Retelling the Ramayana: Poems from Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy’s poetry reinforces her self-description as an “angry young woman.” When asked to share unpublished work Kandasamy instead sent Sampsonia Way three poems from Ms. Militancy, her second poetry collection, asking that, in light of the free speech debate raging in India, we publish poetry that has been received there with hostility. She explained that “In the present context, where freedom of expression is at peril in India, it is important to publish something radical.”
Last month Salman Rushdie cancelled an appearance at the Jaipur literature festival due to death threats. Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi: How We Celebrate Freedom was to be screened in February at Symbiosis College; however the founder of the college cancelled the screening, saying the film was controversial. On February 1st writer Taslima Nasreen was asked to cancel her book release at the Kolkata Book Fair because of fundamentalist pressure.
In Ms. Militancy Kandasamy retells Hindu and Tamil mythology through a feminist perspective. Below she provides a background for the two mythical women she has written about: Sita and Shoorpanaka. These poems were originally published by Navayana Publications in 2010 and are reproduced with permission of the author.
Rightwing narratives of the Ramayana portray Sita as the ideal, obedient wife whom all women must seek to emulate. Reading between the lines of the Ramayana one realizes that she is in fact the first woman to literally “Step across the line.” She not only crosses the Lakshman Rekha (a Line of Control that she was asked not to leave), but she also chats up a stranger, the King Ravan in disguise. When her husband and his brother return, she is no longer home. In the epic, it is said that she was abducted. In my first two poems I try and imagine a scenario where she might have walked out of her own free will.
In the third poem, “Traitress,” I look at the Ramayana from the perspective of another victimized woman, Shoorpanaka. She is Ravan’s sister, and she has her ears, nose, and breasts cut off when she proposes to Ram and his brother Laxman, whom she meets in the forest. In the traditional narrative, Ram’s fidelity to his wife paints him as a superhero in spite of (or perhaps, because of) the sexual violence that he inflicts on a woman who expresses her desire. The narrative in Valmiki’s Ramayana declares it to be unfeminine and immoral for a woman to speak her mind (and her body) and for that sin, she has to meet the fate of being dismembered and disfigured. Shoorpanaka’s ugliness makes her the antithesis of Sita and reinforces Aryan/Brahminic notions of beauty.
Sita and Shoorpanaka were soul-sisters from the beginning. They are women who spoke their minds, women who let their bodies speak. In doing so, they danced with danger.
Read Meena’s interview with Sampsonia Way here.