Abstract: The focus is on poetry and a close reading of Prabha Ganorkar’s work is attempted. The development of Marathi poetry in its historical context is traced and an effort is made to show its common links to as well as changing themes and trends in what is known as the Modern(ist) era of Marathi poetry. A few of the most influential male and female writers I poets from the 1940s onwards are touched upon, followed by a brief discussion of the “New” writing movement of the 1960s. Thus Ganorkar’s work is contextualised and her poetry, both outside and within established Marathi traditions is examined.
Keywords: Marathi literature, Bhakti tradition, Marathi poetry, women writers, postcolonial Marathi poetry development, tradition and modernity, changing themes/trends, poetic persona
“Gélé dyaayaché raahun,
Tujzhé nakshatranché déné.
Majhyaa paas aatha kalyâ,
Aani thodi oli paané” — Aarti Prabhu.
In this paper I will focus on poetry and do a close reading of one poet’s— that is, Prabha Ganorkar’s— work in particular. I will begin with a brief historical overview of the development of Marathi poetry and show common links to, as well as changing themes and trends in, what is known as the Modern(ist) era of Marathi poetry. I will touch upon a few of the most influential male and female writers/poets from the 1940s onwards, followed by a short discussion of the ‘New’ writing movement of the 1960s. In this way I will try to contextualise Ganorkar’s work and map out how she works, both outside established Marathi poetic traditions and within them. I have sometimes used unusual sources such as private discussions, audio tapes, videos of theatre performances and textbooks on Marathi Literature to support my assertions and launch my arguments because of the lack of critical material available.
The mid-1940s are considered to be a watershed for Marathi literature. A rapidly changing economic, social, political, religious and educational climate was brought about by a series of historical events. The end of World War Two, followed closely by Indian Independence, the partition of the country into India and Pakistan and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi had a long-lasting and dramatic impact on literary trends and movements (Dahake, “Badallele”, 28). The Ravikiran Mandal— a group of poets who, through public recitations, made poetry popular in middle-class circles— had already reached its peak of popularity before the second World War (Nadkarni, 11). The postwar period saw bold experimentation with form and content and concerted efforts at breaking away from the conventional codes and strictures of kavya (poetry), katha (the short story) and kadambari (the novel), with a view to producing new art forms.
Pre-1960, the changing trends in Marathi poetry, the re-writings, revisions, new directions and new ideological imperatives are seen most clearly in the stylistic, modernistic, and imagist poetic experiments of B. S. Mardhekar. Mardhekar started his writing career around 1935 by publishing essays on aesthetics and the theory of writing. His essays such as ‘What is the Beauty of Writing’ and ‘Criticism and Aesthetics’ were widely influential and had a direct or indirect impact on writers, critics and intellectuals of the time (Dahake, “Badallele”, 34 translated by S.Palekar) Critics such as G. N. Devy call him ‘Marathi’s first “modernist”… one of the most significant critics of the modernistic period’ (117). But it was his two collections of poetry, Kahi Kavita [Some Poems] and Ankhi Kahi Kavita [Some More Poems], published in 1947 and 1951 respectively, that revolutionised the very concept of modern Marathi poetry. The rage, despair and angst of the content, combined with wordplay, a coolly ironic distance and a radical reworking of traditional forms, evoked strong reactions amongst Marathi critics. For example, V. L. Kulkarni says:
|Mardhekar’s poetry expresses very powerfully…. the self and
the individual voice, much more so than other poetry today. The
thoughts, feelings, words and ideas in every poem are stamped
with an unmistakeable “Mardhekarness” (Qtd by Dahake,
“Badallele”, 35 translated by S.Palekar)
Kulkarni goes on to say that this is in sharp contrast with ‘Marathi poets who had started writing about “the people’s” feelings, “the people’s” sorrows, “the people’s” desires and hopes, all in the same, rather unimaginative way’ (Qtd by Dahake, “Badallele, 35 translated by S.Palekar) Mardhekar was one of the first poets to introduce a ‘post-Romantic vitality, an awareness of language, diction and metres that the Romantic period had blunted.’ (Devy, 119). The imagery and sensibility of the poems were confrontingly different for most readers of the time. Mardhekar’s poetry, though grounded in modern themes, draws strongly on the Bhakti tradition, and is therefore ‘suffused with the spirit of rebellion… which is the essence of Bhakti poetry’ (Devy, 119). For example, in his collection Kahi Ankhi Kavita, Mardhekar uses oral/literary forms. This has been a tradition from the time of Dnyandev, the founder of Marathi poetry (1275- 1296), and Namdev (1270-1350). They broke away from the highly Sanskritised ‘classicist’ writing of the time and wrote poetry that was both written and sung; a ‘democratic literary transaction’, as Dilip Chitre calls it, that encouraged audience participation and was accessible to lower castes and women. such as the ‘abhang’. This was a form with short rhyming lines and a strongly metrical, but flexible rhythm used in the Bhakti tradition by medieval saint-poets such as Tukaram, Dnyandev, Eknath and so on. Though traditionally spiritual in focus, ‘the gamut of Bhakti poetry has amazing depth, width and range’, as Dilip Chitre points out:
|It is hermitic [sic], esoteric, cryptic, mystical; it is sensuous, lyri-
cal, deeply emotional, devotional; it is vivid, graphic, frank, di-
rect; it is ironic, sarcastic, critical; it is colloquial, comic, absurd;
it is imaginative, inventive, experimental; it is intense, angry,
assertive and full of protest (Says Tuka, xvii).
This is seen in the following extract from a poem by Tukaram:
Lord You are
And a tiger
And at times
Covering Your own arse
When you face
Only the weak
Who Try to run away
Out of my way
You aren’t even
A thing. (Chitre, Says Tuka, 100).
Mardhekar is equally dismissive of polite abstraction:
Shall I search
Of Love and Beauty?
