FILLING THE INTERNAL EMPTY SPACES: SOME INDIAN WOMEN POETS WRITING IN ENGLISH
Text of Professor R.K. Singh’s Plenary session talk on 31 January 2014 at the National Seminar on “Indian English Poetry by Women Poets since 1980s” organized by the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad (Jharkhand) from 30-31 January, 2014.
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - FILLING THE INTERNAL EMPTY SPACES: SOME INDIAN WOMEN POETS WRITING IN ENGLISH
Text of Professor R.K. Singh’s Plenary session talk at the National Seminar on “Indian English Poetry by
Women Poets since 1980s” organized by the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian School
of Mines, Dhanbad (Jharkhand) from 30-31 January, 2014.
FILLING THE EMPTY INTERNAL SPACES: SOME WOMEN POETS
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to such a distinguished group of lovers and admirers of
Indian English poetry. My colleague and organizer the Seminar, Dr Rajni Singh wanted me to reflect on
some of the recent women poets from the perspective of a practitioner of poetry as well as the
Speaking as a poet, and, if we claim a belonging to what we call Indian English Writing, then we should
ensure that we are not dumped without being read or assessed, which is unfortunately not the case as
we observe today. A little large heartedness is necessary in our own interest, that is, for being
remembered as Indian English poets and writers. Otherwise, the cause will die, repeating the praise for
a handful of socalled well known poets, who think poetry started with them and died with them. We
also need to shed our ego.
Speaking as an academic, it pleases us to share with you that since we started the MPhil programme in
the Department of Humanites & Social Sciences here at ISM, we have been encouraging students to
write their dissertations on new, less known, unknown Indian English poets and writers. They have
already explored works of such new poets and writers as R. Rabindranath Menon, Pronab Kumar
Majumder, Niranjan Mohanty, VVB Ramarao, Y.S. Rajan, APJ Abdul Kalam, S.L Peeran, Syed Ameeruddin,
Hazara Singh, P K Joy, D C Chambial, B Ahmad, Pashupati Jha, Vihang Naik, Manas Bakshi, Biplab
Majumdar, Tabish Khair, Manu Joseph, Raj Kamal Jha, etc. Among the women poets and writers, our
students have examined works of Jaishree Mishra, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Mani Rao, and others
including Mamang Dai, S. Radhamani, Dipanwita Mukerjee,Sudha Iyer, Nirmala Pillai, Venu Arora, Chitra
Doijode, Prabha Mehta, Asha Viswas, etc. We have encouraged scholars to write their PhD theses also
on new and less known poets and writers such as I K Sharma, Maha Nand Sharma, R K Singh etc.
In this perspective, the seminar not only celebrates the contribution of so many new and less known
women poets the main stream academia and media have been reluctant to talk about, but it is also an
exercise to discover new talents for academic exploration. Many of them have been writing and
publishing against various odds.
Moreover, there has been a male ‘look’, or outlook, but the female response to that look (or outlook) is
now an active and powerful look; the women poets’ in-look, and outlook too, is challenging; they
examine, as their poetry reveals, their private and public life, or everyday experiences boldly; they
integrate the flesh into their beliefs and representations just as they have been traditionally linking
themselves to their home, family, motherhood, social life, solitude, god, nature, myths. With the
profound changes that have taken place in their lives, their choices, and their opportunities in the recent
period, their status, roles, occupation, and legal position, they now voice their own visions and
understanding of the everyday life, often cutting across cultures and regions. When they portray their
sexuality, or comment on our sexual politics, they also tell us how woman is also master of her own
place in poetical creation.
Several new collections that I could lay my hands on demonstrate their sensitivities and struggles that
appeal for their lack of pedantry, moral commentary, or unnecessary romanticizing. They exploit the
medium to understand the why or how of life on the one hand, and to enrich and celebrate the female
consciousness, redeeming their physical and spiritual existence, on the other. They sound warm, vibrant
Let’s also take note of certain obvious realities. Quite a number of our contemporary poets-- male or
female, and in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s, with a 20th century consciousness—have learnt to live with a
world in upheaval. They have grown up in very disappointing external conditions of living. It has been
normal for them (in fact, it’s one of our collective cultural traits as Indians) to think intuitively, and/or
turn personal, inward, godward, or spirit-ward; their capability lies in their emotional sensitivity than in
intellectual abstraction. It is not their escapism but an urge for changing the situation for themselves.
Let me begin with a couple of very recent instances reported in the media:
In the neighbouring Afghanistan, some dozen Kabul women, who call poetry their sword, are
determined to protect their new-found freedom despite constant death threats from the Talibans.
