Jayita Sinha on "Bodies That Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry"
Bodies That Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry
Reviewed by Jayita Sinha
In Bodies That Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry Anita Anantharam argues for a reappraisal of poetry by South Asian women as an important opportunity for feminist resistance to nationalisms in the region. In contrast to most theorists of postcolonial nationalism, who privilege prose forms like the novel and the short story, Anantharam chooses to examine poetry as women in South Asia have repeatedly turned to the genre as a medium of expression “during moments of religious revitalization and under repressive governments.” In Bodies That Remember, Anantharam does not pose as the emotionally detached, disinterested critic, but assumes the role of narrator, even drawing upon her personal experience with the poets who feature in her study. She is keenly aware of her own subject position as an Indian-American academic as she scrutinizes the works of four prominent women poets of South Asia—Mahadevi Varma, Kishwar Naheed, Fahmida Riaz, and Gagan Gill.
Directed primarily at a Western readership unfamiliar with vernacular literary traditions in the subcontinent, Bodies That Remember begins with a salutary reminder that cosmopolitanism in Indian literature is not limited to writings in English, but also encompasses the vernaculars. The four women poets who are the subject of Anantharam’s study belong to urban South Asia, and as the beneficiaries of multiple linguistic and cultural traditions manifest a cosmopolitanism in their works equal to that of Salman Rushdie and other Anglophone South Asian writers. Furthermore, Anantharam argues that the poems of the four women envisage a South Asia that is “not only cosmopolitan and transnational but critically indigenous as well.” Their poetic repertoire includes indigenous traditions and forms, but they simultaneously seek to modify and even transform them.
The four poets Anantharam writes about are divided by nationality as well as linguistic affiliation—Varma was Indian and wrote in Hindi; Gill too composes poetry in Hindi and is Indian, while Naheed and Riaz are Pakistanis who write in Urdu. Defending her decision to put these poets in conversation with one another, Anantharam contends that all four women “draw from a common storehouse of memories and experiences” that finds expression in the language they employ; Riaz, for instance, occasionally composes in the genre of the folk-song, known as git, and liberally uses Hindi vocabulary, while Gill’s Hindi poems frequently incorporate words from Urdu, Punjabi, and English. Through the hybrid poetic language they deploy, these poets undercut nationalist myths by demonstrating that “Hindi and Urdu are not fixed languages but fluid, incorporating village dialects and cross-cultural poetic forms.”
Anantharam analyzes the work of the four poets with special reference to their treatment of “gender, materiality of bodies and historical memory” in order to illustrate their responses to nationalisms and religious revivals in their respective countries. The writers who are the subject of her study subvert patriarchal constructions of such terms as ‘womanhood’ and ‘sexuality,’ and reconstitute them in the light of subjective experience. Thus, their poetry undermines the nationalist portrayal of women’s bodies as innately heterosexual and destined for maternity. However, it is important to note that as members of the middle class or the upper castes, these women do not deny their privileged background or presume to speak for all South Asian women; instead they draw upon personal experience to comment on nationalisms in the postcolonial state. It is also significant that despite a similar agenda, these poets do not constitute a single voice; instead, they affirm a variety of positions with regard to the international feminist movement. Anantharam does not interpret this ambivalence towards feminism as a betrayal, but as an attempt to negotiate “the boundaries of feminist discourse.” She also claims that the four women seek to “expand the notion of politics,” and notes that her attempt to unravel the political premises embedded in the work of Varma and Gill in particular met with a lot of resistance, as these women have been charged with writing excessively romantic poetry that has no political message. Anantharam challenges this assumption, maintaining that Varma, for example, did articulate a political stance in her poetry through her adoption of the trope of the moth and the flame from the Urdu poetic tradition at a time when Urdu was increasingly associated with Muslims. By incorporating images from a supposedly ‘alien’ tradition, Varma indicated her disapproval of the communalization of Hindi and Urdu.
In her attempt to elucidate her writers’ views on women’s emancipation and nationalism, Anantharam extends her archive to include not only their poetic works, but also prose writings and even interviews and email exchanges. In her interpretation of Varma’s position, for instance, Anantharam makes liberal use of the writer’s prose essays, arguing that she does not vilify Muslims, or construct a cultural tradition from which non-Hindu elements have been ‘purged.’ According to Anantharam, it is in her prose works that Varma directly addresses women’s oppression and its historical context; in the poems, on the other hand, she explores female sexuality and the possibilities of a life that is truly free from gender constraints.
Self and sexuality also feature as themes in some of the Urdu poems of Naheed and Riaz, and could not have been articulated in any other genre, given the sociohistorical conditions in Pakistan. Anantharam emphasizes verses composed by the two poets in response to the ordinances against women during the Islamic revival of General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, and notes that both women frequently employ poetic forms that are relatively new in the Urdu tradition, such as the azad-nazm (free verse) and nasri-nazm (prose poems), to forge feminist voices that contest government strictures against women. Naheed and Riaz question traditional constructs of femininity and sexuality by offering a “heightened awareness of the female body, its attributes, and its traditional adornments.” In addition, both poets often make use of symbols rooted in the Hindi cultural tradition, and sometimes even write in a language laced with Hindi words, thus imagining a nation that “transcends state politics and policies” and effectively bridging the gulf between different communities of women.
Gill is perhaps the most challenging of Anantharam’s subjects, not only because the author established a personal bond with her, but also because Gill explicitly rejects the label of feminist for her work. Despite this denial of any affiliation with the feminist movement, however, Anantharam argues that Gill’s poetry is a sensitive exploration of the challenges confronting middle-class Indian women, such as the self-imposed censorship of desires and the pressures of familial duties.
Anantharam’s study is well-grounded in feminist theory, and draws liberally upon the writings of Judith Butler and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. However, she does not take into account theorizations of feminism by women activists in South Asia itself (like Suma Chitnis), a lacuna that weakens her discussion of how her poets themselves conceive of feminism. Moreover, in Anantharam’s analysis, the poets’ feminist interests and concerns about nationalism do not always coalesce, particularly in the case of Varma, which may convey the impression that she is trying to put together two disparate projects. However, it is noteworthy that Anantharam pays careful attention to the specificities of each poet’s socio-historical situation, and does not efface differences even as she seeks to prove that the four women are aligned with one another. In addition, her analysis of their poetry is a nuanced one; she is sensitive to literary resonances, but clarifies historical context and acknowledges the possibility of alternative readings. Hence, her work is of literary as well as historical interest.