Meena Kandasamy: ‘A poet says what’s on their mind’

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Meena Kandasamy in Chennai in 2013.

Meena Kandasamy in Chennai in 2013. | Photo Credit: S.S. KUMAR

The poet, writer, and activist says poetry helps people make sense of what they have lived.

Over a decade after her last volume of poetry, Ms. Militancy (2010, Navayana), came out, Meena Kandasamy has published another, Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You (Juggernaut). In the intervening years, the writer and activist has produced three novels that are very different from one another (both stylistically and content-wise), besides various kinds of non-fiction: a book of first-person accounts by female fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, essays on politics, newspaper op-eds, and so on. This collection, however, proves that she is far from done with poetry.

There are superb, pitch-perfect lines here that speak to specific historical moments; there are personal poems about love, longing, and heartbreak; and there is a strand of inward-looking critical enquiry about the role of the poet in today’s political climate. Through all this, Kandasamy’s curiosity about language, politics, and the complex spider’s web of interconnections between the two shines through. Kandasamy spoke about the making of Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You in a video interview. Edited excerpts.

I first read your poem “How to Make a Bitch Give Up Beef” about a decade ago. Ten years down the line, the poem feels more prescient than ever because “food policing” has grown exponentially in India. How do you view the charged atmosphere around this issue today, and did you see it coming in 2014?

That poem has a history behind it. In 2012, some Osmania University students organised a beef festival on campus, and members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protested against it, throwing stones at the participants. The police used tear gas, and as we were being taken away in a police van, stones were thrown at the vehicle. I tweeted about the entire episode and received several responses, which I used in the poem. Has social media changed, especially for women? No, it remains terrible and has, in fact, become even more aggressive down the years. Has food politics changed? I’d say it’s much worse now, whether it’s banning meat in certain areas or on specific days of the week, or segregation on college campuses, “vegetarians-only” sitting areas, and so on. Meanwhile, incidents of cow vigilantism have increased under the present government. Yet the highest exporter of beef in the country continues to be the BJP-ruled State of Uttar Pradesh.

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Cover of Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You

Cover of Tomorrow Someone Will Arrest You | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

I found the book’s titular poem to be a devastating and succinct critique of the “process is punishment” methodology regarding the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Why do you think there is such widespread, bipartisan support for laws such as the UAPA? We have seen both BJP and Congress governments weaponising this law. Jaison Cooper and Thushar Sarathi have been asking the Kerala Police to submit the charge sheet in the UAPA cases registered against them in 2015, to no avail.

I want to mention a very interesting article by Tripurdaman Singh in this context. He says, yes, there’s a backsliding of democratic norms in this country, but how much is the Congress responsible for it? The UAPA was the brainchild of the Congress. They never deployed it to the extent this government has but they came up with it. The UAPA has a history of suppressing nationalist sentiments from within the country—whether it’s from the Tamil people or anybody else.

Every line of that poem is real; none of it belongs to imaginary scenarios. My friends were arrested and branded Maoists. As I sat with their two children, young girls 5 to 10 years old, it felt surreal. They were talking and trying to teach me Malayalam, and in between, they were also asking about the UAPA. It was a loss-of-innocence moment in real time. I think that other than the bipartisan support for these laws, there’s also a very real fear of surveillance. The day after my friend was arrested, we saw him online on Facebook. How could that be? Then we realised it was the police, logged into his account, checking who he’s friends with online, whom he talks to.

“For me, poetry is the passionate, dramatic love which helps us understand ourselves. ”

The poem “How Careful Was I When I Took My Way” presents an intriguing idea; that when it comes to recalling the end of a relationship, we are all “unreliable narrators”. Tell me how you arrived at the Kierkegaard epigram to this poem (“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”).

I like epigrams. An epigram is almost like a mission statement. About this poem, it came out of a phase when I had stopped writing poetry. I was busy with other forms, but it was more than that. With me poetry is like a first love, or a kind of intense love which has the capacity to annihilate you, empty you out. There are tantrums and arguments and lots of intensity. There are different kinds of love; there’s also stable, solid, dependable love without any drama. For me, poetry is the passionate, dramatic love which helps us understand ourselves. We can only live for the next moment, the next thing in our lives, but poetry helps us make sense of what we’ve lived; the Kierkegaard quote really spoke to me because of this.

