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March 12, 2019

Aqleemas’ revolt in the arid land


March 12, 2019

What follows is a review of four poems by Pakistani and Indian female poets. These are poems of identity addressing matters of gender, race and language. Fahmida Riaz’s ‘Aqleema’ protests against the reduction of the woman to her body.

This reduction is effected through the patriarchal view of the difference between the female and male bodies. This is the basis of female ‘identity’ which is the loss of the woman’s identity as a person. She is no more than the sum of her body parts. Riaz performs a ruthless deconstruction of the mythical Aqleema’s body as an indictment of the crude biological objectification a woman is subjected to under patriarchy and its religious trappings. At the altar of male lust, this body meets the same fate as that of the lamb at the altar of sacrifice. Riaz’s craft here makes us think of how the body of a sacrificial animal in rites and rituals undergoes deconstruction at the butcher’s hand.

The sacrificial animal is not a character; it has no real role in the scriptures. Yet, it performs a function. A woman too has no role; she only performs functions with her parts – mainly those of satisfying male lust. Like the lamb that has the passive and painful function of being deconstructed by its slaughterer. Riaz here introduces a ‘complexity’ – the complexity of the woman’s womb, which also performs the function of giving birth and thus marks the greatest difference between man and woman. This complexity does not raise the woman to the level of a person because it too denotes a mere function. Why is this so? To reach the answer, Riaz imagines Aqleema to be a mark etched on stone. She once again takes us through Aqleema’s body but now reaches a place we did not know was there – Aqleema’s head, where her brain and mind must be. She can’t be merely a biological being or a non-being devoid of intellect. Her head must count.

While Riaz’s poem is about the woman’s ‘being’ under patriarchy, Naheed’s ‘We Sinful Women’ is an expression of her aggressive becoming – becoming a person. Riaz makes Aqleema a symbol of the negation of the woman as a person and uses the singular third-person pronoun to denote womankind. Naheed uses the plural personal pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ throughout to denote unity in the struggle for becoming. Her poem is a militant piece of work celebrating the ‘sinful’ women who have rebelled against their oppressors. They are ‘sinful’ to the patriarchal orthodoxy because, unafraid of authority, they are struggling to break free from their shackles. They are no more the passive lambs whose fate, in Riaz’s poem, is to be slaughtered, so that those who “sell the harvests of their bodies become “exalted, distinguished and the just princes of the material world.”

This appears to be a refinement of the theme of the sacrificial lamb in Riaz’s poem. The ‘harvest’ of women’s bodies serves the purpose of exalting the slaughterers in material terms. Naheed establishes a link between conformism to patriarchy and the benefits it brings to the conformist. She thus undermines the alleged spirituality of the religious moorings of patriarchy. The path of revolt, on the other hand, is littered with “the severed tongues” of those who spoke against authority. But this will not discourage the rebels. In the struggle of being for becoming there is no going back. The fight is till the end. This highly charged poem is a battle cry of Aqleemas in revolt.

Kamala Surraya (or Kamala Das’) poem ‘An Introduction’ appears to be to a very ‘deliberate’ piece of ‘post-colonial’/ post-modern poetry. There is perhaps an implied rejection of politics in the apparently offhand way she mentions it before moving on to the issue of language and identity. Her being Indian and brown may carry cultural significance but it is the issue of language that she dwells on, in a very personal and moving way. To the objection that she shouldn’t write in English, her answer is her individual humanity. With all its peculiarities, her use of the language makes it her own, her medium of expressing her joys, longings and hopes. She offers a glimpse into her past. She was once a child – neither a boy nor a girl. Then she was told she was growing, into the same difference that Riaz describes in her poem. Here we enter the theme of gender as a social construct.

But the narrative is suddenly interrupted with an account of the emotional, physical and psychological abused she suffered as a child of sixteen. She had asked a man for love, what she got was aggressive lust which beat her into realising the “sadness of her woman-body.” She felt crushed under the “weight” of her breasts and womb. She now fought the sadness of her body by trying to be a tomboy. This earns her rebuke. The theme of societal gender reconstruction resumes again. She is told to reform herself into a feminine creature of the traditional Indian sort. Patriarchy is shown to be omnipresent. She meets a man; what happens in that particular case is not told. Because the particular here is not important, the universal is. The next lines become a universal statement about ‘I’. First this I is a man imprisoned in his own ego. “He is tightly packed like the ‘Sword in its sheath’.” Then this I becomes both man and woman. The dichotomy created within this I takes a toll on both components of it. They make love, suffer guilt and experience loneliness. Both are betrayed. Both are lost. There joys and aches are the same. Yet, both remain divided and dichotomised.

Meena Kandasamy, a Dalit writer and activist, raises the issue of caste in her poem ‘Prayers’. For the Dalits in India it is the institution of caste that has negated their humanity. In the poem, not just the oppressor but the oppressed too is a man. The poem has a plot. The story takes place in an “arid land of arid human minds”. It is clear that this aridity is caused by caste, which has drained out humanity from the land it rules. The old and diseased Dalit of the poem goes to a temple to offer thanks to “some” god for his “partial” recovery. The vagueness of the word ‘some’ denotes the uncertainty of this man’s connection with religion. This is an alienated state of being – alienated from oneself and from the world one lives in.

Kandasamy’s description of the physical and spiritual wretchedness of this man is intense. He can’t be in the temple of the upper-caste god; so away from the temple this mentally enslaved and physically ruined man bends himself in prayers. The prayers are obviously unwelcome, emanating from an unclean source. The faith they represent is not convincing. The fact of ‘divine’ brutalities inflicted on the one that ‘innocently’ carries this faith makes him suspect. His prayers are an affront – an act of encroachment on the sacred Brahmin ground. Angry retaliation is called for. It arrives in the form the vengeful Rajput who beats him to death.

Even as he is being beaten, in “deathly howls” the Dalit seeks divine intervention, not realising that the god he is praying to and the Rajput persecuting him are one and the same. When he prayed to the god, he prayed to that “warrior-caste” lion. Kandasamy’s tone here becomes ironic and sarcastic, against warrior-caste cowardice that feels so threatened by an old and diseased Dalit as to kill him. The god “remains lifeless as ever” in the whole affair because he is an invented abstraction from the concrete reality that is the Rajput. The god is an ideology, the Rajput a social reality. There is no contradiction between the Rajput and his god, while the Dalit’s whole being is riven by a fatal contradiction. He thanks the abstraction, seeks help from the ideology of the Rajput, against the Rajput – thus proving that “Dalits die, due to devotion.”

It is very vaguely suggested that the poem is a personal memory. The one carrying this memory is haunted by a question. Where did the murdered Dalit’s soul go? Could it be heaven – that abode of noble martyrs? But we know that there was no cause to die for in the Dalit’s life. His existence was not noble. It was wretched. And he was not martyred. He died a dirty encroacher’s death. Did he go to hell “where the gods reside, making caste laws”? But he was already living in hell, where these laws are made and enforced. And if the gods and the Rajputs are one, then hell is the gods and the upper caste. Hell is right here. In the arid land of arid minds.

To be continued

The writer is a student of literature and philosophy at the Forman Christian College, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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