Voice darkens and submerges in the sorcery of silence
Snow trickles into the stillness
All through life
an unending journey
And in the absence of
much of what’s inside gets lost
And the warp and weft of being
keeps on breaking
Stillness spreads its wings
like the desert
beneath a dawning sky
The paraplegic pyramids glitter
in a mixture of azure and gold
There is still a lot to say
No sooner does dusk fall
than the city’s cafés come to life
with the tinkling clang of indifference
Gradually the crowd of solitude gathers
around the tables
Sankt Marx Friedhof*
Silence is magnificent
particularly when it connects
the monumental music of lives
that sleep peacefully
with the absolute space
Flowers and graves shoot up
rupturing earth’s breast
They exist side by side in stillness
I wonder what they think
of volatile souls that travel to the sky
with the chanting
of mysterious mantras
or of those who wait
for an undefined time to resurrect
Beyond cemetery’s wall
a swarm of sound passes through
slicing the essence of existence
in our trivial time
*Mozart was buried in St. Marx Communal Cemetery, Vienna.
(These poems are excerpted from her latest collection, Till the Next Wave Comes)
Sarita Jenamani is a poet of Indian origin based in Austria, a literary translator, anthologist, and editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds – a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter. She has three collections of poetry. She writes in English, Odia and translates to and from German. Sarita translated Rose Ausländer, a leading Austrian poet, and an anthology of contemporary Austrian Poetry from German into Hindi and Odia. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organizations of ‘Heinrich Böll Foundation’ and ‘Künstlerdorf Schöppingen’. She studied Economics and Management Studies in India and Austria where she works as a marketing manager.
W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” is often quoted to dismiss the importance of poetry as a form of social justice. The current fashion among poets is that poetry can revolutionize social inequalities, make positive changes, build empathy for marginalized groups, and convey information about causes important to the poet. For example, Robert Huddleston writes in Boston Review, “In its day, W. H. Auden’s claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ was a necessary reproof to an ideologically mandated culture of protest that had a chokehold on the literary left in the 1930s, an example it remains important to consider today. Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now, are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.” He is correct concerning the cultural war that cloaks literary discussion. Literary figures and public intellectuals are often chided for their implicit biases. However, I conceive of the poem as saying something drastically different; I do not see it as being a political rebuttal at all, but rather serving as one within a larger context.
Auden’s poem contains these lines:
…For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The poem carefully navigates the terrain of the unchangeable dimensions of political life. However, it clears a safe space for the poem as a thing of its own. Poetry does not instigate events; rather, it is an event itself. The day remains cold for Yeats’s death, and his poetry lives beyond him through the many misinterpretations it will face. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” defies the culture war to uphold the dignity of the human spirit to which poetry testifies. Auden once defended Pound from censorship by his publisher. He said anti-fascism will become the new fascism. The publisher relented and granted Pound a space in the anthology. In this course, Auden defends the integrity of the poet as a person whose work dignifies the ideal humanity. In this respect he clears a space for poetic license because a poet must spend their life empting themselves.
No, poetry makes nothing happen. It is an event itself. It is the fire of intellect applied to the cold apathy and spiritual destitution we suffer. As protest against the human condition, it becomes universal in its design.
Hence poetry is spiritual warfare. The poet is a paradigm for virtue. The contemporary world now challenges the absolute freedom of the visionary. It is historically stated that the visionary should be exempt from moral considerations. Recent shifts in consciousness concerning this attitude are becoming mainstream. The UK Telegraph reports, “Janet Marstine, Honorary (Retired) Associate Professor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, added: ‘The National Gallery has taken an important step in acknowledging that it is no longer ethically tenable to interpret in an aesthetic vacuum. An artist’s position in the Western canon does not make them immune from accountability.’” The visionary in question at the National Gallery is Paul Gauguin. He is under question for exploiting the myth of the noble savage for his sexual and financial gain. The moral dilemma posed by such considerations does not discount the artistry or accomplishments of individual artists. Its intent is to hold artists accountable for immoral behaviour. The hope in the #metoo era is these considerations will keep living artists accountable rather than giving them license to act uninhibited, and influence the broader society.
Vincent van Gogh, a friend of Gauguin who he accused of insanity, wrote, “The way to know life is to love many things.” Van Gogh is historically considered a misunderstood visionary who underwent severe lifetime disappoint and failure. His legacy is a myth of its own. He was expelled from his church where he was minister. His father thought of him as a lunatic with stupid ideas. However, he is also considered a beautiful person who showed the world a light it misses in so much conflict. Don McClean wrote of van Gogh, “The world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
These two towering figures in art leave us with widely divergent displays of personal conduct. Van Gogh’s misconduct is chalked up to a serious mental health issue, but Gauguin is a sexual deviant who exploited the European assumption of the noble savage. What can be learned from these patterns? Emerging views of artists’ conduct have more at stake than aesthetic considerations. They are the battleground of the purpose of ideas. Gauguin’s art and moral conduct are under question not because his art is unpleasing, but because ideas hold power: we must take into account how ideas can effect culture and the treatment of others. Misconceptions of indigenous people have serious repercussions historically. Our worldview must consider that others are right to their cultural experience without infringement. This is where the culture war stems.
If we conceive a race as inferior, does our conduct toward them change? Gauguin is not being questioned as much as an entire colonialist legacy and how it shapes the behaviour within the culture that adopts it. Human dignity is universal; a person should never be treated as inferior. Perhaps we are right to question history so vapidly, and demand the culture at large change. The most important thing may be a humanist conception of world culture. Those who deny it are perhaps harming not only others, but also degrading themselves.
The culture war is the domain of values and whose values develop dignity in the human heart. Art is one of the most developed and poignant tools to communicate values. The Marshall Plan advanced capitalism throughout Europe using art to influence people. Culture is what stands as testimony to prevalent attitudes, reactions to those attitudes, and the historical presence of a people. We are right to subject it to deeper inquiry.
In fact, I would consider a moral duty to question historical circumstance through art. Duty is defined in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to do one’s own duty, however defective it may be, than to follow the duty of another, however well one may perform it. He who does his duty as his own nature reveals it, never sins.” This offers a subtext for individuality. Art is the historical realm of the individual—they who create art are the most developed in ideas. One’s heart will reveal one’s purpose. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:2 (KJV), “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The world’s major faiths are abundant in praises of nonconformity. As St. Paul carefully describes, interpreting the will of God is a struggle. One must resist pressures external to oneself. Sometimes one must question oneself deeply to find the moral current within. Jihad, or “struggle”, is spiritual warfare in three senses: against one’s own temptations, against one’s peers, and in defense of one’s territory. Aristotle wrote, “Wicked men obey from fear; good men, from love.” The perennial wisdom seems to be of the consensus that morality is deeply personal, and one’s character is deeply revelatory. Art is where the person speaks honestly with high eloquence. Art itself is action. How much of artistic achievement depends on cultural consensus? Is art rather a defiance of consensus, bearing more of the soul of the artist than their times? A moral purpose should derive from the inner life, and counter the wheel of consensus in bare revolt. John Milton writes in Paradise Lost:
“A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”
Vatsala Radhakeesoon, contemporary poet of Mauritius, grants insight into the nature of freedom, character, and morality of being in her poem “Unconditional Thread”:
Born from the Divine’s golden thread Molded with perfection, purity and grace I’m the invisible heart – the unconditional thread ruling the universe
I’m soft I’m generous I’m not from the Mundane the materialistic world the uncanny competitive rules
I’m omnipresent but recognized, seen only by the unadulterated
I, Unconditional Thread survive in immortal realms and go on whispering in every ear “ Love, love and love discarding mental blocks and embracing spontaneity.”
