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In the Wake of Kathua-Unnao, How Poetry Calls to the Conscience

“Maai, I sent the horses trotting, And they found their way back home. But, I couldn’t” – a poem to Kathua 8-yr-old.

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Women
7 min read
Public demanding justice for the Kathua 8-year-old girl at midnight at India Gate. 
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Reader’s Blog.
Reader’s Blog.

This semester, while teaching my study-abroad students at the University of Hyderabad, I again brought out a poem for the class to read, with great trepidation. This is a poem that has been taught before. But with each new session, and each new group of individuals in the classroom, and more than that, with each new nerve-wracking incident of rape and assault reported in the media, the poem acquires a newer significance.

That my students are Americans actually doesn't dilute the mood, because the moment we start reading Patricia Lockwood, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes heavy, wordless, and relatable in myriad ways for me, as well as them. The coordinates concur:

The rape joke is that you were facedown.
The rape joke is you were wearing a pretty green necklace that your sister had made for you.
Later you cut that necklace up.
The mattress felt a specific way, and your mouth felt a specific way open against it, as if you were speaking, but you know you were not.
As if your mouth were open ten years into the future, reciting a poem called Rape Joke. You know the body of time is elastic, can take almost anything you give it, and heals quickly.
The rape joke is that of course there was blood, which in human beings is so close to the surface.

(From Rape Joke, Patricia Lockwood)

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Patricia Lockwood's poem is pretty much a clear cut documentation of everything that has been normalised in our society by way of "jokes". It went viral and apparently even caused many to demand its removal from online sites.

If the cultural associations in the poem were to be altered a bit, much of the content would sit squarely on the ugly sexual offence mess that India is in right now. And as I write this, my WhatsApp comes abuzz with yet another post where the jibe is at the woman or the wife, told as a misogynist joke obviously. I don’t inhabit Twitter space but perhaps there too the barometer of both tolerance and intolerance is quick to the touch in this context.

A Poem and the Resultant Horror...

In the wake of outrage and anger following the recent Kathua (Kashmir), Unnao (Uttar Pradesh), and several other rape and assault news coming in, the civil society in many parts of India, alighting from its digital platforms, came together physically to protest vociferously.

The anger began from a numb silence to strident demands of justice – including punishments of the most severe kinds to be meted out to the perpetrators.

These recent rapes are only a skein in the larger string of such incidents all over India that have happened over decades and are awaiting justice. The Kathua rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, who belonged to the nomadic Bakerwal community of Kashmir, presents in particular a complex and sordid picture of what is precisely fraught in India's relation to Kashmir.

Now her fate has become the flashpoint for discontent, not only in Kashmir, but also in disparate corners of the country.

Somehow, the age-old cliched narrative of Kashmir – however patronising and flippant – has crystallised the momentum. The 'paradise on earth' and its innocent inhabitant, the little shepherd girl, seemed to have captured everyone's imagination, albeit with shock and rage. One remembers Patti Smith's poem:

yum yum the stars are out. I'll never forget how you
smelled that night. like cheddar cheese melting
under fluorescent light. like a day-old rainbow fish.
what a dish. gotta lick my lips. gotta dream I day-
dream. thorozine brain cloud. rain rain comes com-
ing down.
all over her. there she is on the hill. pale as a posy.
getting soaking wet. hope her petticoats shrink.
well little shepherd girl your gonna kingdom come.
looking so clean. the guardian of every little lamb.
well beep beep sheep I'm moving in.
I'm gonna peep in bo's bodice. lay down darling don't
be modest let me slip my hand in. ohhh that's soft
that's nice that's not used up. ohhh don't cry. wet
what's wet? oh that. heh heh. that's just the rain
lambie pie. now don't squirm. let me put my rubber
on. I'm a wolf in a lamb skin trojan. ohh yeah that's
hard that's good. now don't tighten up. open up be-
bop. lift that little butt up. ummm open wider be-bop.
come on. nothing. can. stop me. now. ohhh ahhh.
isn't that good. my. melancholy be-bop.

(From Rape)

The sense of horror and abomination doesn't leave one easily on reading this. The Unnao teen reportedly said that after the heinous act, the rapist had wiped her tears off and offered her a job. But how does one 'deodorize the night'?

