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Rachel Bari

Rachel Bari: South Asian Poetry

Re-Contextualising Self and Language: Women Poets of South Asia

Take away my language, and you also take away access to the stories that my forebears created, in the cadences that created them.  Educate me in a language lacking the rhythms of home, and  I am likely to speak as a segmented self to sound surgically…etherised. (8),

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture
Gaiutra Bahadur Hachette India 2015

This paper discusses two issues: language and self. The connection that it attempts to make is that through language, (used in the semiotic sense), it attempts to reveal the existence of a self through the poems taken for study.  This is not the self as understood by philosophy.  Towards this endeavour I take the help of neuroscience.
Too much of emphasis on theory might gloss over the actual reading and analysis, hence even as I say and use the word semiotics, I am in reality focusing on certain areas, that is to say, I am selective and shall stick to pragmatics and not rely on a certain school to make it high theory.  I take liberties with semiotics and its varied schools. The need to go to semiotics is to prove that the language generated, call it the sign and signifier, is alien to the context of the woman, because she has never been a part of the becoming of the language, for she had been the “blank page” on which she was written by men.  I use semiotics in its broadest meaning as the theory of production and interpretation of meanings.  To take it further, meaning is made by deployment of acts and objects which function as ‘signs’ in relation to other signs which leads to a system of signs which are constituted by the complex meaning-relations that can exist between one sign and another.  When a woman has never been an ‘act’ or an ‘object ‘who did not have the independence to function as a sign but as what had been written by patriarchy, where does she generate meanings?   And we also have read that language is a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. (Barthes 14) We also know that there can be a different view.
Language is a system of contractual values and since it resists modification coming from a single individual , it therefore is a social institution.  The question would be whose social institution?
We also know that in most semiological systems, language is elaborated not by the speaking mass but by a deciding group.  Since it is founded in artificial fashion by a unilateral decision Barthes calls them fabricated languages – logo techniques (31) Interestingly,  Frantz Fanon  says that “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language (Black Skins White Masks 18) What kind of world does a woman express for the kind of a language she possesses?
If language, used in poetry is taken as creative (not the Bhaktinian sense of these forms as being closed unlike the novel which he says is open ended), then the creative subject  possesses a body, a heart,  and a mind, in other words, a self? Defining the above, do we say and believe that women are emotional subjects and therefore they are emotional and not rational. We now enter binaries: reason-emotion, body-mind, nature-nurture etc. this has been the debate for quite some time now, which would make feminist theoreticians grapple with this.
Naomi Woolf in the book Vagina: A New Biography says “Female Sexual pleasure … is not just about pleasure.  It serves also, as a medium of female self-knowledge and hopefulness; female creativity and courage; female focus and initiative; female bliss and transcendence; and as a medium of sensibility that feel very much like freedom” (4)
The book does throw light on very many issues which bring in new knowledge but I have serious reservations on when it gives undue importance to the importance of sexual pleasure and couples identity and emancipation with it.  She takes the body back to the lab but with the intention of proving sexuality as an important aspect of creativity.  With elaborate medical cases and images of the human body, she attempts to prove that women’s creativity is most certainly connected to her sexuality which seems to define her self.!!!  This seems to be a very reductive reading of the selfhood of a woman.
There are two things here. One is the Body/emotion and the other,  Mind/reason  which so far belonged to the realm of  patriarchy: Descartes’ I think therefore I am . It would therefore mean that men think and women rely on emotion.   
It is at this juncture that I bring in readings from neuroscience to support my arguments.  I approach neuroscience as a humanist and not a scientist.  I have no training in science, do not understand many of the medical terms but there has been a query within me since a long time, to seek answers in science about man and woman and their thought process and actions and emotions.
My interest has been the brain and the gene.  I have wanted to know if the human brain is gendered and whether the workings of the brain can in some way throw light on the way we are, the way we behave, the way the thought processes generate, why do we think, how do we think and do only men think and women don’t etc . I have wanted to know whether the genetic makeup of humans does in any way contribute to the way we are. Which would mean that the sacred lines that we teach when we do gender studies “sex is biological, gender is cultural” would end with a question mark.
Women are seen as emotional beings, life and literature has ample instances.   Science had overlooked the importance of emotions.  For some time now, even neuroscience has disregarded emotions. But with the publication of Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error things began to change. The book challenged traditional notions of emotions and rationality.  Damasio has done this through case studies and the book is a riveting study of emotion and reason and reveals what we have always ignored: that emotions are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behavior. Damasio boldly challenges the dualisms that have dogged Western thought: Mind vs Body, Reason vs Feeling, Biological explanation vs cultural explanation.
This is not a forum wherein I can go into the details of the book but we could take a peek and the uninitiated and the interested could always go back to the Damasio. I shall take what I need to further my arguments.
When women speak about language and self and when the emphasis sometimes is on sexuality, it is not just emancipation but proof that there is a mind at work creatively, which would pretty much sum up what I have been trying to say. A few words about the mind…
Here is what Damasio says “the brain and the body are indissociably integrated by mutually targeted biochemical and neural circuits. Having a mind means that an organism forms neural representations which can become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behavior by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action… (Descartes Error 88-90)
And to conclude he says “  …the overall function of the brain is to be well informed about what goes on in the rest of the body, the body proper, about what goes on in itself: and about the environment surrounding the organism, so that suitable survivable accommodations can be achieved between organism and environment. …If there had been no body, there would be no brain” (90)
Seen from this perspective and armed with scientific knowledge, it can deduced that the body and what the body undergoes is significant, because it is connected to the brain and thought process. And when women speak body and connect it to the outside world, they are in fact reacting to the environment surrounding them which either is conducive or threatening. They talk body not just for the need to change perceptions about the lived in experience of the body. The body is an outward image of the existence of the brain. Culturally woman has had to live with the image and idea of a body as created by patriarchy. Neuroscience can change and alter our understanding of the human body and mind.  We may now say that “…the heart is after all in the head” (review of Descartes Error) so the binaries stand questioned.
Neuroscience is in the process of proving or rather has worked out that there cannot be a brain without the body and that both men and women possess a mind which can express itself in the form of images. In fact, Damasio has a sub heading when he says “Thought is made largely of images” (Descartes Error 106) would prove wrong countless proverbs which have been derogatory about women and her intelligence and the capacity to grasp the world around her.  As an instance, in Kannada we have a proverb which says “ The brains of a woman are beneath her knees.” The sheer dis-communication between the body and mind is apparent here. Bhaktin’s reference to fabricated language comes to mind. And interestingly women writers use this very same language to deconstruct body, reality and self.

