Indian poetry in English has made rapid strides from the twentieth century to the twenty-first century. Women poets like Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, and Kamala Das have contributed no less to Indian English poetry than their male peers. Today, in India, there are many remarkable women in the firmament of poetry. This chapter examines four selected Indian women poets, all from Kolkata. These women poets have contributed substantially to the field of poetry, and yet, hardly any research work has done on them so far. It is high time to bring these poets from the margins to the mainstream. This researcher is intimately acquainted with the works of these poets and is on friendly terms, on a personal basis, with them. The poets are alphabetically listed in order of their first names.
Keywords: women poets, Indian poetry in English, Indian English poetry, Kolkata women poets, marginalized, mainstream
According to M.K. Naik, “Acknowledged ‘with a civil leer’ by many and damned ‘with faint praise’ by some for a long time, Indian English literature….is now more than a hundred and seventy years old.” (Preface, V). Indian English Poetry can be categorized into pre-independence and post-independence poetry. Poets who wrote before independence, like Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, Rabindranath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Romesh Chunder Dutt, and others, were influenced by the poetry of the British Romantics. It is with the advent of a woman poet, Toru Dutt, who in the last part of her brief life wrote about Indian myths and legends, that we have a fresh new voice on the horizons of Indian English poetry. Later on, Sarojini Naidu too achieved literary recognition when she followed Sir Edmund Gosse’s advice to “be a genuine Indian poet of the Deccan, not a clever, machine-made imitator of the English classics.”(Naik, 69).
British critics dismissed Indian poetry in English as being weak and imitative in nature, with the exception of a few like Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu, both women poets. Yet, women’s writing has been marginalized in traditional histories of literature. Amongst post-independence Indian English women poets, the name of Kamala Das towers over and above all others. Her poetry, dealing frankly with sexuality and composed in the confessional mode, is startling and bold in scope, and won her much admiration amongst feminist critics, and controversy amongst her detractors.
Contemporary Indian English women poets have carved a niche for themselves in the realms of Indian English literary history, yet, more research is required on their works to bring these poets from the margins to the mainstream. This chapter is an attempt to do just that. The poets under consideration are Ananya Chatterjee, Anindita Bose, Mallika Bhaumik and Sufia Khatoon—all award-winning, popular Indian English women poets who have written bestselling poetry volumes and won prestigious prizes for their literary output. I have restricted myself to one book per poet, randomly selected, to suit the scope of this article.
1. Ananya Chatterjee
I don’t blame us for this drought in our hearts. We were born after all of love made in parts. (Half-hearted, 64, Un-Building Walls)
The brief preface to Ananya Chatterjee’s Un-Building Walls (2019) states the aim of the volume, as “...to deconstruct everything that divides, be it any kind of division--gender-based, religion-based. It is time to look back, retrospect and unlearn the language of contempt.”
The poems are works of introspection as well as retrospection. The opening poem, “Turning Points” (5), sets out a tone for sadness and cynicism that pervades the rest of the book. Chatterjee’s lucid delivery of words hits home the jarring, devastating truth in the second section of the poem “...Never again/will I ogle the doors of heaven/We have razed enough paradises to know/There’s nothing immortal about them.” For Indian readers, the allusion to ‘Paradise on Earth’, Kashmir, is clear enough. However, paradises worldwide have been the unfortunate zone of bloody conflicts –students of British poetry may recall how in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), the “land of roses”, Syria, is devastated by invaders.
In keeping with the theme of death, “Blackout” (11) is an extraordinary poem. The narrator reads “dead names” in the newspaper, and looks forward to nights, when, clad in satin, she can dream of the ‘fond yesterdays” – the time of her pregnancy when “morning sickness was still/a symptom of life.” Life and death are compared and contrasted within the unique parameter of morning sickness’ within a span of ten lines. Yet another short poem is “Unconquered”, which deals with rape as a discourse of violence upon the body, leading to a metaphorical, if not an actual, death. The nine lines are of mixed length. The act of rape, the perpetrators’ dissatisfaction with the act, and the fact of the narrator’s death are all covered in the last four longish lines. The implicit metaphors of spirit and voyager respectively abandoning the cage and the shore create uncomfortable and powerful images of life ebbing out.