All around me
I see corpses piled mountain-high. (5 translated by S.Palekar)
Though some of the sentiments are the same, we see a disillusionment in Mardhekar’s work that is quite different from the feelings of Tukaram towards Vithoba, his deity, or towards the world. In Mardhekar’s world, there is no God, only people struggling to survive in a hostile, meaningless universe, like ‘rats drowning in a rain-filled barrel’ (Mardhekar, 29 translated by S.Palekar) Dilip Chitre sees Mardhekar as having combined the old tradition of saint poetry and modern(ist) European trends:
|Like the surrealists, [Mardhekar] plumbed images out of a Freud-
ian underworld, and strung them together… one gets the feeling
that one is trapped and enclosed in a death chamber from which
there is no escape… The trap is absolute and eternal. (Qtd by
We see a similar shift in English Literature, from Tennyson to T. S. Eliot. In Indian writing in English, we also see a similar move away from the romanticism of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, to the wry irony, self-deprecation and linguistic hybridity of Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel.
After Mardhekar, the poets who made a significant impact on Marathi poetry, through their reworking of forms and content are Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and Aarti Prabhu (the pseudonym of C. T. Khanolkar). Contemporary cultural, social and political situations, changes, progress (or lack thereof), disgust and despair at the state of society can be seen very clearly in the abovementioned poets, along with an existential ennui, as can be seen in the follow- ing extract from Prabhu / Khanolkar’s collection, Diwélaagan [The Lighting of Lamps] :
|Let us not spoil
The petty clerk’s toil
Trim the moustache every dawn,
Go to work all shaved and shorn
Then pick up files blood-red so red,
Fuck the wife, two minutes in bed,
Watch for weals on tender breasts
Salaam your bosses without rest…(22 translated by S.Palekar)
One interesting feature that can be noted is the difference between the use of and search for metaphors in poets like Mardhekar and Chitre (Jaaware, 92). What was in Mardhekar a controlled search for metaphors, becomes, in Chitre, an explosion. In Mardhekar, usually a poem elaborates one, or two, sometimes three metaphors:
|Listen to the breaking of these branches
the white wounds of my intellect
witness the gigantic hoax of my senses
smell my forehead breaking open
taste the withering of life
the scales of experience… (Jaaware, 92).
It is the profusion of metaphors which gives the impression, perhaps, that the poet-persona is struggling to express some impossibly tangled feeling, because the profusion does give the impression that all these metaphors are meant not only to express, ‘but to conceal something intractable’ as Jaaware (92) points out. By the time one comes to Chitre, one sees a powerfully bleak rendering of lower/middle-class urban experience:
|I came in the middle of my life to a
Furnished apartment. By now my pubic hair
Was already graying. And I could see the dirty
Old man under my own skin
… The air
Smelt of dead rats and I was reaching the age of forty. (Mehrotra, 106).
Chitre has evoked conflicting critical comment. He has been both, criticised for being ‘elitist’ and ‘negative’, as well as been praised for his conscious struggle ‘not to succumb to the charms of moral nihilism… ’ (Jaaware, 93).
In Arun Kolatkar’s case, the exploration of the malaise of ‘modern times’ is sharper, more savagely ironic. The strength of Kolatkar’s poetry is that irony does not necessarily lead to despair, but drives home the poet’s political/personal commentary through the laughter it provokes:
|Giving me the boot, my boss said,
I can’t help it Mr. Nene, I just can’t.
Grabbing my cock, my wife said,
I’ll chop it off one day, just chop it off
… Stepping on my toes, a guy said,
Sorry man, I’m sorry
Sticking an umbrella in my eye, another said,
I hope you aren’t hurt.
Bearing down on me, full tilt, a trucker said,
It is interesting to note that as bilingual poets, both Chitre and Kolatkar cross-feed from at least two, and sometimes three traditions, but get attention in each ‘camp’ only for one aspect of their work. Chitre and Kolatkar’s writing can be read in terms of Sherry Simon’s concept of the ‘contact zone’. As Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi point out:
|Sherry Simon argues that bilingualism leads to the dissolution of
the binary opposition between original and translation. Follow-
ing Mary Louise Pratt, she uses the notion of the ‘contact zone’
the place where previously separated cultures come together.
Traditionally a space where cultures meet on unequal terms, the
contact zone is now a space that is redefining itself, a space of
multiplicity, exchange, renegotiation and discontinuities.’ (14).
We see these qualities in Chitre and Kolatkar’s voices, which are deliberately and self-consciously provocative, blurring boundaries of cultural and linguistic identity.
We can see similar preoccupations expressed in strongly individual voices in the experimentation of ‘Grace’ and Vasant Abbaji Dahake, amongst others, in the next generation of poets who were born in the mid to late 1940s. They were part of a movement of writers, poets, playwrights and actors who began to experiment with multidisciplinary art forms, blending physical theatre, dialogue, poetry, prose, song and performance. Their aim was to take ‘literature’ out of classrooms and universities and theatre beyond the proscenium arch, to explore and blend various forms and philosophies, such as ancient folk-theatre and poetic forms, physical theatre, Surrealism, Existentialism, ‘Method’ with a topical, highly politicised sensibility (A. Palekar et al.). Mehrotra points out that though poems such as ‘Woman’ and ‘Suicide of Rama’, say ‘English version by the poet’, their Marathi originals do not actually exist. ‘Biograph’ is a bilingual poem that has appeared in its Marathi form in Arun Kolatkarchya Kavita, ‘smuggled into the language through the unmanned checkpoint of verse’. This has been collectively called the ‘New Literature/Theatre Movement’.
Broadly speaking, most of the male poets of the post-World War Two and later generation wrote highly politicised, socially relevant, committed poetry. They wrote existential poetry exploring the meaninglessness of lower / middle-class urban life, of petty, often weak men leading monotonous, mundane, small lives, of the loss of religious tolerance, of riots and violence. This ‘tradition’ filters into Ganorkar up to a point, but there are crucial differences in her poetic concerns, as I will demonstrate further in the paper.
The tradition of women writing poetry in Maharashtra also goes back to the age of the saint-poets (Nadkarni, 12). Dnyandev’s sister Muktabai, Janabai and others sang of God in subtle, simple and moving verse. But women writers, however, seem to have taken a different path, and explore different concerns. In the twentieth century, we have the tradition continuing in the songs and poetry of Bahinabai Chowdhari, a barely literate woman whose writing is deeply moving and imbued with humanist philosophy. Like the male saint-poets, women’s bhakti verse is connected to everyday life and was secular. A common theme in traditional (rural) women’s songs and poems is the daily work of women in tradition-bound Maharashtrian society. It is written in a colloquial language, rhythmic, sometimes repetitive, mirroring the tasks done by women in their milieu, such as grinding grain or cooking. As Bahinabai says in one of her most famous songs:
|Ah, this world, this life
Like a hot pan
on the cooking fire,
first burns your hand,
And only then gives you
your heart’s desire. (Qtd by Nadkarni, 14 translated by S.Palekar)
This inserts a difference into the spiritual poetry in so far as the address to the divine is not a rude rebuff stressing harsh human reality, but a yearning for release into a purified realm of ideal love.
