Rated among the best Indian contemporary poets, Suniti Namjoshi has published several books of verse. In spite of this, her best achievement are nonetheless prose pieces: unusual fables, “Feminsit Fables” (also the title of one of her books) of which there are a couple of examples in this collection published in 1989. Being fables, Nanjoshi’s fragments – I cannot but call them such, as they are merely one page each in length – feature animals rather than humans and have a moral lesson.
My favourite fable of this book is “The One-Eyed Monkey Goes into Print”, where the monkey wants to have its book published, but she is been told that, as they are not many one-eyed monkeys, she should write about humans if she expects humans to read her book (or about crocodiles if she expects them to read her book). Consequently, the monkey leaves a blank space every time the expression ‘one-eyed monkey’ appears in her manuscript, but she is been told by the editor that it is not clear who is talking to who, therefore it is not possible to publish the book. Tired and frustrated, the monkey fills the gaps with the original words and tries with a small publishing house. Her book is accepted, but because there is no audience for such a book, she is asked to contribute with some money for the publication. At the end of the story, the monkey decides to rewrite her book with the help of her crocodile friends and she publishes it with the title ‘The Amorous Adventures of a One-Eyed Minx’.
This story tells of how the publishing world works, of course, but is also a metaphor for the situations which people like the author have to face every day. Suniti Namjoshi is in fact an Indian lesbian feminist writer, hence the choice of a one-eyed monkey as the protagonist of her fable: they are not very common, they can even be called exceptions in the natural world, as lesbians and, even more, Indian lesbians are. Yet, the monkey would like to be published and the reader clearly wants the monkey to achieve its goal. Sadly, there is hardly any audience for third-world lesbian poets. Suniti Namjoshi uses animals as a metaphor for gender and for a different sexual orientation that makes her Other. She writes in the preface to a section of poems called “The Jackass and the Lady”: ‘It’s apparent to many women that in a humanist universe, which has been male-centred historically, women are “the other”, together with the birds and the beasts and the rest of creation. And identification with the rest of creation, possibly with the whole of it, would only be logical” (pg. 29). Now I’m curious to read more of these fables and that is what I will do when I’ll look for another of Namjoshi’s books. In my opinion, they are so much better than her poetry: more original and fresh, funny and immediate, but also deep and wise.
Through the words of Suniti Namjoshi (in this book there are poems, but also short introductions to every section) the reader learns of the steps the author took before reaching a feminist and lesbian conscience. It is interesting and puzzling to learn that at the beginning, she did not even included the word ‘lesbian’ in her vocabulary, resorting to a ‘“Well, all right, do what you like, but BE DISCREET”’ (p.9) kind of attitude.
Her poetry is simple and linear (she uses everyday words exclusively), but the result is sometimes stilted. Luckily, when her poetry is more relaxed (this collection spans twenty years, with ups and downs) some interesting images come out (an upside swan, for example, has me thinking since I read that poem). In her work she often expresses the difficulty and fear of facing a real love affair and not imagined, unnreal ones (‘And if I spoke to you, what would I say? / That there’s a change? That I can still feel the ground / Shifting and giving under my feet?’), but also tackles issues such as cultural clash, or the bundle of languages spoken in contemporary India (‘The government official / speaks in English with friends, / in Hindi with servants, / and reserves his mother tongue / for his 2 Alsatian dogs’) and the role of poetry in a world of violence (‘Next time a battery / of poets will be ready’).
She often resorts to mythology – ‘Homage to Circe’, for instance, is one of my favourite poems in the collection – or literature: “Alice in Wonderland”, a book congenial to her because of ‘the sense of the absurd, the satirical devices, the effective alteration of perspective ad the subversive skills of “the outsider”’ (p.103), but also Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, attractive perhaps because of its exotic location (‘in English, things Indian became exotic’, p.42) and of course because of the presence of Caliban, a perfect Other.
All in all, it is a nice introduction to this little known poet. It provides a lot of information on how, when and where her single books were written. It is not exhaustive and one feels that a couple more fables would have been appropriate, but for that you have her other books anyway. There are some interesting ideas in the poems as well, but it is not the kind of poetry I enjoy the most: no word plays, no lyrical moments, almost no verses that stick to your mind, only down-to-earth evocations of the most common images of poetry (the mermaid, the moon, the rose). The fables are so much better: who can resist a fragment called 'The Saurian Chronicles'?