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'They don't like women who are flamboyant about sexuality'

By Shobha Warrier
May 21, 2012 15:19 IST
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'Even the stories of Sita or Draupadi, I look at them in a different manner. I wanted to reclaim them as women,' firebrand poet Meena Kandaswamy in conversation with's Shobha Warrier.

Meena KandaswamyUnder a huge tree, we sat. In a corner on the huge IIT-Madras campus, the air was still and hot. In the silence, occasionally broken by some car or cycle that moved past us slowly, we spoke. We spoke about poetry, social injustice, men and also society in general.

I was talking to Meena Kandasamy, the young firebrand poet who was in the firing line recently for her tweets after attending the beef eating festival in Hyderabad. She was abused, insulted and called unprintable names by some in the online community.

Have you got over the virulent attack on you on social media after you attended the beef-eating festival at the Osmania University?

In some ways, I have got over it. When this started, I had told some of my friends in Hyderabad that I was not going to let them hold me hostage because of this issue.

Basically, I feel they are trying to divert attention from the real issue. The issue is not about whether Meena is a terrorist or a bitch. Or whether the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the mullahs and the Vatican are funding me. The only thing I can do is write about it and I did.

Did you expect this kind of vicious attack when you attended the festival?

I think the name calling has been there, but it was always underground. I had received e-mail threats, but this is the first time that it came out in huge doses. Also, this is the first time that they made direct threats at me.

Has it died down now?

I don't think it will die down any time soon. They are still calling me names, unprintable names. The abuse doesn't stop.

Are you rattled?

I don't know. I am very numb right now. I am very hurt. I don't know how to react and it is not because of one beef eating episode.

I am a woman who is flamboyant about sexuality and I write about it openly. They don't like this.

I was threatened with cases against me for my second collection of poetry.

What was it you wrote in your poems that they are against?

They were against the choices I wrote about. They were aghast and taken aback that somebody could write about men and women who were iconic to them and part of Hindu mythology. They took offence to it.

They also reacted that way because it was a woman who was writing.

That is why in my poetry collection, I say, call me names if it comforts you... I know this name calling is going to be there.

When you say call me names, are you challenging them?

When I was writing the preface to Ms Militancy, I knew people were going to say these things. For them, I was attacking Hinduism. Even the stories of Sita or Draupadi, I look at them in a different manner. I wanted to reclaim them as women.

They have always been uncomfortable with women's sexuality because of its power over men. They don't know how to handle it.

Regarding the Hyderabad festival, hundreds of men participated and spoke about it, but then nobody objected to what they said. I was a woman, a rank outsider, I was from Chennai and that was why I was attacked. And, I didn't even speak about it.

Why did you participate in the beef-eating festival?

I didn't go there to participate in it. I was there in Hyderabad to give a speech on Ambedkar Memorial day and this was happening. When I was invited to this festival, I thought why not? Anyway, I was there.

Do you look at the festival as symbolic?

For the stupid, crazy reason, all young women have that you add weight if you eat meat, I hardly eat meat. I am mostly a vegetarian, but I do not like to be identified that way.

It was not for vegetarianism that beef was not served at the Osmania University canteen. Chicken and mutton were served, but only beef was not served. These students had been petitioning and asking for over a year for beef to be served in the campus as part of the menu.

Why does the university, which is basically a secular institution, have to take such a stand on beef? The festival was against this attitude.

We basically want to reaffirm that a secular institution cannot be held to ransom for some casteist threat. So, I thought their demand was reasonable and it was also tied up to untouchability.

That was what Ambedkar said, beef eating made us broken men.

Like many people ask, would you have raised your voice if there was a festival for eating pork? That also was connected to one particular religion.

I think everybody is conflating this argument with pork and beef. When you are talking about beef and pork, you are talking about two different issues. It is about food choices. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork. It is something they should not do in their religion.

Here, some Hindus decide whether we should eat meat or not. It is the imposition of choice on others by a group of Hindus.

The history of beef is associated with untouchability as even among the Dalits, there are sub-castes and they rank each other on hierarchy and say about some, that is a beef-eating-caste! It meant they are lesser in the hierarchy.

Pork doesn't have this hierarchy history. By eating beef, you are challenging this caste hierarchy.

I don't know why they make it into a Hindu-Muslim issue. Maybe then, it brings in more eye balls and becomes more sensitive. They are just making counter arguments on an issue like beef eating.

When did you start looking at society from the Dalit, casteist, perspective?

I cannot pin it down to any one incident. I was born of an inter-caste marriage. My father is also from an inter-caste background. Maybe caste was there by not being there in a big way.

We didn't have any identity so to speak, at least in the early days when I grew up in this campus (IIT-Madras).

Did you grow up in an atheist atmosphere?