Indira Sant’s first book of verse was a collaborative effort with N. M. Sant, published in 1940. Her second (and first solo collection) of verse, Shéla, was published in 1950, which is why she is placed as Mardhekar’s contemporary. The saint-poets and the ‘cult of madhura-bhakti’ (Nadkarni, 12), or writ- ing to or addressing God as a lover has great relevance to Sant’s work. The two recurring themes in her poetry are nature, and the yearning for a lover, on a symbolic and literal level, as can be seen in the following examples:
|The field is restless today.
The broad, barren field. A single pathway
Rarely walked on.
Dry grass occasionally grazed on.
Perpetual silence. Uselessness. (trans by Nabar and Ezekiel, 29).
Once you supported my joys, griefs, hopes, ambitions.
This lover is generally interpreted as being her dead husband, as she was widowed very young, but, as Nadkarni points out:
|…those who have learnt to decipher love poetry need not be told
that the Ultimate Lover to whom all such emotion-filled lines are
addressed has an ostensibly symbolic existence… [Sant’s po-
etry]… is a continuous search for an identity, and this symbol is
a focal point of her search (Nadkarni, 13).
Many younger women poets tried to imitate Sant’s philosophical lyricism, but unfortunately only ended up sounding banal and uncontrolled. One sees that in contemporary Marathi of 1990s, women writers from this period are often characterised as writing melodramatic, sentimental outpourings that do not rank very high in terms of literary or poetic merit (Dahake, “Vyatheeth”, 152 translated by S.Palekar) The same charge is often made against Indian women poets writing in English. Another criticism seems to be that the women writers of this period write ‘only’ confessional poetry. The women writers of this generation have thus been described as being aloof, almost indifferent to larger concerns and socio-cultural trends, and focusing too much on the self (Dahake, “Vyatheeth”, 153 translated by S.Palekar) While Dahake criticises women’s writing of this period as being sentimental and melodramatic, he emphasises that this viewpoint does not apply to all women writers and goes on to discuss the literary merit of ‘confessional’ poetry as seen in Vyatheeth. Translated by S. Palekar.
Established women poets like Indira Sant and Shanta Shelke who continued to write into the 1960s stopped trying to experiment with content and form, and produced nothing very exciting or different to their earlier poetry (Ganorkar and Dahake). While Sant’s earlier work expressed a graceful lyricism combined with deep thought, only a few poems, such as ‘Snake-Skin’ catch the eye in her later work:
|Here I am, silent, still,
And so is my reflection;
Clearly defined in the mirror,
I show myself to ‘me’.
I do not dare
To outstare that image;
Its tremulous lines
Freeze darkly in the glass
… Here I am, silent, still,
With no one in front of me;
Like a cast-off snake-skin,
The snake out of sight. (trans by Nabar and Ezekiel, 21).
Post-1960s women poets who tried to break away from middle-class and gender boundaries in their writing, ended up sounding overly sentimental, sometimes melodramatic, thus minimising the impact of their voices and search for meaning. Their confessional voices were not convincing, and their ‘sociopolitical analysis not deep enough’ (Dahake, “Vyatheeth”, 154); The collections of poetry they produced became middle-of-the-ground works, achieving some popularity and little critical acclaim. It is against this backdrop that Prabha Ganorkar’s voice in Vyatheeth stands out as different, striking in its originality, depth of feeling and control over the language.
Ganorkar attempts to cross the boundaries of gender and class imposed upon her by society. She writes about feelings and experiences that middleclass Indian women were not even supposed to feel, let alone express in the 1960s and 1970s. She does not gloss over the unsightly and the unpleasant. She writes almost dispassionately about being alienated, about not belonging, about being the outsider, about the loneliness of being different, about being punished by society for daring to break with tradition:
|Since yesterday, this rain has poured
down endlessly. But everything ends, and so will the rain.
Spring and summer will come and go too.
Who knows when new shoots will sprout from this mud?
The sky will remain distant as always
And trees will flower, yet again
…Our joys and sorrows are only ours.
Will take on their meaningless burdens?
We belong only to ourselves and are alien
Only to ourselves. (10) (All further quotes from Ganorkar are from poems in the collection Vyatheeth, unless otherwise indicated. All of Ganorkar’s poems have been translated by S. Palekar.)
The ‘I’ in the poems is not content with token gestures. She wants to be free, not just within the framework of acceptable behaviour imposed on a middleclass woman. On the other hand, the poetic persona is always aware, even as she struggles, that a higher, autonomous Freedom or Truth is ultimately mythical, always ideal, never attainable.
The experience generated by an encounter with Vyatheeth cannot be categorised neatly and easily. It is difficult to read the poems as coming from a clearly and unambiguously feminist consciousness even within the Indian context, because of the layering of meaning, and various nuances encountered. For instance, the poet explores how a patriarchal society constructs its women as less than human and offers them up as metaphorical or literal sacrifices, thus often explicitly taking a pro-women’s rights stance. This is graphically depicted in ‘Sacrificial Goat’, where the poet uses vivid imagery evoking Sati and animal sacrifice to explore betrayal:
|Listen, that hair-raising noise
That ceaselessly battered drum
Someone smears me with kumkum
Perhaps blesses me with the sacred flame
It is hard to see in this lurid light.
Someone clutches my arms
My rubbery legs stumble forward
The crowd throngs behind me
Screaming joyfully for blood
I know where they are taking me….
Are you among them? (50)
But Ganorkar simultaneously expresses a quiet self-loathing and sometimes seems to implicate herself in her own victimisation, by taking complete responsibility for her poor judgement or choices. This position is most clearly seen in ‘Trickery’:
|It’s a lie that life drags us along
kicking and screaming.
Often, we’re the ones that take its hand
And drop it off, god knows where.
At those particular moments, those particular decisions
Seem absolutely fool proof. So much so
That we can’t even see other doors.
At those times, sombre colours automatically look
Peaceful. And thorn trees so attractive.
