after her, was an unassuming, unremarkable classmate, who had “Braces and the accompanying / smile, hanging off her sword like a traitor’s gut, / Saree draped like white waves with / tri-color foam and a fiery ball on her usually / bare forehead...”, deceptive in her un-remarkableness, baring her vulnerability before physical punishment in the most bruising way. Human qualities, in the meantime, get gendered traits. If “coercion” is imagined as a “many trait,” it forces Tim Kahl to ask: “So when / I say, leave me to my knitting—does this make / me a feminist?”
As men are born of mothers, sometimes they father daughters. Watching a daughter grow is a musical, unconscious lesson in feminism for fathers who wish to learn. In scripting the lyric of possible and fictional learning for a daughter, Umar Nizarudeen etches a whole universe of meaning – of what the word “consummation” can mean for the growing girl, after she has stumbled upon it in a dictionary. In Kiriti Sengupta’s witty, deeply revealing poem “The Y-Gene,” we get another script – that of a possible relationship between girls and education. The irony of wishing a daughter to call her “Srividya” comes full circle when a male child arrives instead, growing up into a boy who, returning from school one day, identifies, to his mother, girls as the classmates who “sit on the left side.” But alas, patriarchy ensures that male mentoring of young women reincarnate as new acts of abuse and oppression.
Lawrence Schimel’s poem indeed offers a chilling fairy tale for writers, especially female writers who fall prey to male mentorship. The female writing student gives up her own writing voice, her very identity, at the behest of her male writing teacher, seeking his love and becoming his mistress in the process, only to discover that his wife was once a writer too, who gave up her own writing merely to be content to be the wife of a philandering, successful writer.
Mentorship and poetry and the tangled reality of the female artist give me the most unsettling pause.
I was honoured and hesitant in equal parts when the editor and the publisher asked me to write a foreword to this collection; the hesitation came no less from my own maleness than from my identity as a novelist asked to speak on poetry. But I floated along with the breeze of a conviction then not shared with anyone beyond a few friends, that which was rooted in the anticipated worlding of a new novel where I seek to tell the story of a female poet in a college caught in the intimate throes of mentorship, sucking her energy as much from an erotic Plato in The Symposium as from Drona’s cruelty to Ekalavya.
What are the ethical limits of mentorship? Of the obligations of poetry? Having read this collection, I take stronger heart – that men can write about women, write as women, no less than they can create poetry and music about the horrors men have created for women, horrors which they must own up, and the horrors created by the concrete abstraction called patriarchy that goes beyond individuals of any sex, but which always corrupts the scale to let men win in the end, just as a Brahmin guru was not above doing for his princely student, at the cost of a low-caste aspirant.
I cannot think of more intricate, beautiful poetry of pain and guilt as this collection. Do read these poems and be stunned by the painful aesthetic violence and inequity can create in the strangest of ways.
Saikat Majumdar, professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University, is the author of three novels, most recently, The Scent of God. He has also published a book of criticism, Prose of the World (2013), a work of nonfiction, College (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, a college campus novel about poetry and mentorship, will be published in autumn 2021.
The “Foreword”, excerpted with permission from Collegiality and Other Ballads, Introduced and Edited by Shamayita Sen, Hawakal Publishers.