Perish her intellect: Four Tamil Women Poets
Translated by Lakshmi Holmström
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’.
The demon’s features are all
woman’s features are all
Poetry’s features are all
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,
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.
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?’
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.
may have your complaints
but Time and our history
make very clear
where I now stand:
To receive a little love
– however tarnished –
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
To strengthen what authority I have
just a little
In full knowledge of all this
my vagina opens.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.