Caked in mud
caged in faith
prayers keep me alive
108 names but
I recognize none
The binaries of personal and public must be subverted when seemingly personal concerns voiced through personal expressions transcend to achieve a universality of sorts. In her debut poetry book, Apostrophe, Barnali Ray Shukla’s versification of seemingly personal experiences and individual truths forthcoming from a feminine experience form a body of work which, when viewed from the lens of feminism, can be seen as forming the voice of a much larger truth. The existence of a woman in a patriarchal society is, by default, a political one, and in this book too, one can see the lines between the personal and the political blurring.
The poet questions the power structures in a patriarchal society and the position of authority and power conferred to men by virtue of their gender. In “First Name,” while referring to “pa,” possibly a patriarchal father figure, Barnali writes:
You told me to cut the mush
Tuck the sheets straighter
Watch my gait.
you suggested I grow up, go away
This reminds one of lines from Kamala Das’ “Next to Indira Gandhi,” dedicated to her father:
You chose my clothes for me
My tutors, my hobbies, my friends,
And at fifteen with my first saree you picked
Me a husband
The helplessness of a woman in a patriarchal setting is apparent in these lines, as is her marginalised status due to illogical gender constructions. There is loss of identity for a woman at every stage as even the family names tend to follow a narrow, patriarchal system—the woman is first expected to adopt her father’s last name, and later, her husband’s. To illustrate with an example, Mamta Kalia’s aptly titled poem “Anonymous” sheds light on the same plight:
I no longer feel I’m Mamta Kalia
Or Kanta or Shanta,
I cook, I wash,
I bear, I rear,
I sulk, I sag
As Gloria Steinem writes, “women of every race are the only discriminated group with no territory, no country of their own, not even a neighbourhood. In a patriarchy, a poor man’s house may be his castle, but even a rich woman’s body is not her own.” Barnali, however, challenges the convention, much in the vein of Kamala Das. She writes,
I escape to be me
I don’t want you Pa
I live in my first name
I live by everything
that is not you.
This rebellious streak reminds us of lines from Kamala Das’s “An Introduction”:
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role.
These poets do not want to be recognized as someone’s daughter, and thus, choose to defy the existing norms of the society. They want to have a name, and an identity of their own. In “Pen-Name,” again, Barnali writes:
Fathers stop thinking
brothers have a fright
when they bludgeon
smothered by plight.
The weight of the family’s reputation on the shoulders of a woman made Kamala Das remark in “Of Calcutta,” “I was sent away to protect my family’s/ honour, to save a few cowards to defend some/ abstractions.” Barnali continues in “Pen-Name”:
she doesn’t beg
she knows her affliction,
for being the fair girl
who brings darkness
as she outgrows her pen name.
The plight of this “fair girl” makes one think of the girl with “skin as dark as yours” (her father’s) as Kamala Das writes in “Next to Indira Gandhi”:
Father, I ask you now without fear
Did you want me
Did you ever want a daughter
Did I ever disappoint you much
With my skin as dark as yours
No matter whether a woman is fair or dark, the marginalisation doesn’t seem to end. The hypocrisy in the society’s attitude towards men and woman is also reflected in these lines, as is the different standards of beauty they are subjected to.
In “Nose-Ring” the theme of marriage is touched upon in the form of “weight of bridal finery” and “nose torn by prosperity.” The nose “sat bleeding” “the blood of/ persistent reminder that she was/ property.” The poem ends with a thought-provoking line: “May be Surpanakha was a happier woman.” The book is thus laced with references to mythological women like Sita, Surpanakha, Sati and Ahilya, imagining the narratives from their perspectives. The question of marriage reminds one of Kamala Das’s “Dog-House,” “turn your home into a merry dog-house,/ marriage is meant to be all this anyway/ being arranged in/ most humorous heaven.”
However, Barnali decides to take matters in her own hands in “Anagram In Red,” and presents the importance of standing up against the patriarchal society, failing to do which, she believed, would have burnt her in the pyre too, just like Sita or Sati. Reminding herself of the importance of choices, she walks away from “heirloom, keys, and khandaan” towards “her wedding trousseau/ a red Banarasi/ woven with gold/ worn one evening/ to be unworn the next.” She later says, “she was no sati or/ sita-in-the-making,/ she finds her voice today/ untie and unite are but anagrams/ its where ‘I’ chose to be.”
The poet isn’t afraid to talk about love-making. As Muriel Dimen rightly observes, “Sexuality is not the route to revolution. But it is a prime shaper of desire, and constraint of desire leads directly to self betrayal and social bad faith. We suffer not from too much desire but from too little. Our failures to rebel, our incomplete revolutions, are rooted in the repression of desire that, essential to sexual oppression, truncates hope.” In “Shameless” she recounts, “The notes linger/ as I scribble on your back,/ gibberish in italics/ before the font changes to bold.”
Touching upon the subject of socially constructed notions of looks, the poet writes in“Flowers That You Wore,” “she teased a bit of my strands of untamed grey,” and then says, “don’t hide them/ those are tendrils/ of the flowers that you wore/ yesterday.” Janet Holland and others in “Power and Desire: the Embodiment of Female Sexuality” observe, “Women are under pressures to construct their material bodies into a particular model of femininity,” and it is sheer delight to see more and more feminist poets shattering those notions.
Revisionist mythology is essential to the feminist narrative. One may talk of Michelle Cahill’s poem “Parvati in Darlinghurst” in this regard where she upturns the love-legend of Shiva-Parvati, and recounts the story from Parvati’s point of view:
It seems the acharyas were mistaken: i had not
Dated for marriage or adultery; nor with a wish
To deck his house with flowers or sweep his floors.
She further writes, “I am too busy, I declared, for dalliance or abstract/ Gossip.”
His first wife’s ashes are scattered all over the city.
Goddamn it, shiva is a walking disaster; whatever
He touches, he burns.
There are countless other similar examples, including the Radha-Krishna myths of Kamala Das. Barnali doesn’t disappoint when it comes to overturn the mythological narratives on their head either. Looking at the narrative of Ahilya from a feminist lens and questioning her unfair treatment, Barnali writes in “Blue Sunrise”:
Assertion was certain but was there violence
insolence or pure defiance on that blue sunrise
Questions can’t touch her silence
no one but her knows the truth of her blue sunrise.
The book has recurring images of a certain “spineless” person, and that of cats. Cats are the antithesis of “spineless” in here, and denote an embodiment of self-respect and self-righteousness. It is possible that Barnali is referring to herself as the cat, and the spineless happens to be a lover, or one of the enablers of patriarchy. In “The Cat” she writes, “the spineless smirked the other day/ “cats don’t care”/ for a moment, I stopped/ by the bedroom door and then, I left.” Then, in “Paws” Barnali remarks: “she’s stopped taking food/ thrown at her,/ no hand will stroke or stir,/ she is no pussy, this cat.”
Winner of the RL Potery Award 2016 and published by RLFPA editions, Apostrophe consists of sixty odd poems on various themes. There are poems on people, moments frozen in time, and cities like Calcutta and Bombay. There are poems on atheism, love, longing, and desire. However, the biggest takeaway for me was the poet’s attempt to recognize and talk about her feminine identity and politics. Through her poems Barnali Ray Shukla questions the inequalities between men and women in a patriarchal society, addresses the inequalities of marriage, and is unafraid to assert her individuality in a society that dictates a woman to do just the opposite.