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Review: Speak, Woman! by Smita Agarwal

The title of this volume, Speak, Woman!, is of a piece with other books by women poets. Since women have suffered the ills of patriarchy for millennia, as Robert Graves says in The White Goddess, they should have raised the banner of protest earlier and not let male prophets, kings, philosophers and knights (who prided themselves as saviours of “damsels in distress”) walk all over them. Of course, it would be unjust to think of Smita Agarwal’s volume as just an outcrop of feminist revolt. It is more than that. After the initial thrust, her poems coil themselves around what she wants to say and what is actually said, and the end is a surprise, as we see in her first poem Guru Mantra where the guru…

asked me to unhook my blouse.He placed his palm on my throat “Sing” he said. I saw, National Geographic: the sparrow paralysed before the swaying hood of the Cobra, I felt nothing. Nothing moved. And I’ve been singing since.

The poet is a vocalist who ‘could memorise at least/ five difficult melodies in a day.’She zeroes in on Meera She lived in her head: in a landscape where fantasy blew in gusts of love

This is a fine poem.

80pp, ₹299; Red River

A dentist asks her to open her mouth and she sees in her imagination ‘the stars, the planets, the revolving galaxies’ in the mouth of the Goddess, ‘the demon slayer.’

The ironic vein persists in the poem Monsoon Musings:‘Half of life wasted, some would say/ precious time lost lying/ on a woolly bed of cloud’.

Speak, Woman is divided into five sections over 50 pages with the last section comprising just three poems. Rapist at my Door is the most impressive. ‘There are other types of rape too.’ Frozen in the patriarchal psyche, male attitudes mask the subconscious query: “How dare the woman write or think better than I?”

Fear of flying comes through in another vivid poem. ‘That moment when the plane/ leaves the ground/ and becomes a bird’ the flyer comes face to face with thoughts of death. Though the poet has used the overused phrase ‘intimations of mortality’ to make this point, the heart of the poem rests in the line that despite the ‘hundred thousand trials’ the flight ‘may not work, just this once.’

In a Raksha Bandhan poem the poet’s persona takes on the role of a moralizer, and in her advisory capacity, tells the girl: ‘You are all you need. Be your own friend. Nurture your strengths.’

Poet Smita Agarwal (Courtesy the author)
Poet Smita Agarwal (Courtesy the author)

Some of the poems on events rescue this volume from the humdrum. Lockdown is a fine, though chilling, work about a drunk man chucking dinner plates when he comes home in the evening, beating his wife, and eventually killing her. The son, frightened like everyone else, of the virus, watches as it all plays out during the lockdown.

Gripped Climber: An Elegy is a graphic description of an unnamed young mountaineer dying on Everest. In Triple Talaq, the husband tells his wife ‘I am sorry…you must forgive me…/ People change, I’ve changed/ I don’t love you anymore,’/ This was their triple talaq. The understated last lines raise the poem and make it unforgettable:

A twig cracked underfoot,It was hot. There was no sign of rain.

Keki N Daruwalla is a poet, short story writer and novelist.

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