Sukirtharani says
           I need a language
           still afloat in the womb
           which no one has spoken so far,
           which is not conveyed through signs and gestures.
           It will be open and honourable
           not hiding in my torn underclothes.
           And I shall write about that too, bluntly
           in an infant language, sticky with blood.
                                                     (Wild Girls Wicked Words -Infant language)


Fameeda Riaz of Pakistan in her poem Come let us create a new lexicon, says
           Come let us create a new lexicon
           Wherein in inserted before each word
           Its meaning that we do not like
           And let us swallow like bitter potion
           The truth of a reality that is not ours.

And for Malathi Maithri
           requests become curses
           entreaty becomes a grave
           dreams become cruel gods
           desires become demons
           silence becomes love
           the language of God becomes the night
           the language of Satan becomes the day
           changing from one to the other
           in our dictionary        (Language Change – Wild Girls Wicked Words)

Demon language  is poetry” and “demon language is liberty”  “She writes of trying to find a language to write about this broken world and can only find a pey mozhi, a demon language.  She mentions the many ‘mad women’ who inhabit her most recent poetry, ‘who take me to the edge of emptiness, and make me stand there, as they look at me and weep’. (Wild Girls  Wicked Words 18)
There has always been a connection between language and body/sexuality for women. Both are denied to women, for through language she attains her subject hood/ self and voicing her sexuality gives her identity and writers like Naomi Woolf are out to prove that sexuality is creativity.
How does one view a woman speaking body and self  through  sexuality? The body image is one which gives identity but not necessarily through just sexuality and this body image is not acquired naturally.  The body as a whole and as a part is a symbol, partly visible and partly invisible.  The different perceptions by women of their own bodies, either through the conditioned eyes/senses or through the transformed image is essential to bring in a change in the way one views a woman. It is the body which indicates the presence of a mind and emotions, sexuality is a just a part of the entire process of the brain at work.

