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Jaydeep Sarangi reviews Touch by Meena Kandasamy

January 1, 2011 / mascara / 0 Comments

By Meena Kandasamy
Peacock Books Mumbai

ISBN: 81-88811-87-4


Dalit literatures in India are subversive, or structurally alternative to the models

prescribed by traditional Hindu aesthetics precisely because they are literatures
of sociological oppression and economical exploitation. Dalit literatures are
essentially a shock to tradition and sense. They are an assault to the anthropomorphic practice of castism in Indian social convention. A sound piece of Dalit literature is militant in texture and aggressively blunt in meaning. It challenges
codified language (because it has so far been used and manipulated only by the
dominant, discriminating powers); it challenges assumptions; it challenges ageold, world-views. Its temporal and political designation does not give justice to
the artist whose intentions may subsequently be ignored . It is an aesthetics of
pain, and a prolonged longing; a powerful aesthetics of resistance. The poems in
Touch by Meena Kandasamy amplifies, illustrates, and carries on this struggle
for power and autonomy by women poets. Apart from her expert use of language, she has a sincerity of feeling and an honesty of experience rarely encountered. For Meena Kandasamy, the young Tamil poetess, poetry is about empirical
truth and experience and she writes and reflects from where she is:

We: their daughters,

We: the daughters of their soil.

We, mostly, write.

(Their Daughters)

Her poetry is at best of private sensibility. Her consciousness is firmly

yoked to the world around her, a world characterised by ecstasy and pain, love
and despair. Touch contains a Foreword by Kamala Das where the renowned
poetess writes, Older by nearly half a century, I acknowledge the superiority of
her poetic vision. Meena follows the psychological tradition of Sylvia Plath and
Langston Hughes, a fabric rare and strange. Womens fixed role as caregivers
was ideologically determined by their biological capacity to bear children and
that was through a fixed set of codes represented by categorizers as Kamala
Das has expressed in her own poem, An Introduction. Meena Kandasamy
regards her poetic corpus as a process of coming to terms with her identity and
consciousness : her womanness, Tamilness and low/ outcasteness, labels that
she wears with pride. Meena has honed her sociological awareness of what it

means to be a woman in the caste-ridden, social groupism of Tamil Nadu (a

Southern state in India).

Her poetic self gasps in darkness to search for her emotional root proclaiming it as her heritage. This becomes a source of vitality for the poets journey. Her confessional mode is not as radical as we find in Mamang Dai, Archana
Sahani and Kamala Das. She explores a wide range of subjective possibilities and
relates them to her own identity and sociological formulation. Her poetry arises
not out of reading and knowledge, but out of active engagement. Touch is rich
with varied dexterity that explore the states of mind and genuine feminine

Writing becomes a means of creating a place in the world; the use of the
personal voice and self-revelation are means of self-assertion. Meenas selfexpressive poems permit forbidden or ignored emotions to be expressed in ways
which reflect the true voice of feeling; she shows how an Indian woman poet can
create a space for herself in the public world. Across time and space, the woman
writer, especially the woman poet, is engaged in an on going dialectic with the
dominant cultural hegemonies to negotiate a space for the creative woman,
where authentic female experiences can be articulated freely. Meenas poems
record the age-old class hierarchy in Indian society. Her poem, Becoming a Brahmin records the sad plight of the so-called lower class people of Indian society:

Step 1: Take a beautiful Sudra girl

Step 2: Make her marry a Brahmin
Step 3: Let her give birth to his female child
Step 4: Let this child marry a Brahmin
Step 5: Repeat steps 3-4 six times
Step 6: Display the end product. It is a Brahmin.

Here words are like quicksilver carrying with them the sparkle of sense. In the
sheer magic of rhythm, music and in the beauty of coalescing visual and auditory
sensations, these lines are rarely surpassed in modern Indian poetry in English.

Flaming green of a morning that awaits rain

And my lover speaks of rape through silences,
Swallowed words and the shadowed tones
Of voice. Quivering, I fill in his blanks.
Green turns to unsightly teal of hospital beds
And he is softer than feathers, but I fly away
To shield myself from the retch of the burns
Ward, the shrill sounds of dying declarations,
The floral pink-white sad skins of dowry deaths.

( My Lover Speaks of Rape)

Meenas poetic mode ranges from the meditative to sensuous where the
metaphysical subtlety of arrivals and departures are ambivalent. A feature that
impresses and ultimately convinces the readers is the poets readiness to allow
conflicting voices to be heard from all contending perspectives. Her poems pose
a tension that reaches out to the reader, arousing in one a sense of need that will
not be satisfied:

What will you say of your feeling

Living with a sister who terrorizes
Even manic depressions out of your mind?

(Sage in the Cubicle)

There is always a haunting note of despondency marked in Meenas poetic lines.

We may refer to her poem, Immanuel:

Now, if there be any mourning

Let it be for our heroes
Yet to die, fighting

Meenas poetic lines seem to echo from life itself, from the pauses of loss and
vacuity in her sociological repression in a class-stratified Tamil society. Meena
deeply penetrates the inner pores of the feminine psyche and brings out the
strength and power of life. Sanjukta Dasguta, a Bengali poetess, writes

I am sangam and shakti

Power of fire, water, air and earth(.)

(Identity, Sanjukta Dasgupta)

Like all confessional poets, Meena gives literary form a new sense of personality,
attaching value to the image of man. She raises her confessional traits to the
level of a specific universal appeal. Her quest for identity is not the spiritual
Odyssey; it is a human journey, a sociological journey that dignifies the reader:

Caste, yet again authored a tragedy

He, disease wrecked , downtrodden.

( Prayers)

In the poem Take This for an Answering Meena records her voice of protest ;

You press me into answering

When and why and where and how
I could start to dislike you.

Debates over Dalit studies in India have intensified studies of anticolonial resistance in general which have been augmented and contested by a
broad range of studies. Through Meenas conscious poetic lines Dalits are hitting
back in colonisers tongue. The poems in Touch represent the indigenous
lifestyle. They resist colonial acts of authority and oppression through their textual transmission.