Another piece with powerful symbolism is “Of fish-bones and other such fantasies” (15). The father of the family has abandoned his wife and children; his harmonica, which he packed and took with him, is conspicuous by its (and his) absence. The narrator, a child, observes his mother choking now and then, and giving the excuse that there is a fishbone stuck in her throat. The little boy seeks escape in the fishbone imagery:
Di tells me, fish-bones can sting
and hurt real sharp.
Yet I find them
I like how
Ma now has a new reason
for the perpetual lump
in her pasty throat.
The poem concludes with the fantasy-induced imagery of the child’s dream of giant fish bones dancing to the tunes of a harmonica: thus, in his dream, his mother and his father are united. Chatterjee’s love poems are, in sync with the aim stated in the preface, poems of separation. In “Intolerance” (60) and “Off-Season” (61), the familiar trope of winter delineates the pain of heartbreak.
You shiver, cold and clueless Remembrance is a cursed virtue. It’s best to imitate the chill you caught It’s time you forgot the oleanders too. (Intolerance)
Doorstep sparrows soggy robins... looked with envy at my water proof skin. I shooed them off. Locked myself in. Last January when you left I stayed dry, while winter wept. (Off-Season)
The poet’s mastery of rhyme is seen in the dexterity with which she writes her lyrics of hope and despair. It is as if by touching the sinews of pain, does she show the path to succour. A poem about death is actually a cry for life, and the use of rhyme gives a musical quality to her creations, making it easy for readers to identify with and voice the same cry:
Here in my land death falls like the midnight rains I can hear its steady pitter patter drumming on the periphery of my brains. It doesn’t whip me awake rather, lulls me into a deeper slumber of sedated indifference.
Such is my land: Death falls here like midnight rains. (Lullaby, 20)
2. Anindita Bose
the pages of two thousand sixteen are marked with red and black
these colors are magical and symbolic in some other dimension...
space and time have some plans but living - ones are yet unaware (Year 2016, 43, I know the Truth of a Broken Mirror)
The intriguing title of Anindita Bose’s poetry collection I Know the Truth of a Broken Mirror (2017) is a direct reference to its main theme. The poems of this volume are dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, who passed away causing her granddaughter, who was much attached to her, a lot of grief. Pain and grief inspired Bose to create a series of love poems, which, although a testament to the love between two women across generations, possess a universal appeal.
The Wooden Armchair (15) uses metonymy at its poignant best.
the empty wooden armchair
misses those shadows who
come and go but never stay
those shadows travel
in time to witness life
and death steals moments
from time while age plays
tricks in human minds
Time is inextricably associated with death. The poet counts chronological time by marking the months one by since her grandmother passed away. In “A Phoenix’s Cycle”, (46) the opening words are “twelve to six months without her...” while in the following poem “Each Month”, (47), she starts with “another sixteenth and six months gone”. The inevitable passage of time has a deep impact on Bose, who believes, in “Presence and Absence” (48) that “the present is laughing /at my fragile heart/time mocks and calls me weak...”. Yet another poem dealing with Time is “Time’s Door” (51) where her grandmother’s last night, where she was aware of her impending end, is described. Bose uses the unique metaphor of the morning sun spreading “a new light”, unusually bearing literary associations of a new birth. Here, it heralds a new death.
“Changing Hues” (45) begins with by adding a hint of color to this sombre collection.
December blues are mixing
into a palette of hues that
have never come to me
Four months have passed by since Amma’s death, and the poet ends with the lines:
yet I do not move, instead I
play songs from unknown
languages in search of
a way to reach our old days...
The phrase “unknown languages” suggests the failure of ‘known language’ as a mode of expression, and perhaps, also indicates that which is life unknown after death. This researcher is reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who calls death, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn /No traveller returns.”
Beyond death and the vagaries of time, what we get is a love story with a difference – a bond that breaks all boundaries.
alone I shall keep my steps
on the land of Varanasi
to meet another you in folds
of my own destiny (The Kite Shall Fly,50)
3. Mallika Bhaumik
The raging sky stands in angst,
the storm tossed palm leaves
mourn the tale of my loss and betrayal.
I have learnt to let all go,
yet, letting you go
has been the hardest of all.
