Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

An Eternity of Lines around My Throat: Negotiating Old Age in the Poems of Contemporary Indian Women Poets in English

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

An Eternity of Lines around My Throat: Negotiating Old Age in the Poems of Contemporary Indian Women Poets in English

Article excerpt

Introduction

Among the questions that contemporary women poets across the world grapple with, one of the most elusive is whether their poetry voices a distinct female sensibility (Shapcott 2009) in terms of both theme and style. And if so, does it define their poetry, and more importantly, how essential is it for good poetry? In the Indian context, this question assumes even greater relevance as women poets down the ages have been exploring ways to make their voices heard within the social, political, and cultural structures of a patriarchal society. In fact, perhaps the best known modern Indian woman poet, Kamala Das, owes a great deal of her fame to her unabashed exploration of women's sexuality, usually in terms of relationships with men. In recent times though, more and more women poets are bypassing the lens of their gender to write-coming up with characters, situations, and identities in their poems that are not essentially female.

In broad terms, however, the powerful confessional feminine tone in Indian English women's poetry ushered in by Kamala Das has continued to be popular. These poems explore the thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities of various female subjects, among which one of the most interesting is that of an elderly woman. While the predicament of a woman in the roles of a young or even middle-aged lover, wife, mother, or daughter dominates such poems, an aged female subject is rarer to come across. This paper focuses on select poems from a slim but valuable anthology edited by De Souza (1997), titled Nine Indian Women Poets, which explore the hopes, fears, joys, and anxieties of a woman in the twilight of her life. What are her concerns and expectations? And why is it important that more such voices be heard?

Aging in a Feminist Context, in India

In Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition, Katherine Young (Tilak 1989, xi) begins the "Foreword" by making an important difference between aging and old age: "If aging is a biological process, old age is a construct of culture." Tilak (1989), over the course of the book, shows how the cultural construct of old age in Hinduism is the product of a complex dialectical process which began with the teachings of Buddha and then led to Hindu philosophers codifying old age as a distinct stage of life with its own meaning and purpose.

Tilak (ibid.), in the same book, traces the evolution of the concept of the four ashramas, beginning with brahmacharya, then sansara, moving on to vanaprastha, and finally sanyasa. He points out that early Vedic philosophy, as evident in the Hindu Smrti works, located the meaning of aging in the process of life itself, rather than in ascetic spirituality, opposed to or transcending it. It was in fact with the advent of Buddhism that aging began to be recognized as an irreversible and inevitable process, associated with disease, decay, and impending death. Tilak (1989, 157-158) points out that it was in response to this Buddhist perspective that the concept of the ashramas or ideal model stages of life was developed in the Dharma Shastra texts; according to this, old age was institutionalized as the final stage of the human life during which the individual should strive for ascetic detachment from worldly affairs and strive for spiritual liberation.

However, these concepts, like any other cultural product of patriarchal societies, are codified from the point of view of men. The roles and responsibilities of elderly women in the later stages of life are not treated specifically; it is assumed that they would follow their husbands physically to the vanaprastha or sanyasa ashrama as well as share in their male spouses' "dharma" of asceticism. If, on the other hand, their husbands died earlier, upper-caste women could choose either to commit sati on the funeral pyre of their husband or, as happened more commonly, lead the spartan life of a widow, which again coincided with the ascetic practices of old age ashramas (Tilak 1989, xi). …

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