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Lessons from Experience
Lalithambika Antherjanam

. . . Very long ago, one of the best-loved poets of the Malayalam language asked me on a public platform: "Why has there not been a single woman poet in this land, where the Goddess of Poetry is conceived and worshipped in a woman's form? Although they are eulogized as personifications of passion, why has not even one of them composed a single line of love poetry?" He held up his chair, and demanded: "Look at this—this is a tool of wood. It has four legs, a back, a seat. Has woman, after all, functioned only as a tool like this?"

I was distressed. I did not quite follow the comparison between a woman and a chair. Was womanhood an inanimate object like a block of wood, for others to chisel and carve? If a work of art had warmth and movement and the power to make decisions, what would it become? This poet had certainly written innumerable love poems, but if a young woman composed love poetry, did he understand what her life in society would become? Would he allow his sister to go in search of love, experience love, as he himself did?

Besides, from time immemorial, poets have with indulgence called women weak, deceitful, and cowardly. Because women have constantly heard this, they have come to believe it too. Eyes like black kuvala blossoms. Cheeks like roses. A forehead like a crescent moon. And lips like red tondi fruits. But no one looked at the heart trembling within that breast, its warmth and power, its tears and hopes.

Women, as conceived in literature, were always objects of pleasure. Even the shining models from history and the epics have lost their glow. According to Christian belief, the very first woman was, after all, accursed. Although it was on the evil advice of the serpent, it was she who plucked the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and she offered it to her husband. As for her husband, who attained knowledge, he realized the danger of allowing her to taste the fruit and deliberately snatched it from her. Thus she became a sinner in her husband's eyes as well as in the eyes of God. And so Eve, made from Adam's rib, plods on, shouldering the burden of her curse, the eternal representative of womanhood. As for the Hindu epics: Sita was repudiated, Draupadi was dishonored. In Rajput times, Meera had to take poison, Padmini had to jump into the fire. In the modern age, when tradition loosens its grip on them, they will show you. Wait and see. The very flow of your poetry will change direction—

I think I said something like that. When the meeting was over, the young poet asked me, "If you were to have the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge now, Chechi [elder sister], what would you do with it?"

I laughed. "Don't you know? I'm a woman, too, remember—like the very first woman, I too will put it into your mouth, younger brother." . . .

Excerpted from an essay published in Cast Me Out If You Will: Stories & Memoir, translated with an introduction by Gita Krishnankutty, Calcutta: Stree, 1998.