आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

अंक 13 / Issue 13

Perish her intellect: Four Tamil Women Poets

Art: Sunita

Translated by Lakshmi Holmström

Malathi Maithri

Perish her intellect: cruel is her servitude*

Her grandmother once carried her husband

to his mistress’s house, in a basket.

As for her father, he had a family

in every village; he’d set off on visits

driving his fine bullock cart.

Her husband, not to be outdone,

would rape the women who weeded his fields.

Eldest son sold off some land, so

he could gad about with prostitutes.

Knowing all this, full well, she brings

freshly laundered clothes to her youngest son

as soon as the drums summon him

to the village festival; asking only

that he return in good time for his meal.

Perish her intellect: cruel is her servitude.


*Malathi Maithri parodies a poem from Puranannuuru (c. 2nd century AD) in which a woman first sends her father and brothers to the war. The next day, after their death, she sends her husband, who also dies. After all this, when she hears the war drums on the third day, she sends her only son to the battleground. The first line of the poem runs ‘Perish her intellect, exceeding is her courage’.


Demon language

The demon’s features are all


woman’s features are all



Demon language

is poetry


Poetry’s features are all


become woman

become poet

become demon


Demon language

is liberty


Outside Earth

she stands:

niili, wicked woman.


* The reference throughout this poem is to Karaikkal Ammai, one of the sixty-three canonized Saiva saints, who lived in the 6th century CE. Punithavathy (the ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’), as she was known in the world, was abandoned by her husband when he realized her extraordinary qualities. She then renounced her youth and beauty, took the form of a demon, and became a poet-saint devoted only to Siva.




Upon the almirah

against the room’s walls

between the swirling fan’s blades

a bat clashes,

falls, scatters.


But birds, thousands of miles away

fly across the blue of the sky

and the massing of mountains

and have never, so far,

lost their way.


The contract


my sister will repeat in anger

what Amma says more subtly:

that I am to blame

for all that goes wrong

in the bedroom.


Everyday, in the bedroom

these are the first words to greet me:

‘So what is it, today?’



they are

the last words, too.


From a thousand shimmering stars

pointing fingers accuse me of whoredom

– once again –

and counsels float into the trembling night.


The child-like sobbing of a cat

unable to feed its litter

seizes me by the entrails.


You too

may have your complaints

but Time and our history

make very clear

where I now stand:


To receive a little love

– however tarnished –

from you


To fulfil my responsibility

as your child’s mother


To buy from the outside world

my sanitary napkins and contraceptives

and for many other little favours


To hold a little authority over you

if possible


To strengthen what authority I have

just a little


In full knowledge of all this

my vagina opens.


Kutti Revathi

The sea-fettered island

Those who believed that the waves

lapping at their feet were themselves the sea

stayed safe, within their peninsula.


There, where the waves hide the island

tears are salt,

poetry is salt, sex is salt,

the sun’s burning finger is salt, love is salt,

the roots of medicinal herbs are salt,

bodily pain is salt.

There, tears are indeed salt.


Even at this distance

a sourness belches from the heart

like an enemy;

a fear is felt, as when a friend is ill.

Yet no one will hold their breath

and cross the sea to the island.


The island is a raft,

the raft a pot of fire,

Sri Lanka, burning.


Stone goddesses

The sculpture, peeling away its skin

of stone, and coming to life,

too shy of the light,

becomes a dark shape

lurking within its curtain of shadows.


Time’s nail

hammered to its feet

has cursed the rain and the wind


the flung droppings of bats

and the desolate spaces of solitude.


It is possible that

sculptures overflowing with God’s grace

walk about as goddesses

where man’s gaze is unknown,

in ruined halls, perhaps,

or in the recesses of tall temple towers


But, for some reason,

at the merest hint of man’s scent

they decline into lifeless corpses.



 A faint smell of meat

In their minds

I, who smell faintly of meat,

my house where bones hang

stripped entirely of flesh,

and my street

where young men wander without restraint

making loud music

from coconut shells strung with skin

are all at the furthest point of our town.

But I, I keep assuring them

we stand at the forefront.


Nature’s fountainhead

Say you bury me alive.

I will become a green grass-field

and lie outspread, a fertile land.


You may set me on fire;

I will become a flaming bird

and fly about in the wide, wide space.


You may wave a magic wand

and shut me up, a genie in a bottle;

I will vaporize as mercury

and stand upright towards the sky.


You may dissolve me into the wind

like water immersed into water;

from its every direction

I will emerge, like blown breath.


You may frame me, like a picture,

and hang me on your wall;

I will pour down, away past you,

like a river in sudden flood.


I myself will become






The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,

Nature’s fountainhead.


Note: These translations are excerpted from Wild Girls, Wicked Words, a bilingual collection of poems edited and translated from the Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström, forthcoming from Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Pathippagam in January 2013.


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