Portrait of a Body as a Young Woman - Kuhu Joshi’s New Book of Poems review

by Ankush Banerjee

Portrait of a Body as a Young Woman –  Ankush Banerjee reviews Kuhu Joshi’s New Book of Poems 

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Title :  My Body Didn’t Come Before Me
Author :  Kuhu Joshi
Genre :  Poetry
Language :  English 
Publisher :  Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Year :  2023
Pages :  79   
Price :  INR 399/-  
ISBN No :  978-93-5447-583-2

The first thing that would stun you, coming across Kuhu Joshi’s debut full length collection of poems, will be its intriguing title. And for good reason! Three distinct, though not co-harmonious, ideologies by turns jostle with, and are in conversation with each other in this declarative, some would say courageous title. These three ideas: that of ‘the body’ (My Body), ‘personhood’ (Me), and ‘the process of coming into personhood’ (Come) grapple with each other [emphasis mine].  The word, ‘before’ adds a temporal dimension, making us wonder who/what came before and after, and more importantly, why. But the pivot around which the title, and in fact, the entire collection revolves is the word, ‘didn’t’ – signifying resistance – against what; and more importantly, in support of what?, we wonder.  

Language & the Self 

In the very first poem, ‘I tell myself I am beautiful’ (p. 9), we sense that the speaker of the poem, the “I”, is negotiating her ‘I-ness’ (i.e. personhood) that is very much part of her, and yet, she can’t really control it. When this ‘I’ tell us, 

                    I am twisted
          and turned. Moving
                    in to and out of. My bones

know no direction. 

the /t/ consonant in the first three lines makes us hit our tongue to our alveolar ridge, and we sense, in the jaggedness of sound that something is twisted, beckoning to be set free. Very soon, the speaker refers to her own bones in second person, “They choose not to limit/ to straightness”, likening them to objects which have traditionally been hard to tame, e.g. “Rivers/ that curve and meander/ to anywhere”, and we know the conflict the poem embodies runs deeper than “these bones”. Soon enough, we realize the axis of this conflict: self-definition on one end, and normatvity, on the other, when this ‘I’ says, 

                                   And I tell myself
                    I am beautiful

so I do not feel the need
                    to be normal. 

Further on, when we comes across the lines, “they grow/ into a deeper S”, we get a sense that the speaker is trying to indicate to a specific medical condition i.e. scoliosis or a sideways curvature of the spine. Clearly, the body is at the center of what has transpired in the poem. And hence, the discourse of beauty, of telling oneself that she is beautiful, gathers new significance. Traditionally, the concept of beauty, or what is considered beautiful, has often been conflated with what is normative e.g. beauty pageants come to mind, as do various arbitrary conventions doggedly adhered to in Bollywood, and dating apps. 

However, in these lines, the speaker creates a wedge between such an easy conflation. 

Her intervention consists of positive self-affirmation through vocalization – “I tell myself/ I am beautiful” [emphasis mine], and this precludes the need to be or feel “normal”. In this sense, the speaker subtly, but strategically, pulls apart ‘the normative’ from ‘notions of beauty’, that too, notions of physical or corporeal beauty. To my mind, the verb, “tell” is also significant here, indicating how linguistic articulation becomes a form of strategic mediation between what one is, and what one aspires to be, amidst the pressing tumult of ‘the normative’. Judith Butler in Excitable Speech (1997), her remarkable study of the power and potential of language to affect selfhood, writes, “language sustains the body not by bringing it into being or feeding it in a literal way; rather it is by being interpellated within the terms of language that a certain social existence of the body first becomes possible” (p.5). Even before Butler, JL Austin had theorized how performativity is linked to how language constructs or affects reality rather than merely describing it. The reality that Joshi’s poems construct put a non-normative body at its centre, and attempts to imagine possibilities of how a dignified selfhood can be forged, rooted as it is in this non-normative body.  

Going back to the initial question I had raised – what does the word “didn’t” in the title resist – one could surmise that what this poem, and the collection as a whole, resists is an a priori interpellation of a non-normative body into a certain social existence, because the “I”, or the consciousness of the body’s non-normative-ness comes first. And hence, this ‘I’ tells herself, and the listener/reader, that she is beautiful, as a way of negotiating a self-respecting, dignified selfhood. 

There are other poems where the conflict between self-definitions and normativity are mediated through the medium of language.
      In the companion pieces, ‘What your doctor will not tell you’ (p. 51) and ‘What your doctor will tell you’ (p. 52), it is through the act of ‘telling’ (and not telling) that the (male) doctor, a figure who derives his position of authority both from his gender and his profession, exerts this authority on the female body of the speaker. In this regard, the poem, ‘Follow-up Appointment’ (p. 19) is startling. It begins with the speaker literally breaking down the hopelessness she feels to articulate it better, 

“I had to spell it – h  o  p  e  l  e ss  n e ss”,

And later in the poem, it is from a “wise in her metallic zipper” female doctor, that she hears, “Kuhu/ take care of yourself”. Again, we see how through vocalization, through speech acts, but this time between women, a more compassionate politics of medical care is fostered. 

Masculinity & Female Solidarity 

This brings me to the issue of gender. There are many poems which examine masculinity, feminity, through discursively constructed fatherhood and motherhood. Though it stands to be mentioned that masculinity/fatherhood is more conspicuous by its absence, and the curious residue of disappointments it may have left behind. 

