Ritam "Meenakshi the Poet"

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Ritam
January 2013

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PDF (42 pages)


Meenakshi the Poet

By Dianna Bowler


Meenakshi’s poems on nature, love and friendship are as meaningful as her poems on the miseries of the downtrodden, on changing values, and anger at disharmony. Throughout her poetry, whether they are feminist poems or songs of personal relationships, runs a universality that makes her readers relate instantly to her.

Initially, Meenakshi’s poetry was modelled on that of the Sangam poets whose poems tend to be cryptic and mostly descriptive of nature. The Tamil Sangam Age, which is said to have occurred between 300 BC and 200 AD, could be called the ‘age of naturalism’. According to Dr. A.K. Ramanujam, Sangam poets’ attention to ‘object’ is not to create the ‘object’ of the imagist, but the object as enacting human experience; poetry of objects is always a part of the human perception of self and others.

Later, Meenakshi’s interaction with people and places outside her familiar circle made her write poems of revolt against situations. Then came poems on social issues, women, children, and war. The next phase was when her destiny took her to Auroville and later on to other countries in the West, widening her horizons. Now she says: “I don’t claim any more ‘it’s my poem’. I just capture something in words that others receive in other ways. Now my poetry is ‘naked poetry’. It comes directly from something deep within.”

She does away with frills and ornamentation. Whether she is talking about a flower or a brook, a bird or an animal, an artisan or a politician, natural or manmade destruction, there is only truth in her words. And almost always, the poems project her keen sensitivity, culminating in the yoga of her private inner self with the universe.

Whether oppressed labourers or artists creating fabrics, the empathy Meenakshi feels for them is very real.

All we know are holed-rags
which the sun pierces through
unmatched footwear
swinging scaffolds with missing teeth.
We come swaying
bathed in brick sweat and
the mason’s propitiating chants.

Raising the women construction workers to the status of goddesses being propitiated, sort of lightens the melancholy. Our hearts go out to the artistic weavers as we join in the poet’s lament against insensitive consumers:

…the beauty of the thread on the handloom
the one who created it
who thinks of him?” [1]

As one who has always believed in non-violence, Meenakshi becomes a confirmed pacifist as an Aurovilian. Her cry for peace is very clear. She wants harmony in nature as well as in the world of humans. An injured sparrow or a bird dressed for the table distresses her as much as war among nations and nuclear experiments do. What will be left of man she wonders, as she mourns in “Sobbing of an Unknown Woman”:

I’m yet unmarried
I’ve no friends to prop my shoulder
no baby at my hip
none to send to battlefield
what shall I offer this sure death
seeking a red-prey?”[2]

She is an idealist at heart. She wants the country to have:

a scholar barber to shave off the prickles
pricking the face of life
a fiery washerman
to bleach the man in society
floating in a mire of swarming miseries.
A miracle scavenger this very day
aglow within
to scoop and bury
the dark clogged waste within and without.

Meenakshi’s life itself is a poem. She lives in the Auroville Matrimandir Nursery Garden, surrounded by 12 acres of lush beauty. Her life with people from all over the world in Auroville is her spiritual journey. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, she says, have brought a new dimension into her life. Her metaphysical leanings are very evident in poems like “Space Everywhere…”:

In an immense space
the smaller space of my house
in it my body
within it more space,
in space
ecstatic light’s eternal dance.

Meenakshi is very sure what she wants her poems to do:

My fiery poems
not to make songs for the skier
but to be salves for injured hearts.

Meenakshi has the unique distinction of being the only contemporary Tamil poet of the 20th century to be included in World Poetry: An Anthology of Verses from Antiquity to Our Time,[3] published by W. W. Norton, New York, 1998. This volume has “works of only the highest intrinsic quality.” Her poem “If hot flowers come to the street” was chosen and has also found a place in other anthologies edited by Oxford University Press. The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women Poets also contains two of Meenakshi’s poems.

Meenakshi in her own words

I come from Virudhunagar near Madurai and did my BSC Home Science, then M.A in Social Work. I have always loved serving people so when I graduated I worked in city slums, rural communities and got a lot of experience in dealing with the under privileged.

I heard of Auroville when I discovered they were looking for a qualified volunteer who could be a link between Auroville and the local villages. I arrived here in 1976 on February 21st but was very surprised to find that there was nothing much here. There was only a huge pit in the centre of the land with steel bars sticking out, but when I met Ruud Lohman I was very inspired by him. I immediately knew I was in the right place. Everyone was extremely helpful, “Take this, take that” they all said and put me in the Matrimandir Camp. Also, the very first man I met in the worker’s camp was a very tall Dutch man called Toine. Two years later we married. We lived in the Matrimandir Nursery and have been there ever since.

