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Poetry and Parochialism in Kerala: Sugathakumari opens a Pandora’s Box

Poetry and Parochialism in Kerala: Sugathakumari opens a Pandora’s Box



Umar Nizar

skyThe Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in his customary impish fashion rephrases Heidegger’s oft-quoted dictum that ‘language is the house of being’ as ‘language is the torture-house of being.’ For him there is no genocide without poetry. Sugathakumari, a major Malayalam poet, and winner of Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, and the Padma Shri, has been known for her support for extreme formations of all hues, including the RSS. Recently, a newspaper carried in its weekly roundup of quotable quips, one of hers, which was: ”the biggest problem Kerala faces today is perhaps the excessive migration of workers from other states. It will lead us to a cultural disaster. We can in no way form a cultural rapport with these people who come here to work. Most of them are not just from educationally backward backgrounds, but also from criminal ones. They may eventually turn locals by marrying and settling down here.” The quote originally occurred in an interview with the poet carried by the Onam-special issue of the right-wing affiliated daily ‘Janmabhoomi,’ where she discusses various social ills plaguing Kerala, with Leela Menon, the editor of ‘Janmabhoomi.’

This has led to outrage in the social media sphere and elsewhere with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself taking up cudgels, suggesting in a Facebook post that the number of Keralites who work abroad is almost commensurate with the number of non-Keralite workers in Kerala and hence a little understanding would go a long way. He also cited a statistic released by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation(GIFT) which says that in 2013 there were 25 lakh non-Keralites working in Kerala in various capacities. He goes on to cite health and housing schemes that state and union governments have undertaken for the welfare of migrant labourers. But that was the dry statement of facts by a dogmatic communist. What irked many, and rightly so, was Sugathakumari’s stature as one of the most celebrated Malayalam poets of all time.

Perhaps less well known outside Kerala, Sugathakumari, like Kamala Das, also comes from a lineage of poets and academics. Her father Bodheswaran was a celebrated poet. Her sister Hridayakumari was a revered critic and academic. Affectionately called ‘teacher,’ Sugathakumari’s environmental activism (including the Save Silent Valley movement ) earned her detractors and admirers. But what was never in question is her rightful claim as one of the greatest Malayalam poets of all time. Her poem, Rathrimazha (Night Rain) has the lines:

”Night rain, like
A Youthful mad woman
Endlessly wailing, whimpering,
murmuring and laughing,
spinning out her long hair…”
-Sugathakumari, Night Rain

What is significant is that Sugathakumari’s environmentalism and her public stances are derived from her deeply committed Gandhism. She perhaps is the last surviving major Gandhian public figure in the Malayali public sphere. This has led her into a public spat with the poet and Novelist Meena Kandasamy over certain comments on the Father of the Nation that Kandasami had made, as in the poem, ‘Mohandas Karamchand’:

”Who? Who? Who?
Mahatma. Sorry no.
Truth. Non-violence.
Stop it. Enough taboo.”
-Meena Kandaswamy, Mohandas Karamchand

 One has to travel as far as the freedom struggle to understand these two conflicting strands of ‘Nationalism.’ G.Aloysius says that ‘the welling up of anti-British sentiments among the Brahminical was indeed a reaction to the former’s efforts (it could be read even as ‘pretensions’) to take marginal measures in support of mass emergence.’
– G.Aloysius, The Brahminical Inscribed in Body-Politic, Critical Quest, New Delhi.

Sometimes Sugathakumari slips from the Gandhi of Noakhali to the Gandhi who wrote about ‘kaffirs.’ In the interview given to the right-wing affiliated ‘Janmabhoomi’ the poet also shares her anguish over the possibility of migrant workers forming a vote bank and politicians exploiting them.

While Gandhians from Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan to Anna Hazare have stood up for the rights of ‘common men,’ the elitist strand inherent therein was waiting to be exploited. It starts with the assassination of Gandhi, the impact of the original trauma which, Makarand Paranjpe in his book ‘The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi’ terms ‘My Death is My Message.’ In ‘Hind Swaraj’ Gandhi speaks via a character named ‘Editor’:

”Machinery is like a snake-hole which may contain from one to a hundred snakes. Where there is machinery, there are large cities, there are tram-cars and railways; and there only does one see electric light. English villages do not boast of any of these things. Honest physicians will tell you that, where means of artificial locomotion have increased, the health of the people have suffered.” -Gandhi, MK, Indian Home Rule, Madras: Ganesh & CO(Nationalist Press), 1919.

Gandhi hardly was the naïve luddite figure which he is sometimes painted to be. He was a master manipulator and polemicist and propagandist who had the pulse of his people and his times. It is vital that he is not lionized in a jingoist fashion so that people feel like pulling down his statues, but that his legacy is redeemed in the way it deserves to be.

Zizek again says :”Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city — rather sensible advice, judging from this post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams….Instead of the industrial-military complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the poetic-military complex, personified in the twin figures of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.”

-Zizek, Slavoj, Poetry Magazine, 2013

Karadžić in his infinite wisdom also wrote the following untitled poem:

Convert to my new faith crowd
I offer you what no one has had before
I offer you inclemency and wine
The one who won’t have bread will be fed by the light of my sun
People nothing is forbidden in my faith
There is loving and drinking
And looking at the Sun for as long as you want
And this godhead forbids you nothing
Oh obey my call brethren people crowd.
– Radovan Karadžić, untitled poem

Recently another young Malayalam poet Sam Mathew had in a televised program with anchor and Kairali TV honcho John Brittas recited a poem, ‘Padarppu’ in which a rape victim speaks lovingly of the rapist:”bearing the moonlight that you bestowed/ I traverse alone the nights/crawling through the wild creeper/the kama that vigorously entwined me..”Meanwhile, poetry has been democratised in the sense that there is a proliferation of online poetry magazines, poetry groups, and poetry contests and readings and festivals as never before. The members are often exhorted to start poetry reading groups in every residential (read ‘middle-class’) colony. But there are hardly any takers for poetry slams.

It would be too far-fetched to compare Sugathakumari to Karadžić, but it won’t be Cassandra-like to predict that her efforts will bear fruit in similar direction.



 Umar is a research scholar in JNU. His poems have been published in the Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe journal of the British Library, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.