Jaydeep Sarangi reviews Touch by Meena Kandasamy


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 age-old, 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 poet’s 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 sentiments.
          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. Meena’s self-expressive 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. Meena’s 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”)
             Meena’s 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 poet’s 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 Meena’s 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…
Meena’s 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 anti-colonial resistance in general which have been augmented and contested by a broad range of studies. Through Meena’s conscious poetic lines Dalits are hitting back in coloniser’s tongue. The poems in Touch represent the indigenous lifestyle. They resist colonial acts of authority and oppression through their textual transmission.