CHENNAI: The reaction to the Nirbhaya rape of December 2012 wasn’t just manifested in candle-light marches and the subsequent political mobilisation. There was also a substantial private remainder— as details unfolded on news channels, something tipped over in the inner lives of millions, especially women. This silent rage seethed, gained a volume, and thrashed—for an expression that could convey the injuryon consciousness.
Could poetry be that way of expressing? A latest poetry anthology titled Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women suggests an emphatic yes as the answer. The editors, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, declare that the book was ‘conceived in response to that vicious gang-rape (Nirbhaya) and to the unprecedented public activism for women’s safety that followed it.’ Of course, the poems in the anthology go far and beyond that crime.
The diversity in the voices assembled ensures that we don’t imagine the problem of sexual crime as one limited to a certain class or geography. It happens everywhere, in different ways perhaps, although the reasons beneath it are almost always the same.
It is difficult to not to be enthused by such an endeavor. The editors definitely deserve a nod and a clap. Yet it would be a disservice to them if the book was not looked at evenly with a lens turned more towards aesthetics and less towards emotions.
The best poems here understood the ragewith its complexities, and attempted a unique sort of communication with the reader, one that actually began after language’s limitations in conveying a horrific reality had been accepted. Sumana Roy’s Rape of Sunlight, about the brutal rape of a five-year-old girl, is one such haunting, numbing experience. Roy first creates a portrait of the five year child; it’s her craft in conveying the particularities that lends the poem its power. Most importantly, Roy doesn’t forget that she is writing a poem, and not just being angry.
Like with any anthology, some pieces here don’t shine as much as the rest. This is mostly when the private rage that I mentioned earlier is poeticized too soon: the pen is picked prematurely; the aesthetic mediation doesn’t have the time to marinate itself. The merely-angry voices seem jaded, and the cynicism fails in responding cogently to that which is ‘power’ in patriarchy. Each poem that bemoans a generic state of affairs, fails. Thankfully, these aren’t in majority.
Poems that end at positives seem like monuments to a quotidian kind of triumph. An excellent example is Hira Azmat’s The Trials and Tribulations of a Well-Endowed Woman, where a woman suffers due to the size of her breasts—‘felt up by a darzi at 10, groped by a driver at 11, and too many times to count since’. Yet, at the end, after she says that her breasts ‘look just like armor,’ she also points out the following: ‘fortunately, though, the man I love, loves warriors.’
(The writer will publish his first novel Neon Noon in July 2016)