Poetry is their form of resistance in a taboo-ridden, extremely conservative and almost illiterate society
that treat poetry writing as sin. Karima Shabrang, for example, uses explicit images of intimacy: “I miss
you… my hands are stretching from the ruins of Kabul…I want to invite you to my room for delicious
smoke... and you will give me refuge in your shivering red body.” More and more women there are
waging their fight for rights, including their rights to write and be heard.
Participating in a discussion in the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival, the author of The
Exiled, Fariba Hachtroudi, shared her experiences in the changing Arab world and said: “The power men
want to have over women is the biggest obstacle in our society.” Fariba has written a lot of erotic
poetry. Shereen Feki, the author of Sex and the Citadel, stressed that social behavior is closely linked
with what happens behind the closed doors of bedrooms. To quote her, “Sexuality is a rich way of
looking at society. What happens inside bedrooms is related to outside life. If we don’t allow freedom in
private lives, it won’t be achieved in public sphere.”
Freedom to express themselves freely and creatively is something most women find hard to
have, but some of them, not necessarily subscribing to feminist practices have honestly and boldly
shown how their modernity lies in their attempt to change “thinking and growing.”
Women poets in India have been opening up and talking about their intimate lives since
Kamala Das challenged taboos, conservative norms and male dominance before herself disappearing
behind the veil. They know well how hard it is to tackle the taboos around sex and sexual expression, yet
they make their sexuality a positive presence as they structure what is “letting off steam” or release of
tension, or self-analysis or social criticism.
A poet like Joyshri Lobo (Bittersweet, 1989), for example, feels deeply hurt by the way a woman
is treated and made to suffer “self-righteous wrath.” Her anger is representative of every woman when
she questions: “Is the entrance to my womb/all that you crave for?/Are the sounds of love/All that you
can offer me?/Have I no mind/ no secret emotions,/no hidden longings?/Do I not crave for/words, for
similes/for many worldly conversations?/…since when have I become / a piece—decorative, useful/To
be given an occasional rub,/cleaned and varnished,/Discarded when age mellows the glitter/And dust
dirties the once smooth surface?” (‘Lament of an Indian Woman’). Like others, she too raises her voice
against her being a nobody: “A debris of household drudgery/mechanized, momentary sex/a cold limp
handhold,” “a slave to Indian manhood.”
Poets such as Prabha Mehta, Purabi Patnaik, Vijaya Goel, Mani Rao, Anuradha Nalapet, Venu
Arora, Kamal Gurtaj Singh, Renu Singh Parmar, Chandni Kapur, etc are open, bold and honest. They have
energy to fight discrimination and stigma just as they question others’ stereotypes and prejudices. They
react against being neglected, against hypocrisy, oral duplicity, false ethical and cultural values, and
challenge the community’s norms and attitudes about sex and sexpression. They are intuitive,
interpretative, and evaluative of the contemporary social, political and economic realities and present
texts that reflect their responses to the flux of experiences.
Poets such as Rita Malhotra, Monima Chudhury, Tara Patel, Jyotirmayee Mohapatra, Madhavi
Lata Agarwal, Shilpa Vishwanath, Jelena Narayanan, Sunanda Mukherjee, and others invite us to
understand them vis-à-vis the realities of their mental and physical sufferings, betrayal and infidelity in
marital life, denial of sensual fulfillment, false sense of pride or fear of shame, physical isolation and
sexual neglect, and desperate struggle for a meaning in life and living. Their critique reveals the
chauvinistic attitude vis-à-vis the male/female emotions trapped in human body which prompts a strong
assertiveness, exposing their secret self besides showing disapproval of what predominates in our
private and social set up. Expression of sex helps them achieve some kind of liberating effects against
the various forms of ‘structural oppression’ emanating from male dominance, authority and conviction
on the one hand, and a variety of contradictory cultural, social, sexual and aesthetic attitude, on the
Women poets, like their male counterparts, seek to know themselves as composites,
contradictory, and even incompatible. They understand that each of us is many different people –
serious and frivolous, bold and timorous, loud and quiet, aggressive and abashed. They too write to
express themselves, accommodating a variety of differences, including inner and outer conflicts,
sufferings and celebrations, even as they appear marginalized.
