Vinita Agrawal in Conversation with Usha Akella
This is Usha Akella's latest collection of poetry.
1. In your collection, I Will not Bear You Sons, you’ve written about almost all forms of entrapments, abuse and exploitation of women the world over. From foot binding, FGM, rape, mysticism, politics, terrorism—you’ve touched upon them all ‘hoping to rewrite a narrative of patriarchy and selfhood defined by the Brahmin Niyogi sensibility’. Tell us about your process of sourcing the facts and figures of these world-wide phenomena of women’s exploitation.
Women’s memoirs have interested me such as Ayaan Hirschi Ali’s unforgettable and soul-shaking memoir Infidel: My life and Darina Al-Joundi’s visceral The day Nina Simone stopped singing. As well as feminist literature such as Neela Saxena’s profoundly moving AbsentMother Goddess of the West and Eleanor Gaddon’s Once and future goddess. Along with many women poets, these works inspire me to observe phenomena of female experience in form and content. Daily news of outrages against women move me to despair. I began to understand how ‘women’ are tied to everything—consumerism, economics, environment…
This book was many years in the making expanding in scope as my own consciousness was shaping. It may have begun in the first stirrings of rage at life’s experiences, the horror that women were the carriers or patriarchy, the feelings of betrayals from one’s own, and through an increase in awareness of the world. Mostly news, films, documentaries, personal experiences and personal reading were the impetus for the book. The internet is a gold mine in our times with access to academic writing as well. I read a paper on forced breeding among women slaves and that particular poem was born from that. I needed to find a language for pain and poems in the book are an exploration of form to contain it.
2. In the Author’s note to your book, you say at one point, “My body and soul became a battleground between India’s spirituality, her social prescriptions and my innate sense of self.” Please elaborate. Would you say that women in the ancient Indian Vedic times were treated with far more respect than in contemporary times? Do you consider Draupadi and Sita also as victims of patriarchy?
When I was growing up as a young girl in Hyderabad the first horrors of patriarchy began to seep in. I found a disconnect between its lofty Upanishadic truths of ultimate liberation and the status of women irrespective of caste and community. I thought I was free till I reached a marriageable age, then the machinery went into motion. I was an object to be valued against my father’s perceived status in society. Indian society is hierarchical, hopelessly materialistic and status- conscious. Norms are absorbed by women and men to create social realities. Patriarchy is a disease that has seeped in deep and silent in every realm always to the detriment of women, always justified as tradition and culture—with swift backlash if one does not toe the line. It didn’t matter how educated or not a woman was or how affluent. I saw women morphed in family and extended family doing what they had to, to survive. Women just can’t be—language changes, body language changes, voice intonation, behavior, dressing—everything alters to in tune to existing recipes that are oppressive. Socialization is a dehumanizing process that erases the inner moral law that is intrinsic in all of us. The scandals emerging from spiritual and religious organizations are extremely disturbing—the underlying traditional guru-disciple dynamic plays it role there.
An arranged marriage further exposed me to a system that unleashed angst, suffering and battles for emotional survival. It exposed the complicity of my own family and the system that I came into via marriage. And what I had internalized. I perceived the workings of this machinery in my own psyche and it has felt like an exhausting number of decades to rewrite those codes. As Du bois says—a dual lens rendering two me’s—one that I know that is me and one inflicted by others—it always eclipsed the truth of my being. I am still extricating myself from the duel. This is a violence we inflict on ourselves as women.
The role women play in inflicting pain on each other in patriarchy is perhaps the least addressed and most horrifying part of patriarchy which I’ve paid attention to in the book. The recipe for a good Brahmin woman reflects this theme in my poem ‘For the women I can’t be.’
Regarding ancient Vedic times, we are far too removed—and conjecture is projected as reality, I think. The tendency to romanticize exists. Citing the names of a couple of women yoginis does not make an entire culture progressive. However, a goddess-inundated culture as ours also played a positive part in the regard of the feminine. Western patriarchy does not have this foundation and plays out its recipes differently—zero-size norms of beauty, over sexualization of women and extreme body consciousness. In both cultures the rift between sexuality and spirituality has to heal.
