Tagged: Issue 2 Vol 6

Assamese Love poetry of Anupama Basumatary and Nilim Kumar: The struggle for a modern androgynous “in-between”

Horse
I’ve never seen a soul detached from its gender
But I’d like to. I’d like to see my own that way,
Free of its female tethers. Maybe it would be like
Riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,
But everyone looks at the horse
– Chase Twichell1

The language of love poetry has been, through several ages, the language of divergence and convergence. In an age where inequality and strife are widespread in spheres of gender, Chase Twichell’s witty poem that aptly describes the societal gaze which, when directed/conditioned vis-à-vis the phallogocentric order, inevitably views the woman’s body (and writing through it), as secondary to the male, is rather pertinent. Indeed, it is the pre-conditioned society which is the site within which the androgynous spirit may be disallowed from emerging, and where it can neither ‘free itself of its female tethers’ (as in the poem), nor can it alter the vision of masculinity that ‘the horse’ embodies.

Such difficulties become especially acute when triangular paradigms are used to problematise or understand oppositional patterns in sexualities. Moreover, if one is looking for an androgynous ‘liminal’ space, one needs to focus on how the convergence of two sexes in one may consequently lead to a psychologically hetero-sexual ideal, and how this can threaten the distinctiveness of the two genders.

Accordingly, this paper endeavours to portray the uniqueness of Anupama Basumatary’s sensitivity towards the ‘liminal’ spaces in gender, which doesn’t necessarily seek to reconcile the socially understood binaries of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’, but expands the two, and leaves space for more, while at the same time looking at fluidity in gendered existences. Furthermore, the paper would provide a contextual analysis of Nilim Kumar’s2 poetry within the dialectics of gender, and highlight the dilemmas faced by the modern poetic persona. This paper shall thus delve between the lines of Anupama Basumatary and Nilim Kumar’s poetry: Basumatary’s prize winning collection Rupali Raatir Ghat and Nilim Kumar’s Shrestho Kobita that ground the desire of love as a transcendental space.

It must be said that though the treatment of sexuality in Assamese love poetry has been questionable as the idea of the kama has remained stereotyped under the hetero-sexual norm, the celebration of androgyny so magnificently manifested in the rich erotic sculptures at Madan Kamdev3, in Assam, is undeniable. The iconography of the Ardhanari – an androgynous deity composed of Shiva and his consort Shakti – as half-male and half-female, split down the middle, represents the synthesis of the typically masculine and feminine vigour. Within the Vaishnav (Bhakti) traditions too, performers of Gopi Nach, the dance of the gopis or milkmaids of Vrindavana, evoke the spirit of Radha-Krishna in unison, and not simply Krishna as a sole entity. Similarly, gender crossing is also executed in the Chali Nach, or the Chali Nritya where dancers cross-dress. Accordingly, for a contemporary reader, it is significant to talk about the ‘un-mentionables’, because if there is no articulation of androgynous desire(s) that figure in the so-callled ‘liminal space’, there is a danger of ossifying gender binaries.

When it comes to love poetry, it is also an art of cross-dressing and cross-dreaming. We should however be careful so as to prevent androgyny from becoming a norm. Moreover, according to the traditional Jungian narrative, man has a feminine soul (anima), and woman an animus or masculine spirit. What is, however, interesting here is the supposition that the androgynous ideal primarily applies to men who have been regarded as ‘effeminate’; feminine, while at the same time, ridiculing women with so-called ‘masculine’ capacities. Although one may agree with the view that to call a trait/attribute feminine, for instance, is generally not only to imply that it is found more often or to a greater degree in women, but also that this situation is “proper” and “desirable”, but such an understanding is problematic for the feminine is nothing but a construct engendered by the normative masculine (which is then passed on as the starting point, the point of divergence).

The nomenclatures in and around androgynous forms are thus worth questioning. Have we ever stopped by a Shiva Temple and wondered where a Shiv-linga derives its name from? Why is it not known as Parvati-yoni, as the fertile structure carries both the lingam (the phallus) and the yoni (the vagina) in unison?

In the light of the likes of the above-mentioned contradictions, both inner and outer landscapes are spaces where Anupama Basumatary’s verses become androgynous, and the subjectivity envisioned by the surrounding space of her poetry espouses the ‘liminal’ void – and fulfilment – simultaneously. Formlessness of the body thus becomes a central theme in her poetry, a transgression which creates new forms of attachments with its subliminal nature that is away from the norm-making rational society, plunging them into an empyreal world.

