In this selection of poetry from across poet and scholar Sanjukta Dasgupta’s published collections, the unheard, undesired and misunderstood voices of women, real and mythical, rise up with wit, verve and vengeance.
“Don’t” is a wrought-iron gate
That I cannot open;
Within my mother holds me in a fierce embrace
For I am carrion to the slit-eyed hyenas.
“Don’t” is my lodestar,
My passport, my credit card, my social security.
Because I don’t,
I am so charming, simple, full of grace.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci?
Harridan, hag, witch, Circe, Medusa,
Medea, Helen, Cleopatra, Ophelia,
Kali, Durga, Draupadi, Menaka—
I have them all in me—
Yet I am lost and trapped
Myths and masks suffocate
I long for air and life.
Am I so formidable mon semblable, mon frére?
“Don’t,” “Don’t” jangles the gate
As I shake its bars,
The inscrutable without
Echoes “Don’t,” “Don’t,” alas.
I cohabit with “Don’t”
For I cannot say
So perfect and awesome
Under my magnifying glass,
Such an infinitesimal speck
Otherwise; what will and instinct
Propels the silent files
Of red power
Up the window frame
Or along the kitchen table.
Friendship with the red ant
Is absurd; stinging body contact
Urges anger and violence.
With cruel fingers I crush
An adventurer on my arm.
Power and pride fill me
As I stamp and rub a procession
Out of life.
Ants are without names
Fancy or functional, unlike us.
They know what they want
We do not.
They are always together
We stand alone.
Miners with no headlamps
We falter and fall.
Trained in a rare academy,
Disciplined mobile queues,
Each red speck
Matching, as if remote-controlled.
Till one red ant wanders off,
Jonathan Livingstone Ant steals up my arm,
My neck and bites my eye
For seeing him so small.
(Avantisundari was a 9th century poet and a learned wife of scholar-dramatist Rajshekhar. She wrote poetry in Prakrit, as Sanskrit was reserved for use by the upper caste men for religious and courtly purposes only.)
Quill rather than pestle
Lured you, Avantisundari.
Was Rajshekhàr your muse
Or you his?
Your Prakrit lines reverberate
Through time, alas Sanskrit!
Glorious, timeless fragments
Survive like desert flowers
No simoon can dry.
Your footsteps unseen
Till a sister ten centuries young
Continues what you, incomparable Avantisundari,
Every morning the cold tea-pot,
Mocks my indolence, challenges me.
Every morning I re-enter the kitchen,
Chef, combined hand for thirty years.
Tossing a salad, currying a chicken,
When the maid is absent or even when she’s there.
Every morning, every breakfast, every lunch,
Every evening, every tea, every dinner,
I plan or buy or cook everything.
By now I have barbecued and cooked
Mountains of meat, ponds of fishes, acres of vegetables.
Used gallons of oil and kgs of spices.
Every day as long as I live,
Every day when I am not too sick,
I shall reign in this kitchen, peerless Queen.
My subjects wait at table with eager plates,
Gracious tenderness garnish the food I serve,
Loud interjections of pleasure-preservatives I deserve.
The New Mildewed Millennium
When the foetus was murdered
None felt her quiver of voiceless protest
When the witch was slaughtered
Her intense raucous cries were just grotesque
Between the female foetus and the witch
Falls the Shadow of the Woman
Mesmeric threat through the centuries
Tame poodle within their line of control
Beloved Goddess of their smug myths
Passive bonded labour in their households.
Her anointed conditioned reflexes too narcotized to resist
Marinated in cruel tradition and custom, as they insist.
Though tribal Dopdi flings off her sari in disdain
Though Mrinal and Satyabati break off their chains
Yet Roop Kunwar did burn in helpless rage
As jubilant eye witnesses eagerly gazed.
Daring Taslima had to leave her home
In sad strange places now she roams.
Even now alas, the mined terrain explodes
As she turns into that avenue unexplored
Not just breasts, vagina and uterus she
Fact, figures and fiction all agree
Yet the unwept tears of the foetus
The wild outcry of the witch
Rage through Time’s corridors
As deaf He-Man sneers behind closed doors.
Dopdi: main woman character in Mahasweta Devi’s short story, ‘Draupadi’.
Mrinal: Female protagonist in Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, ‘Streer Patra’ (“The Wife’s Letter”). She leaves her marital home after fifteen years of marriage.
Satyabat: female protagonist in Ashapurna Devi’s novel Pratham Pratisruti (The First Promise). She leaves her marital home after thirty years of marriage.
Roop Kanwa: burnt alive as “sati” on her husband’s funeral pyre in Rajasthan on September 4, 1987.
Taslima: Taslima Nasreen, is the internationally known exiled Bangladeshi woman writer.
Should I let these words
Scar the pristine page
Should I hang your severed skull
Like a pendant round my neck
A stark Kali, fearless and free
Albatross or tyrant
I had to annihilate you
Piercing your lying heart
With the unerring trident
Of furious Durga
I could not be Lakshmi anymore
In calm composure
Like a misty halo
Shielding the cruel and callous
I prefer the Goddess Saraswati
Armed with books and musical strings
Weapons of mass resurrection
Combating demons of deceit
With the inviolate light of knowledge
That embedded inner eye
From ignorant slumber
That tired surrender
Narcotized by the alluring lotus
Come, create the true and beautiful
Express the good, noble and free
Let more than a thousand words
Blossom in a serpent-free world-wide Eden
Come on, sing, read, write and dance
In a swirl of uncompromising light.
About Sanjukta Dasgupta
Sanjukta Dasgupta is an Indian feminist scholar, poet, short story writer, critic and translator with twenty-one published books to her credit. She is Professor and Former Head, Dept of English and Former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships including the Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship and Fulbright Scholar in Residence grant, Australia India Council fellowship, and the Gender Studies fellowship grant, University of British Columbia. She has been invited to participate in conferences and has taught/lectured at universities in the USA, UK, Europe, Canada , Poland and Australia. She is the President, Executive Council, of the Indian Poetry and Performance Library, ICCR, Kolkata, and the Convenor of the English Language Board of the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. Her recent awards include the IWSFF Women Achievers Award, Kolkata (2019) and the WEI Kamala Das Poetry Award (2020). Two of her collections of poetry, Sita’s Sisters (2019) and Lakshmi Unbound (2017), are available to purchase online in the UK.
Feature image is a detail of In Search of Vanished Blood (2012) by Nalini Malani, under fair use, Wikiart.