How Women Become Poems In Malabar

The temple festivals of Malabar are incomplete without the dance of the oracles accompanied by the rapturous pitch of cymbals and drums. Draped in red and smeared in turmeric and blood, holding the sword high, shaking in frenzy, oracles are believed to be harbingers of death and deluge. Possessed with the spirit of reigning deity they are also considered as healers who have the power to waken one’s inner consciousness.

Last summer in an early morning dream, an oracle spoke to me in the language of poetry- a language that I had abandoned many lifetimes ago. When the moon arched above marigold fields, my bones simmered and spluttered in a large cauldron in the backyard. Fire leaped towards unborn stars.

In the days that followed, I faded away in a slow death of love and words. The forty-six sunflower saplings in my garden curled up, mottled by aphids and spiders.

Death is eternal truth, but death is also resurrection.  Death is as old as the sea and as new as the monsoon that births new life. As rain drew landscapes of Malabar all night, I rose from ashes to read chronicles of my previous births, of the sea; the dog-eared notebooks with pencil sketches and scribbles; and the blue inland letters weathering in the attic.

In those strange visions, I saw a child who wrote her first poem about the sun. She knew the language and temper of the sea that was at once loving and treacherous. In the sweltering Malabar noon when the world slipped into siesta, she chewed green mangoes and read Tagore. The monarch butterflies unfailingly arrived each autumn to keep their tryst with her under the soap nut trees. The evenings saw her hunched under twilight writing odes to the fireflies and bamboo forests. She held her heart in her clenched fist as the postman knocked at the gate each Saturday handing over the meticulously signed rejection letters.

All of this was more than three decades ago.

Rummaging through those handfuls of dark and light, bones and dust of my half-life, growing old in a strange land far away from my beloved Arabian Sea, I discovered loss of time and concealed grief seep into the walls of resistance. I remembered the carcass of a sea turtle that once washed up ashore. The hardened eyes of the ilk of the sea kept my nights awake. The sea withdrew into itself in the receding tides only to come back and swell over the night in ancient memory of language and poetry.

In the stupor of dawn, I birthed the dreams of the previous night in ink. I learned to allow the conscious self to disappear into a black hole of the subconscious. Though the scorpion of rejection letters had stung too deep and the old wound festered and flared, now I also knew that I had the choice to be defeated or not. While poetry is a process of creation of the mind, the ultimate freedom also lies in liberating one’s mind from the prejudices it chooses to suffer.

Coincidentally in one of the colourless dreams I saw I had returned from a long journey to find that my home by the sea was taken over by strange women clothed in patterns of loose pinafore garments I had worn as a child. They wandered lazily on the patio, verandas and garden. They had weather-beaten hair and resilient eyes.

Women in their original nature are as instinctive as oracles. However, the process of conforming to norms and life choices that align with the parameters of society robs and strips us of our natural abilities. All our lives we are conditioned to grow up as good girls who sit with crossed legs, good women who are dutiful daughters, wives and mothers. Our taste for freedom and zest for life is whittled and broken down consistently and methodically. Our originality is effaced even before we know it, turning us into packaged goods that can deliver happiness, comfort and loyalty in every given role. Our thoughts are slaughtered mercilessly till we learn to become scientific experiments where our response is regulated and predictable in every given pressure and temperature.

Forever trapped in the frenzied effort to adhere to what is expected of us and be flawless, we conceal or rectify our imperfections in an imposed value system rooted in capitalism and patriarchy. We need to re-discover our defiance and dissent, celebrate our imperfections, embrace ‘ un beautify’ and speak out firmly that no one can indulge in undesirable dialogues or actions that infringe, decimate or violate our dignity and personal liberty.

The concept of law is required to have an orderly civil life in a society. Yet each woman has to evolve her own law and unique formula of resistance to deal with forces that decimate her power. We have an oracle inside us who has the power to awaken our inner selves if only we would will it to. Unless we awaken this weapon of resistance, despite the numerous statutes we have in place, we will continue to hear and read about the emotional and physical subjugation suffered by women and girls while the offenders, be they men or women, walk away through the loopholes of the same law that has been enacted to enforce rights and dignity.