In the poem “Snails” (xaamuk), for instance, the poet evokes the Bodo4 tradition of picking upturned snails as an intricate childhood experience. In the poem, she rejoices at the “fun removing the shells”; however, as the snails die, she feels depressed and hides the many agonies that arise from limiting ‘social shells’. In the next stanza of the same poem, the poet herself becomes a snail, thereby entering into a subliminal breathing space. She would find herself around the sea-shores as the marauding waves would fling her away. It is worth noting that the words used in this poem to describe the mobility of the poet-turned-snail are neither stereotypically masculine nor feminine (“crawl”, “clamber”) before an “unseen hand” picks her to suck her inner sap (xuha maari dhorise mur bhitorkhon). The anatomy of the unseen hand is further symbolic of the subterranean social force that prohibits gender trespassing as the shell of the poet’s body “cracks” in the end. Indeed, the oscillation between actions pertaining or deviating from one’s sex is seen as a continuous contradiction that is brought up in her love poetry.

Moreover, writing against the backdrop of a society where sexual violence is rampant and unbridled sexuality a taboo, her words speak of the notoriety of norm-makers. In the poem “Sula-1”, we observe a fluctuation of gender identity through the act of cross-dressing that is blended with love-making when she says that she embraces the ‘dress’ of her lover’s body. The lover’s fragrance, “ghran”, provides a passage “in-between” the buttons: “butaamor ghaatburot tumar bukur xihoron”, and, perhaps more subtly, an alteration in sexual desires. The poet’s corporeal existence gets intermingled with the incorporeal survival of the lover (tumi axariri5) whose blood merges as the union of covering/concealing through one’s dress is uncovered.

While we abandon the specific need for the masculine or the feminine or by what we mean by both the constructs, androgyny in Anupama Basumatary is manifested as an example of ecriture feminine not because of a patriarchal understanding of womanhood but because it writes through the body of the body (of poetry). Indeed, it is essential how her verse creates a body of one’s own ‘in- between’ its fragments of silence and how it can – to borrow a Cixous phrase – merge with anonymity without annihilating herself. In “Naari” (Woman), for instance, the poet talks in angst about the feminine self, apart from that which has succumbed to the roles of a daughter, wife and mother, which needs to be explored too. (“jaar maazot Jeeyori, patni aru maakor pisotu jeeyai thake onya egoraaki naari”).

Another very fascinating love poem is “Bhaskar” (Sculptor), where the beloved’s garments and adornments are made of stone, and she says she couldn’t speak with the lips that were frigid in numbness. The entry of the sculptor, the lover, who peeps in with his caresses pulls the trapped beloved from her “Stone-body” but simultaneously carves her in another block of stone (“teu muk aan eta khilot kaatisil”).

Is it at the magic touch
Of his hand
Or the conjunction of two hearts?
One day my stone-heart
Began beating,
My two hands reached out
And clasped him.
Thereafter
I became a woman. (Ngagom and Nongkynrih 17)

In the poem, the poet is uncertain of whether it is the magic of the lover’s touch or the synthesis of two hearts that enabled her to be reinvested with life and back into womanhood (“tetiaayaare pora moi naari”). The stillness of the lover’s voice and the resolution of womanhood in the end perhaps ask us to be careful with distinctions between equilibrium and fusion.

The experience of love is androgynous for Nilim Kumar as well. In his poem titled “Kobitaar Xarir” (The body of poetry) he talks about a naked woman who appears in front him. Upon being asked for a reason for her nudity, the woman says that she is ashamed of wearing clothes just as the poet is ashamed of shedding them. She also adds that her body, heart and self is made of earth. Later when the poet intervenes by wanting to dig the earth in order to craft his verse, her voice denies exploration (“nakhaandiba maati”). Is the voice of the naked woman suggesting a way of preventing human transmutation into forms of art? Or do we get a glimpse of how a female is asking a man not to write about her body through verse? In any case, the larger implication that the physical psyche of poetry needs no cover because it is androgynous is vivid here.

Furthermore, we get a picture of the trapped male poet who attempts to depart from conventional metaphors of sexuality, and the limitations that language imposes on his articulation. It is crucial to point out that his concept of androgyny reflects a slightly different social perspective as his verse is also a victim of phallogocentrism, a term typically employed by feminist criticism6 to elucidate how women have been oppressed under the logos (power) of the phallus, which then determines the control of language mediation. Accordingly, both these poets combat the hierarchical oppositions of phallogocentrism by creating organic characters (and constituents of the ecological kingdom), male and female, that question the authority and validity of their culture and society by living in a pattern that cannot be type-casted under any umbrella term for sexual behaviour7.

