June 23, 2009

Letter from Ramabai to her Husband


I’m tired
and this drying body
remembers the crane-
white of your nails tonight.

The widows come in
limp droves everyday
and my ears scorch
with their words.

Today, Shanta told me
“They gave me powders
to choke my daughter.”
Her hands kept
fluttering to her head
as if to touch
dream hair.

at night
I see my brother’s
ghost and we
still roam and
moan with bloated
bellies and tongues painted purple with
sour berries
and my hungry child-belly
carries Manorama
kicking and clawing inside me.

it rains outside and termites have grown
wings to search for frail lovers.
Soon they will
lose them and

I will see whispered wings
squashed to
the ground.

For this post, I was asked to select one of my poems that I “consider feminist or woman-centric” and I dithered for months because I could not come to a conclusion about two issues. (i) Which facet of my feminism should I display and (ii) Why should I privilege that particular aspect of my feminism? Finally, after much deliberation, I chose this poem, “Letter from Ramabai to her Husband”, which I first wrote in 2004. A much-revised version was published in my first collection, Boki (2008). It is the opening poem in a series of epistolary poems I wrote around the life of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922).

I became slightly obsessed with her when I started teaching extracts from her work to third year students of English Literature who study an optional course in Women’s Writing. I started by reading the prescribed portions in Tharu and Lalita’s Women Writing in India (600 BC to the Present) and then went on to read Uma Chakravarti’s magnificent Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai and Meera Kosambi’s Returning the American Gaze: Pandita Ramabai’s The Peoples of the United States (1889).

When I read about her life, I was both moved and shocked. Moved because she was an extraordinary woman who had lived an awe-inspiring life and shocked because I had been totally ignorant about her. No school text book had talked to me about her life. No book on Great Indian Women had included her. Why was this so? Was it because she relentlessly questioned Hinduism? Was it because she chose to destabilise caste laws by showing that a Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin could marry a Bengali Shudra? Was it because she converted to Christianity? Was it because she was criticized by Tilak as a Christian woman who was trying to “infiltrate…Hindu society…under the cloak of female education”? Was it because she was a single woman, a widow, who fought all her struggles alone and unaided?

Since one of my strongest beliefs about feminism is that it allows you to reconfigure history, allows you to retrieve what had been given up as lost and destroys (or attempts to destroy) the silence that marginalization imposes upon you, it became important for me to write about her. As a feminist, I felt I had to utilize my poetry to repossess her, reclaim her, save her, as it were, from the muteness within which she had been walled. Even while keeping her life in mind, a life of much adversity and sorrow–the death of her parents, the death of her brother and the death of her husband when she was pregnant–I wanted to move beyond biography, beyond the chronicled facts of her life. I wanted to see her as a woman in a community of other women, a woman who knew what it meant to be solitary, a woman who knew she had to grapple with the patriarchy inherent in religion, in the caste system, in nationalist politics.

As a feminist poet, I feel the need to use poetic forms that can act as a crucible for my politics. Therefore, my predilection for forms like the epistolary and the dramatic monologue. Their pliancy gives me the space to negotiate the tensions between the private and public lives of women. In poems like “Swarn Noora”, “Gulabi Sapera”, “Harriet Hosmer to Louisa Ashburton” and my “woman/sign” series, I recreate the lives of women artists–singers, dancers, sculptors, painters–to emphasize details about creativity, struggle, silence/voice and sexuality. My poems are peopled by women. Real women, who knew how to love, lived their lives by their own truths and were never scared of the unknown. My poetry and my research is my way of conversing with them.

3 comments to Letter from Ramabai to her Husband

  • Thank you for this post, Nitoo – for the poem and for the note following it.

    I have been wondering recently how to read poems that are apparently not political but when they are the only testaments that survive, how we arrive at the world they reveal. Poems that reclaim the past must surely strategise the reclamation differently and your use of the epistolary/dramatic monologue forms is interesting.

  • Yamini

    Reading the poem was like going back to the classes when we discussed Pandita Ramabai’s life and works and also your notes at the end reminded me of Ambai and her story ‘The Squirrel’ so much. The poem not only moved me but deeply disturbed me. I think we need to be disturbed, to be shocked, and to be shaken out of the comfortable silence that everyone tries to impose on us.

  • Mircea

    This is an absolutely beautiful poem that captures Ramabai in a way none of the scholarly literature about her can. I’m a student of South Asian history in the US that has just finished a thesis about Ramabai, and I wish I had seen this earlier. I would love to read more of your work.

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