A poet warrior embraces compassion, action, duty, and dream. Henry Miller writes, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” One’s leap becomes one’s light. The darkness illumined is one’s spiritual landmark. To seek beyond one’s perilous comfort is an act of defiance in a world where complacency is sanctified. The artist’s presence stirs the world from sleep if they are securing their foundations. Ultimately, we are clueless about life: where it takes us, what it means, how we cope with it. We engage in symbolic acts of protest and incite civil discussion on important issues. Papers are published on every subject; scholars shake their fists at apathy and ignorance. Theories emerge from data and trends. Life’s most recent turn provides us with newfound perspectives. Once the trend is fulfilled, new storms rage on the horizon. Science is continuously revising and incorporating new facts and figures. There is nothing steady in the order we endure; in fact, to call it order defies its purpose.
In such a world of flux, kindness is even spirited defiance. In “Kindness”, Naomi Shihab Nye carefully constructs the meaning of kindness in counterintuitive language:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt weakened in a broth.
What you held in your hand,
What you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Walter Pater writes in The Conclusion to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Ideas, “Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.” Kindness is passion. Etymologically speaking, “passion” reflects suffering, endurance, and loss. Compassion means to “suffer with”; hence, Nye’s poetic rendering of kindness defines it as passion.
St. Francis of Assisi writes in “Praises of the Christian Virtues” of the three virtues of Wisdom, Poverty, and Charity that “Whoever possesses one virtue without offending the others, possesses them all.” Guatama Buddha is recorded as saying something profoundly similar, “We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.” In the doctrines of Buddhism, the problem of suffering is rooted in attachment. Attachment pertains to physical things, mental habits, and stubborn attitudes. When one is attached, the object of attachment invokes fear of its loss, and can trap the mind in unhealthy suffering. In Sanskrit, the word samsara translates “it flows together.” In Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept signifies worldliness, attachment, and the cycle of rebirth and suffering. To be released from this cycle one must be released of oneself and desire. This state of enlightenment is called Nirvana.
Octavio Paz, poet and ambassador of Mexico to India, writes in “Perpetua Incarnada”:
Hour by hour I saw him slide
wide and happy like a river
shadow and light linked its shores
and a yellow swirl
single monotonous intensity
the sun set in its center
Then he writes:
I ask for strength I ask for detachment
open the eyes
between the clarities that are canceled
Not the abolition of images
the incarnation of pronouns
the world that we all invented
and in its center
one half woman
peña manantial the other
Word of all with whom we speak alone
I ask that you always accompany me
This poem reflects an existential loneliness but it extends into territories much broader. He asks prayerfully that the world be returned to the state of the ‘Word’ from its embodiment of images. Once again, we return to Pater in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci. “We recognise one of those symbolical inventions in which the ostensible subject is used, not as a matter for definite pictorial realisation, but as the starting point of a train of sentiment, subtle and vague as a piece of music.”
In “Flux and Movement in Walter Pater’s Leonardo Essay” critic Lene Østermark-Johansen writes, “The body which twists around its own spine creates the illusion of moving from one extreme to another thus resulting in a kind of harmony of opposites, a concordia discours.” This statement not only describes drawings and sculpture, but applies to rhetoric also. The concept of Self is illusion because all things contain their opposites. One cannot step in the same river twice. We are the river, and our Self is a form within the flux of promissory existence. We are granted time within this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. As the Cross represents redemption, one reaches Nirvana by letting go. Christ is reborn to demonstrate he can conquer the forces of death.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes, “The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help solve the world’s problems… Shambhala vision teaches that, in the face of the world’s problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time.” A warrior poet sets the world aright through their heroism, but what does setting the world aright mean exactly? According to Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior, the world must restore its focus to human dignity.
O friend, I sit alone while the world sleeps. In the palace that held love’s pleasure the abandoned one sits. She who once threaded a necklace of pearls is now stringing tears. He has left me. The night passes while I count stars. When will the Hour arrive? This sorrow must end. Mira says: Lifter of Mountains, return.
– “The Necklace”
We cannot restore dignity alone. Existential dread implies that as individuals we are alone to choose and must live with that responsibility. In her abandonment, Mirabai still affirms her dignity as God’s beloved. She calls to God to return. This reflects the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as eternal flux which harmonises with our physical existence. God is with us. Christ is ever present in our domain of suffering.
It is no coincidence that Paz concludes his poem with the words “I ask to be obedient to this day and tonight.”
U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes in “The Myth of Blackbirds”:
“Justice is a story by heart in the beloved country where imagination weeps. The sacred mountains only appear to be asleep…We cannot be separated in the loop of mystery between blackbirds and the memory of blackbirds.”
Myth is a cultural awakening. Being “alone to choose” does not defer human dignity or one’s relationship to the divine because we are creatures of memory. As Plato reflected, learning is remembering what one already knows. Such a cycle is not promising. It is eternal.
We are ripe with questioning historical errors in this period of history. “The emergence of pessimistic philosophies is by no means a sign of some great and terrible distress; rather, these question marks regarding the worth of life arise when the human condition has been so improved and ameliorated that the mosquito bites of the body and soul are found too altogether gruesome and gory, and in their poverty of experience of actual pain, people will even take being troubled by ideas to be suffering of the highest order,” writes Nietzsche in The Joyous Science. Is our ability and right to assess history as such a privilege offered by our affluence and security? It was the intellectual who once hid in ivory towers. Now, do we all live in ivory towers with epigenetic fears and concerns?
Such a question does not demean our relative poverty, private traumas, failures and shortcomings, or deprivation. What it suggests is we have plateaued to become so complacent and unconcerned that it requires serious tragic thinking to stir our imaginations. We may long for suffering; yes, we may hunger for the cross. As they say, comedy is born of tragedy. Is the opposite also true?
Wendy Chen-Tanner describes Kai Coggin’s collection Wingspan in the following words: “Wingspan is a book about becoming, transforming, and unfurling into the fullness of selfhood in all its disparate parts.” The human soul fluxes and fades with the human condition. Being is Becoming. This discovery of the fullness of being is impressively expressed in “Everything Silver/Artemis and Her Lover.” Students of Greek myth know the story of Actaeon and his tutelage under Chiron. When he witnesses Artemis bathing, she turns him from hunter to the hunted. Coggin’s poem is deeply personal. She observes the two as lovers experiencing oneness together. She writes:
“I will watch them,
the hunter and the hunted,
these lovers mounted in the stars,
I will watch them,
and wish for an arrow to fall from the sky into my open heart.”
