The title of this collection, 'The India of the Soul', is something of a misnomer, since the voices we hear speak passionately of a woman's body and desire, dwell strongly and subtly on sensual perceptions and generally reveal a strong hunger for life. But here you are, India in Italy is still perceived as the continent of the soul...
In fact, as the Italian editor himself rightly points out, all the twelve poets anthologized appear keen to subvert the image of Indian woman as submissive, totally identified with her role as wife and mother and always adjusting to the high expectations of family and society. Equally, they have little in common with the earlier generations of Indian women writing sentimental and Romantic poetry in English in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As Eunice de Souza points out in the introduction to her volume, `Our poetic ancestors are not necessarily those who come just before us in time' (de Souza 1997: 1). Kamala Das (b. 1934) stands first, as she literally mapped out both linguistically, socially and emotionally the terrain of post-colonial women poets. Her manifesto in `An Introduction' (from Summer in Calcutta, 1965) speaks for all of them:
I am Indian, very brown, born in(quoted in de Souza 1997: 10). `
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don't write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone...
Half English, half Indian', this poetic and literary language is now recognized and admired worldwide, but in 1965 Das had to justify her choice in India of the ex-colonial language which ought to be no one's mother-tongue. But Kamala Das is important also for the freedom she claims for herself as a woman, and which translates in dizzyingly sensuous poems:
`It was hot, so hot, before the eunuchs came(`The Dance of the Eunuchs': 32). Or the swing between desire, fulfilment and loss in `The Looking Glass':
To dance, wide skirts going round and round, cymbals
Richly clashing, and anklets jingling, jingling'
Getting a man to love you is easy(p. 38). The same sensuality is present in the poem `White Asparagus' by Sujata Bhatt (b. 1956) and in Suniti Namjoshi's (b. 1941) poems `I Give Her the Rose' and `The Creature', though this time it is gifted to a woman lover. In her poem `Biped', a wimpering dog licking the hand that hit it, still posing as the loyal and noble sufferer, stands as a metaphor for that uncomfortable feeling of self-abasement and self-contempt. The body becomes political in Moniza Alvi's (b. 1954) poems: in `The Sari', the child inside her mother's body wonders at the world beyond;
Only be honest about your wants as
Woman. Stand nude before the glass with him
[...] Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers. Oh yes, getting
A man to love you is easy, but living
Without him afterward may have to be
All the people unravelled a sari.(p. 82). In `Domain', her South Asian identity lives inside her body like the kernel in a mango (she lives in London):
It stretched from Lahore to Hyderabad, wavered across the Arabian Sea,
[...] They threaded it with roads,
undulations of land.
they wrapped and wrapped me in it
whispering Your body is your country
Within me lies a stone(p. 86).
like the one that tries
to fill the mango.
Inside it is the essence/ of another continent...
Yet contemporary Indian women poets do not subvert the image of Indian woman only through sensual poems about the body; irony and questions are two other important strategies at work. Mamta Kalia (b. 1940), included in de Souza's anthology, subverts the lofty image of Indian Woman with impertinent poems that vindicate her ordinariness:
I'm Kamla`Anonymous', quoted in de Souza 1997: 26). Her wit and colloquial, direct style that capture `the tragi-comic nitty-gritty of routine' (de Souza 1997: 19) mark a peculiar contribution of women Indian poets in English. Take for example Arundhati Subrahmaniam's (b. 19 ) poem `I am impressed':
or Kanta or Shanta.
I bear, I rear,
I nag, I wag,
I sulk, I sag. I see worthless movies at reduced rates
and feel happy at reduced rates...
[...] I can hear the menacing ripple,(p. 180). Eunice de Souza (b. 1940) also chooses irony, but hers is more often a `bivocal word', i.e. she lets her voice be refracted through that of the respectable others. Note the use of impersonal and passive voice in her poem `Marriages Are Made':
the steely bulge
of your biceps
as you clinch your argument
with sleek aftershaved assurance,
I am impressed.
I can hear the pages
of yesterday's newspaper
flapping noisily, emptily,
between your legs.
My cousin Elena(p. 48). Her direct voice is even more biting, as in `Autobiographical' (`Right, now here it comes.
is to be married.
have been completed:
her family history examined
for TB and madness
her father declared solvent
her eyes examined for squints
her teeth for cavities
[...] She is not quite tall enough
and not quite full enough
(children will take care of that).
