Writing Women, Writing Life: A Study of the ‘New Woman’ in Ranu Uniyal’s Poems
By Firoja Parvin
Contemporary women Indian writers subvert the dominant male aesthetics in literature and culture and present an alternative vantage point through the construction of womanhood from a woman’s point of view. Feminist writers aim to understand the existence of women’s lived reality – their suffering, pain, angst, depression of unfulfilled dreams, etc. Feminist poetics have used the concept of gender as a significant tool. Ranu Uniyal is one of the prominent figures among the new breed of feminist poets of twenty-first century. She is the representative figure of ‘New Woman’ who gains her individuality and subjective position while developing her own ideas, therefore, becoming a powerful voice for the voiceless. The ‘New Woman’ has manifested herself in multifarious guise – the ‘wild woman’, ‘glorified spinster’, ‘advanced woman’, ‘shrieking sisterhood’, ‘revolting daughters’ – all these discursive constructs variously approximated to the nascent ‘New Woman’. The ‘New Woman’ is predominantly a journalistic phenomenon and a discursive product. Her writings offer a sort of challenge to existing male ethos and sexual ideology based on unequal power relations. Earlier domesticity and sexual relation were couched in silence but through her writings hidden female desire becomes an intrinsic part of feminist discourse. Her writings converse itself in a language that threatens status quo and propose to open up for those who are at the margin. Her works put forth the essence of power dynamics in contemporary Indian women’s poetry in English. The poems through their hidden metaphor and images demonstrate an urge to dissolve the barrier between speech and silence. Her poetry speaks for the exploited, the neglected and repressed ones who are marginalized in our socio-cultural existence. She firmly establishes her position as a feminist poet by showing her concern for the women by expanding their boundaries and borders that are created by patriarchy.
As representative figure of new women, she transgresses herself to trace the feminist voices in her poems. Her poems present her powerful critique of gender discrimination and show how our everyday reality is steeped in gender stereotypification and binaristic hierarchised understanding of man-woman relationship. Through her poetry she wants to deconstruct the stereotypical role of women that are strategically created by the political ideology of patriarchy. In her poem “Radha to Krishna”, Uniyal shows Radha’s position as Krishna’s lover. Radha’s longing for Krishna is clearly a defiance of so-called society’s stereotypical norms. This poem clearly points out the erotic details in the powerful manifestation of Radha’s sexual desire in the arms of Krishna.
In comparison with other legends like Sita whose devotion to their male counterpart is in keeping with the societal norms, Radha seems to stand out as an improbable ‘feminist icon’ within the mainstream mythology as she challenges patriarchy. The poet shows her attempt to reclaim Radha’s mythological agency through the lens of feminist desire. She also represents how the mythological narrative of Radha’s desire ultimately challenges the dominant andocentric narrative. What we see here is less a woman’s agency and more a helpless longing for the only man she feels a desire for. In the poem, the poet represents Radha as a liberal manifestation of agency as free will exercised by an autonomous individual. Through her longing, Radha exerts her little power even within the dominant patriarchal framework. She is ultimately not designated as goddess but an escort of Krishna by patriarchy which subordinates her. In the poem, Radha’s adulterous desires and bodily expressions would indicate a clear act of defiance against patriarchally constructed social norms. Uniyal does not only show Radha’s sensuous sensitivity but also depicts her dominant position of lovemaking in various ways – “Come Krishna and be my kohl”, “Come Krishna and be my scarf”, “Come Krishna and be my anklet”. However, Radha’s spiritual love is more worshipped in India than her defiance and desire which are integral part of Radha’s life in particular and women in general. Women’s desires are suppressed in the name of spirituality. Thus the poet represents Radha as a powerful feminist agent for challenging the patriarchal barriers through her manifestation of desire as she says, “Longing for you as I comb my hair”. Again she says,
“How full of tease the tinkle is / Knowing
It will meet you on the bank of Yamuna”.