Aside from the sheer beauty of these lines, the poet transforms herself into hunted for the sake of the poem. Perhaps it is self-voyeurism—the poem is solitary in tone. Gazing into the attic of her heart, Coggin sees the night sky and the eternal myth of huntress and hunted. The ebb and flow of life enchants the poet deeply and she wishes to be one with it. The opening phrase “attic of my heart” parallels the night sky and symbolically suggests yearning for oneness. Chen-Tanner’s description is impressively accurate. Jeremy Taylor writes in Psychology Today, “The universally experienced world of dreams and dreaming has always been a deep mystery, ever since the first confusing hints of self-awareness arose in our instinctively nervous, curious mammalian ancestors. Awakening and remembering that we were dreaming just a moment ago always suggests that we live in two successively alternating worlds – one of made of dreams, and the other composed of our waking experiences.” The article (“The Expanse of Our Unconscious is as Immense as the Night Sky”) combines psychology with evolutionary principles to explain the interconnectedness of the dream and waking worlds. Poetically rendered, Taylor incidentally offers insight into the importance of myth. Our minds are myth-makers in their own right. The bridge between self-awareness and yearning, our ancestral past and myth, is accentuated in the story of Actaeon and Artemis. Coggin immortalises them in the starry fixtures of night. The hunter and hunted are not only archetypes, but also offer a dialectical conversation with oneself. Akin to Hegel’s master and servant dialectic, the need for truth anticipates struggle and dissipation.
Coggin’s poems are rich in spiritedness, thoughtfulness, and hope. Hope strives for unity of self, toward knowledge of one’s desires, and deeper into the wilderness of dream. The dialectic flips on itself as the wise hunter becomes the hunted—his desires are too stubborn to resist, and he is transfixed by the translucent beauty of the immortal. He ascends into fatherhood by transfiguration into his master’s image. The transfiguration is an exact mirror-image of his role as hunter. This reversal is symbolically important because it reflects a registry of Becoming. Revolutionary ideas shrivel into double standards, mimicry of their exactness, and memory. Hope is a struggle against the unfathomable and inevitable decline of meaning. It is assertive. Like energy within neurological structures, it dissipates and connects. The mind is forever incorporating the ancient and traumatic into meaning.
Andrea Gibson writes of Coggin’s Periscope Heart, “Kai Coggin’s Periscope Heart is beauty mapping the dark, a canyon of becoming and letting go.”
I want to learn you like a language,
speak you on my tongue until I am
no longer foreign to your body…
Periscope Heart feels more personal. In “Language”, loving is compared to constructing a language. In a real sense, myth-making is language. Language is universal mapping, constructing roads through the caverns of being, and developing a common language. Powerful insight serves as the poet’s resolution.
Dorothy Day writes, “To offer the suffering of celibacy, temporary or permanent, to the Lord is to make use, in the best possible way, of man’s greatest joy.” Such is the world we live in, Day writes, that “The lack of tenderness in people’s relations with each other, tenderness expressed by warmth of voice and speech, handclasp and embrace–in other words, the warmth of friendship–lack of these things too means a concentration on sex, and the physical aspects, the animal aspects of sex.” Poet and reviewer Jagari Mukhergee writes in “Metapoem”:
“My poems are vinyl dolls that I make for you sketching in eyes and nose and lips with watercolor ink. My poems are glass lanterns — every time one is lit on nights when the soul has no electricity from within… My poems are a dusty tempest seething. Each a life.”
The warrior poet brings light to the world. Her tenderness is chastity and her self-love is universal nature. Her tears water the foundations of our aching existence. Our longings are satisfied in her dissolutions and dreams. The warrior poet is the self within each person.
Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
Title: Silence between the Notes – Anthology of Partition Poetry
Selected, edited and introduced by Aftab Husain and Sarita Jenamani
BookReview by Namrata
Despite being more than seven decades old, Partition continues to be raw and unflinching. Endless books and movies have tried to capture its pain and enigma and yet there seems to be so much more that needs to be told about that one incident that changed so many lives, forever.
Silence between the Notes is an anthology of Partition poetry which includes contributions from Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, English, Hindi, Bengali and Kashmiri languages. It is a unique collection as this is the first book which is extensive, representative and inclusive of it all. Selected, edited and introduced by Aftab Husain and Sarita Jenamani, this anthology promises to bring forward the voices which had perhaps got lost somewhere in all the noise that followed Partition.
Sarita Jenamani is a poet based in Vienna who writes in English, Hindi and Odia, her mother tongue. A general secretary of the Austrian chapter of PEN international, she is also the co-editor and publisher of the bilingual literary magazine Words and Worlds.
An eminent name on modern Ghazal poetry from South Asia, Aftab Husain writes in Urdu, English and German. His poems have been translated into many languages. Apart from being a member of the Austrian chapter of PEN international, he is also the co-editor of the bilingual literary magazine, Words and Worlds.
When India was declared independent, the joyous news was also followed by the sad news of Partition of India into two countries, India and Pakistan. What followed was mass migration of lakhs of people as Muslims in India migrated to Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan migrated to India, all in a hope for better tomorrow. Nobody knew how this supposed call for betterment led to so much blood shed on both the sides that till date, the cries and blood stains can be heard and seen. Was it religion or was it politics, no one can say! All one can say is that the wound is too deep for even time to heal it.
‘My soul quivered at the sight of human blood, spilled here and there
Like beasts, men madly roamed at city’s every thoroughfare.’
(‘The Partition’, Maikash Ambalvi)
Picking up gems from different languages ranging from Urdu and Kashmiri to Bengali and Sindhi, this collection of ninety-one poems is a heart-wrenching read. One cannot read this collection without feeling that pinch in their heart and sensing a lump in their throat on this poignant portrayal of the incidents that happened before, on and after Partition. The beauty, irrespective of the language they were written in and despite being translated, leaves one unnerved.
With works of stalwarts like Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Amrita Pritam, Agha Shahid Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Keki Daruwalla and many others featured therein, these poems are strung together with the thread of hope binding them. Taking us through the conflict they witnessed, heard or experienced, the poems in this collection make you witness the trauma inflicted upon through Partition. One can almost hear the sobs and feel that fear undergone through these pages.
Even in some of the darkest stanzas it is difficult to miss the tiny glimmer of hope in the hearts of the poets. Like that ladies who tied pillows on their waists and stomachs to protect themselves, or the one where they talk about how trains arrived at stations but the names of the places had been changed, leaving them unidentifiable. These poems talk endlessly about kind neighbours who took them in and protected them or that random stranger who had offered them food. There might be pain in their words and through ink, they might be giving form to their blood and tears shed at that time. However, their voices are trying hard to hold onto hope. As Sarita Jenamani’s poem, ’70 years later’ begins,
‘August is the cruelest month
It drags us
To a butchery
Plastered with mirrors-
Mirrors of the ancestral rage’
And ends with,
‘August in a month of monsoon
And monsoon brings
A maze of hope’
If someone were to ask, whom did the Partition benefit, there would be pin-drop silence in response. This is the same eerie silence that reflects out in the title of the book ‘Silence between the notes’. Each poem, each stanza, every word is followed by a pause which is reverberating with questions but sadly, has no answers. This silence is also reminiscent within the moments when the reader pauses reading the book briefly after finishing one poem, just to regain composure and start reading it again.
