Poetesses and the wicked words

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It is a frantic day for the writer. There’s somewhere else to be in the morning, a flight to catch in the evening and her mind is clawing at her pally to be taken to Diggi Palace as quickly as possible. It’s the last day. It’s a Monday. The hordes who show up for the sake of showing up will be gone. The panels look good. And the sky is warm enough to toast brains on.

But there is something scabby about last days, something rich but tired. Like dying roses standing in your best blue vase. But the salve for all annoying feelings is poetry. And so towards poetry, the writer drifts. ‘Wild Girls Wicked Words’ is being launched, which is far too wicked a title for the book to be anything but poignant. It focused on four Tamil poetesses, who have been reviled and threatened in fairly recent years for their work doesn’t quite gel with the expectation of that each one behave – and write – like the ‘good Indian girl’.

That’s the alley this writer hangs out in too, so she sits down to listen to some poems. Besides, she is eager to look at Lakshmi Holmstrom, that star translator whose work she has quietly admired for years. She daren’t actually approach Holmstron, of course, but is content with listening to her read out from the bilingual edition, and wonder at how naturally the inflections in a ‘reading voice’ change when someone switches between English and another language, say Tamil.

The half-rhymes, the natural musicality (even of blank verse) of poems in the original Tamil must have a different kind of power, the sort of impact that makes men send anonymous threatening letters to a poetess who wants to say something about breasts. She is distracted by thoughts of cadence and how much clarity rhythm brings (or conceals) in poetry.

But even in translation, there are phrases that leap up and grab the listening writer by the jaw. There’s a longing for an ‘infant language’ to ‘put an end to sorrow’; a ‘suicide soldier’ who must be different from a suicide bomber; Meenakshi, the Pandyan warrior princess whom Lord Shiva tamed with the sheer force of his beauty. Salma says she trusts silence rather than words.

What a strange note to strike at a festival given wholly over to words, the writer thinks. Later, she hovers in the tent where they will talk about the Mahanagar. Ajay Navaria says he worships the metropolis (mainly because he hates the present structure in India’s villages). He speaks of a sweet sea of anonymity, and of his heart being an amoeba, which splinters but fails to die. MA Farooqi mentions the ‘ruination of the Inner City’.

All metaphors are getting whirred in the writer’s head, slowly turning into unpoetic goo. Many metropolises are inside her and the sea is ruined. Amoebic dysentery is rampant in both villages and cities. All princesses are tame.

Elsewhere, Frank Dikotter is describing Mao Zedong as a psychopath. He talks of a famine so great, it needed the Cultural Revolution to crush dissident souls in the 1960s in China. A Tibetan man is saying that his parents had to boil and eat the soles of their yak-skin shoes during the famine.

On her way out, an image strikes her that coincidentally mirrors her first day’s experience. A worker lies on a heap of tenting fabric. He has pulled a whole mattress over his body, either in an attempt to get warm or because his body hurts and the weight feels good on aching limbs, like an invisible lover.

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