Her complexion it was decided
would compensate, being just about
the right shade
to do justice to
Francisco X. Noronha Prabhu
good son of Mother Church
[...] At three years(`Adam's Daughter', pp. 98-100). With Dharker, India acquires a civic poetic conscience, as witnessed by her poems-reportage about violence during the Bombay riots (de Souza 1997: 58-60).
she has seen enough
to live in dread.
Hands give and often take away.
There is no pattern to it.
[...] Her mouth works busily,
but her mind is still,
waiting to see
what my next move will be.
Striking in the poems of Eunice de Souza, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (b. 1956), Reetika Vazirani (b. 1962) and Mary Anne Mohanraj (b. 1971) is the urge to enter the mind of women from previous generations, marvelling at their incommensurably different view of the world and at their acceptance of marriage, children, conventions. Banerjee Divakaruni stares at an old family photograph to read the reality behind those frozen postures (`Family Photo in Black and White', p. 129); both she and Mohanraj have imaginary dialogues with their mothers, Banerjee Divakaruni watching over her mother's wedding night:
Time for you, bride of sixteen,(`Arranged Marriage', p. 126). In her funny poem `Gina Lollobrigida', Reetika Vazirani imagines the impact the Italian star had on `city brides' in Delhi in 1961:
mother, to raise the tar-stained face
that I will learn so well,
to look for the first time into
your husband's opaque eyes
We drew brows in black kohl, wore black bras -(p. 160).
a world. We dressed in perfume, petticoats, then saris.
We did not understand what clothes made us lose...
Eight out of the twelve poets anthologized in this collection live outside
the subcontinent, part of that intellectual diaspora that has literally
produced post-colonial studies. Yet, already in the subcontinent, as poet
Arvin Krishna Mehrotra has observed, Indian poets writing in English lived
a kind of intellectual diaspora, their mental world divided between the
India they inhabited and intellectual references worldwide. Thus,
references from western (and eastern) poets and places abound in these
poems, and become the very substance of poems by Meena Alexander (b.
1951), Gayatri Majumdar (b. 1963), Mary Anne Mohanraj and Reetika Vazirani
. Indianness meets Blackness in these postcolonial poems: in Alexander's
poem `The Art of Pariahs', the Queen of Nubia, the Rani of Jhansi and
Beirut form the texture of Draupadi's song in a north-american kitchen (p.
72)! The global closeness-distance of the postcolonial condition is well
captured in Reetika Vazirani's poem `E-Mail', where the solipsistic
soliloquy that the medium produces encourages sudden shifts of mood, time and identity (p. 152). In this respect, the poets of this anthology appear to be at the cutting-edge of contemporary sensibility.
Last but not least, and to return to Kamala Das's poem first quoted, there is the question of language. If English is a language claimed as one's own despite the local critics, and the medium of communication with the world at large, it is also the language of colonialism.
Which languageasks Sujata Bhatt. As the Italian editor points out, there are echoes of Derek Walcott (`... how to choose/ Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?', quoted on p. 23) in her conclusion:
has not been the oppressor's tongue?
truly meant to murder someone?
And how does it happen(`A Different History', pp. 106-8). So if English puts South Asian poets (and writers in general) in a peculiarly slanted position within their own countries while granting them a kind of world citizenship, the multilingual Indian world is also present in a host of sounds, inflections and words. Again Sujata Bhatt in particular has made the tension between the Gujarati of her childhood
that after the torture,
after the soul has been cropped
with a long scythe swooping out
of the conqueror's face -
the unborn grandchildren
grow to love that strange language
The way I learned(Sherdi SugarCane', p. 112) which will not be adequately translated by any English word a theme in her work. Even when writing in English, Gujarati is ever present, just below the surface as part of that first skin, that core of identity that Moniza Alvi mentioned above.
to eat sugarcane in Sanosra:
I use my teeth
to tear the outer hard chaal...,
A word about this volume, which signals a growing and welcome interest in South Asian writing (in English) in Italian departments of Anglo-american studies, following that already more established interest in fiction writing from the subcontinent. (Sadly, practically nothing is translated into Italian from other Indian languages, and writers in English tend to steal the whole show.) That this writing forms a substantial and exciting corpus is proved beyond doubt by this anthology. It is interesting that the different location of subcontinental-diasporic writers is hardly made into an issue: when does Indianness start and end, then?
As for the translations, they are better when the language is brittle and sparse like that of most Italian modernist poetry; they fare rather worse when trying to follow the more exuberant rhythm of a Kamala Das, or the sing-song quality of Reetika Vazirani's pastiches. Some of the notes in the glossary are unfortunately incorrect. Not that the average Italian reader would know the difference...
Poems included in the anthology:
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