Today, almost seventy years later, we are still at a point where the harsh memories of this incident have chained us and sadly, there are times, when we see the signs of it reoccurring around us clearly pushing us further down the abyss. The only thing that helps us stay afloat is that we have hope, for a better tomorrow, for a kinder world and for humanity to prevail above it all.
Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
Parul sat on the narrow bench of the veranda looking at the two potatoes in her hand. They were small, brownish, and round — very ordinary potatoes. But Parul looked at them endearingly. One bore her name, while the other was inscribed with a heart-shaped hole. Parul’s body and soul were enraptured with feelings she had never known. She felt like singing and dancing. Saleha was busy in the kitchen and there was nobody else at home. That meant there was no one to obstruct her from enjoying a little respite from her daily chore of sweeping the floors of the sprawling fourth-floor apartment that had been her home for the past two years.
She looked intently at a particular window of the building behind theirs. The young man whom she had often seen looking at her was not there. But Parul’s heart whispered to her that it was he who had sent her the tuberous missive. “My Potato Prince,” she said softly. She remembered the story of the Frog Prince that Dadi Amma often told her two younger grandchildren. And here was her Potato Prince. She giggled. She felt like Cinderella, a cartoon she had watched along with Rumee and Rehan. Of course, Parul considered the girl somewhat foolish for not revealing her identity sooner. But that was a fairytale, and Parul was more bold and intelligent than her. But Cinderella also swept floors and washed dishes like Parul, and now she too has secured a prince for herself!
Parul got up from the bench and strutted to the edge of the veranda. There were several crimson roses blooming in the flower pots. She plucked one and inhaled its fragrance. She was tired of sweeping and scrubbing floors. She had learned to read and write; not because she loved it, but because it was necessary to be somewhat educated to become a lady. She would be a housewife, so learning to read and write was good enough. She inhaled the fragrance once more. Where was her prince? She wanted him to see her with the rose. She wanted him to know that she might dress as a servant, but she was beautiful and charming enough to don the attire of a princess, and become his. Parul coyly twirled the flower between her fingers, unconsciously imitating an actress she had seen in an old Hindi movie.
A shrill voice from inside the house rudely interrupted her reverie. “Pa-rul! How long does it take to sweep the verandah? Hurry up and come back to the kitchen!”
Parul refrained from making a face. She continued looking earnestly at that other fourth floor window. Hearing a second summon, however, she picked up the broom and reluctantly went back inside.
Parul found Saleha standing with arms akimbo in the middle of the dining room. She glared at Parul. “What the hell is wrong with you, girl? It’s already 11:00. You still aren’t done with the sweeping? Never mind the sweeping for now. Chop up the onions and garlic. I have to finish cooking. Taleb bhai is going to be here at 12:30 to pick up Dadi Amma’s lunch. Hurry up!”
Saleha turned around and cursed the cat who was nuzzling at her feet. Parul laughed and said, “You’ve grown a temper, Salu bu.”
“Of course, because I have to work with a knucklehead like you,” Saleha snapped back.
“Take it easy,” said Parul, sauntering after Saleha into the kitchen. “What’s the hurry? Nobody in this household ever yells at us.”
“Don’t take it for granted,” Saleha grumbled. “I try to work by the clock. Dadi Amma is really ill, and her food needs to reach the hospital on time. Khalamma is very even-tempered, but if we disappoint her, she might get angry. Since Khalujan is away, everyone is tensed about things going wrong.”
“Relax,” Parul purred, “we won’t be late.” Saleha looked at her suspiciously, but said no more. “It’s okay, we have time,” she again said confidently, taking out the blender from the cupboard.
Saleha turned back towards the pots on the burner. She had lately started worrying about Parul. After all, it was Saleha who had brought her from the village. She hoped the girl would not fall into any mischief. Parul was only 15, but she looked 18, and Saleha had noticed that men had started looking at her differently in the last couple of years. Saleha always hovered protectively near Parul whenever the driver Taleb Miah was around. Not that either Parul or Taleb had shown any real interest in each other, but men and women are like fire and ghee, as her mother used to say. And Saleha had seen too many unpleasant things in her thirty years. Lately she had noticed Parul daydreaming a lot.
Suddenly she whirled around and asked, “Parul, have you been talking to that guy on the roof?”
“What guy?” Parul was startled out of her thoughts.
“That bloke with the beard.”
Parul stared blankly. Saleha twisted her face as she said, “Remember that young construction worker I told you about? He asked me about you once. Don’t talk to any of them, okay?”
A look of disdain crossed Parul’s delicate features. “Construction worker? What would I want with a common laborer?”
“That’s good.” Saleha concentrated on her cooking. “Just don’t pay any attention to them. These guys talk sweetly, but I’m sure they all have wives and kids in the village. Don’t be fooled, and don’t linger in the veranda.”
Parul laughed. “Don’t worry, bubu. I have no interest in any construction worker whatsoever.” She started humming to herself. Saleha was too relieved to notice.
Sharmin stared at the single raw potato under the small jasmine shrub in the veranda. What was a potato doing there? Her mother had a green thumb and liked having flowers and small shrubs in their veranda. But certainly not sickly-looking potatoes. She picked it up gingerly. It was greenish, and wrinkled on one side. It must have lain there for some days. She didn’t like to yell at the servants from the veranda. Besides, her mother was probably taking a nap, being tired from staying with Dadi all night at the hospital. She turned the potato around and almost tripped on the threshold. “I LOVE YOU” it proclaimed in bold capital letters. Sharmin looked around at the neighboring apartment complex and the adjacent construction site where another apartment complex was being built. There was nobody in the vicinity. The construction workers were probably off to lunch. And no one was out on the verandas in the blazing midday heat. She decided to have a word with Saleha.
Saleha’s eyes went round as she saw the potato in Sharmin’s hand. She had been with this family for over six years, and had never seen such a thing. Sharmin spoke calmly: “Please ask Parul if she knows anything about this. It might be one of those laborers.”
“Apamoni, it might just be a random potato.”
Sharmin looked at Saleha with irritation and amusement. “Are you saying that the potato grew out of our flower pots bearing this inscription? Saleha! Are you dumb? Obviously it was intended for someone. And I think it’s for Parul. In case you haven’t noticed, that girl is getting out of hand.”
Saleha remained silent. She felt warm with embarrassment. She suspected the same, but didn’t want to say so in front of Sharmin. “I’ll ask her, Apa.”
To Saleha infinite annoyance, Parul refused to utter a single word about the potato. She grew scarlet with rage, and Saleha surmised that this was not the first such messenger to have alighted on their veranda. Raising her voice she said, “I don’t know what you are up to, you wretched girl, but at least tell me that you are not sending out potatoes too.” Still no reply from Parul. Saleha grew exasperated. “Parul, try to understand. They will send you back home to the village if this continues.”
This time Parul raised her eyes and looked defiantly at Saleha. “Why should they send me back? I haven’t done anything.”
Saleha heaved a sigh of relief. “Do you know who it is from? Have you talked to the person?”
Parul looked outside the window. “I have not talked to anyone.”
