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DIFFERENT REGISTERS

Landscapes of the body

C.S. LAKSHMI

IT is difficult to get over the feeling of being overwhelmed when one thinks of how concerned some Tamil men are about what Tamil women should be thinking, speaking and writing. Their hearts and minds seem to be brimming with goodwill and advice just so that Tamil women don't go astray. Many years ago a male Tamil writer wrote to a senior male writer that reading the stories of Ambai gave him the feeling that she was not physically fully satisfied. The tone of the letter suggested that he was more than willing to do the needful. The senior writer in his turn sent me the letter with no comments and of course, with absolutely no anger. How generous can some men be! Valluvar said that if there was one good person, that person would bring down the rain for everybody. In the Tamil region, it is a wonder how, with so many kind-hearted men, the rains still fail very often. Needless to say, I did not take the generous offer of the person who had discovered my secret desires and let the matter rest. But the recent controversy about the language some Tamil women poets use has made it clear that, like the demon who kept growing new heads every time his head was cut off, such men never cease to exist nor do they seem to tire of telling women what to do and how to do it and what is more, they are ever eager to save women from the treacherous paths they are taking.

So, these kind-hearted, innocent men, some of whom write the lyrics for Tamil cinema songs, what is it that upsets them? When women use words like "breasts" and "yoni" and write their body into their expression, these men want to take cover, for, not only do these women want to shock others but they are upsetting the Tamil men's imagination of how and what a woman desires. These women must write about desire like the saint poet Andal, some of them feel. But it clearly shows that they have not read their Andal. Andal writes that she would like Krishna to come and embrace her, crushing her breasts. Fortunately for Andal, nobody had begun to define the Tamil woman then. These Tamil men probably feel that all is well in divine love and that mortal women must use a language that hides among other things, the body. In poems that defy definitions of gender, language and desire, these men with hearts full of concern, can hear only a soliciting voice. They can't even turn a deaf ear to this call for, as valiant Tamil men, it is their duty to hurry where such calls are heard and act in a way that restores normalcy.

At the core of the recent controversy about the language of women writers are some excellent poetry collections written by young poets who know where to situate their bodies, themselves and their poetry. The body emerges in their poems as something they own but as something that is constantly put in a space that falls within both the private and public spheres. There are constant efforts to establish control over its functions and movements both in the private area of the family and in the public sphere. At times the woman's body becomes the disputed ground between a man and a woman and at times it becomes the battleground to settle disputes. These poems attempt to retrieve the body from the mire it is placed in. To rediscover it and wipe off the dust of eons and re-own it. To understand its limitations and possibilities and redefine it. The poems see the body both as a site of struggle and celebration. Birth, death and love get written on the body and also violence, violation and power. The poems are written in a way that the poetic language reaches areas of experience hitherto unexplored.

...

Has been decided by
Time and history
To receive love from you
Even if it is murky
To be the dutiful mother
Of your child
To acquire
Sanitary napkins and
Tools of birth control
And some small help
From the outside world
If possible
To control you a little
And keep in my hold
A little bit of power
With all this understanding
Spreads my yoni

When Salma writes these lines the entire politics of the body gets written in those lines. Similarly when Kutti Revathi writes about breasts, she is not into titillation. She refers to them as bubbles in a marshy land and the poem is written as if she is drawing a landscape of the body. The breasts take her through the seasons of life and finally, after an unrequited love, they hang like two unshed teardrops. When Uma Maheswari writes about conquering a man by offering him a body strained of all its living juices of imagination and joy, she is talking of turning the body into an armour, which protects a woman's real self from the other. She is talking of it as her only weapon of defence. Malathi Maithri talks of dealing with violence forcefully. She writes:

...

Speaking in your dialect
Or without words
Or even if you are crying
Simply extend your hand
Place it in between the thighs
And pull with all your strength
His testicles
She is talking about dealing with violence. She is talking about fighting back.

If these poems make some Tamil men feel that they hear a solicitous call, one can only say that they have some auditory problems.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).

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