Draupadi and Sita have been explored extensively by scores of writers and artists in both English and regional languages—and are complex figures. From my point of view, women in the past, in myth or in the present carve their triumphs within a social and historical matrix that alters the role of women too—roles that are determined by as far as they can go, luxury of choice, or are permitted to. There is no escaping the socio-historical matrix. Are any of us fully liberated whether man or woman, is such a thing possible? Draupadi was foisted with five husbands—did she have a choice? Was it actually acceptable to her? If it was acceptable, can we view it as a degradation from our time? Was she conditioned to think it was acceptable? Did she exert her agency of will and freedom in how she navigated the dynamics of it—and was that the triumph? Was her feminine rage the expression of woman’s power that could end a civilization, if provoked? The Kauravas thought they had the right and might to disrobe her publicly, she did not take it meekly and questioned the foundations of society. The common perception is that Sita is a meek and passive symbol of womanhood but I am not sure it works in black and white. Did Sita choose to leave with Rama as a better alternative to staying in the palace? Was it her choice therefore not a submission to a system? She chose to exit Rama’s life when questioned again later in life. A life cannot escape historicity but the person can make redeeming choices within it.
3. I’d like to quote a few lines from your poem,
They cannot persist in the sunlit room
(for Sylvia Plath)
I’ve been a hanging woman from a noose of an ancient culture
And the voices like a flock of vultures
(I’ll tell you an open secret:
Women pluck other women’s bones clean.
What do you think it is that prompts women to be their own worst enemies? Why do women turn into the perpetrators of the battle they should be fighting collectively?
Survival, perhaps this is the impetus, at any cost. This is the answer I am seeking, Vinita. Why is there this cellular hatred for the female sex from females and males? Why do women hate their bodies? Why does physical beauty play such an important factor in self-determination? Why do women betray each other? Why do women sell each other out? I am tormented by these questions. Unless, we unite in solidarity, patriarchy is going to make its dent. Perhaps, fear is the motive to enslave and be enslaved. It is tied up of course to economics, social regulations and self-actualization.
4. Do you imagine a day will ever come when men will write feminist poems?
Yes absolutely. Because evolution is not gender-based and progress has to touch all of us. In literature, Tagore’s portrayal of women is nuanced, K. Satchidanandan’s introduction to Kamala Das’s poetry is sensitive and penetrating. American male poets have translated Mirabai and other Western women poets world over, so there is strong interest in women’s poetry by male scholars and poets. Ancient Sanskrit poetry penned by men write about women’s bodies and desire not just as erotic but as exerting power through the body; poets like Annamayya through imagining the self as feminine, projected a persona relating to a male God rooted in the body—are marvelous and bold. Jean Genet’s trans-feminine protagonist in his novel Our lady of the flowers and Charles Bernstein’s lines in Girly man come to mind- We girly men are not afraid/Of uncertainty or reason or interdependence/We think before we fight, then think some more/Proclaim our faith in listening, in art, in compromise.
5. I notice that you draw a fair bit from Hindu mythology and Indian spirituality in your collection. You’ve mentioned Mirabai, Goddess Katyayini, Draupadi and so on. Tell us how these ancient references sweep into your poetry. Would you accredit them to your Brahmanical upbringing?
As an Indian writer or Indo-American writer with roots in an ancient culture I realize I have tools to work with. Myth is one of them. And the creative challenge and freedom to overturn and rewrite those myths into something liberating is a possibility; in the process I re-read myself as all these archetypes exist within me. Other contemporary poets as Usha Kishore use myth in their work.
I’ve said before that as an Indian writer who spent her childhood and youth in South India, avoiding spirituality is impossible. I don’t want to. I don’t know if I can make a blanket statement that exiling God was a fashion for the post-modern Indian writer—as in recent times there seems to be revival of an interest in mystical and bhakti poetry evidenced in the translations of Andal etc., In my poetics, it seemed vital to acknowledge the cultural material I was exposed to and endowed with. I grew up in a Brahmin family; the exposure to Sanskrit slokas came young, religious songs blared from loudspeakers on festival days, there was spiritual literature in the house, we watched sitcoms and movies based on the puranas and myth, my father discussed philosophical questions early and the notion that we are here to realize God was implanted young. I am not going to turn my back on what has shaped me to be fashionable or successful. The essence of being Indian is the mentality of seeking—where else are we going to find atheism as a labeled school of philosophy since ancient times.
6. Clearly, you’ve invested a great deal of thought and angst at what women have had to suffer and endure for many many centuries. Do you have any answers as to how it is going to stop or at least controlled and curtailed? In other words, how and when will women see better days?