Saleha started cursing the construction workers. “Those scoundrels, those scheming lowlife ruffians. Why do they disturb decent girls? They are universally immoral, those good-for-nothing laborers.” Then she stopped and looked at Parul again. “You are not to go to the back veranda anymore, okay? From now on, I will sweep that veranda myself.”
“On whose orders?” Parul shot back angrily.
“On my orders, and you shall obey.” Saleha’s voice was dangerously calm. “Or I will tell Sharmin Apa that you have been talking to the guy.”
Parul knew she had crossed the boundary, so she withdrew sullenly into the servants’ quarters without another word.
That afternoon Saleha gathered two more potatoes with inscriptions. On one she saw the name of Parul. There was no longer any doubt about whom the potato missives were directed towards. When Saleha went back to the kitchen, the intended recipient of the messages was busy chopping cauliflowers, green beans and carrots for dinner. She was about to open her mouth when the door bell rang. Saleha went to answer the door. On opening the door she saw their next door neighbour, Rokeya Khalamma. “Is anybody home? How is Khalamma doing?”
“Nobody is home except the children,” replied Saleha courteously. “Both Sharmin Apa and Khalamma are at the hospital. They are going to be bring Dadi Amma home tomorrow.”
The visitor’s face brightened. “Excellent,” she said, nodding. “We have good news too. Our Nipa got engaged yesterday. The gaye holud is in two weeks’ time.” Saleha now noticed that Shipa, Rokeya Khalamma’s second daughter, was standing behind her mother, and held a large box wrapped in golden paper. Rokeya Khalamma handed the box to Saleha. “I will come again,” she said. “Just don’t forget to tell them, okay?” She turned to her daughter. “Come, Shipa. We have to visit the Ramzanis.”
Saleha noticed that Shipa had another box, but it was smaller than the one she just received. Khalu held a high position with an international organization, and therefore, Rokeya Khalamma was always extra courteous to them. After they left, she put the box of sweets in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, Parul had come out of the kitchen. “Was that the fat Rokeya Khalamma from next door?” she asked.
“Yes,” Saleha said, hiding her irritation. “Nipa Apa is getting married.”
Parul peered at her. “Bubu, that girl is younger than you. Why do you call her Apa?” She giggled as she added, “Have you noticed the way she simpers? I suppose she will simper all the more now that she is getting married.”
Saleha looked at her sternly. “That’s the custom, Parul. Don’t forget your place. It’s high time that you learn some things.” Saleha paused. “I’ve noticed the way you answer back to Apamoni. She is older than you and the daughter of your mistress. Take care, girl.”
Parul shrugged. “I think you are too subservient,” she said and then gave a little cry of surprise as she felt her left cheek burning with a sharp pain. “You slapped me, Salu bu?” her eyes went wide with shock. Saleha had a look in her eyes that Parul had never seen before.
“Yes,” replied Saleha. “But I should have slapped you way earlier, when you first started to show these signs of disrespect. Sharmin is right. You’ve gone out of hand.”
Even in acute pain and shock, Parul noticed that Saleha, the epitome of propriety, had dropped “Apa” from Sharmin’s name. Saleha shook her head, “I don’t know what you’re up to, girl, but I can sense that it’s no good. Probably the best thing would be to send you home.”
The atmosphere of the house felt very different after Dadi Amma came back from the hospital. She was still very weak from the ordeal she has been through, but everyone was relieved as the immediate danger was over. Saleha was off to visit Reba, a girl who worked downstairs, in the household of the famous actress Chandrima. Surely she will bring back some savory tale, thought Parul. Reba came not from their village, but from the same district. Parul did not like her much. She was always smiling and everybody liked her, which irked Parul.
When Saleha came back, Parul was busy filing her nails. She tried to keep them as she has seen Sharmin do them. Rather than using the cheap nail polish that other girls like Reba or Romela used, she glossed coconut oil over her nails. It was something she learned from watching beauty tips on TV. They used olive oil, but coconut oil would have to do for now. When she married the prince of her dreams, she would use better things than olive oil. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t have a drop of olive oil from Dadi Amma’s bottle now and then. She still remembered the one time she pinched some from Khalamma’s bathroom. Sharmin had almost caught her red-handed. The bottle of oil was an innocuous thing though, because she had permission to take it to rub on Dadi Amma’s feet. And the bottle in Dadi Amma’s room had run out that day. However, Parul had not only taken the olive oil, but also a bar of soap hidden in her shalwar, a fragrant bar that Khalujan had brought the last time he came home. Both Parul and Saleha received some trinkets when he returned, but not any of those fancy soaps. There were many of them tucked away in the cabinet in Khalamma’s bathroom. The fragrance was simply otherworldly. Even though Sharmin eyed her all over, she didn’t say anything. Parul pretended she didn’t notice. She still had the soap in her box as she did not dare to use it. If Saleha found out, she would kill her. Parul made a face. She still couldn’t understand why these little things were so important to Saleha. But then she had the soul of a servant. What would she say when she found out about the guy next door? Parul giggled to herself when she heard Saleha’s voice in the hall:
“Nipa Apa is getting married to a boy next door. Have you heard, Apamoni?”
“I heard he’s an engineer,” came Khalamma’s voice. “Who told you? And which next door?”
“Reba told me the whole story. Apparently, they used to communicate through the windows. He lives in the building behind ours.”
“That’s horrendous,” Sharmin exclaimed. “I thought Nipa had better sense than that.” She added something else in a lower tone that Parul could not hear clearly. But she heard Saleha’s voice protesting, “That’s not true, Apamoni. Parul never talked to any of those guys.”
“Sure,” came Sharmin’s jeering voice. “That girl is not just insolent, but a damn liar as well.”
When Saleha entered their small room, her face was flushed. She glowered at Parul, but did not say anything. Parul put away the things and asked in a pleasant voice, “So, Nipa’s is a love match? I am sure that Sharmin will never make one. She is pretty, and considers herself clever. But men don’t like her type,” she concluded.
“What do you know about men’s likes and dislikes?” Saleha was more surprised than annoyed.
“I know what I need to know,” said Parul with confidence. “I intend to marry well, bubu. I want to be a lady.”
Saleha gaped at her. Parul went on, “So tell me, who is this guy?”
“Ugh, bubu! The guy Nipa is marrying, of course.”
“He lives in the apartment complex behind ours. You might have seen him. Shamim Bhai—a cute looking guy.”
Parul stared at her. “What?” she whispered.
Saleha spoke wearily, “I don’t know what has gotten into you, Paru. These days you talk and act so strange! Anyway, according to Reba, he is extremely nice, even though he has a squint. So sometimes when he looks at you, it seems as if he’s looking at somebody else. I hope she will be happy. She is very unlike her mother—always very nice to helping hands. Roshida is always full of her praise….” Saleha rattled on, but Parul sat staring at the wall. He lives in the apartment behind ours. He has a squint.
Was there any other guy in that house? And Parul knew his name too—Shamim. She had often whispered that name in her reveries. But how could this be? Shamim was her Potato Prince!