Asha Viswas, who has absorbed numerous suppressed tensions, griefs and ups and downs in life,
is aware of her vulnerability as a woman. She expresses her concern about everything that matters to an
ordinary person: “Life was always/too overbearing/I neither had chance/Nor choice to decide/My
name, surname.” Though she values love and treasures its memories, she recalls in plain irony how
before she could even learn “the grammar of his face/in the sentence of his body/…analyzing his
gestures/synthesizing his moods/…/He raised a big structure/of surface ambiguities/That left us
unfortunate parallel lines” (‘The Misunderstanding’). She discovers she has been “left a fresco/on a
broken wall” (‘In the Blues’). The inner storm she endures makes her wonder: “How could I hum of
happiness/from devasted, dark ruins?” and “why do fate and I meet/always at wrong angles?” The
‘trinity’ of “the ego, the world and the entropy” haunts her (‘Agony).
Tejinder Kaur thinks and feels “the rhythm of life/which is not smooth/to be set in a pattern.”
She understands the design “at deeper level/planned and schemed by Maker” just as she is aware of
transitoriness of the drama, the “foolishness of grabbings, maneuverings/leaving materials,
carrying/accumulated imprints.” She images the process of her personal growth vis-à-vis the complex of
egoistic clashes, lack of mutual understanding, and weakening values of fidelity, honesty, commitment
and love. Thus, she seeks to “open the silent chamber of her creative and critical self.” The poems in her
collections, Reflections (2001) and Images (2002) present a matured and confident voice with serious
thoughts and reflections rooted in self-experience, observation, understanding, and idealism.
Sunanda Mukherjee reflects her personal disappointments and disillusion with love, marriage
and life: “I realized that love meant/Torture, treachery, and polygamy/That love means selfish sadism/…
Now I know/The real meaning of love/And also, that/Woman must handle it with care.” The “countless
injuries,” and selfish sadism that her narrator has suffered in love make her “terror-stricken heart” so
vunerable that she feels “empty” as a woman. In her moments of self-pity and disgust she even
challenges God, who, in his male form, could never understand the sufferings and tortures a woman is
made to undergo. If God could ever have a female form, He would realize “that the heaviness of time/is
often heavier than life.” In her personal and lyrical voice is pronounced deep discontentment,
disillusion, uncertainty, and unhappiness with not only the near and dear ones but also the “faithless
world,” humanity, and life itself.
Dancer-dreamer poet, Indrayanee Mukherjee strikes a different note in her maiden collection,
Images that Catch the Eye (2004): “The colour of her lips leaves an impression/on the cup she drinks
from/…she touches her mouth to the rim of the mug./It is a relief from the cold, the weather outside”
(‘Coffee Shop’); “A placid wave and streaks of the sun bleached sky./ A gust of heavy fiery wind and a
lone peddler on his cycle peddles by./ A narrow straight curvature of the road…/ and yet another story
unfods the lateral planes of a contrast/ that a city called Benares lives by.” (‘Benares’) and “The truth of
the masks/The sentiment of a foetus tucked away in its mother’s womb./All of it is my own, personally
etched brutality.” (Why these verses reek of misery?’)
Another new poet, who strikes a strong feminine presence, is Jelena Narayanan (Chennai). Her
The Gold Comb and Other Poems (2003) with delicate feelings and passionate yearnings images love
with commitment: “When the white musty walls/ Begin to close themselves upon me,/The air becomes
humid/Wrapping itself around my body/Slowly, with unchanging rhythm;/ I think of your/And I drown
myself” (‘I Think of You’) and “…my being without you/Is wrong” (“Apartness’). Jelena is intensely
personal and lyrical, with whispers of the soul in her articulation of both happy and sad feelings in
various moments of man-woman relationship.
Shilpa Viswanath’s debut collection Pause (2001) evinces her keen interest in social issues: She
observes “rocket motors , coolies,/devotees with dreams/ In different episodes” alongside “Mothers in
menopause,/Daughters in adolescence./Cross roads, cranky minds.” (No Matter what’) . She recognizes
and uses well, what she calls “in neighborly lingo” to mirror the world around her.
There are over a dozen others who effectively respond to chaos and degeneration in all walks of
life, lopsided values, hypocrisy, inner tensions, isolation, socio-economic hardship, feeling of void and/or
sense of lack of meaning and purpose in life today. In varying forms and rhythms, most women poets
introspect and self-question, sharing their mind and memory, which is qualitatively superior to most
male-poets writing in English today. Frankly speaking, they exhibit a better word power and stronger
sense appeal. They tend to be introvert and explore themselves with awareness of women’s
degradation, exploitation, subordination and/or brutality and injustice to them simply for being women.
They seek freedom from the strangling confinement of the male-structured society and use poetry to
experience peace of mind: “My perceptions are dulled/And my spirit struggles to escape/The caged bird
in me,” says Shwetasree Majumder (‘Confinement’). They exude faith in themselves vis-à-vis their
identity, sex relationship, and concern for women’s dignity. They know their anchor and reason ‘to be’
and recreate “the jigsaw that is life,” without excluding nature, love, home, society, god or future. They
sound more honest, more sincere, “freer, wider, larger/and infinitely lonelier,” to quote from
Shwetasree Majumder’s poem ‘Epilogue’.