Our reading of romantic idealized portraits of androgyny through verse can also be a trap if it seeks to assimilate both sexes in a pseudo-wholeness as exclusivist as phallogo-centrism. For undoubtedly the poetic vista of Nilim Kumar and Anupama represent a whole new species, of neither man nor woman, the age of glory being precisely that age in which the boundaries of sex, as of class, will have been transcended. But as Cristina Saenz de Tejada discusses through the example of Susan Suleiman’s understanding of Cixous and Wittig’s feminization of language, we are once again entrapped by language, which does not have a “third term” – a term that would not be neuter, genderless, but gender-undecidable (or better still, gender-multiple).

In Nilim Kumar’s “Xagor” (The Sea), the vastness of the sea seems to share the uneasiness of masculine identity. The poet states that the sea can never be still because the moon comes to bathe with the stars within its breasts. The wind, the fishes and the snails also long for a union with him. But the sea falls in love (inevitably) with the lady who picks up snails (“Kintu khi premot pore/ Xaamuk butali fura xei suwalijonir/ ji taar bukut naname…”). Here too, as in Anupama’s poems, there is a juxtaposition of stillness and motion that blends the not-so-easily discernable emotions (love and unrequited love) and constantly seeks to recover the integrity that a person loses in the struggle for the freedom of expression within a social axis that places moral control over feminine/masculine writing. The lady who picks up snails is a motif very close to the figure from the earlier mentioned poem ‘Snails’. She is definitely a transgressive outline of alternative sexuality, and a certainly more creative, fertile one.

In yet another poem of Basumatary’s, named “Saaa” (The Shadow), she is in a quest for the mysterious shadow that disappears from amongst the road embankments. The shadow is personified as an ambiguous figure which attends to the poet’s laughter, pain and tears. Is the shadow an ungendered (romantic) split of the poet’s personal unconscious that she goes out to search in the evening, carrying light in the dark? There is an awareness of dynamic wholeness (also emptiness, “xunyata”), and not only is the poet innately attracted to it, but actively steers the reader into a variety of devices that struggle with opposite forces pertaining to one’s gendered existence. Julia Kristeva writes that women have a special relationship with semiotics because they have been denied adequate space within the symbolic order . In creative forms of writing too, women are more likely to exploit the semiotic. Hence, as we dig deep, we explore all sources of signification as creative meaning, changing meaning, and also reviving meaning.

On a similar note, in Anupama’s poem “Xangam” (The union), the desire for an androgynous being is intersected by imageries of rainfall: “borof aru boruxunar dore/teu aru moi”. The poet is delighted at the pitter-patterings and compares them to the resonance of women’s anklets. Here too, the later feminist position of Cixous and Woolf are echoed. They said that writing must be bi-sexual, which recalls “there is no invention of other I’s, no poetry, no fiction without a certain homosexuality” (Mills 68-69).

Anupama’s oeuvre serves characters from the natural world, and incorporates characteristics in their personalities that their sex as sociologically understood cannot be determined. Nilim Kumar’s “Xilor Ghora” literally, “The Horse in the shape of stone”, is an abstract image of a numb horse that approaches the poet, and waits and weeps near the poet’s bed at the nothingness of the lost glory of young days. Later when the poet embraces him and gets drenched in his tears, the horse comes to life from the stone it was engraved as. The horse departs but his galloping stays8 (“botaahot pori roi, taar khujor, xubhra xobda”).

Although the overarching melancholy in this poem could be indicative of the grief at the loss of youth “aadim hrita”, “xubhra xobda” and the onset of old age, the multiple connotations that a ‘horse’ carries is a very powerfully political stand in this poem. Cora Kaplan says “Language like the unconscious resists interpretation even as, through dreams and in ordinary discourse it invites us to interpret it”. We therefore ought not to think of the use of metaphor and metonymy in imaginative genres as uniquely isolated or sophisticated. How men and women speak, how they see each other through speech, the social taboos on speech for children and women, all these relations bear upon the way in which individual poets are seen to ‘create’ new symbolic identifications and relations” (Kaplan 57).

Moreover, androgyny is performed through love poetry in hidden forms, because traditionally, language doesn’t permit the multiple interpretation of gender, vis-à-vis sex. The animus and anima in the poet confront the hetero-normative blending of opposites and of near-opposites. Her/his verse questions the assumption that genders ought to remain as two. The anima (or the woman in man) and the animus (or the man in the woman) is the counterpart to the persona, the mask that one wears. In the same way the poetic persona in the psyche (anima/animus) does not necessarily have to be of the opposite sex. The anima/animus will, however, express personality traits that have been excluded from the persona, or let’s say, repressed/underdeveloped due to social standards. In the words of Judith Butler “When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one” (Butler 6).

