being brown

Literature at its shocking best

When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!

Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.

My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry.  The first poem I read of hers was

Becoming a Brahmin

Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,

Advaita: The ultimate question

Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,

An Angel Meeting Me

Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,

Mascara

oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,

How they prostitute a poem

By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”

But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones.  Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.

Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.

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2 responses

  1. Achintya Rao

    An interesting take on the purpose of writing. Very often I find myself giving preference to the therapeutic side in whatever it is that I write. I wonder how to strike what might be the right balance for me.

    P.S. Thank you for introducing me to Meena Kandasamy!

    September 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm

  2. sumanyav

    well, for me, this blog is therapeutic. Which means that I do write outside of this blog…where i spend more time refining and improving my writing. So if i do want to strike a balance, may be i should just spend equal time on both.

    September 27, 2011 at 6:46 am

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