A taste of the work of some extraordinary South Asian women you should be indulging in this World Poetry Day
It is impossible to be a dishonest poet, and perhaps that’s why writing poems for all to read could be the bravest thing to do.
Poetry doesn’t always make you laugh like a terrific stand-up act, and it’s not as spectacular or as emphatic in its performance the way dance or music can be. Poets don’t have the luxury of being able to call attention to their work purely by standing in a crowded room and beginning to speak.
Rather, poetry does its work in privacy. Although it uses words, words alone cannot describe the unique way an individual moves to words. It is a quiet force, silent music. A reader feels seen, yet it is the poet who is exposed.
For World Poetry Day, we’ve put together a list of South Asian poets, some of whom have lived extraordinarily brave lives, given (or are still giving) voice to the unspeakable, and tearing open their lives contents to speak truth to power.
(With excerpts from the poets’ own work, sourced online)
Kamala Das/ Kamala Surayya
Kamala Suraiyya (a.k.a Kamala Das) was known for her bold and liberal treatment of female sexuality at a time when the literary scene was embedded in the edicts of 19th century-style English poetic diction. Her confessional style, met with equal controversy and admiration in conservative India, has been compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton’s. She was even shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. She was a columnist and a strong voice for women’s liberation and freedom, and even tried (and failed) to be elected to the Indian parliament.
Until I found you,
I wrote verse, drew pictures,
And, went out with friends
Now that I love you,
Curled like an old mongrel
My life lies, content,
— Kamala Das, “Summer in Calcutta”
When we think of Indian American poets we don’t bring Reetika Vazirani to mind so easily, although she was an award-winning poet on the rise before she passed away tragically, inscrutably, by suicide after murdering her toddler son. However, her work is phenomenal, exploring themes of otherness and the experience of being part of the wave of Indian immigrants in the sixties. She was a senior poetry editor for “Catamaran,” a journal of South Asian literature.
Until he asked me to drop my shawl
and slid his finger on my shoulder,
let me taste our leisure.
It required my defiance of the small world.
He asked would you, and I said I would.
I read him. I drank up my history and peeled back the glossy lies.
I had harped on former grandeur,
but the Taj Mahal and Rome are a fantasy.
What’s left is my darkness. He spoke to me simply of skin and I touched it.
— Reetika Vazirani, “The Lover”
Imtiaz Dharker’s award-winning poetry is taught to literature students, and she is considered one of Britain’s foremost contemporary poets. Her poetry touches on the themes of home, freedom, journeys, geographical and cultural displacement, communal conflict and gender politics. Now chancellor of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Dharker was nominated to succeed Dame Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate of Britain, but declined the position to focus on her poetry. She is also an accomplished artist who exhibits her work internationally.
I may raise my child in this man’s house
or that man’s love,
warm her on this one’s smile, wean
her to that one’s wit,
praise or blame at a chosen moment,
in a considered way, say
yes or no, true, false, tomorrow
not today. . .
finally, who will she be
when the choices are made,
when the choosers are dead,
and of the men I love, the teeth are left
chattering with me underground?
just the sum of me
and this or that
Who can she be but, helplessly,
— Imtiaz Dharker, “Choice”
Taslima Nasreen is such a polarizing and controversial figure that she is banned from Bangladesh and West Bengal in India, and she can’t live in the continent without jeopardizing her own safety. She has written more than 30 books of poetry, essays, novels, short stories, and memoirs, and her books have been translated into 20 different languages. Her work both in poetry and prose zealously rebuke Islam and its attitude toward women, with bravery for which she has received international acclaim.
Because Eve did eat of the fruit,
There is sky and earth.
Because she has eaten,
There are moon, sun, rivers, seas,
Because she has eaten, trees, plans and vines.
because Eve has eaten of the fruit
there is joy, because she has eaten there is joy.
Eating of the fruit, Eve made a heaven of the earth.
Eve, if you get hold of the fruit
don’t ever refrain from eating.
— Taslima Nasreen, “Eve”
Belonging to the ethnic Dutch Burgher minority of Sri Lanka, poet, painter, short story writer, lino print maker, batik artist and teacher Jean Arasanayagam was a major literary voice. She explores the themes of identity and oppression that emerged in the civil war of Sri Lanka which she lived through. Being married to a Tamil Hindu from Jaffna, Arasanayagam was considered an Other in the community, and she was uniquely placed to explore identity, alienation and documentation in her work.
and at the entrance to Nallur
the silent guns are trained
upon a faceless terror
the landscape changes
the temples by the shore are smoking
ruins charred stone blackened,
on empty roads are strewn.
— Jean Arasanayagam, “Nallur”