In the poem “Xangi” (Company), Nilim Kumar talks of a man and woman seeking peaceful shelter. The man calls the woman his sister. This is indicative of the power of love that unites them even after death. (“Then I’d rather be a bird, brother/ the rain would kill me, /as a dead bird, I will go on your shoulders”). The ‘utopia’ here is the return to one’s home which can be perhaps seen also as a sojourn that ends in the womb, a place (made of water). Returning to the mother (home) is a return to the cosmic, liminal space, where gender binaries don’t exist. The poetic persona is not a gendered one in this poem too; that is, the absence of a gendered narrator in the poem, is noteworthy. The poet writes from the voice of both the brother and the sister even as there are deeper questions asked about the social constructions of the two categories. But when one compounds this absence with the poignant sensuality of the poem, one realizes that the spiritual animus and anima is projected onto the figures of the idealized brother and the sister relationship devoid of sexual options, at least, conventionally.

Will you take me with you, brother
I will also call your mother ma
I will let my hair loose on your song
I will reach out my hands
I will bare my bosom… (Ngagom and Nongkynrih 156-157)

Thus, while the poet (male) doesn’t escape the symbolic order and extends into the imaginary, he/she never leaves the bounds of the body or stops writing the body into existence. The poem that orbits around loss, longing and touch, and the gender politics is pertinent in these lines “Sister my mother would be angry if I take you with me/ after all I am a loner”. And yet, the name of the poem suggests melancholy and need for company.

In order to expand our vision to develop a holistic appreciation of androgyny, we look back at A Room of One’s Own that aimed to offer men and women the chance to write without consciousness of their sex – the result of which would ideally result in uninhibited creativity. Woolf’s notion of androgynous writing has been subject to criticism which has felt that it equates the masculine with the universal. She had said, “I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating” (Woolf 92-93).

Anupama Baumatary and Nilim Kumar don’t describe any conventional form of sexuality as a totalistic vision. This paper was an attempt to re-examine the art of poetry/artist (poet)/kama (desire) as an androgynous act itself. Desire in love poetry can be said to echoing of gender patterns, hence it is important to locate desire which would not differentiate itself through an “oppositional relation to that other gender it desires” (Butler 22-23). What needs to be reiterated here, however, is that poetry can emerge as a genre that is evanescently androgynous. By saying this, I also suggest that a poet must be rid of the baggage of one’s constructed sexual identity for love poetry is the power of selfless transcendence – for letting the self go and for holding on to it at the same time. The application of this thinking to androgyny raises the question of whether “we [can] move beyond androgyny as a mere merging of gender roles in a polarisation of traditional oppositions (passive/active, emotional/rational)” (Wright), and begin the yin and the yang debate from a different perspective. The “in-betweenness” of love and gender in poetry amidst societal pressures thus makes the question and realization of a liminal androgynous ideal, a real contradiction and struggle, in the poetic persona of these two poets.

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Notes:

1 Chase Twichell (born August 20, 1950) is an American poet, professor, and publisher, the founder in 1999 of Ausable Press. Her most recent poetry collection is Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been. Also see http://www.blueflowerarts.com/chase-twichell.
2 Poet Nilim Kumar was born in 1961 at Pathshala in Barpeta district. Kumar is one of the most popular poets of contemporary Assamese literature. He has published a total of seventeen collections of poems, some of which are Achinar Akhukh (1985), Bari Kunwar (1988), Swapnar Relgaari (1991), Seluoi Gadhuli (1992), Topanir Baagicha (1994), Panit Dhou Dhoubor Mach (1990), Narakashur and Atmakatha.
3 9th and 10th century AD built sculptures, excavation and ruins show the prosperity of Pala dynasty of Kamarupa, the ancient name of Assam.
4 Bodo people are a culturally rich tribe of Assam, who mainly were worshippers of the Bathou religion. Deeply independent and proud of their traditional identity, which has given rise to political assertion, they have been also been assimilated/influenced/exploited into Brahma Dharma, Assamese Sarania and Christianity. Records state that the Bodo linguistic ethnic group arrived the earliest and settled in the region, and have contributed to the cultural traditions of the Assamese and others in the northeast region of India.
5 Also asariri, sareer meaning the body; axariri devoid of the bodily existence.
6 French feminists like Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray.
7 See also “The Stranger” (1972) by Adrienne Rich: “… I am the androgyne/I am the living mind you fail to describe/In your dead language/The lost noun, the verb surviving/Only in the infinitive/The letters of my name are written under the lids/Of the newborn child.”
8 Link this to Twichell’s poem mentioned earlier.

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Rini Barman is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jamia Milia Islamia and has graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in the same field. Her writings have been published in Muse India, The Seven Sisters’ Post, The Four Quarters Magazine, the Eclectic, Enajori.com, The sparkmagazine online and several other dailies of the North-East. Her poems also appeared in the anthology, Fancy Realm, that was launched during the international poetry festival held at Guntur, Hyderabad in 2011. She may be contacted at rinibarman@gmail.com.