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Speak, Women by Smita Bahuguna-Agarwal

Reviewed by Kinshuk Gupta

With a title that is direct and emphatic Smita Bahuguna-Agarwal invites us with a clarion call to dive into her new poetry collection Speak, Women. Divided into six sections, the collection, like her previous ones, bring out the unabashed and irreverent feminist poet Bahuguna-Agarwal is.

I am reminded of Paula Richman’s introduction to Many Ramayanas, where she writes that even though most interpretations and retellings of the Ramayana celebrate the birth of Lord Rama and consider it to be a moment of glory and rejoicing, it is only in the female retellings that about Kaushalya’s labour pains are recorded. Kaushalya is standing upright, holding on to a pair of ropes hung from the ceiling. Bahuguna-Agarwal captures this well when she writes: “They made Kausalya hold the ropes/Mother, Mother, I can’t bear this pain/A minute feels like hundred years.”

Bahuguna-Agarwal flips the narrative, or, so to say, the male gaze, and attempts to redefine a woman’s relationship to her body. She is unflinching, and almost ruthless when she discusses regressive customs, patriarchal mindsets, and socio-political discourse around women’s issues.

Even the poems which deal with the environment or politics are overtly gendered. But this is not to say that her poems are loud or rely on ‘statements.’ Her tone is mostly sarcastic when she describes the Indian Parliament as a set of dentures where old doddery fools, who are unable to ‘bite, chew or grind’ themselves, are ‘diminishing the country’s health.’ In the poem

‘Earth Day,” where she uses inverted logic, ecological concerns converge with broader political issues that plague modern times: “Grasslands are being forced to migrate/as they follow a different religion.” But one can’t also miss the empathy with which she writes for the lineage of women of her family, say, Buaji from Kothaar and Saklani Naniji of Dehradun, who had to suffer at the hands of patriarchy.

This book is also a good example of intersectional feminism, a concept that has gained traction off late. It promotes women of various identities to fight for their issues. For instance, when older women write about their concerns, there is a substantial shift in tone, theme, and style. In recent times, The Red Necked Green Bird by Ambai, Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, and Eunice D’Souza’s Necklace of Skulls all voice out the concerns of older women. “Mammarian Milonga,” where Bahuguna-Agarwal talks about her sagging breasts in a bawdy way, fits snugly into the category of older women’s voices.

In the era of post #MeToo, the poems in the first section, especially, “The Rapist at My Door,” which deals with the sexual harassment young women undergo at the hands of so-called elderly mentors, rings warning bells in our ears. In the poem ‘Guru Mantra’, the starting and the end line remain the same—He says Nothing moves. I feel nothing. Except that there is an additional line in the last—I’ve been singing since. Singing here not only signifies joy (Bahuguna-Agarwal is herself a trained classical vocalist) but also becomes a metaphor for the kind of exploitation that we hear about on an everyday basis.

Humour and wit come to the rescue every time Bahuguna-Agarwal’s poems are about to trip. Barring a few in the later sections, most of these poems are neither leaky nor are they MFA-styled dry poems—they traverse the tightrope between rambling and self-restraint—and most of them succeed in doing so.

Kinshuk Gupta, a medical student, uses the scalpel of his pen to write about his experiences as an undergraduate medical student. His work can be read or forthcoming in Joao Roque Literary Journal, American Writer’s Review, The Bengaluru Review, Mad in Asia Pacific, Human/Kind Journal, Failed Haiku, Cattails, Eunoia Review among others.