‘How Women Become Poems in Malabar’ is my war of resistance. It is the chronicle of how I lost and found the language of poetry. I write this book for those forgotten women who sacrificed their lives or embraced life choices that were imposed on them. I also write this book to say that liberation of mind is the key to empowerment.


Bridegroom Fish

Saffron gill, half-moon eyes piled in wooden crates,
Rasheed wraps them in the sun of Malabar coast, skin
taut in recent memory of salt, the damp smell of sea algae.
Years later I learn the name; Red Snapper. Interval years
of bruised absence cuts into catacombs, plucking white
strands of declension. Pamela, the stern mistress of Eden
is restored to a grey-rose Irish country (how I spat lemon
Poppins before the first bell in kindergarten). Of the
seventy-five lovers who wandered by Magdalene Jennifer’s
rusted gate, survivors plant gardenias in the backyard,
feeding alley cats. A mole on her chin and a bounty of
Tintin on bookshelves, sleepy Ms. Oar sprays rose water
on her sunset cheeks. Haijiar is a flapping seagull in the
grocery offering Suleimani each time a guest saunters
by like a wayward wind. In the many linear equations,
unfurling smiles and frowns at doorsteps on our coast
of Malabar, we stroll back once a year as father drifts
to sleep in Alzheimer’s moon and mother grows more pepper
than roses on her algebraic tongue. Cloud bursts anchor
depressions in the sea, landfills squint in hyacinth lakes.
The fluorescent green of fireflies burnt in poems, moonless
nights tremble in the eyes of Malabar civets on blue
mango trees. Pine cones wither into shadows of a tsunami,
flood gates unmoor, and deserted shore becomes a comb
of memory. The sea is unusually ashen-faced, furious by night,
spitting garbage bags. I lose the memory of names;
shapes and colours, a tamarind seed germinates in my deaf left ear,
counting forty-six monsoons. Sometimes I
hear shadows leaping. Hoi… hoi… hoi… bride-groom fish!
Saffron gill, half-moon eyes, Rasheed baptizes them
bride-groom fish in necrologies of daily sun. Those mornings we
swam lazily, into the folds of the Arabian Sea.

(part of this prose poem was featured by Almost Island, Issue 27)

Starching Mother Tongue

I need to starch and iron my diction
Remove the lassitude of humid noon
The drawl of dull summer

The bend of tremulous Malabar monsoon
Unfurl it—hold it long—

Between the width of the sky
Depth of the earth
Rinse the mellifluous tones

Slipping to an octave
Dip it into the core of a volcano
Hang it out to dry in a forest

To inhale the smell of leaves
Turn it over once, just once
Borrow embers of the setting sun

Iron it stiff
Never mind if fingers burn or even heart—
Obliterating traces of mother tongue is never easy

Red Husk

So, you see; we always peppered our laughter with an aiyyo
In dying jasmine flowers, strung, taunting,
Arabian sea swirling beneath our feet, drawing earth

We pickled our sorrows with an aiyyo
Tangy as palm toddy, brought down in clay pots
Stored in dark cellars of memory

We salted and smoked our wounds with an aiyyo
In the wood-planked attic, flesh stinging, flaring, throbbing
Shrinking, leaving indelible buds on earth skin

We sugared crumbs of our love with an aiyyo
Letting ants climb over walls of silence
When the rain broke into summer nights like a thief

Hot humid taste of char on our tongue rolled in aiyyo
Strange annotations of primordial rituals
Tremor of sea fever, lilting songs of daily conversation

Aiyyo is more than a word or sound
You would ever browse through in a dictionary
It is the red husk that clings to my grain.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Smitha Sehgal

Smitha Sehgal is a legal professional and poet.
She has been widely published in contemporary literary publications such as Ink Sweat & Tears, Tiger Moth Review, Almost Island, Acropolis Journal, The Indianapolis Review, Gone Lawn Journal and elsewhere.
Her first collection of poems 'How Women Become Poems in Malabar' (Red River, India) has been released recently. Her poems have been nominated as Best of the Net by three prestigious journals in 2023.