Parul sat on the veranda looking forlorn. She had an English magazine in her hands. She only knew some basic English, which Khalamma had taught her despite the misgivings of Sharmin and Dadi Amma. Parul had often carried it to the veranda to impress her Prince. Now it seemed that he had never looked at her, but at that simpering Nipa. Who sent the potato missives then?
Right then another potato fell at her feet. Parul turned her head swiftly and saw the young construction worker. He was looking at her adoringly. “Parul,” he called softly. Parul just stared at him. He was a youngish man with soft beard, and a gamchha around his neck. He looked at the magazine in her hand and smiled. “You know how to read English?” Parul was lost for words. “I studied up to class six,” the man said again. “Then my father died. I had a step-mother, and I had to leave home.” Parul got up very slowly and walked over to the side facing the construction site. “Did you throw the potatoes?” Her voice was so hoarse that she barely recognized it herself. The man nodded.
“How did you know my name?” she asked.
“I heard them calling you. I’ve been watching you for quite some time now. I asked the other girl about you.” He grinned. “But she probably thinks I’m a lout.”
Parul kept on staring.
That’s how Sharmin found her standing on the veranda: as she later on described it, “lost in each other’s eyes.”
Her boxes were packed. Khalamma was very liberal. She had to dismiss her, but she still gave her three months’ salary. “We can’t take on such a responsibility, Saleha. Especially since the master of the house lives abroad. She is a teenage girl. What if some untoward incident takes place?” She shook her head. “She also looks more developed than a 15-year-old should. I think her parents should try to get her married.”
Saleha just nodded. Considering everything she also thought that it was a good piece of advice.
“If they can arrange a marriage, we will contribute. And please, when you come back, see if you can find another girl. Someone more manageable.”
Nobody said anything to Parul. This was her last night in Dhaka. She had not uttered one syllable since Sharmin had discovered her talking to the construction worker three days earlier.
Now suddenly Saleha found the girl lying beside her shaking convulsively. Parul was crying at last. Saleha tried to comfort her, “Hey, it’s not so bad. You are good looking, you know. I’m sure your parents will be able to find a good husband for you. Come on, surely you don’t like that ‘mistiri’ guy so much?”
Parul kept on sobbing as though her heart was broken. But she did not speak. How could she tell Saleha that she was not crying for the construction worker? Her vanity was terribly, terribly hurt. While Saleha blabbered on, Parul wept bitterly. She felt her heart would break for the Potato Prince that never was.
(Published first in Bengal Lights and republished with permission of the author.)
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She has a PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her area of experties is nineteenth-century British fiction. Her short stories, non-fictions and translations have been published in Kitaab, Asiatic,The New Age, The Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Bengal Lights and Six Seasons Review. Currently, she is also the Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Review pages.
As I write this, I am sitting at my workstation at home, a cup of hot green tea in hand, like any other day. But that is where ‘like any other day’ ends.
My husband is working from home, no longer out on his weekly tour. The kids are no longer at school. We are watchful of every sneeze, alarmed at every cough. At least, three sanitisers would greet you on the way from my apartment, down the elevator to the ground floor reception. An email from Google is asking me if my business is affected because of corona virus; forwards from well meaning (and often ill-informed) relatives detailing baffling ‘facts’, even the magical cure of ginger garlic. WhatsApp groups are full of passionate debates about the ‘right’ degree of panic this should evoke. I myself am struggling to find the ‘cool’ response to this crisis, while chiding a friend in Philippines for not panicking and taking the next flight home, even though it will mean fourteen days of quarantine for her. Tom Hanks contracted the virus. The Canadian Prime Minister’s wife also did.
I am terribly hooked to Stephen Colbert’s daily monologue at the Late Show. It works like a wonder to cheer me up on my worst days. Today, as I turned to my daily dose, it took me steeply downhill as the host put up the gloomiest narrative, struggling to do a live show where a live audience is no longer allowed. This was it for me! I do not know if the virus has physiologically affected one or not, it certainly has in every other way — professional, parental, societal. It seems to be everywhere.
Some of my friends love to read and exchange pieces of thoughtful good writing. A few days back, we discussed one such piece and immediately agreed how cosmologists have the most beautiful commentary on life, as they can distance themselves from the myopic view of daily human life and zoom out into the universe. It must be easier to lose that momentary angst when you realise what a minuscule spec you are on a little dot.
I often say I am not as good at writing as I am at reading. So here is a bit by physicist Brian Green that I particularly loved. “Most of us deal quietly with the need to lift ourselves beyond the everyday. Most of us allow civilisation to shield us from the realisation that we are part of a world that, when we’re gone, will hum along, barely missing a beat. We focus our energy on what we can control. We build community. We participate. We care. We laugh. We cherish. We comfort. We grieve. We love. We celebrate. We consecrate. We regret. We thrill to achievement, sometimes our own, sometimes of those we respect or idolise. Through it all, we grow accustomed to looking out to the world to find something to excite or soothe, to hold our attention or whisk us to someplace new. Yet the scientific journey we’ve taken suggests strongly that the universe does not exist to provide an arena for life and mind to flourish. Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen. Until they don’t.” That last line in there is the only truth, the only take away, the only lesson. It is the same for all of us. Whether you are in Italy or India or Iran.
Corona virus has taken our nationalities, religion, colour, all away from us. It has levelled us all as equals, trying to make sense of a common enemy. We are now the same. Of course how we deal with it may differ, but only in degree. We are the same parents who worry for their kids, the same tourists who feel unwelcome, the same travellers who long to make it home, the same businesses that suffer, the same patients who are isolated, the same clueless heads trying to figure this out.
Corona virus has rendered us all the same — the human species – what we were when our kind started inhabiting the Earth.
Almost every industry in the world has been impacted — from sports to the financial markets. But through it all, we still turn to our phones to see that message of concern from friends, that well meaning (maybe ill-informed) forward from relatives, that email from an employer on how to keep yourself safe, that beautiful write up from a psychologist, that Google alert on the latest celebrity to contract the virus.
The talking. The reading. The communicating.
Never has it seemed more important than today, to keep that conversation going, to make that long due call, to show that concern, to fuss over that loved one, to accept that helplessness, to find that common ground in not knowing.
Nidhi Mishra is an ex-banker who pivoted from a 10 year banking career to her passion for reading and luring others to read through her startup Bookosmia (smell of books). Bookosmia, a children’s content company has grown at a furious rate in the last two years, building an enviable bank of 270+ Intellectual Property, focused on bringing. She went to Lady Shri Ram College , Delhi University to pick up an Honours in Mathematics and a feminist flair on the side. An MBA from IIM Lucknow took her to a decade long career in the financial sector, finally quitting as VP, HSBC as she suffers from a (misplaced) sense of satisfaction and a drive to do something meaningful with her time. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nidhi’s first children’s book “I Wish I Were” is retelling of an old Indian folklore in partnership with Parvati Pillai, ex-design Head of Chumbak received much global acclaim and is available on Kindle.