It’s a lie to say that it is life that has tricked us.
It is we who have laughed and deliberately
Offered our hand. (20)
This is not a surprising position for a woman who has been victimised, punished for her difference repeatedly. The following lines could perhaps be seen as an expression of internalised hatred—
|Do not cast your eye on this exquisite branch.
It springs from a poison tree.
It will suck the venom right out of the ground
And spread it in your veins
And you will blossom
With glittering poison flowers,
But bear no fruit (23).
This could also be seen as a poem about writing itself, where the poet’s gift is a double-edged sword— on one hand her position allows her to formulate and express her oblique world-view from the margins, while on the other, it extracts a terrible price by isolating and alienating her from her world. Being barren of fruit (the lack of fulfillment, happiness, belonging) is the price she pays for blooming with ‘glittering, poison flowers’, that is, her vision and poetic voice. Again— and this is characteristic of the paradoxical quality of her poetry— ambiguity, when used as a discursive strategy, works for, rather than against it. There is not a great deal of self-pity in her confessional voice, and this serves to strengthen its impact.
Ganorkar’s poetry can be read as a poetry of ambiguity, subtlety and paradox. Her poems straddle the urban-rural divide. They are not strident, yet are filled with rage. They are not nihilistic, yet are full of despair. There is a strongly passionate undercurrent even in her most quietly resigned poem. This can be seen in ‘Evening’, where the poet uses her usual strategy of asking questions— ‘Do your eyes brim with tears, I wonder?/ That sea, those colours, the sky—/ Do they suddenly burden you?’ (12)— in a quiet tone. The reader cannot tell what is coming next, which creates poetic tension. This is maintained as the questions continue: ‘Do you struggle against memories/ That threaten to weigh you down/ And drown you?/ This has happened to me… ’ (12). But instead of working up to a melodramatic climax, the poet now distances herself, and watches her own grief / nostalgic sorrow with a self-reflexive irony- ‘And made me unbearable to myself.’ The last two lines, therefore, come as a surprise, successfully driving home the discomfort of the feeling through their wry understatement, while maintaining tight control over the structure till the very end: ‘This evening, at least this sky, these colours, this sea—/ Bear them for me.’ (13).
Even at the most poignant moments, the poet watches herself, and how the world sees her, from a distance. As discussed above, many poems are imbued with irony and a self-reflexivity so that they stop short of being melodramatic. Ganorkar’s is a self-analytical rather than a solipsistic voice. This is seen very clearly in the poem ‘By the Window’:
|As I stand by the window and plait my hair loosened the night
before, my eyes suddenly fill with tears. Nilgiri trees stand be-
fore me. They are calm, and won’t even flutter a tiny leaf in sym-
pathy. The tears keep welling. Regret, because I threw my stale
life to the crows, or sorrow, because I cannot start anew? The
trees don’t move, the tears won’t stop. Are you standing behind
me? I don’t see you in the mirror. (42)
The title of the collection, Vyatheeth, is significant, with connotations of both ‘Spent’ and ‘Wasted’. The poems are about wasted time, wasted years, spent emotions and a wasted and spent life, which still has rare moments of beauty and meaning. They could be seen as a ‘slice in the journey from birth to death, from rebirth to multiple deaths’. (Dahake, “Vyatheeth”, 154).
Time is an overriding concern for Ganorkar, as is space. She is always aware that there is never enough time, or conversely, that there is too much time. Similarly, some poems express the poet’s emotional claustrophobia and need for freedom, whereas others talk of the loneliness of alienation, of being alone. Ganorkar’s position is that loneliness is inevitable, and that one must endure it from milestone to milestone in various journeys one undertakes:
|Splitting the horizon higher and higher
The saagwan trees carefully cradle their golden tops
And are briskly left behind
…New trees, vines, mountain tops, new lakes…
Shyly folding on themselves,
Lotuses smile slightly and welcome you,
Bow, take their places and are left behind.
You cannot see them or even
Vaguely familiar things anymore.
Stars wink and fill only the sky.
Milestones fall by the way
With a monotonous regularity, hiding
Themselves in the cupped hands of darkness. (1-2)
It is all right not to know where one is going, but the important thing is to keep travelling. Relationships may be formed during the journey, security and love can be liberating in the short term, but ultimately don’t provide answers. It is the journey, the search itself, that matters. While this concept does not seem new or different now, the position she takes is unconventional to say the least, even radical for a woman, given the orthodoxy of middle-class Maharashtra and its constructs of a woman’s place in the family and society (Dahake, “Badallele”, 38).
The poems in Vyatheeth span a period of ten years from 1964 to 1974, and are arranged both thematically and chronologically. The poet begins by expressing the knowledge that she has begun on a journey. She does not know where exactly this journey has begun, or where it will end. Sometimes, not only the foreknowledge of destination, but the purpose of the journey itself, escapes her:
|Even now the people I meet
Suggest I turn back.
And I do meet them— people, trees, birds.
But they only ever remain— people trees birds.
I gave up believing long ago
That someone would show me the right path.
Besides, how would they know
Where I want to go?
I don’t know this,
She feels rootless, alienated and empty. For example, we can see this in the following extract:
All around me,
Self-doubt begins to creep into her consciousness. Is she alienated from her loved ones and familiar surroundings, or do they seem alien because she does not know who she is, anymore? Form and content are skillfully intertwined in these poems, with bleakness in content often mirrored in and enhanced by the pared down, ‘bare bones’ quality of the words:
|Some new, blue, alien sky
Slowly flickers in the corner of your eye.
Evening is oozing everywhere
And a forlorn piece of sunlight
Tries to outrun the darkening sky. (1).
We see here an extension of the theme of alienation that Ganorkar introduces in ‘Journey’: ‘Where will I have come from?/ Where have I gone?/ At midnight the train reveals only/ An unknown town.’ (2). There is a play on the known and the unknown right through this collection. The questions that Ganorkar asks repeatedly, almost obsessively, along with the existential ‘who am I’, ‘why am I’, are— what is ours, what is alien? What is ‘self’, what is ‘other’? She explores what it is to be a woman who does not belong on a multiplicity of levels. This search for a female selfhood through a painful negotiation amongst assigned and situational subjectivities, despite the prescriptions of culture and history, marks the central concern of this writer’s attempts to dismantle existing stereotypes of Indian (Maharashtrian) womanhood and politicise female experience within the enclosures set up by Hindu-Indian patriarchy.