Armed with this knowledge one can now deduce that the images she uses  in a language are different,  and that she communicates not just thoughts but her protest as well as her grasp over the environment. She re-contextualises herself. She reframes herself and this could be translated into the need to see herself as she does and not as others do.  And she does it in a language that she is comfortable with. She does not objectify a language, she subjectifies it and therefore privileges herself as an entity who exists. She feels the need to speak, write and more so feel in the language.  She has to hear what she speaks but unfortunately, the language of man does nothing for a woman.  She feels an alien caught in the straight grammar of a tongue which is not hers.  She strives to change the way things are understood.  They cast off words as clothes and are termed immodest.  They grip the words to twist and turn them until a new meaning emerges.

In a society that imposes behavioural conformity on its women in both metaphorical and literal sense, this is a transgression. However, contrary to the popular Western perception of Indian women as passive' and -eternal' victims, and paralysed by a sense of helplessness (Murray1987) women writers have written consistently and movingly about negotiating and resisting multiple patriarchies more so in the areas of sexuality.
In Taslima Nasreen the transgression is stronger when she protests
           His polygamous body’s muck
           I am expected to drink like ambrosia
                                               ( Auspicious Wedding)
Salma’s  most famous poem is Oppandum , translated as  Agreement/Contract reads
            Everyday, in the bedroom
            these are the first words to greet me:
     ‘      So, what is it, today?’
                       they are
                          the last words, too
… pointing fingers accuse me of whoredom

  • once again –
  • To buy from the outside world
  • my sanitary napkins and contraceptives
  • and for many other little favours.                      

In full knowledge of all this
my vagina opens                     ( Wild Girls Wicked Words)
They have dared to speak body and display experiences which have been closeted so long. The poem Cast Away Blood brings in a chill.

Her feet shudder, her body thrills
She wipes with her underskirt
the warm blood seeping
against her thighs
and runs.
Through the corridor encircling
the inner shrine, along
the thousand-pillared mandapam
She slips off her underskirt
and rinses it in the tank’s water:
then – an old memory reviving –
spreads out her sari pallu
to catch the fish which gather
around her feet and nibble at her hands,
smelling blood.
Surprised to see
the moon in the tank reddening
slowly, slowly.

               (Malathi Maithri – Wild Girls Wicked Words)
She defies tradition and dares patriarchal constructs which has de-contextualised women for so long.  On one platform she brings in temple and blood: the sacred and the profane. Through language and powerful imagery, these women poets have transgressed, protested and established a self which stands testimony to Damasio sense of self.  This is developed in his book The Feeling of What Happens where he speaks about a three layered theory of consciousness which is based on a hierarchy of stages.


  • protoself…(structures that regulate and represent the body’s internals state)
  • core consciousness ( awareness of feelings associated with changes occurring to its internal bodily state, able to recognize its thoughts and perspective, development of a momentary state of self. A relationship is established between the organism and the object)
  • extended consciousness.( requires vast use of conventional memory).

Damasio’s explains the theory of consciousness through three notions

  • emotion ( is an unconscious reaction to any internal or external stimulus which activates neural patterns in the brain.)
  • feeling
  • feeling a feeling ( knowing a feeling is consciousness )