Those familiar with the cult author Ayn Rand (she of The Fountainhead fame) will possibly remember her somewhat sobering thoughts on love: “After a point, YOUR LOVE for a person becomes more important than the object of love” (Capitalisation mine). What is love, or the easier poser: What do we make of the idea of love? That love is a compelling emotion, which is perfectly democratic and non-discriminating in affecting the bright and the otherwise, the poor and the rich, the old and the young and so on is an incontrovertible fact. Its universality does, ipso facto, predicate on some common streak that runs through humanity. Is it the innate desire, an almost mammalian need, to copulate and propagate that stirs us into “loving” another, as a prelude as it were to pairing, and therefore mating and procreating and so on? Or is it some deep insecurity within, of a feeling of incompleteness till we have loved or are loved? Or is it just a reflection of the great human propensity to possess; more precisely to call things our own, to be comfortable only when what we desire, that is what we consider of worth, is ours for keeps, like the valuables we stash in our bank lockers?
To begin with, we ought to take a look at the popular rhetoric encountered in our representational sphere of reference to understand how love, though imagined as something special, is as much a commodity as anything else. Why do we say, for example, things like “he (or she) belongs to me”, “I wish to belong to her”, “I could not belong to anyone”, “I want her bad”, “Gosh, I can’t live if I can’t have her”, and so on and so forth? If love were so noble, or even selfless as it is often made out to be, why should it make us want to own the object of love unless it be to serve as a perpetual reminder of the great feeling of love that we have experienced for that object? It is as though our love would crumble to dust should the one we love not be ours forever. And we thought love was an abstract idea!
So let’s test the proposition with a hypothetical (though perfectly credible) situation. You say you love somebody. Now that somebody loves you well, after a manner, you know; loves you but is not in love with you, whatever. Here the balance is delicate. You can’t stop loving that person because you know her (or his) love could grow with time. Unless you keep professing your love, how can you fuel whatever spark she (or he) has for you, right?
Over a period in time, she may not progress beyond her incipient leanings. At some critical juncture, you have to take the decision on whether to let go of your love for her (or him) or push just that little bit more. What is this game, ask yourself? If this is love, fine, so it is, but let’s not pretend and suggest it is some elevated concept that can only be experienced at a heightened level of consciousness. The processes that it goes through is no different from the ones you adopt before deciding to buy a pair of pyjamas – is it good, is it worth the price, how much can I beat the price down to, and of course, how long will it last?
Love therefore, is not an abstract idea. QED. It is an idea though because we don’t know what it is. Probably it is nothing really, at least nothing tangible. But that does not make it abstract. The only way to know it is to register all the things we build around it and what we do with it. It is somewhat like the honour pupils earn in a boy’s school for pissing highest against a wall. The honour means little. It does not guarantee against urinary problems in later life, no does it confirm sexual prowess, but the effort to earn that honour is tangible.
To return to Ayn Rand, and the big question: Is most of what has to do with love merely a role? An assertion of what we can or must or should do to express our love. And what do you think would remain imprinted on the mind – our efforts or the object of love? Come on be honest; of course, we’d value our love more than the loved one.
But all these theories pertain to love that has to do with the desire to own. Love that does not demand, love that is not fixated on one person, love that is not possessive or centred on one’s singular desires comprise another kettle of fish. This is the sort of love that you can shower on so many people at the same time. Where you remain a free agent, and so does the person you love. And each of these loves can have sanctity. Because there is no sense of possession tied to such love it seldom unwinds, unlike the other type that tends to come apart when the tangible grounds for its existence seem to come unstuck.
The Czechoslovak writer Milan Kundera once spoke of two types of love – lyrical and epical – with reference to men. In the former, you see all women in one woman, and in the latter, you see one woman in all women. One liked the concept when one was young (that’s why the quote is remembered). Not anymore. Real love is ‘topical’ love, as it were, where you see all women (or men really) in every woman (or man). Anyway, the more you love, the more love there is that goes around. Philosophically, that sounds better than ‘winning’ somebody in love, as though the person were some prize catch!
And no, this piece has nothing to do with the virus. Of course, it’s possible that thoughts of mortality urge the mind to come clean on vexed conundrums, none more twisted than the subject of love. It circles the context of the writer’s consciousness because everybody is thinking corona, but it does not (in his opinion) contaminate his thoughts. Except to the extent that he could not help adding it to the title, unapologetically, and admittedly gratuitously!
Debraj Mookerjee has taught in Ramjas College at the University of Delhi for close to three decades, with specialised interests in Literary Theory, cultural studies, and popular fiction, especially SF. He is also a columnist, writing on culture politics and society, apart from food history. Mookerjee likes to travel and curate life and its myriad complexities. He is deeply interested in exploring alternative pedagogies, because he feels higher education should unleash academic creativity and not constrain scholarship through enforced regimentation.
During the first few decades of the feminist movement, it was assumed that women as a social group, as a political constituency could organise themselves as a unified entity in order for them to give voice to their demands. Underlying this assumption was the belief that women’s oppression was a more or less universal fact and so there was a measure of solidarity in the hurt claims that women were voicing. In some societies like India which was under the yoke of colonialism, the reform movements of the 19th century brought the miserable condition of Indian women to the attention of the colonial government and to the public at large, leading to a series of legislations which ostensibly helped improve the condition of Indian women. However mindsets took longer to change and despite some changes in the public domain and ameliorative measures, the material condition of women within the family continued to be unequal and oppressed.
The first wave of feminism or liberal feminism was visible in the west, specifically US and England and had its roots in both Enlightenment rationality as well as in 19th century liberal thinking represented by Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, who stressed on the importance of liberty or freedom for the individual (whether to pursue his/her profession/religion), on individual rights and justice and also on political equality. However the operative assumption was that the subject of this feminism was a homogeneous and undifferentiated subject. So when Virginia Woolf invokes “human nature” or the category of “woman” in her writings, one gets the sense of a singular monolithic subject of feminism. Factors like imperialism, colonialism or race and class did not alter or sufficiently inflect Woolf’s understanding of the category of woman.
Similarly radical feminism also sought to locate commonalities in women’s experiences. In their focus on the personal as the political, on sharing of experiences and of consciousness-raising, women were encouraged to forge solidarities based on common experiences of victimisation and oppression. As Valerie Bryson, the British political scientist who has written extensively on feminist theory and politics, points out, consciousness-raising demonstrated how “the trauma of a woman who had been raped or who had to resort to an illegal abortion seemed to be linked to the experiences of the wife whose husband refused to do his share of housework…or sulked if she went out for he evening; the secretary whose boss insisted that she wear short skirts and expected her to ‘be nice’ to important clients; and the female student whose teachers refused requests to study female writers or even traded grades for sexual favours.”(Bryson,1999:27)
This sense of solidarity fostered by the women’s movement even if temporarily created a sense of sisterhood and of bonding. Their stress was on values and qualities culturally associated with women albeit a somewhat essentialized notion of womanhood. Underlying this notion of sisterhood was also a set of assumptions articulated by Alison Jaggar and Paula Rothenberg:
“That women were historically the first oppressed group
That women’s oppression is the most widespread , existing in virtually every known society
That women’s oppression is the hardest form of oppression to eradicate and cannot be removed by other social changes such as the abolition of class society.
That women’s oppression causes the most suffering to its victims, although the suffering might go unrecognised because of the sexist prejudices of both the oppressors and the victims.