In “The Company of Women”, on the one hand, Uniyal empathizes with the sufferings, pains of victimization of women and on the other hand explores the solidarity of female friendship for supporting each other across different social backgrounds. The common experience of oppression urges them to form a bond in order to fight the patriarchy. The company of women (though “not all’) help to counteract the effects of patriarchy and it also provides them with comfort and healing for everyday existence. This female friendship comes as a form of empowerment that helps women build new identities and survive their misfortunes; since they go through similar experiences, they understand and empathize with each other. Their problem is the same in the patriarchal parameter: “For they have staggered to keep themselves warm and men happy.” The poet talks about non-sexual friendship based on giving and receiving moral support, sharing sufferings and experiences, among women “who lean on each other’s arms and often lend a tear or two.” The poet tries to show women’s solidarity as an issue of survival and a breath of fresh air in the suffocated male dominated environment. She also shows that through the solidarity of friendship women may survive and gain freedom, and attain individual identity. Patriarchal oppressions make women feel as if they live in the same neighborhood though they “do not speak the same dialect” but they “do share the calligraphy of the heart.” However, the poem describes the plight of women who “make a pillow of shredded promise and laugh in sleep”, who suffer different forms of oppression under patriarchal institution and portray female friendship as a strategy for fighting back against the rigid institution. Although the poem brings forth the exploitation of women under male hegemony, it also shows hope and faith for the young women of modern world who can reject the victimization. Thus, the poet’s voice embodies the plural narratives of the victimized women:
“We learn to draw from dried up wells,
And hence we multiply our joys”.
The female friendship allows women to face adversity and challenge the attempts to subjugate them. Despite different cultures and social realities the company of women is acknowledged as the female potentiality in the form of sisterhood.
The poem “Women to Women” unfolds with a cross-cultural concern since the two imaginary conservationists belong to two dissimilar cultures, nationalities and even continents. In spite of the marked difference in their lives and cultures, a general awareness regarding the marginality is shared by them as women inhabiting the present day world. Being a modern writer, the poet here chooses the confessional mode as the frame of her writing through two imaginary characters having different socio-cultural background. Through this confessional poetry the poet expresses the confessions of the suppressed despair of a woman towards another woman of different context:
“Are they all the same the men we loved?
The one who promised and walked away
And the one who married
And the one whose seed I held inside…”
She highlights how neglect grew more intense and unbearable as the husbands remained insensitive towards their wives. Thus, the poet talks about the relationships in and out of wedlock. The poem highlights the miseries of forlorn women. The man treated the woman very badly – the man she loved and the man who did not reciprocate her feelings and was basically a coward who ‘walked away’. Their conversation enlightens how their true identity is smothered by the ubiquitous, all pervasive patriarchal culture which pushes them from center to periphery. In a male dominated world, a woman has no right to raise her voice against the filthy experiences she was passing through. The societal norms lead her to realize “Nothing at all had happened”. The heavy-loaded patriarchal framework pressurizes her to get “hugged her tears”. Indian women become victim in a male-dominated society: “You tell me of a sorrow/that was mine”. The poem is also an attempt to assert the poet’s individuality and feminine identity against social and cultural conformity. She attempts, therefore, to say about the pathos of women emerging from passive roles to the point of discovering and asserting their individual identity. To define and salvage themselves, to find out who they are, what they have lost, they ventilate to unleash their innermost pangs of misery, and anxiety to reinstate their experience as women, so that they can acquire autonomy over their being and discover their true self. This conversation triggers off a journey into the recesses of her being and like a phoenix she strives to rise to be reborn. It is the struggle of self-realization that becomes the texts of Uniyal.
Thus, Uniyal’s poems epitomize the dilemma of New Women who attempt to free themselves sexually and domestically, who project their innermost desire, who assert to dismantle the patriarchal institution. As a representative woman poet, Uniyal begins to see their experiences as sources of autonomous art. The texts are characterized with frustration and disillusionment expressed through disarmed frankness. In these works, Uniyal tries to define her individual autonomy and feminine sensibility. She gives full vent to the women’s cause and protest against all kind of patriarchally-constructed social oppression. She wants to emancipate women from their colonized status. There is an assertion of femininity in all her poems where she looks into the consciousness of women and women’s quest for true love.
The cultural values handed down from era to era, generation to generation have become a part of our cultural legacy. The glorification of these values through the agencies of various traditional cultural categories like mythological stories, rituals, customs, and conventions have very subtly ingrained in our minds an ideology which has relegated women to the periphery of the society. In Uniyal’s poems, the mythological characters, imaginary women in conversations, and other women figures give an idea of endless pain and predicament of women because of the social discrimination she must live with. It is the tyranny of our traditional social structure wherein any kind of independence – physical, mental, social – is denied to them. Deprived of her individuality, she remains lost in the labyrinths of ignorance, gloom, and silence as the subdued section of society.
Through her unorthodox style, uninhibited frankness, and the virtue of sincerity, Ranu Uniyal has poured her heart and soul into these poems to project the subjectivity of ‘New Woman’. Her quest for individual autonomy is an effort to give voice to the voiceless women who have to negotiate themselves with the issues of self-discovery and identity.
Firoja Parvin is a M. Phil research scholar at the University of North Bengal. Her areas of interest include Women Writings, Eco -Feminism, Post-Colonial Feminism, and Gender Studies. She tweets at @ParvinFiroja.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.