and for him emotions are a collection of unconscious neural responses to qualia.  These complex reactions to stimuli causes external changes.  And then arises the feeling when the organism becomes aware of the changes it is experiencing.
According to Damasio, the most basic kind of self or consciousness is
          Idea of the object we perceive
          Idea of our body as modified by the perception of the object
                                                                 (Looking for Spinoza 215)
The sense of self is a critical component in any notion of consciousness.
                                                                 (Feeling of What Happens 89)
In fact, South Asia, most importantly India has had a tradition of women poets who have used the body, sexuality and religion to de construct and protest – the Buddhist, the bhakti, the sangam poets must already be familiar.
Women writers during the Buddhist era, chose to join the Buddhist sangha (religious communities) to break away from the social world of tradition and marriage.  This was a sort of escapism. What emerged was poems and songs about what it meant to be free from household chores and sexual slavery. Although the early forms of writing addressed the issue of personal freedom, the poetry that followed later was a celebration of womanhood and sexuality.
The Sangam poets that dominated the era between ca. 100 BC-AD 250 wrote extensively about what it meant to have a female body. The translation of Venmanipputi Kuruntokai's 'What she said to her girlfriend' reads,

On the banks shaded by a punnai clustered with flowers, when we made love my eyes saw him and my ears heard him; my arms grow beautiful in the coupling and grow lean as they come away. [Tharu and Lalita .73)

The content of the poem is bold for its time because it expresses a woman's pleasure in sex. The poems written around this age echo a sense of sexual liberation. 
Among the poets who wrote in the 12th century AD came the medieval Kannada poet, rebel and mystic, Akkamahadevi, whose life and writing challenged the patriarchal dominance of the world at large. She is supposed to have wandered naked in search of divinity. As Hinduism underwent a revision of spirituality and basked in the new-found outlook of the Bhakti movement, so did the men and women associated with the religion. This is evident in Akkamahadevi's writing as she uses the image of her body to defy her critics when she says,

Brother, you've come drawn by the beauty of these billowing breasts, this brimming youth. I am no woman brother, no whore. [Tharu and Lalita .79]

As a radical mystic it is no surprise that she uses the image of her genitals to convey her understanding of the Bhakti tradition and the Hindu idea of rebirth when she says,

Not one, not two, not three or four, but through eight four hundred thousand vaginas have I come. I have come through unlikely worlds guzzled on pleasure and pain. [Tharu and Lalita .80]

Another poet of the Bhakti tradition was Sule Sankavva, who according to Vijaya Dabbe wrote poetry that could startle contemporary sensibility with its combination of the sacrosanct and the sacrilegious. Writing as a prostitute, her sentiments about the duplicity of society at large are strongly echoed in her only surviving poem, in which she says,

In my harlot's trade having taken one man's money, I daren't accept a second man's, sir. And if I do, they'll stand me naked and kill me, sir. [Tharu and Lalita .81]

If thoughts are communicated through images in the brain then images rain down in the most strange ways.
Salma speaks about her own body being dismembered.
         At the appointed moment
         the surgeons with great care
         remove from her body
         her womb –
         I see the piece of flesh
         where my life once lurked.
         My wish to protest
         then turns into sorrow.
         What does it matter
         how many times she bore a life?
         That vital organ
         must have seemed to her
         just a curse...
         She spoke in a fearless voice
         ‘Now I’m only half a woman.’
         The womb is “…a vital organ….but a  “Curse”  and  there is no fear for being only “half a woman”. For Kutti Revathi ‘Breasts’ are an “amazement”  but sing of
               of quiet sorrow
               of love
               of ecstasy.
               they distill love; from the shock
               of childbirth
               milk, flowing from blood.
               .....                                                    (Wild Girls Wicked Words 159)
The poem ‘Breasts’ tears away the conditioned mindset.  For her ,‘childbirth’ is a ‘shock’ and the’ milk’ that flows is from this shock. For centuries of conditioning of the woman’s mind about her role and about her body, Revathi deconditions and deconstructs the mind. Childbirth is always a shock and woman’s body reacts to it as one reacts to stress and shock: with tears. Milk is woman’s body reaction to the shock of her body being split open, for life to continue.Motherhood is privileged, and her body has to tear, not many talk about her pain.

Women have to write their body because it is through an exploration of their bodies that they traverse continents and ideologies. It is through their bodies that they can challenge the pre conditioned mindset of both patriarchy and women who are conditioned to these patriarchal constructs. But when they do so, they are already in the processing of constructing a “self”.
And finally Meena Kandaswamy, the Dalit women writer who writes in English, who is angry, who speaks the body and the caste.

