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Wild Girls Wicked Words | Edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström

Verse on fire

Every year around 8 March, the world sketches a tribute to women. Each year the gestures seem more hollow and meaningless, a gimmick to sell anything from facials and makeovers to health checks and insurance. At least since the Delhi gang rape in December, it has become clear that far from achieving equality, women in India face even more challenges than the popular narrative would have us believe.

A whole decade ago in Tamil Nadu, there was widespread outrage in literary circles at the publication of Kutti Revathi’s book of poems, Mulaigal (Breasts). Around the same time, other women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma and Sukirtharani, were also publishing poems that spoke about the bodies and desires of women and about wanting a space to call their own. Whatever pious noises about violence against women we are hearing now, things were different in 2003. Back then, these women received death threats and, as Lakshmi Holmström recounts in the introduction to this volume, one film lyricist even said they “should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive".

Ah, that trusty debating strategy used by men in times of social upheaval: kerosene (see also: acid).

That these women continued to write undeterred by threats says much more for their individual courage and perseverance than it does for society as a whole. In the decade since, these four women have published more collections of poems and have continued to write about whatever they wanted to, regardless of the compulsions of their private or public lives.

Wild Girls Wicked Words, translated and edited by Holmström, ironically references the indignation of the literary establishment in Tamil Nadu. It is a bilingual collection of selected poems that, while still being appetizers, are substantial enough to give the reader an idea of the kind of poetry these women write, with biographical notes to provide context.

The poems are about the things you might expect—the bodies of women, the relationship of women with their lovers, their children; and about landscape, so intimately tied to the idea of poetry in Tamil literature since the earliest Sangam poetry. But the originality of the ideas and images and tonal variety give these poems depth and edge, making one pause often to absorb and reread a line.

The first poem, She Who Threads The Skies by Malathi Maithri, begins thus: “As the sky fills/the empty shell/after a bird has hatched/so desire fills everything."

These women are unafraid both of desire and of declaring it. “I watched over them in amazement," Kutti Revathi says simply in her poem Breasts. In another poem about meeting her lover, she invokes one of Sangam poetry’s most famous lines: “red earth and pouring rain".

Indeed, for all the contemporary cadences of their poetry, these poets are often in dialogue with the tradition of Tamil poetry; sometimes, as in Maithri’s or Sukirtharani’s poems, they are sardonic; but these poets see themselves as writers who are intimately tied to both place and language. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a portion of the poems in this collection is about Sri Lanka, and more specifically, about the civil war. These poems are poignant and anguished but are never mere harangues.

Sukirtharani’s poetry is perhaps the most stark and angry of the four, standing as it does at the intersection of Dalit feminist writing. In her poem Translating Her, she says: “They ask me what the song means/prying, eager, as if checking out/the sex of a newly born./I translate her poverty/the hunger she eats,/the hunger she expels."

Salma’s experiences as a Muslim, a woman writing in secret and wanting to explore both solitude and selfhood (thanimai/thanmai) are better known via her novel The Hour Past Midnight, which takes its title from the poem A Midnight Tale, collected here. Images of confinement act as a counterpoint to the imagined peace of a simple solitude. But sitting at the edges of domesticity is a chilling truth: “In this universe/there may be many creatures/alone with their prey/ living amicably together/leading pleasant lives" (An Evening, Another Evening).

"Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy," declared Maithri in 2001. This collection demonstrates that this is being done, both with passion and craft.

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