I had to answer questions we all ask as poets—what is my subject material/what am I going to write? It tended to fall around two poles—spirituality and feminism. There was no avoidance of being female and doing what I could with my pen as female. Articulation of one’s story becomes very vital in the journey for all of us women. Feminist theory is practiced in various ways—not to write/name oppression and horrors wishing it becomes non-existential—goes against common sense to me—a kind of wishful and naïve thinking when the news brings episodes of rapes and trafficking and gender-based violence continuously in every country on the planet. I think women have to name and give voice to pain, in this naming there is existence of it and then by existence, addressal. Too many histories have been silent.
Education and economic independence are necessary. But they are not guarantors of psychological freedom. I think it comes down to choose and the free will to spell out exactly what freedom is for every woman for herself. It cannot be prescribed or made to formula either by academic feminists or by societal norms.
The more we own our experiences, own our pain, then work it out, the more we emerge into the light. I think every woman has to start where she is, in the framework she is and alter it at least a bit with her courage. That has been my life.
7. If I were to ask you to point to one thing that might afford a life of dignity to women, the one thing that might ‘save’ them, what would you point to?
Courage. There are no saviors.
8. The voice in your poems is that of an unapologetic feminist. There is a fierceness in your tone, an urgency of intent and an apparent lack of patience with those who don’t speak up against the atrocities committed on women. Tell us how long has this book been in the making. How do you feel now that the book is done and about to be published?
I found my voice literally and metaphorically with a poem about arranged marriages in 1994; 'No' paradoxically resounded 'Yes!" Kali Dances. So Do I my first book was relentlessly autobiographical, inescapably feminist, peppered with mythology and self-affirmation; it had a story to tell and wanted the world to listen. Early on, I understood, I had to define my own feminism too. I did away with the term ‘confessional’ to denote a type of poetry women write—a term pregnant with associations with Christianity, guilt and subservience to authority. I prefer the term ‘autobiographical’ as I don’t think women need to ‘confess’ their stories but only choose to ‘tell’ them and how they want to. As a South Asian woman poet, I learnt to formulate the self through articulation and found empowerment lay in the ownership of one's story in the larger event of truth making—and speaking it. Speaking it is vital to be freed from it. I learnt my poetry could tell truths truer than fact once the courage of ownership happened.
This book began to collate as the idea came to devote a book entirely to women’s issues. It took a more formal form during my second-year poetry thesis during my Mst in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge in 2017-’18. Thereon, I continued to expand the manuscript and it came to be in two sections, the first about the self and issues at large, the second dedicated to various women from different cultures. I wanted a bridge between myself and women across nation or caste or ideology—to make ‘community’ a possibility.
I don’t think there is an “apparent lack of patience with those who don’t speak up”. There is pain at how many women struggle today—in this so-called time of emancipation, there is still work to be done. I feel our young hold the torch. Look at Malala, Greta Thunberg, Amanda Gorman… I only speak the urgency of my journey and hope the telling of my pen will inspire some to speak just as I have garnered so much strength from women writers. Some people may view me as cowardly or tied in, progress or liberation is relative. We have to be compassionate to the inequality of circumstances and possibilities.
9. Last but not least, what sort of a relationship does a feminist mother have with her daughter? Tell us about your equation with your daughter, who I believe is an adult herself.
My daughter is nineteen. It has been complex as many daughter-mother relationships are. I have tried very hard not to impose the baggage I inherited. I apologize when I am wrong. I try to keep communication open. I cannot impose the morality of the Brahmin milieu from a South India of four decades ago. She was shaped here—she is a classical Bharatanatyam dancer and loves hip hop. I share what I read. I have to accept that her concerns and orientations may not be mine and she navigates a different world with different priorities and possibilities. Both my husband and I have striven to give her every opportunity possible for independence. My husband has been one of the most outstanding fathers to a daughter I’ve known. He is probably more emancipated with her than I am, because as a mother, worries kick in from an understanding of issue.
It is unending work to free oneself and my daughter has served as a mirror for my own growth. One encounters many challenging questions on how to balance freedom with social realities as date rape or campus rape; how does one become liberated as a woman when society overall isn’t? How can she be unafraid and sensible? I don’t have the answers, I keep trying to be fair, on some days it seems like I fail and some days feel it is okay but the process is continuous.
We have given her the framework to understand she has the freedom of choice—regarding career, religious practices, faith, friendships and relationships which will factor in later on. We have not clipped her initiative in the name of culture or being a ‘good girl’, hoping she will have the courage to become everything she wants to.
Two Poems from Usha Akella’s book 'I Will Not Bear You Sons'
for Kamala Harris
I didn't listen. And the people didn't listen, either. And we won.