There is a recurring use of pathetic fallacy, but also an ironic awareness of this usage. The speaking voice in these poems is painfully aware of its ‘difference’, and somehow resigned to the loneliness that goes hand in hand with this difference. This is a recurring motif right through her work. Self-doubt and loneliness are emphasised by the poet’s choice of words and structure. The words are sparse, bleak and to the point. There is very little ornamentation in terms of imagery or conventional Marathi poetic ‘beauty’. In fact, Ganorkar’s nature imagery is often deliberately cruel, even ugly, in keeping with her antiRomantic stance. This is where her poetic voice diverges noticeably from many of her contemporaries such as Rajni Parulekar. The scope of this paper does not allow for an analysis of the protest poetry of female Dalit poets such as Saaniya, who express different concerns to their middle-class/urban counterparts.
|As we see in the following:
Excuse me, but this is not a sapling that you can just uproot and
plant elsewhere! As if the mere promise of rain is enough! These
roots go very deep indeed, all the way to the core of the earth
itself. Shake them this roughly and they hurt, you know! They
break, too, deep inside. Not that you’d see the fractures. But you
could see how the leaves are dying. If you looked very carefully.
The speaking voice is usually that of an ‘outsider’— alienated from her social and cultural ethos, preferring passivity, resignation, isolation and silence to engaging in a material world devoid of meaning and fulfillment. Silence is, however, shown to be an involuntary state of being as well. The poetic voice(s) call into question the traditional silencing of their views and desires within a culture that regards women as objects rather than as subjects. Simultaneously, the poet subverts such a silencing tradition by making her poetic persona deliberately choose to be outwardly silent but in possession of an intensely subjective and articulate imagination and consciousness; that is, she tends to think or brood rather than address a person / persons, or soliloquise. The poet seems to posit that speech can hide or mask what is really being said, or alternatively, make her vulnerable by revealing too much. The deliberate irony of suggesting this in poetic words is not lost on the careful reader. Silence on the other hand, can become (and often does, in Ganorkar’s poetry) much more eloquent— a form of protest, ‘a different kind of speech’ (Huggan, 16). This paradox can be seen in ‘The End’:
|We talked far too much.
much more than was wise.
It was ok to go on about the present,
I suppose. Or even the past.
But to keep coming back to the future?
Not really good in the long run.
And we just kept talking.
Kept nothing to ourselves
No secrets, nothing private.
That one should stop at some point.
Now the inevitable end of our dialogue can only be
The writing is restrained and taut, with rare dramatic moments erupting, as we see in the following poem:
|Where do these birds go?
Where do they live?
What brings them home everyday
After their soaring flight? motherfatherchildrensisterbrotherwife?
Just one more question:
Are they too allowed to die
Only after their lives have ended? (18).
The structure of the poem sets us up perfectly for the twist in the last two lines. The seemingly harmless, even banal questions leave us unprepared for the end, which is disturbing in its casual, yet powerful articulation of intense despair. We also see here, perhaps, what the poet posits as the meaninglessness of the conventional dichotomy of life and death. Women are wounded and killed many times over in a patriarchy, Ganorkar seems to say throughout Vyatheeth. Another one of her overriding concerns is also broached in this poem— the futility of blood ties and the harm and irreparable damage caused by relationships, especially within the framework of patriarchal heterosexuality and the institution of marriage. The poem ‘Touch’ explicitly broaches what I interpret as the issue of forcible sex in marriage, or marital rape:
|That my body would be numb to touch.
Strangled sobs in the silent night
Breaths.Hot as the midday sun
At the height of summer,
Spreading like a wildfire
With invisible scorching shadows.
My body is a burnt, smoking cinder…
That my body would disintegrate
Like a leper’s limbs. (7).
This poem could also be read as an expression of pain and disgust for a middle-class woman’s conjugal ‘duties’ regardless of her sexual desire, and for the female body as property for male use. We also see hate for a body— ‘That my body would disintegrate/ Like a leper’s limbs’— that makes her vulnerable to unwanted touch / violation. This is where Ganorkar’s work diverges from many of her better-known contemporaries writing in English, for example, Shashi Deshpande. Apart from the obvious differences between poetry and prose, in the former’s the female voices are both, physically and emotionally distant from men, and isolated from society, having been betrayed and used too often. Deshpande’s women struggle to achieve an identity and marriage acceptable to themselves; Ganorkar’s voices embrace the pain of isolation and ‘not belonging’, finding that male-female relationships exact too high a price. We see this explored in ‘Gaze’, where the woman is framed and ultimately violated by the male gaze. That the man blinds himself, only serves to underscore the bitterness:
|He could look at her only as long as her eyes
Sparkled with life, like the blue of saphires.
Then her eyes turned into burnt-out coal,
Her storm-tasting lips dulled to a dirty foam-white,
Her body grew numb as a block of wood.
And still his gaze crept over her
And so, he plucked out his own eyes. (31).
Again, characteristically, the twist in the last line points to a deliberate ambiguity. One is unsure as to whether the man has blinded himself out of guilt, horror at what he has done, or whether the woman has ceased to be beautiful any more, and because he cannot tolerate looking at an aesthetically displeasing object. The other most striking difference in Deshpande and Ganorkar’s work is that Deshpande’s women are usually rejected or denigrated by their mothers and older female relatives for being female, and they usually reject their mothers and role models. Ganorkar’s persona in ‘For My Mother’, on the other hand, writes with love and tenderness about her mother, explores her mother’s past through the mother’s poetry, and expresses regret at not trying to know her mother as a woman:
|Your book of poems sits here on the table. A strange exhaustion
has come over me while wandering through your words, while
travelling through your lines. As if I had undertaken your life’s
journey, encountering gigantic trees with monstrous, grasping
roots… I have wrung your experiences out of every word on the
page and they sit humming and heavy in my bones, like the air
just before a lightning storm… I want to learn you. The woman
hidden inside you, the one I didn’t know. I want to have known
you. (Pratishthan, 5-7).
This technique provides a deliberate counterpoint to the subdued tone of most of the poems, revealing the undercurrent of passionately felt emotions. Thus Ganorkar is able to foreground the emotionally charged poetic persona behind the seeming transparency and coolly ironic distance of the poems. This is very clearly seen in ‘Funeral Pyre’:
|You smell it, don’t you? The stench of burning flesh?
