Face to face
Articulations of anger
Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar
Dalit poet Meena Kandasamy on the importance of authenticity and being true to one’s own background, cultural roots and experiences.
Polemics and poetry: Meena Kandasamy.
Just 24, Meena Kandasamy is one of the better known Dalit poets writing in English today and speaks with an understanding much beyond her years. She says she gave up formal education after school because, identity being what it is, “I thought education was going to cripple me and I didn’t want to be crippled even if I wasn’t going anywhere.” (She is, however, pursuing a Ph.D. in ELT now.)
A turning point in her career was when, just after school, she wrote an essay on Naipaul, who, she feels, got the Nobel Prize post 9/11 mainly for his anti-Islamic stances.
One of the participants at the Prakriti Poetry Festival, her first volume of poetry, Touch, was published in 2006 to critical acclaim. Excerpts from a conversation...
Why poetry, given that your type of writing is extremely polemical?
One reason is that I am not an angry young man who can go out and do things on the ground even though I may feel strongly about certain things. One realises one is actually incapable of doing anything, even if it’s something very domestic. You really can’t challenge your hate or anger. The only thing you can do about it is write. If there is something I can go out there and do, I’d have done it.
Secondly, women make better writers than politicans because they don’t have to compromise at any point of time. As a writer, I can have a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of oppression. It gives you the freedom to be a one-woman army. Moreover, in Tamil literature, we have this strong tradition of writers who very powerfully articulate what is happening in the society. Bharathi, for example, wrote that if one man goes without food, we’ll destroy the whole world. Perhaps he’ll be called a terrorist today.
I am also concerned by the kind of voices I hear in English writing. I write in English and never used to think that English is a privileged language but you go out into the world and look at what is getting written in English in India and yes, you do feel it is a privileged language. That is one of the reasons I am doing a lot of translations too.
Even love in your poems seems to have so much ambiguity in that love seems to be as much about aggression as it is about affection....
Yeah, the man-woman relationship is not something that is easily negotiated. It is something that has a lot of hierarchy built in. I even wanted to call my collection, “Touch Me, Touch Me Not”. As a Dalit, as a woman, you want to be loved, you want to be accepted, you want to be a part of things, you want to be touched that way, you know, the whole untouchability question. On the other hand as a woman, you also need your space, you want to delimit. One reason why I talk so much about caste is that it is a major problem for women because in human relationships it puts up a system of hierarchy, of everyday violence, the same things that are built into relationships with women. For a man, the woman is the Dalit in the house.
If caste is the division of labour, as Ambedkar says, then look at what is happening to women, they are certainly another caste. In the language that society uses (singular form of address) and in the violences unleashed, Dalits and women are the same. One has to show the extent to which women have been dalit-ised, that caste and patriarchy go hand in hand.
Awareness of your identity, of being a Dalit, of coming from this particular time and place, plays a major role in your poetry, doesn’t it?
See, we all become aware of our identities only when we get hurt, OK? I had a very “Tamil-sounding” name , I was a Dalit and while studying, over a period of time, I became an object of jokes because of all that; it was isolating, it was hurting. People hurt you because you are a woman, because you are a Dalit. And it is only when you personally get hurt that you start looking at what is happening to others. But, you’ll have to accept who you are and only if you are writing from what is your background, you’ll make sense. So it is very important that one writes as a woman, as a Dalit. Your personal history is something which never goes away from you and if you are honest, you have to write about it. And it is important to be honest.
Some activists/academics like Kancha Ilaiah say, bury all your Indian languages [in favour of English]. But somehow I am very scared of that. You see, Tamil has quite a long history of resistance to foreign languages, of resistance to Sanskritisation. Yes, Dalits need English for social empowerment but English has become more or less another caste. In India, after caste and class, the next important thing is whether you are English-speaking and unlike caste it is something you can change by yourself. I think you have to be very conscious of your background, of where your roots lie.
Send this article to Friends by