In ‘The most beautiful part of every picture is its frame’ (p. 29), she writes,  

“When I think of limitations
I think of my father.” 

while, in ‘Learning to leave men’ (p. 73), she writes, 

“I left my childhood
books behind, their stories still webbing
my father’s walls”.  

‘In Nani’s House’ (p. 15), we get to know, “Papa isn’t here”, and so, “My brother and I are free”. It is of significance that these lines are repeated towards the end,

“Papa isn’t here

and we are free to dream
in Nani’s house”.

I was partly reminded of Sharanya Bhattacharya’s 2022 article, The Tyranny of the Indian Uncle, wherein she observes, “behind every case of a woman being robbed of her right to live, loiter, love, study, dress as she pleases, or even speak her mind, there is a type of unhelpful unclepan championing this theft”. This ‘unclepan’ is discursively reproduced in these poems through the figure of the father, who is absent, out of touch with the (presumably, female) speaker’s aspirations, and most importantly, is unable to hold the “speaker’s dreams” (from ‘Learning to leave men’). But in the Nani’s house, the speaker and her brother are “free to dream”. 

Perhaps, it is masculine apathy the speaker is escaping from; or perhaps, it is age-old patriarchal control of women’s dreams and bodies that she is trying to argue against. Or maybe she is doing both, as we shall see subsequently. 

‘You need a strong man’ (p. 65)offers a re-imagination of the type of masculinity that the speaker hopes to encounter. It is a fantastic prose poem wherein a more empathetic type of masculinity, unconditioned by patriarchy, is articulated, when the speaker writes, 

“I need a soft man like ice cream chocolate brown melting in my mouth a soft man who knows to breathe into my ears and tug at the lobes a soft man curled into a comma against my back…” 

The other aspect of gender that some of the poems examine and come to represent is female solidarity and friendship. In poems such as ‘Silent Night’ (p. 69), and ‘We keep going to SDA because it is half way’ (p. 71), we meet the speaker with her female friend. The atmosphere within these poems is light-hearted, and imbued with an understated, though significant, non-judgmental camaraderie that “B and I” share. Presumably, “B” is the speaker’s close female friend/companion. We encounter the authoritative father figure admonishing the speaker, policing her body-reflexive actions, “Laugh softly”, and “Stop showing me/ your petals”. The female companion, B, serves as a moral and emotional rejoinder to this controlling, patriarchal authority figure. 

Later, ‘We keep going to SDA…’ ends with the lines,

“While you and the other girls chat.
I sleep like a dead body. You are terrified.
You pull the white sheet off my chin, laughing.

I do not sleep like that next to men.”

The first two lines here indicate a sort of comfort space, which becomes conducive to peaceful, restful sleep. The last line indicates that such a sleep does not come in the presence of men. It is again significant to mention that the act of sleeping and dreaming are corporeal activities that need a certain kind of safe space for manifestation. The poem draws attention to the fact that the nurturance of such a safe space is linked to relations of power and control i.e. while the father/authority figure impedes the nurturance of such a space, the space of female solidarity fosters it. Hence, both these aspects, and the poems they occur in, lie diametrically opposite. Furthermore, in the presence of her female companions/friends, not only is the speaker comfortably sleeping, but perhaps, she is also able to dream, thus signifying a prelude to the fulfillment of personal and professional aspirations. 

In Closing

Butler in her 2004 book, Gender Trouble surmises that, “it is through the body that gender and sexuality become exposed to others, implicated in social processes, inscribed by cultural norms, and apprehended in their social meanings”. In a sense, she further argues, to be a body is to be given over to others even as a body is, emphatically, one’s own. 

Echoing Butler, Connell had written in her 2005 book, Masculinities, that “bodies are both objects of and agents in social practice”.  

Joshi’s book of poems is a deep mediation upon how the body is discursively constructed and is in constant mediation with notions of normativity. Further, Joshi’s poems celebrate women-hood, while never losing sight of the difficult relations of power that women often negotiate with. 

As a final parting word, her poem, ‘Yoga in a Saree’ (p. 17) merits attention. While the concept of yoga has become as popular in the Global North, as it is in the global south, the performance of yoga in India is often conflated with a particular type of Hindu, ascetic masculinity. Even a cursory examination of popular representations indicates that though yoga is practiced by both men and women, its proliferation has often been associated with the popularity of male figures such as BKS Iyengar, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, and Sadhguru. 

So then, Joshi’s poem, ‘Yoga in a saree’ (p. 17), describing a woman in a sari performing yoga, challenges the proverbially ascetic masculine realm, and celebrates yoga, as well as the female body occupying this predominantly masculine-performative space. She writes, 

“Kamala mimics their pose, elongating into
the downward-facing dog. Kamala feels the wind tickling the skin
on her lower back,
sweeping her braid off her hip to greet
her right breast. Kamal enjoys

opening her chest.”

The movements of the female yoga practitioner are as vivid as they are graceful. The poem celebrates the female body. It shows Kamala enjoying herself, within the confines of her body. Towards the end, Joshi slips in three words which magnify and upend the politics of the poem, when she likens Kamala to a contentious, mythological-historical figure, 

“Sita incarnate, inverted”.

What could an ‘inverted’ Sita mean?
Just as Joshi, I shall leave it to you, dear reader.
■■
Ankush is the Reviews Editor at Usawa Literary Review.

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