That women’s oppression ..provides a conceptual model for understanding all other forms of oppression.”(Jaggar and Rothenberg, 1984 :186)
In the whole afterglow of a temporary sense of empowerment generated by the women’s liberation movement with slogans like (the one that evolved out of the title of Robin Morgan’s book) Sisterhood is Powerful doing the rounds, the valorisation of motherhood and the sense that women are the nurturers of nature (ecofeminism), the presence of many deprivileged women who were not even in a position to articulate their oppression was perhaps forgotten. In a sense it was a metonymic displacement where one group of women stood for the whole and spoke for all women in what they felt and thought was a unified voice. Was and is this an issue of misrepresentation or partial representation?
It was in the 1980s that the third wave or difference feminism was manifesting itself in diverse ways. As American feminist, Rosemary Tong, summarises, “multicultural, global and postcolonial feminists push feminist thought in the direction of both recognising women’s diversity and acknowledging the challenges it presents’’(Tong.1997:200) The category of woman is not a singular, unified or monolithic category. Both female essentialism — the tendency to see the category of woman as a universal category outside of history and culture- and female chauvinism were seen as problematic and eschewed.
The attack on Anglo-American feminism came from several quarters-multicultural immigrants’ French feminists and ‘third’ world and postcolonial feminisms. Marginalized women, particularly women of colour and lesbians but also poor, uneducated and immigrant women complained that the feminism propagated by the so-called feminists who were in the academy did not work for them. (Tong, 202) Rather it catered to a very small segment of elite feminists comprising white, heterosexual, middle-class, highly-educated women whose interests are put forward as that of all women. There is obviously no such universal version of womanhood available. Elizabeth Spelman urged feminist theorists to not gloss over women’s differences, since such standardisations invariably also assume a norm of how a woman should be. She observes:
“I believe that the woman in every woman is a woman just like me, and if I also assume that there is no difference between being white and being a woman, then seeing another woman ‘as a woman’ will involve seeing her as fundamentally like the woman I am. In other words, the womanness underneath the Black woman’s skin is a white woman’s, and deep down inside the Latino woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through a cultural shroud. (Spelman,1998:13) Thus to stress the unity of women is no ‘guarantee against hierarchical ranking’ and this assertion of differences can therefore function ‘oppressively’.”(ibid)
Difference feminisms were articulated by postcolonial feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others. Among the strongest articulations of difference were the ones by bell hooks, Audre Lord and Patricia Hill Collins. With their main focus being African American /black women, these feminists foregrounded the multiple and interlocking oppressions of race, sex and class. These multiple oppressions could not be separated into primary and secondary but had to be understood simultaneously and addressed together. Their ideas about multiple oppressions were also voiced in various registers by other groups like the Latin American /Hispanic feminists and others.
While keeping in mind the differences, too much stress on mutual differences can end up throwing a spanner in the works as far as forging a global feminism is concerned. Global and postcolonial feminists rather believe that women “cannot work together as true equals until women recognize and address their differences.”(Tong:217) According to Audre Lorde, when a feminist walks into a room filled with women from all over the world, she probably does not always want to highlight the differences but stress the similarities and commonalities.(ibid) So rather than plurality she focuses on ‘oneness’, on unity. Audre Lorde says that it is precisely this type of behaviour that explains some feminists inability to forge alliances:
“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”(Lorde, quoted in Tong:217)
Thus, going by the logic of this argument, the existence of difference does not exclude the idea of solidarity shared on the basis of a history of similar (though not the same) oppressions. However , the idea of coming together as feminists has also been challenged by several schools of feminism, including post-structuralist feminism and others. To cite one example, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva feel that the idea of all universal ideologies based on a common human nature is outmoded.
Similarly poststructuralist and postmodern feminism offer a threat both to the subject of feminism as well as to the question of forging solidarities between women as the question of difference proliferates even more sharply. “Taken to extremes the emphasis on ‘difference’ could lead to losing sight of all commonalities, making even communication impossible.”(Shiva and Mies,1993: 10-11)
One way to address the issue of difference, rather to sidestep it, is to abandon the idea of solidarity and sisterhood since it is impossible for all feminists or all women to unite on a common platform or under the same banner. The other is to invoke Gayatri Spivak’s idea of strategic essentialism, and concur with Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake’s laying out a program and agenda for third wave feminism:
“Even as different strains of feminism and activism directly contradict each other, they are part of our third-wave lives, our thinking, and our praxes: we are products of all the contradictory definitions of and differences within feminism, beasts of such a hybrid kind that perhaps we need a different name altogether.” (Heywood and Drake,1997:3)
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’ in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
Welcome to Borderless — a journal that hopes to roll out an invitation to all those who are willing to venture into the vastness of wonders, ideas and creativity. It seeks out thoughts that can soar above borders not just like birds but also like clouds. Clouds waft without pausing at differences, join together and bring water to the parched lands across all terrains as do writers and readers who look beyond differences. The writing will be like raindrops that create a downpour of love, tolerance, kindness, wit and humour. With a little soupçon of such values, we hope to unite into a world that can override differences, hatred, angst, violence and COVID-19.
In these pages, we welcome hope for a future that makes us happy; we welcome all writers of all ages to come and revel in words and ideas and we invite readers to come and read and give us comments and write to us about what they would like to read at email@example.com. They are also welcome to try their hands at writing. In a world forced to segregate for the sake of survival, this is a way to connect with ideas.
We start the journal with some input from the team from the editorial board, constituting a few writers who are outstanding and eminent in their own areas. You can read about the team in ‘About Us’ and savour some of their work under the different subheads: essays, reviews, stories and poetry.
Dustin Pickering, somewhat of a rebel poet, a Pushcart nominee and a brilliant essayist, columnist and publisher, has contributed a scholarly essay on ‘Poets as Warriors’ — I love the idea even though I differ with some of his surmises. Maybe a war of words can convince people eventually that war with weapons is not the best way to maintain peace. Meenakshi Malhotra, a specialist in gender studies, bring us an essay on whether solidarity between women is possible. What do you think?
Namrata, a writer who hides behind fuchsia curtains and spills out lovely reviews, has a tempting review on a book edited by Sarita Jenamani and Aftab Husian — Silences between the Notes. Curious? Read and find out.
Sarita Jenamani, the PEN Austria general secretary, herself has contributed poetry — like the tinkling of crystal chandeliers evoking an evening in Vienna where she lives. Sohana Manzoor, the literature page editor in Daily Star, Bangladesh, has contributed a story, the title of which brings a smile — ‘Parul and The Potato Prince’ — reminded me a little of an O’ Henry in a Bangladeshi setting!
Nidhi Mishra, a successful publisher of children’s stories, rolled out a fabulous piece on corona that hovers between an essay and a slice of life. It is in a grey zone — and that is why there is a new name for it — Musings. In Musings, you will also find Debraj, a popular columnist and an associate professor in Delhi University, with an unusual piece — again hovering between multiple genres. That is partly also what we hope do in Borderless, we explore genres and non-genre based writing to create new trends.
Read it all and tell us what you think.
I look forward to Borderless as ‘your’ journal — a site that hosts contributions and looks for readership from all of you!