The knee of a sewn conscience
compressed the country’s gullet,
the country, a vulva cleaved—
in two, a salvo of wounds burgeoned
from the fruiting body of one heart,
the alphabet fell from her garland,
these streets—ledgers of lies,
an unbalanced history.
You sprang from the house of triangles,
rising with the sap of two bloods,
a smile sure as the stalk of a lotus,
spoke with a voice chorded
with the sinews of voices before you,
for the petalled voices to be.
Wield the thunderbolt of Athena,
guide our hand to pen new anthems,
be the lungs for a forgotten dream,
color the white house with Holi colors,
help women sleep in their bed
blanketed with stars, bathed
in the nectar of skin,
let hope again be a majestic elephant,
fertilize our awakening on your petals,
show us how from mud we can rise,
teach us your chant We did it, We did it,
(Kamala is the lotus in Sanskrit, the emblem of the Goddess Lakshmi.)
For a Certain Kind of Woman
for the ones I can’t be
A woman will be exalted in heaven by the mere fact that she has obediently served her husband.
They (women) pay no attention to beauty, they pay no heed to age; whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He’s a man!’… After her husband is dead, she may voluntarily emaciate her body by eating pure flower, roots, and fruits; but she must never mention even the name of another man … By being unfaithful to her husband, a woman becomes disgraced in the world, takes birth in a jackal’s womb, and is afflicted with evil diseases … By following this conduct, a woman who controls her mind, speech and body obtains the highest fame in this world and the world of her husband in the next.
--Manusmriti, ancient legal text.
There’s a certain kind of woman I fear,
wound in traditions and piety,
rouged with a meticulous attention
to refrain from bringing attention to herself,
tattoos of Brahmin caste and culture—
the botu, mangalsutra, bangles, toe rings,
a high-necked blouse veils her flesh,
her gait like a lolling elephant,
her braid a flag of her piety and virtue,
oiled, flattened, obedient, not a wanton wisp flutters,
she is demurely beautiful; her laughter is neither loud
nor raucous, she addresses her husband as ‘andi’,
affectionately bossy, she fussily puts up with his less adorable traits,
so saccharine is her tone the air becomes diabetic,
she is modest, an empress of her domestic domain,
her intellect is well reined utilized only for earning,
her studious simplicity is practiced to perfection,
her plain face of no make-up is exhibit A.
She is emboldened in her husband’s bedroom like a Khajuraho statue,
in the morning she is virginal, her children are birthed,
a gift from the Gods, not from the lust in her body,
she knows every Sanskrit sloka and mantra,
she observes fasts and vrats,
she is respectful to elders, she wins their approval,
especially the grand patriarchs
are managed with such efficient sweetness,
they become blind to her failing—the burnt dal is overlooked,
she is a perfect PRO,
beloved to all, she is faultless,
her husband is a little snug ring on her finger,
so smug, he doesn’t know he is being worn,
thinking he wears her,
this is a couple who have a passport to Hindu heaven.
She can make a 7-layer kaaja to perfection,
a pulihaara and pulsu, have the right amount of tamarind,
a doting mother she keeps her children in line with a look,
she is known to the temple priests and volunteers,
weaving delicate jasmine garlands on weekends,
the Tulsi is sure to be in a pot by a window,
she keeps the flag of Sanatana dharma flying high,
she could be a badge for the BJP,
her girly voice puffs up a man’s chest
and her recipe for womanhood tightens his loins in desire.
She is never bitter, she shuts out the 21st century,
she takes all of us 5 ½ centuries back,
she personally immolates other women who
are responsible for the air she breathes.
Instead of keys jangling at her hip
are many tiny sharp daggers,
she uses with precision to undermine other women,
she keeps a lot under lock,
her tongue is witty and sharp,
somehow, it is never noticed as bitchy,
she hoards goodwill and gifts from relatives
so precise are her feminine wiles and deliveries,
no one would suspect her
of anything but the finest sentiments and virtues,
it must be honey is in her veins, not blood,
she is a golden lotus, she is a curse to other women.
She lives by divide and rule, she mastered Chanakya,
she does what she has to survive,
she will never support an abused woman in her family,
maintaining a smirking silence carrying the torch of patriarchy,
she is the kind of woman who makes a woman like me necessary,
she is the kind of woman who does not deserve a line of poetry,
so, this is poetry saying it in prose, as is.
Manusmriti, an ancient legal text is mostly known for the derogation of women. On December 25, 1927 at Mahad in Raigad district of Maharashtra, the burning of Manusmriti was moved by a brahmin named Gangadhar Neelkanth Sahasrabuddhe