Ruud introduced me to the villagers who at that time were mostly illiterate and under employed. I would not say they were in a state of utter poverty; they were very simple, and I think they were quite content with their way of life, but the children were neglected and suffered from malnutrition. The village youth had no idea how to spend their free time so we started a Youth Club and I tried to help them with their further learning and life education. I remember well that on my very first day in Kuilapalayam as a development officer of the Tamil Fund for Rural Development I had to translate a big argument. At that time each village was its own democratic entity with its panchayat leadership. They were very open to the Western people to come and settle here and build a new city on their doorstep. The temple was the centre of each village where festivals and meetings took place. They were very impressed that the westerners were building a temple to the Mother Goddess in the centre of their town, just like them. They called it “Amma koil.”

I was very impressed with the people from abroad, the white people who had come to live amongst us. They lived an extremely simple life and were very hard working. They wore simple clothes and used herbs for medicine, ate our South Indian food and apart from the colour of their skin seemed little different from the villagers. A Canadian woman, Janet, began a small unit where the village women learned to do crochet and knitting and were able to earn an additional income for their families.

About six years before I arrived in Auroville, I was taken to the Mother’s Balcony Darshan. I did not know what was happening but was very surprised by the crowds of people who all stood in absolute silence. All I could hear was everyone breathing. Then a little bird-like figure came out on the balcony and I felt two blue eyes piercing me, embracing me and tossing me about on blue waves. I fell on the ground and spent the next three days in Ashram hospital in a trance with a “spiritual fever.” It was explained to me later that I had experienced Darshan by the Mother touching all my chakras. Whenever I see Her picture I say “I know her,” as that was my direct experience and it has always stayed with me.

For the last five years we have organized a ten-day Children’s Annual Book Fair in Auroville which is visited by around three to five thousand children. I am now known as the “Book Akka” and am very satisfied as it has given a great impulse to reading that the children do not get at most schools, and definitely not in their homes. The children tell me they are putting money in their piggy banks so they will be able to buy a book next year and that gives me great satisfaction. There is not yet the tradition of individual book reading in rural India. We have always had a very traditional, storytelling society with oral culture and the people love to talk with each other instead of burying their nose in a book. Things are changing very quickly as they now watch a lot of television.

Now I am spending more time with the next generation and visit the local village schools and colleges. I would like to interview them and record their life journeys so others may share their hardships and visions. I spend time listening to them and many of them are able to confide in me which is very good for them. I try to give them a shoulder to lean on and listen to them. They all have their story and it comes from a deep shared past. They are strongly rooted in their culture and are moulded by its beliefs and traditions. When I was younger I reacted a lot, but now I have learned to know how much I can take in, how much I can keep, and how much I can give out. I feel as if these everyday experiences are added to the cells of my body.

I was a born poet! Before I could read or write I used to make up poems and recite and throw them around in my head. Ever since I have been in Auroville I have lived in this beautiful Nursery garden and I spontaneously write of the natural elements and the flowers and colours that surround me. I write only in Tamil and have one book that is bi-lingual: Marupayanam (“Another Journey”). I have completed eight books of poetry but my dream is to write a mature novel. It will be called something like “How my soul travelled” but so far I have only done the first chapter! Poetry flows easily for me, but the novel is a very different medium. I have done a few short stories and am the co-author of Sri Aurobindo’s Contribution to Tamil Literature, a research book of essays. Many people do not know that Sri Aurobindo translated Tamil poetry into English in association with Kavi Subramania Bharati.

My poetry is everywhere around me. Everyone is a story teller here. I have enriching experiences every day; my pot will never run dry. My dream is to realize the City of Auroville where there will be a universal embracing of the Tamil cultural, heritage and language. This is the history of this land and we are part of it. This is the land of the Siddhas and maybe this is why Mother chose this part of the earth to place Auroville. I think about that a lot and would like to do some research on it one day.

We now have a well established Tamil Heritage Centre in Bharat Nivas campus here. Its motto is ‘All are our habitats, All are our kith & kin’, an ancient voice from the Sangam Era. Auroville is known on the Tamil map with its literary associations. I am a member of Sahitya Akademi Tamil Advisory Board which gives me lot of opportunity to connect Auroville with great creative writers, poets, academicians, journalists, media persons, artists and scholars. They help in bringing Auroville closer to Tamilnadu and India, South East Asia and the wider world at large. In October 2011 I was in Singapore reading my poems to the members of the Poetry Society. It was a great moment of love and joy.