- Mallika Bhaumik (Rain-song of Departure, 68, Echoes)
Amongst other imagery in Mallika Bhaumik’s debut collection, Echoes (2017), an all-pervasive one includes tea and coffee. On one hand, these beverages are a part of people’s diurnal morning and evening routines. On the other hand, these lend romance and enchantment to memories. In “Reminiscences” (26), as the poet contemplates her scarlet melancholy and the neon lights of the skyline, she stirs in quietude by adding some sugar to her caffeine-fuelled drink to “sip away the commotion/of the day”, thus sipping in the silence. Sorrows resemble tea leaves that have limply settled at the bottom of the teapot (Sips of Sorrow,15), sepia-hued memories waft in with the aid of aromatic coffee (Reminiscences), the poet’s “everyday saga of love” is inscribed on the couple’s lips as they touch teacups.
Romantic love and its loss form a major theme in Bhaumik’s compositions. The first-person narrator of the poems appears to indulge the spirit rather than the flesh, and remains genderless as such. In a refreshing perspective, the speaker in “Blue Magic” (28) has a woman as his/her object of affection. A disgruntled couple’s physical desire, and subsequent consummation, is described in “Night Tales” (25), where desire is fanned by the woman’s “familiar musk of/lavender and sweat” and drowns the “intangible wall of vitriolic words.” In “Petrichor” (34), the narrator who is out on a walk with the beloved, seeks shelter from the world of success, returns to nature, becomes one with the earth, and smells of petrichor.
Some poems explore the narrator’s relationship with the self. In the uniquely named “Rendezvous” (33), the poet sees vignettes of their life strewn on the path and says that their unclothed reflection forms a rendezvous with the self. In “Heartbreak” (39), the protagonist fills up the void in her life – the absence of love – by shopping for dainty porcelain cups. There is an implicit extended metaphor of the broken heart being irreplaceable unlike a broken cup. As a delicate, pretty cup shatters, the woman runs to the market for a replacement:
Trampling over those quivering desires
She left in a hurry
for the bazaar...
To buy more such dainty pieces,
Searching love among tagged prices.
Some of Bhaumik’s poems use the symbolism of trains to depict journeys within. In “Faraway Land”(41), the poet makes the observation that “...we remain trapped/in the lulled monotony of daily chores,/that came rumbling,/like unending coaches of a goods train”. Another such poem is “The Journey” (38), which chronicles a woman travelling away from her beloved, both inwardly and externally, as “a chaotic station waves me goodbye/A luggage full of memories/familiar lingering musk of ours/inseparable still/packed neatly inside.”
Empty spaces and homes symbolic of broken relationships also find a corner in the verses. In “Interpretation” (50), the narrator returns to an empty home and sees “the image of a home crumbling, receding and fading.” There is no longer a sense of home, a sense of belonging; climbing up the stairs and unlocking the door, all she does is “step into a void.” The once-scented pink curtains in “Glass Door” (57) gather dust as the room where a relationship once bloomed remains closed, and only the speaker walks through the metaphorical glass door of memory. The beloved’s unfinished perfume bottle is now a ‘decorated tombstone”, the birthday coffee mug with lipstick stains around its rim “stand stoically near the sink” waiting, presumably, for memories to be washed off, and the ultimate witness, the moss green diary gathers dust in the attic. A poem of a different flavour of separation can be seen in “Lost Property Box” (70), where the signified is the poet’s grandmother, who is conjured through the synecdoche of artefacts like her saree, the fragrance of spices, tobacco, and a certain brand of hair oil.
Mallika’s eclectic collection also consists of, among others, a tribute to Tagore, a unique poem on womanhood through the lens of the womb (which is owned both by the Masai woman and the poet herself), and a series of ten haiku. Thus, there is a variety of form and content adding to the appeal of the collection as a whole.
4. Sufia Khatoon
Sufia Khatoon’s debut book of verses, Death in the Holy Month (2018), is an iconoclastic work within the tradition of Indian poetry in English. It was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2020. By iconoclastic, this reviewer means that the book is unorthodox and breaks all established norms related to the genre it is supposed to belong to. If I have to draw parallels with a work of fiction, one can say that there are many amazing novels, but Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy is an iconoclastic work because it breaks all the known norms of fiction like having a proper plot or a structured beginning, middle, and end. We can also locate the significance of a poet’s work within, and outside, a particular tradition. For instance, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a very important work in English literary history, partly because no one before him had attempted anything of a similar scale and magnitude.