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“I Sent the Horses Back Home”

Post-Kathua, as emotions started building up, on social media especially, I was struck by my own urge as well as others' to write poetic tributes for the Kathua minor. Perhaps Parvathy Nair, the school teacher and storyteller, came closest to feeling the pain, being surrounded by 8-10 year-olds in her profession:

Maai, I sent the horses trotting,
And they found their way back home.

But, I couldn't.
My legs that you thought were
Swift as those of a deer,
They froze.
Maai, they froze.

But I sent the horses home.

Maai, them monsters,
They had no horns or fangs,
Or deadly long nails.
But they hurt me.
They hurt me bad, Maai.
The purple flowers,
The yellow butterflies,
They stood there helpless.

While I sent the horses back home.

(excerpted)

In an earlier essay elsewhere, I had proposed that poetry might serve as an antidote to misogyny. In all likelihood, rapists and abusers rarely read poetry, let alone undergo any gender sensitisation.

What is the power of words then? Can poetry raise the dead, the battered, and our collective voice? I would like to believe it does. The overwhelming numbers in which people came out in the streets to support their anguish – singing songs, reading poetry, delivering speeches, signing petitions – cannot go in vain. And the rulers are always afraid of poets – poets being a synonym for dreamers and rebels – as Ursula K Le Guin had said.

Poetry to Reflect Kashmir’s Agony

It was heartening to see even K Satchidanandan, one of the topmost names in Indian poetry, post his emotional tribute to the Kathua rape, evoking the tainted image of the Indian national flag vis-a-vis the child's plea representing Kashmir's agony.

I need a new skirt, Baba,
let us go somewhere. I heard
even these walls whisper:
‘Blood, more blood’.

This is not our land, Baba.
The red of the flag we used to hoist
comes from the blood of little girls,
its green, from the grasslands
we have no permission to enter,
its white from the dawns we have never seen
and that wheel - it chops us up,
minces us, every day.

(From To You, Baba. Translated from Malayalam by the poet)

In the dead of the night, between tears and anger, even I wrote a poem, imagining a pain that was not mine and yet wanting to internalise it. On writing this:

A-ll grey and weathered on the valley and before
s-he was gone once and all, the sky had trembled
i-ndented grass flowers bent down to wipe tears from the night before
f-allen birds, stunned at human treachery,
a-ltered the horizon forever

I immediately felt the need for saying: "After I write this acrostic verse above/poetry wants to part ways —".

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The brutalisation of Kathua’s 8-year-old girl had been enacted decades ago. While the average Kashmiri was grieving yet another mishap of the most despicable kind, she was not exactly waxing eloquent in poetry. But the fresh wounds that opened up the older ones – Kunan Poshpora being one of the ugliest ones in the region's history – demanded that whether in the streets, or on social media, poetry will keep raising questions in full earnest.

Senior poet and activist Gauhar Raza gives words to this sentiment:

There are wounds on my body
Blood has seeped into my eyes
Even my spirit quails today
Like a stone
My brain is hard and lifeless
As though paralysed
Insensate, useless
Except for the screams
There is nothing in it
Nothing, nothing, nothing

It would be better if you don't ask me my name
I am the one who
Had yet to savour the headiness of spring
I am the one who
Had yet to blossom like a flower
And spread my fragrance
Listening to the song of the swaying waterfalls
My feet were still to dance
I had still to enter the open arms of schools
And like a spark
I had yet to burst into flames.

(From Wounds. Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil)

The spring, the flowers, the waterfalls, the gentle undulating landscape of mist and meadows – poem after poem harked after a topography of peace and nonviolence, which many outside of Kashmir haven't seen other than on a Bollywood silver screen. The other side of this pristine scene is a long history of strife and gore in Kashmir, which again several wouldn't comprehend.

According to many, this is why the little 8-year-old cannot be the daughter of India. But those that hold India and its ethos in great esteem must read through Adrienne Rich's lines:

There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun

(From Rape)

Whether in Kashmir's Kathua or in Uttar Pradesh's Unnao, poetry doesn't take to patriarchy kindly, and it doesn't accommodate sexual offenders and nationalistic projects that ravage a people. If poets truly are the parliamentarians of the world, here's hoping each word spoken by Kamala Das would echo within all of us – women and men alike – and become an introduction to our saner selves:

"... I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

(From Introduction)

(Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad, India. Her latest collection of poems is titled "Sanskarnama" (Red River, 2017)

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