Rita Nath Keshri reveals a very sensitive mind: “I am married to a house/whose doors shut me
in./Her fire ordeal was only once/But mine is repeated” and “But the stone-breakers, do they see/My
mind’s vast arid zone/Through which howl/ the desert winds?” Keshri is one of the thirteen poets,
including Maria Netto, Themis, K.M. Shantha, Seema Devi, and U.R. Anusha from Pondicherry , who
make up P.Raja’s anthology, In Celebration: Women Poets of Pondicherry (2003) and voice the same
spiritual themes as experienced in Sri Aurobindo Ashram poets. They are meditative an d interpretative,
sharing the larger sentiments expressed by other women poets. They are also personal and lyrical,
echoing spiritual feelings and sensations in their daily living and experiences, and celebrating their
inner consciousness despite ugliness of man’s mind and disharmony all around.
A Kashmiri woman poet, Syeda Afshana, who boldly disapproves of politicians and people who
hold anti-women views, is critical of the media for reducing Kashmir to “propaganda symbolism.” She
touches themes such as bloodshed, violence, insurgency, loss, sacrifice, and relationship. It is, however,
her “different” attitude that makes her notable. Her sadness is evident when she says: “A scream that
is/only mine, just mine,/and has remained unchanged/since times immemorial.” (The Fugitive Sunshine,
Menka Shivadasani, who recently edited Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry (Big Bridge
Press, 2013), mentions in her Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990) several disturbing experiences, arising out of
living alone in a small flat (in Mumbai) and the anxieties of a single woman’s life vis-à-vis the sordid
world of sex, drugs, broken relationship etc. She sounds remarkable with twists in her faith just as she is
strongly aware of her restive spirit, inner tensions, and sexuality. To quote from her poem ‘Epitaph’:
“My religion calls for blood,/redness draped across the eyes,/wrapped tight around the skin…./The story
begins like a wrinkle on the face/and does not end/when the wrinkles freeze./ But that is when the
surface/ turns to white and I hold my pain/ in its plastic tube/ let the fluid fall.”
Writing in response to the gang rape of a 23 years old girl in New Delhi about a year ago,
Chandni Singh feels part of every woman that gets raped. Let me read her poem ‘I am a Woman in
I have had my breasts fondled.
Not by a lover,
but strangers on a bus.
I have been gyrated against
as I navigate the city:
packed like sardines
they are more depraved than animals.
I have had penises flashed at me
whose owners I know not;
they only come with a pair of lust-laced eyes
and a soulless smile.
I can hold my own on issues
about the environment.
I can wax eloquent about literature and music.
I am told, I am the future;
and for a moment I am bent into believing
in the bubble I have bought into.
But every morning,
My ego slouches
as it is castrated at the hands of
I have lost count:
there are too many to fight.
I may be liberated. And educated,
but my fire has been doused.
Neither rhetoric nor review can
bring me solace.
And so, I turn the other cheek.
I have become deaf to the whistles and
blind to the lewdness.
I adjust my dupatta
and look straight ahead
as they line the streets and pucker their mouths.
I am just a woman in India.
The poets anthologized in Eunice D’Souza’s anthology, Nine Indian Women Poets: An
Anthology, 2001 and Shivadasani’s Big Bridge Anthology (2013) collectively present women
poets as a vibrant community. Their metaphors and images invariably reflect their inner
landscape as much as their responses to what they observe or experience externally.
Now let me conclude. As they create discourse of themselves as the opposite sex and
present a feminine perspective, many of them sound committed to their home, family, children,
motherhood, social life, and solitude, often voicing their own vision and understanding which
cuts across cultures and regions. They articulate womanhood and female sexuality to comment
on the male-structured norms and sexual politics and appear in control of themselves,
transcending their body or feminity and respecting the woman in themselves. They turn inside
out and reveal what is personal yet universal in their different roles as mother, wife, daughter,
and feeling the agony of the spirit while trying to know “who am I?” As they look back or reflect
their present-- be it job-stress, role-playing, domestic responsibility, life’s riches, personal
losses, or death-fear—as female, some of them appear critical of the stereotyped sex-role and
confinement of women within the domestic space just as some others try to balance their
personal and social existence through a memory of lived experiences. Some of them voice a
strong family bond, sense of togetherness, sense of family unity vis-à-vis their inner conflicts
and/or spiritual hunger.