In a recent interview at Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF), Khatoon said that she views her poems as extensions of herself, as expressions of her soul. In the introduction to her book, she wrote about her experience of witnessing the deaths of many near and dear ones, and how each poem led to the healing of this chaos of pain and grief. So far as she writes of her personal experiences, she belongs to the Confessional School of Poetry. In India, Confessional Poetry is synonymous with Kamala Das.
However, Kamala Das’ works are very different – they describe the poet’s sexual experiences and her processing those moments as well as the resulting thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, Sufia Khatoon elevates the genre by infusing it with the flavour of spirituality in her quest to delve into the mysteries of life and death in her search for answers, which would lead her to find peace within herself.
The thirst for understanding the deep essence of life and death, makes the poet a successor, not of the any other Indian poets, but of the eleventh century Persian mystic, Omar Khayyam. One may consider a telling stanza from the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam:
There was a Door to which I found no key, There was a Veil through which I could not see. Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee There seemed – and then no more of Thee and Me.
On the other hand, Khatoon in The Colour Of Mourning Isn’t Black (102), says:
I could never hold a hummingbird in my palm,
too afraid it will die a natural death.
So much pain in hate I see,
so much loss of clarity
confining the soulful pursuits.
I often live outside my head to see
what remains oblivious to death.
Death of prayers,
slowly eating away the flower of peace.
Thus, whereas Omar Khayyam confesses his inability to see beyond the locked door and the opaque veil, Sufia Khatoon goes ahead and unlocks the door and lifts the veil. She takes over from where Omar Khayyam leaves off. So, Death In A Holy Month is a seminal work in the history of English Poetry in India, and perhaps its echoes will ring even far beyond in time and space.
The poet’s style of writing, even though the subject of the book is sombre, is not austere but embellished like latticework. There are gorgeous colors and imagery throughout the text. The poet, an artist herself, fills the palette of her pages with colors such as olive, crimson, purple, lemony green, white, and turquoise. Her language is further enriched with the use of Arabic and Urdu words sprinkled between the lines. As we read, we hear the music of the azaan, we feel the agony of the poet searching for meaning in a war-torn world (war being a prologue to death), we inhale the smoke of rolled love letter cigarettes, we attempt to recover our innocence by playing with paper dolls. In other words, we engage deeply with Life even where Death is an ever-present reality.
Each thought is a drop of sesame
in the silver of the moon,
running in the hourglass
dawn to dusk and dust to storm,
desiring a handful of soil to pass through and exist.
Above body and flesh the eyes travel to a town called Hope. It is the most harmless thing to make a home in. (Eulogy of Dreams, 15)
As Bruce King says of modern Indian English poets, these poets are more likely to be well-educated, middle class and part of or aware of the modern westernized culture of the cities and professional classes. They often had been raised in families where English was one of the languages spoken, attended good English-language schools, had been enamoured with the English language and its literature from an early age, and are either brought up in a cultured environment or by their university days had friends with an interest in the arts. This is applicable to the four poets examined in this article.
The women poets studied here employ a variety of themes, styles, metaphors, and other forms of figurative language in their poetry. They are bound by the common thread of gender and nationality, and yet, each has a unique voice of her own. Sometimes in celebration of life, other times in mourning for times past, these voices emerge strong and clear, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. The same can be said of Indian English poetry. Bringing Indian women poets from the margins to the mainstream would enhance the growth and evolution of Indian English poetry.
It is high time to study the refreshing voices of these poets who are here to leave an indelible mark on the Indian English Poetry scene.
Bhaumik, Mallika. Echoes, Authorspress, 2017.
Bose, Anindita. I Know the Truth of a Broken Mirror. Writers Workshop, 2018.
Chatterjee, Ananya. Un-building Walls, Zahir Publication, 2019.
Khatoon, Sufia. Death in the Holy Month. Hawakal Publishers, 2018.
King, Bruce. Modern Indian Poetry in English. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Literature. Sahitya Akademi, 2021.