Once impaled for our faith / and trained to speak in voiceless whispers / we’ll implore / you to produce the list / from hallowed memories / of our people disgraced/ as outcastes / degraded / as untouchable

She will fight and it will begin

as our naked bodies / held close together / like hands in prayer / against each other/ like hands in prayer / set to defy the dares the /diktats the years the terms / the threats / that set us apart.

It will begin when never / resting we will scream / until / our uvulas tear away and our breathless words breathe life to the bleeding dead and in the black magic of our momentary silences / you will hear two questions / India, what is the caste of sperm? / India, what is the cost of life? and the rest of our words will rush/ in this silenced earth / like the rage of a river in first flood. ( we will rebuild worlds)

She would

singe the many skins you wear to the world/ the skins you change at work / the skins called castes and /         called race / the skins you mend once a week / the skin you bought at a sale/ the skin you thought was yours / the filthy rich stinking skin you thought you could retain at bed.

She dares to

`write that single poem
which is free of him, which does not
carry the stains of his masculine scent
and which doesn’t make you think of
his hairless chest and the deftness of his
fingers on you

She would

succumb to all your cravings
write all you can about him
forgetting the shame and the
embarrassment it would cause
somehow it seems better than
not writing anything at all. (you don’t know if you are yielding or resisting)

Perhaps we have crossed over the times when


..her tongue they severed with a knife


Her speechless voice, “Khanar Bachan”


Still resonates in the hills and skies (Mallikha Sengupta)

The woman writer of the subcontinent is ready to traverse lands, cross boundaries, scale heights: all through her own body, this body and emotion and mind which, science proves today to be inseparable and deeply connected.                                                                            


  • Bahadur, Gaiutra (2015) Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture Hachette India
  • Campbell, Anthony (2000) Book Review of The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotions and the Making of Consciousness
  • Damasio, Antonio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace
  • …, (2003 ) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, Harvest Publications
  • …., (2006) Descartes’ Error Vintage Books London
  • Fanon, Frantz (1967) Black Skins, White Masks New York Grove Press
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  • Grosz, Elizabeth, (1994). Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, London: Routledge.
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  • …, (1993). An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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  • Woolf, Naomi (2012) Vagina: A New Biography Virago  Great Britain





Charanjeet Kaur: Editorial

Sara Aboobacker in Conversation with Ayshath S R

Srinivas Reddy: Sanskrit at the Opera

Literary Articles
Kinshuk Majumdar: Amitav Ghosh
Kusumita Datta: Kashmir and its Story Tellers
Rachel Bari: South Asian Poetry
Sonal Jha: Arun Kolatkar

Book Reviews
Dustin Pickering – ‘No Waiting Like Departure’
Gagan Bihari Purohit – ‘For You to Decide’
Purabi Bhattacharya – ‘Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations, Life’
Revathi Raj Iyer – ‘I won’t give you a leg up, Mr Death’
Sapna Dogra – ‘An Ode to Shimla’
Subashish Bhattacharjee – ‘Agniputr: When Agni First Spoke’
U Atreya Sarma – ‘Wakes on the Horizon’

Ambika Ananth – Editorial Note
Arnab Mukhopadhyay
Bidyut Bhusan Jena
Madhab Chandra Jena
Maithreyi Karnoor
Mithlesh Kumar Chaudhary
Robert Beveridge
Sujit Mukherjee
Surbhi Goel
TS Hidalgo
Varun Rajaram

U Atreya Sarma – Editorial Musings
Akshat Joshi – ‘New World’
Ananya Sarkar – ‘The Cats’
Eva Bell – ‘Entrapped’
Humera Ahmed – ‘A Different Sky’
Neera Kashyap – ‘As quiet as a feather falling’
Reema Tripathy – ‘Is Love the Reason?’
Sahar Raza – ‘Sacrifice’
Sukla Singha – ‘Fury’
Sunil Sharma – ‘The Shrinking Man’

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