Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, translator and social activist hailing from Tamil Nadu, India. She focuses her writing mainly on feminism and the annihilation of the caste system, but tackles other social and political issues also. Her candid words on such topics have attracted both praise and criticism.
Meena has translated into English the works of several Tamils including Eelam Tamil poet Kasi Anandan and Dalit leader Thol. Thirumavalavan.With a PhD in sociolinguistics, she is currently based at Kent University as a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow. Her first collection of poems (“Touch”) was published in 2006 and at the end of 2010, her second collection – “Ms. Militancy” – was released.
Kavya from Thamarai.com caught up with Meena to find out more.
Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me, Meena.
Let's first talk about your latest book "Ms. Militancy”. You've taken Hindu myths and retold them in poetry form from a feminist perspective. How did you come up with the concept?
It was a host of factors that made me conceive and come up with Ms Militancy. First of course was poetic influence—the way Anne Sexton retold the Grimm Brothers' Fairytales in her book of poems, Transformations, how Carol Ann Duffy tells the female side of the heroes story in The World's Wife. I knew that this kind of feminist, revisionist retelling had tremendous revolutionary potential, and therefore I decided to do it with Tamil and Hindu mythology. Before I saw Transformations, I never had the idea of coming with such a thematic collection.
I was writing a poem on Nalayini called Six Hours of Chastity, re-imagining what she must have done with her time when her husband was busy with his favourite prostitute. It was liberating to make her subversive, liberating to let her make her choices. Then it sort of grew, I was looking at many of the female mythological characters and decided that they could all be empowering if only their stories were retold, if only we didn't accept that there as a standard (patriarchal) set story. Then, this book was born.
The preface of the book reads "My Kali kills. My Draupadi strips. My Sita climbs on a stranger’s lap.". These don't seem like positive attributes for a woman to have. What point are you trying to make here?
Just for a little context: The next line goes: “All my women militate. They brave bombs, they belittle kings. They take on the sun, they take after me.” That is how I imagine the women to be; combative, aggressive, militant, brave and ready to challenge all kinds of oppression.
The point I am making is that what is dished out as “positive attributes for a woman” are stereotypes that seek to enslave us and condition us into accepting male hegemony and patriarchy. The second thing I am trying to do is emphasize the fact that women are autonomous, that we are not merely taking orders from men. Sita is often portrayed as the obedient Hindu wife, but I find it inspiring that she is one of the first women who dares to step across the line, strike up a conversation with a stranger. All our myths lend to multiple readings, and my task, as a poet and as a feminist, is to offer some of these alternative possible readings.
Such readings are necessary, as what is handed down to us is a sterilized patriarchy-approved story that tells us that Andal and Akka Mahadevi and Mira are nothing but bhakti poets! One look at their lines, the deep eroticism, the direct address to a male lover, all of this is erased and wiped away for the sake of a spiritual project. That is why a project like Ms Militancy becomes essential because it lays claim to religious space, it seeks a share of story-telling, it breaks the shackles of convention.
Obviously, religion is a very sensitive subject to tackle. How have staunch Hindus reacted to your work?
They called me all kinds of names, which I anticipated. Then there was hate mail and fake profiles on twitter and trolls and abuse. Then there were veiled threats—some of them said, “you wouldn't be alive today if you had attacked other religions.” I am happy that I elicit such extreme emotions in people: they either hate me, or they love me. At the end of the day you realize that your art is genuine if it can provoke such strong reactions.
Do you find that other factors - such as the fact that you're a FEMALE who is so outspoken or your openness to taboo topics such as sex - attract negative comments too?
The fact that women should not speak up, or speak out is a cultural construct that is so well-entrenched that we are still fighting it in the 21st century. Men could get away saying the exact things that I said, they would merely be called rationalists, or progressive, or enlightened!