I can tell by the way your nostrils flare.
You’ve guessed correctly, it is the smell of
A burning corpse.
Quite surprising, I suppose—
This stench pervading an affluent suburb—
Or is it?
… I light quite a few funeral pyres when I can, you know/
…For myself, killed in some forgotten past.
This pyre is for a dead woman. See, it’s like this,
Her body lay unattended in the street
For three days and finally the smell…
What’s that? You’re in a hurry?
Oh well, hold on just a minute, will you,
I’ll join you as soon as her skull”
There are two motifs that stand out most clearly within the journey in Vyatheeth. One is the heightened awareness of the isolated and fragmented self of the poet. Simultaneously there is an exploration, through Ganorkar’s sensibility, of the double standards and limits Indian society imposes on women, even though they may be from the middle-class and highly educated (Leard, 58).
The loneliness and isolation that arises on breaking away from these limitations, or at least confronting these constructs, is never romanticised. Rather, the poet’s emphasis shows how this erodes her sense of worth and adds to her fragmentation
|Since yesterday, this rain has poured
…The life that sprouts in our veins
Must be uprooted so it withers and dies
. Since yesterday, this rain has poured
So be it.
Who cares, when shoots will be destroyed
Even before they peep from the mud. (10).
She sometimes sees herself as prey being hunted by ‘them’— patriarchal, violent beings wishing to uphold the status quo, to efface any signs of a strong female self. We see this in ‘Search’, one of her most direct, starkly simple and effective poems:
|They killed me
But did not let me bleed.
They hacked at me But
smothered my screams
Then smeared their bodies
With my ashes/ And bellowed their grief—
Now that I am reborn,
My eyes search for them
Again, we see here a questioning of the birth / death binary. In this poem, ‘killed’ and ‘wounded’ could be the literal or symbolic / systemic violence inflicted upon women in patriarchal cultures, as mentioned earlier. But Ganorkar’s deliberate ambiguity comes through here once more. The last two lines could be interpreted as the woman now seeks revenge on those who inflicted pain and suffering on her in the past. Or it could be that after rebirth as an emergent feminist consciousness ‘They’ have run away. But the lines could also be seen as a masochistic longing to be hurt again. An almost masochistic relish, but one that is self-reflexively so, emerges in ‘Dutiful Blood…’. The blatantly sarcastic, even flippant tone is unusual. What comes through strongly is contempt for herself for being a victim. Her attitude also implicates all the other women encouraged to be masochistic, because assuming martyrdom allows them a modicum of power in what is otherwise a powerless life. This disgust / contempt is seen repeatedly. What is interesting, and part of the ambiguity I have mentioned earlier, is that she flagellates herself even as she expresses disgust at her self-flagellation:
|I will not say that you betrayed me.
I have nursed my wounds fastidiously.
This blood leaks continuously
A congealed moment is illusory…
It has forgotten how to stop, this blood.
Its duty is to flow and flood. (9).
But these lines could be read, too, as expressing an assertive revolutionary vision— one that sees femaleness after oppression impersonally ‘flooding’ the world and changing it. This interpretation works especially if the you / I form is read as drawing on the bhakti tradition.
In reading her work as a whole, I would posit that she/the poetic persona seems to be saying that it is possible to suffer tremendously, even to be destroyed, but that it is possible to reinvent oneself, to actively inscribe one’s resistance to essentialist constructs and traditions; in other words, to empower oneself through self-analysis and political acts of agency. This is suggested by the reiteration of the metaphor of rebirth and Ganorkar’s use of the phoenix image, which is quite striking throughout the collection. When her work is read in this way, it does not matter how much of the poetic persona is personal and how much a poetic construct. Whether or not the work is ‘genuinely’ confessional, the poetic voice that comes through is convincing.
The poems discussed above are a direct contrast to Ganorkar’s love poems, which, typically, seem to be simple and straightforward, but which are hardly ever unqualified, and reveal an unexpected layer on careful reading. It is here that the poet reveals that she can work just as successfully within the literary tradition of women’s love poetry, especially in the poem ‘Dawn’:
|Dawn is here.
Move over a little
Loosen your embrace a little
My eyelashes grow heavy
Let me open my eyes a little.
Dawn is here, my love,
Let me learn to function
Away from you a little. (46).
But while the poem works on one level as a simple love poem, it is not unqualified, as mentioned above— the ‘I’ in the poem seeks to wake from the induced drowsiness of romance to a self-determined distance. ‘Restlessness’ is another ambiguous love poem in which we see the poet gradually willing to ‘see’ with different eyes. It is interesting that this is also one of Ganorkar’s longer and more prose-like, though certainly not prosaic pieces. I have translated it as a prose poem in keeping with its rhythm and tone:
|The house starts to suffocate me. I can bear it no longer, am driven
outside. I sit in the garden on the swing, lean on its links and look
up. Such an enormous sky. Yet all around, the people, the houses
are closing in on me.
And I think perhaps it is true that I never found anyone who
Chaos, noise, dust continue to fly around me. The sky is huge
I go back into the house, only to find that you have been there all
Again, this poem is more complex than an initial reading suggests. It can be read as coming from within the bhakti tradition. If read in this manner, it is a conventional piece done up in modern, urban garb. But if read differently, that is, not linked to the bhakti tradition, then it is not a love poem at all, becoming, in effect, an ‘anti’ love poem. The ‘you’ can, in fact, be read as the cause of the suffocation that drives her outside. Significantly, both the abovementioned poems are positioned sequentially and are among the last few poems in the collection, perhaps pointing to the poet starting to come to terms with belonging / not belonging, or finding her own ways of belonging and articulating various selves towards an inner coherence.
The journey in Vyatheeth has an elliptical, somewhat elusive quality, as the last poem, ‘Palas Tree’ also depicts a journey, one that is both, radically different to all the others, and yet the same. There, for the first time, we see two people walking together. Each is too tired and thirsty to pay attention to the other’s presence. They are both momentarily trapped inside their own misery, each thinking:
|I can walk no more. I need
Somewhere cool and wet and green
I can walk no more in this heat
I need at least the promise
Of rest. (51).