No. It is funny. My father is someone who was arrested during the Emergency because he was the sub editor of Thyagabhumi, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ) mouthpiece at that time. He was a bachelor and a full time RSS pracharak. He was working directly under Ramagopalan, who now heads the Hindu Munnani.

My father later became an atheist; now, he is a staunch atheist. My mother was never very religious at any point of time.

So, it was not in a religious atmosphere that you grew up in.

Not at all. Both my parents are university professors. When they were doing their PhD, the house was full of activists and intellectuals. There were also students who were preparing for the civil services examination, talking politics all the time. I grew up in such an atmosphere.

It was after we moved here when my mother became a professor here that caste started playing itself out in some of the episodes. That was when my mother spoke for Dalit girl students and fought with the administration.

When I was around 12, I started attending meetings after my mother filed the first set of cases against the administration alleging discrimination.

Is your mother an inspiration for you to be an activist?

I will say she is much more than an inspiration. When I talk about issues, I was just called bad names. It is not like I face everyday humiliation like she faces. I have gone with her when she went to meet her lawyers.

I wouldn't be the person I am today if I had not seen what happened to my parents.

When did you realise that you have to give vent to your thoughts in the form of poetry?

When I was in the 11th or 12th standard, I used to go to these internet forums and write my thoughts. That was not serious writing, maybe an outburst of what I felt.

I started working with a magazine called The Dalit and used to go with the fact finding teams to public hearings. Then, I felt, with activism alone or by some write up, I would not be able to solve what was inside me. It was so clinical and detached.

So, where do you go with all your hurt? How do you heal yourself? Then I started writing poetry. I was feeling very angry at that time.

I wrote all that I felt in my diary. That was the time there was a lot of high caste violence happening in Tamil Nadu. It was so private that I never showed my poetry to people.

When did you feel that your thoughts should be read by others?

It was in 2003 or 2004. There was this advertisement calling for poems from women poets under 30. I sent my poems and that was the first time I was doing it. I didn't hear from them for four months.

Then one day, I get a letter from them informing me that my poems were selected for first prize unanimously! I must have been 18 or 19, when things like prizes do matter. Today, I would not do such a thing.

What is poetry to you?

There is so much of me and what I went through, in my poetry, it is my personal pain. My second collection has a lot of my inner experiences. People say my poems are very angry with men.

Are you angry with men?

Yes. It is not men as such. It's the patriarchy and it has no gender.

What makes you angry?

We could be so much better if we didn't have these stupid differences. I mean gender or caste or whatever. All these differences are self defeating in the end.

Look at what is happening to women in India? We have been told to do so many things. All these choices are so crippling.

Caste is total regimentation. It disciplines and punishes us.

As an educated person living with educated parents, do you not live a liberated life?

As far as caste is concerned, there are no liberated souls, no matter how privileged and educated people are. I find discrimination all the time.

Do you call yourself a Dalit poet or just a poet? Is the Dalit identity very important for you as a writer?

As a poet, who I am and where I come from and what I stand for affect me.

While identity itself cannot demarcate what one sets out to do, I am sure that I write about feminism and I write against caste because of what I have been through and what I have seen.

You said, what you had been through.... Despite living in a city, in the midst of the educated class and growing up on the campus of an elite institution, did you feel discriminated against or isolated because of your caste?

Isolated, yes, by virtue of having parents and grandparents who had performed inter-caste marriages. That way, we never socialised in a big way in family circles. Discriminated, yes. It was more vicariously through hearing and learning from my mother and father and their experiences.

I was never into any institution other than school and that's a place where sensitivity is not rewarded, talking back is frowned upon, and there's rampant favouritism which is quite often based on caste, and sometimes there's rampant discrimination which is again based on caste and gender and your economic status.

I have consciously stayed away from every organised institutional set-up, so I don't feel the pain of too many blows of institutionally-sanctioned discrimination.

I had some tough times at school. Gossip and discrimination from the teachers. I have written about it in my poems. My poetry is very political.

I read that Arundhati Roy was instrumental in you becoming an activist.

She is the first person I see in the morning and the last person I see before I go to bed! She is there on my desktop, and everywhere. I really worship that woman.

When I first met her, I told her, I wouldn't be writing if not for her.

I had read Kamala Das as a teenager, but with Arundhati, it was different. She was talking about all these issues.

When she won the Booker Prize, we were teenagers and we used to sit in the classroom and read God of Small Things.

It was so musical and the way she used the language was so mind blowing. And the same person writes against nuclear energy and for tribals and Maoists.

I love her as an activist. She is so inspirational and brilliant.

Who are you, a poet or an activist?

The poet in me will not exist without the activist in me. Even my love poems are obscurely political.

Writing lets me be an activist.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

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