January 23, 2011, 3:09 PM IST
A Female Dalit Poet Fights Back in Verse
By Margherita Stancati
The categories into which Meena Kandasamy falls—Dalit and female—have
put her among those Indian society has historically tended to oppress
and marginalize the most.
Repeated humiliation pushed the 26-year-old to fight back—through her
social activism and her inflammatory writing, in verse and prose.
In a recent interview at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Ms.
Kandasamy, who is from Tamil Nadu in south India, said the aim of her
poetry is to send a social message.
Margherita Stancati for The Wall Street Journal
Meena Kandasamy takes on Hindu myths in her politically-charged poetry.
In her poems she addresses issues of caste and
untouchability—something that stems from her being a Dalit, considered
the lowest and most oppressed of India's castes and formerly known as
She said she embraced her identity as a Dalit partly because there was
no way of escaping it. "People will force that label on you so you
might as well make the most of it," said Ms. Kandasamy.
For Dalit women, oppression often means sexual subjugation too. Ms.
Kandasamy's poems are informed by a sense of gender relations that
suggest being a woman in a largely patriarchal society is another form
of being lower caste.
"You don't have to be a Dalit—by being a woman the caste is in you," she said.
In her poems, it's her identity as a woman that she engages most
explicitly. Ms. Kandasamy's woman, like female figures in a lot of
feminist literature, makes unbridled sexuality the main weapon of her
One of Ms. Kandesamy's top targets is Hindu society and in her poems
she repeatedly goes back to Hindu and Tamil myths—which she seeks to
"So, my 'Mahabharat' moves to Las Vegas; my Ramayan is retold in three
different ways…telling my story another way lets me forgive you," she
wrote in the preface to her collection of poems "Ms. Militancy,"
published in 2006.
Here is a poem from that collection:
the pot sees just another noisy child
the glass sees an eager and clumsy hand
the water sees a parched throat slaking thirst
but the teacher sees a girl breaking the rule
the doctor sees a medical emergency
the school sees a potential embarrassment
the press sees a headline and a photofeature
dhanam sees a world torn in half.
her left eye, lid open but light slapped away,
the price for a taste of that touchable water.
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