The speaking voice goes on to say that she has been travelling so long, that she cannot even hear ‘the thud-thud of [her] own footsteps anymore’. At this point the tone of the poem shifts quite unexpectedly, and goes on to say:
|Yet when we turn around
And walk back silently
Along that very road,
There is a Palas tree,
In a miniature
Velvet-green stem. (51)
The delight of the last poem lies in the fact that it demonstrates clearly the movement of the poetic persona and the various insights she has experienced along the way. The following is from an early poem, one that figures in the first half of the collection:
|We know each other
Like we know our own bodies.
We are familiar with the parts
That give us pleasure,
And know too well the places too painful
To touch, or so I thought.
And suddenly one day I realised
How misguided I had been,
How I had fooled myself all along.
Like a cancerous growth spreading under the skin,
Seeds of sorrow had been taking root
In my mind.
Completely hidden, entirely alien. (29).
We see quite clearly the move from ‘misguided’— I don’t understand./ Where, exactly, did I take a wrong turn?’ (19)— to someone able to see the beauty of the Palas tree in bloom. The hint of hope expressed in the latter adds a depth and roundedness to the poetic persona, one who is able to actively mobilise each encounter as a site of contestation and reflection. This process is often a fraught one, filled with clash, contradiction and reversal rather than a smooth continuity. Despite the threat of real and metaphorical violence, she cannot backslide into an unthinking acceptance of the position ascribed to her because she has become sharply aware of her positionality.
These are complexities in the cultural fabric that must be recognised if we are to approach the elusive nature of an identity that emerges at the margin, or understand the peculiar tension between public and private realities that underwrites women’s writing (Tharu and Lalitha, xvii).
Ganorkar’s use of language is disruptive and loaded with deconstructive potential because it points at ‘aporia and the absurdity of essentialist categorisation.’ (Saeed). Ganorkar’s writing style often means that there are issues crowding the margins, which are then left to the readers to unravel themselves. This foregrounds the process of reading and creating meaning, the role of reader-positionality in this process, and acknowledges that alternate discourses and perceptions exist. With an unsettling syntax for example— long, meandering lines followed by short, staccato ones, unexpected line breaks, long pauses, blank spaces, words fragmented and bunched together and a focus on the breakdown of relationships and spaces, her poems work both as written and spoken pieces. For example, Dilip and Nina Kulkarni, two well-known theatre actors, successfully performed some of her poems at an art exhibition called “Beyond Proscenium”, using the artist’s (Shakuntala Kulkarni) installation as backdrops and sets (Hosted by Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, 1994) The poems subvert not only classical Western notions of representation and reality, but also overturn constructs of a monolithic, middle-class, Brahmin, (‘ non-Westernised’) female, pan-Indian identity.
Ganorkar’s work is situated in a space— and creates spaces— not inhabited by mainstream postcolonial theory, because most postcolonial theorists are preoccupied with theorising and writing back to the colonial centre or to pre-colonial origins through ideas of the nation. Ganorkar’s work focuses on region, not nation; the solitary being (woman), not ‘the people’; it is informed by an academic rather than a peasant sensibility; it is existentialist rather than overtly feminist. But at the same time the writing is ‘placed’ for an Indian readership as being unmistakably Indian and by a woman. Postcolonial theory, in debating a hybridised ‘writing back’ or recovery of autonomous identity, focused on large-scale fixities. Writers like Ganorkar, Deleuze contend, ‘are big by virtue of minorisation,’ because ‘they cause language to flee, they make it run along a witch’s course, they place it endlessly in a state of disequilibrium’ (Deleuze, 25).
In the context of literary studies in India, there has been a longstanding plea for translations between regional languages (including English). For example, this can be seen from projects such as Katha and the various Katha Prize Stories Volumes published to date. As Rimli Bhattacharya and Geeta Dharmarajan say:
|The linguistic map of India is exciting territory in which many
areas refuse to be contained within lines and with many other
areas where the lines overlap, intersect and even shift… We
wanted above all, the movement from one language to another,
sometimes from one context to another to be smooth but not seam-
less… we have deliberately chosen not to italicise Indian words
since we believe these belong and should belong to the English
language as spoken and used in different parts of India
(Bhattacharya and Dharmarajan).
Now publishers and some University courses are beginning to accept texts in translation. This doesn’t in itself ensure a mainstream public voice for a poet like Ganorkar. In cases where translation succeeds, it does so under sponsorship, because the content works in the receiving culture, because the translation works in local artistic practice, and because the originating culture is politically significant or culturally exotic for the receiving culture. From the perspective of the publishing industry, translation is not an ‘original’ product and therefore, has less attraction for the consumer/reader. As Vanderauwera points out— ‘translations have a potential of not selling well at the target pole’ (202). Lawrence Venuti (26) is of the view that translation is an ‘offence against the prevailing concept of authorship’, and that authorship is marked by ‘originality, self-expression in a unique text’. In the postcolonial context, self-expression is important, as is identity assertion in terms of group politics, whether class, ethnic or gender. André Léfevere, on the other hand, sees translation as a sign that opens a literary system to both subversion and transformation.
To Vilas Sarang, a bilingual writer and theorist, nativist discourses are simplistic and parochial because they see the world in an ‘Indian-versus-Western dichotomy’ and leave ‘no scope for the writer’s individuality and originality’ that is transgressive of both Indian and Western reality (Sarang, 311). This analysis can be extended to Ganorkar’s work, which does not fall into a neatly categorised space. She is unknown in the West— to the best of my knowledge, this is the first attempt at translating her work into English— and rarely anthologised, even in India. The transgressive qualities of a writer who, though based in the metropolis, does not write back to the centre seem to have less cultural value than the transgression of postcolonial writers whose writings address the metropolis, and who employ the same theoretical vocabulary as the dominant Western and/or Marathi literary discourses.
Ganorkar articulates her bleak, often eccentric world-view from the extreme margins. Irrespective of her class position as an academic, she is a minoritised postcolonial writer, one who does not find any solace in national, bourgeois, pre-colonial or anti-colonial reality. She is not canonised because she does not have ‘any abstract universal in the form of a single national language, a single ethnic affiliation, a single pre-fabricated cultural identity’ (Bensmaia, 215). She could, of course, be canonised within Marathi literature, but Ganorkar not only fissures monolithic Indian structures in her writing, in her region’s writing, she contaminates patriarchal, Brahminical narratives with women’s thoughts and words, opening up spaces and gaps for the screams of the gendered subaltern to be heard. She could be read as producing silent screams that mimic the ‘voice’ of the subaltern. Could she be ‘canonised’ by giving her theoretical authority through such a reading?
