In the Face of an Apathetic State, ‘Speak, Woman!’ is a Forthright Dismantling of Patriarchy

In Speak, Woman!, author Smita Agarwal speaks of a woman’s condition, and exhorts others to do so too. She knows that there is little recourse to equity, even solidarity, from the state, its institutions, its cultural constructs, or from those of the opposite persuasion.

So she raises her voice in this asymmetrical world. “They are done with decency,” she says, speaking on behalf of those like herself in her poem, ‘Self Goal’. Through her courageous words, she chargesheets the patriarchy while simultaneously exploring herself. Both are undertaken with a candour that makes this book of poems so riveting.

Right from the book’s first poem, ‘Guru Mantra’, Agarwal presents the power differential between Guru/Man and Shisya/Woman with an inevitability that is unbearable. As abuse begins, the acolyte is called upon to ‘Sing’: “I felt nothing. Nothing moved. And I’ve been singing since.”

There is a thin line between abuse and a woman being shown her place. Agarwal explores this cleaving in poems like ‘Types of Rape’: 

where hatred
and vengeance are directed
towards the independence of a woman’s mind

or ‘The Rapist at my Door’:

I know I will go down.
Gun blazing is how I want to go.
He f***** me the moment I was born,
Death – the rapist at my door.

In the five sections that make up the book, the poems on ageing are the most memorable. Agarwal celebrates moving into her 60s with a series of poems that pop with the optimistic verse:

An odd sort of joy
is pricking at my heart.
I want to stand up and clap!

In ‘At Sixty-Three’, she sees decay and imminent demise all around her, but the dawn and its morning chorus make her heart soar.

Honesty and humour suffuse ‘Mammarian Milonga’, where Agarwal delves into the physics of jiggling breasts and the vexed enterprise of moving one independently from the other. 

The book is laced with humorous moments and sly quotations that surprise and delight. Her comparison of ‘The Indian Parliament’ to ‘A set of dentures./ Teeth no longer alive’, is scathing. Another set of geriatrics that unlike herself, are enfeebled and gummy, ‘unable to help the body-politic/ digest, diminishing the/ country’s health’.

Other poems reference Krishna’s Meera, or Yeats’ Maud Gonne, but my favourite quotation is the fabulous channelling of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ in the form of a downed kite in ‘The Prize’:

Sinking and swimming
in a narrow gyre,
the kite cannot hold its own,
plummets into the neem tree.

There is brevity in her wry voice that conveys much without sliding into pontificating, which her themes could, in the hands of timid poets.

Smita Agarwal
Speak, Woman!
Red River, 2021.

I must, however, also present some quibbles – not as criticism, but to spark conversation. This relates to the form and appearance of the book, particularly the use of miniature paintings to divide the sections, and even more shrunken details at the corners of each page. They work on the cover, I suppose, but inside the book, they tend to ‘prettify’ the contents, blunting the sharp words of the poet. They grab unnecessary attention, which along with an unfortunate choice of font, especially in the section pages, borders on the unreadable.

A book of poems is a peculiar animal, where all attention should be squarely focused on the words and words alone. Any kind of aesthetisation, however well intended, can be a speed-bump in its appreciation. Agarwal’s poems do not deserve such treatment.

Am I being pedantic? I wonder, how would this work read if it were a slightly larger-sized book, with a fine cover and clear, uncluttered pages of verse?

But this should not take away from the fact that Speak, Woman! is a significant work. Agarwal calls on women, but her poems don’t speak only to women. This reviewer isn’t one, but is moved by her forthrightness and fortitude as each bastion of patriarchy is taken out.

This is a necessary enterprise. It may not be immediately obvious, but in this environment of rolling majoritarian aggression, once the perpetrators of rage and bigotry are done with (or bored of) minorities to oppress, their gaze will inevitably turn on women, the ‘other’ in waiting.

Agarwal’s words may then prove to be the harbingers that we should all heed today.

Mustansir Dalvi is an architect, author, editor and urban commentator. He is professor of architecture at Sir JJ College of Architecture. He collaborated with Kamu Iyer on the architectural monograph Buildings that Shaped Bombay: Works of G.B. Mhatre, FRIBA.

This article was first published on The Wire.