“We can only live for the next moment, the next thing in our lives, but poetry helps us make sense of what we’ve lived.”

The way the book has been structured—with sections allotted to your partner, your friends, and so on—resembles the autofiction technique you deployed in Exquisite Cadavers. There is that joke both of us recently shared on X about autofiction being “the personal essay + plausible deniability”. It was meant in jest, but do you feel there is a kernel of truth here?

Let me tell you why autofiction works better for me than a straight memoir: some things are so random that nobody would believe them if this were happening in a novel! The truth value of a novel, I feel, is what we believe can actually happen in the universe. Autofiction allows us to narrativise certain things in such a way that while there is plausible deniability, there’s also plausible believability. Readers are less likely to say, “Oh that’s too much of a coincidence.”

I’m glad you brought up this autofiction technique in the context of my poetry because poetry is a medium where readers are much more likely to take everything unfolding on the page as the poet’s own personal experience. So, the “plausible deniability” bit is especially important here.

Cover of Exquisite Cadavers

Cover of Exquisite Cadavers | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

One of the recurring themes of the book seems to be failures-of-communication, including but not limited to failures-of-literature or failures-of-poetry. Could you elaborate on this?

This is something I tell everybody… we all suffer from imposter syndrome, right? Whether we’re poets or doctors or engineers or whatever, we do question ourselves: Am I doing the right thing? Am I good enough? Am I fooling the world, or am I fooling myself?

As a writer, you go through phases where you feel that all the writing you’re doing is futile, that it won’t amount to much. And I did have these moments when it comes to poetry. You can justify reporting because you’re giving a voice to those who aren’t typically heard. You can justify writing a political op-ed because it’s a very specific kind of intervention. Where is the justification for poetry? What is the role of the poet?

This is also due to the fact that, historically speaking, Indian poetry in English hasn’t been overtly political. However, right now, the atmosphere warrants overt political expression in poetry: Anjum Hasan wrote a poem about Anand Teltumbde, Tishani Doshi wrote about Varavara Rao, Ranjit Hoskote is taking a public stance for the children of Gaza.

“Avvaiyar was singing the praises of the king in her poems, but she was also critical of war, telling him about things to do. So, there’s patronage but there’s also criticism.”

Tamil poetry, of course, has a very different history.

Very different. Here, poets get elected into office, poets are seen as semi-politicians, in a way. Poetry is entrenched in people’s lives. Bharathiyar [C. Subramania Bharati] is seen as the freedom poet, Bharathidasan is seen as the poet of the Dravidian movement. So, poetry has a fundamentally politicised role in the Tamil imagination.

And it’s not just the modern-era poets we’re talking about here. If you go back to the Sangam era, Thiruvalluvar wrote as many poems about love as he wrote about statecraft, about ways to handle a king. Avvaiyar was singing the praises of the king in her poems, but she was also critical of war, telling him about things to do. So, there’s patronage but there’s also criticism. A poet won’t eat a free meal and go out without saying what’s on their mind.

A graffiti on Alan Kurdi in Frankfurt in 2016.

A graffiti on Alan Kurdi in Frankfurt in 2016. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In the poem “The Wars Come Home”, there is a moment where the poet and her partner look at each other while tending to their baby, “tenderness gushing”. Then the pair is reminded of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy who died while trying to reach Europe from Türkiye. You write, “For this, we do not make up names”—is this an admission that some things are too ghastly to be presented in any other way than as a simple fact?

It’s that, but it’s also another thing: in that moment, you’re not just parents to your own child, you’re also parents to the child who just died. You feel that pain. And you realise what you have is a gift: a child who hasn’t been taken from you. And in that moment your child represents the children who have died, who have been taken from their parents. You realise that this is something for which there are no names because the tragedy has already unfolded. I felt, especially, for the mother because it’s a nightmare for her.

How do you raise children while watching other children die every day? I have small children who are constantly in need of attention. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about these children who’re suffering every day. Some of them are not getting food, others aren’t being able to sleep at night. There are mothers talking about gratitude at their own children’s deaths because at least they won’t have to endure another day of suffering. You’re not responsible for the unfolding evil, but you have to go about your day looking out for your children, protecting them from the evil in this world.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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