Ganorkar’s writing works both as a repetition of the multiplicity of the nation and a proliferation of the voice of the ‘Indian woman’. Her poetry enacts the renegotiation of individuality in a postcolonial scene and a possibility for the voices of ‘Indian women’ not being completely anchored to a space that is dictated only by western and Indian dominant discourses. Her body of work foregrounds the limitations imposed by class, discipline, gender and language, and replaces naturalised truths with fragmented and powerful voices displacing— or at least attempting to displace— cultural authority.
Any transcription of narrative carries with it some trace of the original author and original intention, but is transformed in the passage through different tongues, or at least different pens. There is always something possibly monstrous, and something quite revealing when attempting to write both of, and sometimes unavoidably, for another. The narratives are distributed, disturbed, mistranslated and appropriated. They never reach the destination point in the same condition they left, and it is perhaps the willingness to be transformed that swings literary / cultural / translation studies from heavily policed western narratives to the rich, changing, discourse of other cultures / ‘insider’ translations and transfusions.
While it is often argued that translation in a colonial context is a form of violence (Dingwaney and Maier, cited by Bassnett and Trivedi, 5), in this pa- per I have argued, rather for the decolonising project of postcolonial literature being advanced by the consideration of work in ‘native’ languages, but in contexts that avoid, as far as possible, a reductive ‘nativism’. I have argued elsewhere for the validity of anglophone writing doing radical work within the nation while also asserting the need to consider work in ‘native’ languages within wider postcolonial literary studies, both to oppose westernising globalism and to resist reductive nationalist or regionalist claims.
Women’s writing in India has many histories— classical sanskritic, oral, desi, margi (Devy, 78), colonial, western, and postcolonial / decolonising— each forming a distinguishing mark on the final product. There will be a subjectivity, but one that is within the matrix of forces which create an area of knowledge. The only position to take is part medium, part translator, in awareness that any understanding will oscillate between these two poles.
This paper has sought, at least in part, to critique the ways in which the politics of canonisation and reception inform and inscribe readings of literary productions from postcolonial societies. Despite the fact that postcolonial literary studies and theories are revisionary projects that aim to foreground and recuperate repressed, excommunicated, marginalised and other epistemes, the discourse of the postcolonial project does not mobilise its formations in a completely non-hegemonic mode and thus, creates its own others and marginalia.
The canonisation of postcolonial cultural productions has predominantly been authorised, monitored and regulated by Western academia. This is not to suggest that this process is always oppressive because it can also provide better opportunities for the circulation and consumption of these cultural productions. But on the other hand, the choice of themes, material and language for celebrated postcolonial writers has largely been determined by the ‘write back’ model, and so the ‘real’ postcolonial writer is one who addresses issues of diaspora, nation, and the colonial ‘moment’. In this way, postcolonial theorisation contains itself by drawing its own boundaries. Because postcolonial discourses have their origins in First World academia— as colonial discourses originated in the West— the reception of literary products from the ‘Third / Postcolonial World’ is mediated and contained by the West. The reception of writing in English from ‘Third World’ countries still largely depends on Western models of literary excellence. When this is not the case, the ‘radicality’ of the work in its relation to the colonial past of its society and the neocolonial present is often the tool of appraisal. Or radicality is often measured in terms of an oppositional model of national identity, which is no less problematic.
So many women writers— even those who write in English— who nei- ther write back to the colonial centre, nor subscribe to an equally oppressive national and nationalist ideology, do not find any theoretical and critical space for their creativity in the literary postcolonial scene. They are not caught in the binarism of East-West and thus have not entered the dominant interpretive discourse. Although their names are cited in surveys of Indian English writing, they receive nowhere near the same attention as Nissim Ezekiel or Ramanujan, for example.
Prabha Ganorkar does not write back to either a colonial centre or a neocolonial centre. Her poetic voice and concerns do not reflect the colonial centre or the after-effects of colonialism. Her voice describes its surroundings in minute and exquisite detail, and most of the time, takes us roaming inside a mind wrapped in its own pain, seeming to be at once static and nomadic. Ganorkar’s voice may be confessional, but to say that Ganorkar writes ‘like’ the female Western confessional poets of the 1960s is reductionist. It may be possible to struggle against the colonisers and make them leave the country as happened in India, but it can be much more difficult fighting against internal postcolonial oppressions relating to caste, class, sexuality and gender.
The aim of this paper has not been to construct bridges over the gaps in theorisation of postcolonial literatures, but to point out the gaps and to widen the aporetic spaces that exist between the dominant postcolonial discourses and the discourses of the ‘other’. At the end of this exploration, it would be appropriate to stress that Indian literature in English is among the most ‘disorderly of contemporary Indian literatures, and certainly the one most resistant to generalizations’ (A. Dharwadker and V. Dharwadker, 104). A. and V. Dharawadker (104) argue persuasively when they say that given the high incidence of bilingualism or multilingualism (or at least biculturalism) in Indian writers and theorists, and the increasing quantity of translations of a high quality, the rubric of “Indian literature in English’ or ‘postcolonial Indian literature’ must also now include literature in translation. As Dilip Chitre aptly remarks in an article in the Times of India:
|The potential strength of Indian English poetry is going to be
derived from native Indian literatures and not without them. The
ability to transform non-Anglo-Saxon cultures into the global
mainstream of English literature will give Indian English poetry
its sustenance in the coming decades, provided Indian English
poets discover the nourishing activity of poetic translation as a
major aspect of creativity in the contemporary world (Chitre,
I hope that I have been able to convey my enthusiasm for Ganorkar’s work, and the need to redress the lack of critical attention paid to her. I am aware that there is the ironic possibility of a project such as this paper propelling her into a more central position in Indian writing by giving her theoretical authority as a surrogate subaltern voice. But the problematic nature of that voice’s positionality and address, and the equivocal status of the translated text within a national or postcolonial framework will continue to work against this.
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SHALMALEE PALEKAR. Writer and theatre personality. MA(Hons.) in Postcolonial Literatures from the University of Wollongong. Her doctoral work was on the poetry of Prabha Ganorkar.