Wild Words: Four Tamil Poets | Translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmström
This is a powerful collection of poems by four Tamil women, all of them ostracized not too long ago for writing what was called vulgar poetry. Upholders of ancient Tamil tradition demanded these books be burnt, and these women be stopped from writing pornographic content. The women had tried to take back the discourse around body and sexuality, and rewrite the existing scene with their observations on gender and caste. They spoke of desires and the female anatomy in their poems, of sex both consensual and forced, of the society that derived perverse satisfaction from robbing them of their voices. They were labelled obscene, lacking the propriety and modesty that makes a good Tamil woman.
The poets featured in this translation are Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Each poet is distinct with respect to the themes she takes up, and the imagery she conjures. I discovered I was partial to Salma’s and Sukirtharani’s poems, the former for descriptions of how she wrests for herself space both physical and mental in a patriarchal Muslim world, and the latter for her outspokenness as a Parai woman. Of the four, I was somewhat familiar with Salma’s work previously, having read her essay in the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories.
Take a look at the poem Paths by Salma:
Upon the almirah
against the room’s walls
between the swirling fan’s blades
a bat clashes,
But birds, thousands of miles away
flying across the blue of the sky
and the massing of mountains
and have never, so far,
lost their way.
And here is one by Sukirtharani, titled A faint smell of meat:
In their minds
I, who smell faintly of meat,
my house where bones hang
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.
I wish the original Tamil text had been printed alongside, because I spent too much time compulsively translating the poems back to Tamil in my head. I am not sure why I did that.
I also enjoyed the translator’s note at the end. It helps establish a context for both poem and poet, giving us fresh insight into how their circumstances have shaped their unique voices. There is nothing I can say about Lakshmi Holmström that hasn’t been said before. She is responsible for bringing many Tamil literary works to a wider audience, she is the one who led me to Ambai, it is through her I started to realize how a good translator inhabits the voice and character of the author being translated. While reading this book, I learnt that she passed away last year. I carried with me a twinge of sadness and regret. Only for a while though, until life carried me in its currents and asked me to pay attention to more mundane events.
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