But almost every woman poet seems to give the message that women need not feel
diffident or inferior and try to be bold enough to venture into new areas even if they find
themselves standing at the edge, lonely, or dependent. They express an alternative motive and
impulse for social action at a very personal level, an urge for changing the situation for
themselves, or for being in peace with oneself. They seek to create a new culture as they
rationalize how we ought to live in future.
1. Lobo, Joyshree. 1989. Bittersweet. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
2. Mehta, Prabha. 1994. Expressions of Love. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
3. Rao, Mani. 1993. Catapult Season. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
4. --------. 2006. 100 Poems: 1985-2005. Hong Kong: Chameleon Presss.
5. --------. 2010. Ghost Masters. Hong Kong: Chameleon Press.
6. Nalapet, Anuradha. 1994. Nothing is Safe. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
7. Viswas, Asha. 1996. Melting Memories. Delhi: K.K. Publications.
8. Goel, Vijaya. 1993. The Autumn Flowers. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
9. Arora, Venu. 1993. Mire. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
10. Parmar, Renu Singh. 1993. Mindscape. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
11. Patnaik, Purabi. 1994. Quest. Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
12. Das, Kamala. 1991. The Descendants, 2nd ed. Calcutta: WritersWorkshop.
13. Kapoor, Chandni. 2004. The Looking Glass: Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
14. Mohanty, Niranjan (ed). 1992. Voices: Indian Poetry in English. Berhampur: Poetry
15. Singh, R.K. 2006. Voices of the Present: Critical Essays on Some Indian English Poets.
Jaipur: Book Enclave.
16. --------- (ed.). 1997. Anger in Action: Explorations of Anger in Indian English Writing.
New Delhi: Bahri Publications.
17. --------. 2001. Kamala Das and Some Other Recent Indian English Poets: Expression of
Female Sexuality. Creative Forum, Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4, July-December, pp. 5-16.
18. -------. 2013. Wisdom of the Body: Some Reflections. In SenSexual: A Unique Anthology
(ed: Susana Mayer), Vol. I. USA: Sensexual Press (http://www.sensxualpress.com)
19. ------. 1999. Recent Indian English Poetry: A Critical Reflection of a Chorus of Voices.
Cyber Literature, Vol. III, No.1, March, pp. 6-8.
20. Netto, Maria. 2005. Tabula Rasa. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books.
21. Narayanan, Jelena. 2003. The Gold Comb and Other Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
22. Iyer, Sudha. 2003. On the Edge. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
23. Raja, P. (ed). 2003. In Celebration: Women Poets of Pondicherry. Pondicherry: Busy Bee
24. Raja, P. and Keshari, Rita Nath (eds.). 2007. Busy Bee Book of Contemporary Indian
English Poetry. Pondicherry: Busy Bee Books.
25. Raghupathi, K.V.(ed.). 2009. Brave New Wave:21 Indian English Poets. Jaipur: Book
26. Jha, Vivekanand (ed.). 2013. The Dance of the Peacock: An Anthology of English Poetry
From India. Canada: Hidden Brook Press.
27. Mishra, Binod and Singh, Charu Sheel (eds.). 2013. Exiled Among Natives: An Anthology
of Contermporary Poetry. New Delhi: Adhyayan Publishers.
28. Prem, P.C.K. and Chambial, D.C. (eds). 2011. English Poetry in India: A Secular
Viewpoint. Jaipur: Aavishkar Publishers.
29. Radhamani, S. 2003. Man and Media. Poet, Vol. 44, No.7, July, p. 24.
30. Mukherjee, Sunanda. 2003. Moment and Other Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
31. Choudhury, Monima. 2002. Impression. Sasaram: Creative Writers Circle.
32. Kaur, Tejinder. 2001. Reflections. Ranchi: Writers Forum.
33. --------. 2002. Images. Ranchi: Writers Forum.
34. Shivadasani, Menka. 1996-97. Epitaph. Literature Alive, Winter, p.77.
35. ---------. (ed). 2013. Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. Big Bridge Press
36. D’Soua, Eunice. (ed).2001. Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology. New Delhi: Oxford
37. Agarwal, Madhvi Lata. 2003. Myriad Colours. Bangalore: Bizz Buzz.
38. Dai, Mamang. 2004. River Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop.
39. Malhotra, Rita. 2004. Images of Love. New Delhi: Virgo Publication.
40. Verma, Meenakshi. 2004. Mute Voices. Maranda: Poetcrit Publication.
41. Singh, Chandni. I am a Woman in India. http://www.themindfulword.org/2013/womanin-india-poem-chandni-singh#alKOFbBfvf8pGUDK.99