Meena Kandasamy’s Poetry as World Literature

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The Dalit and The Brahmin – Meena Kandasamy’s Poetry as World Literature

By – Sangeetha Alwar, published in Vol.II, Issue.XXI, Octber 2016

Introduction to the Author:

A passionate bibliophile, a tireless blogger and an earnest student, Sangeetha Alwar is currently pursuing masters in English & Communication Studies at Christ University, Bangalore.

Her immense interest in the English language has brought her numerous accolades in rengional and state-level debate and essay competitions. She blogs at She has presented papers titled Dalit and the Brahmin – Issues of Caste and Subjugation in the Poems of Meena Kandasamy: Problems and Solutions and Synecdoche, New York: A Postmodern Analysis in two national seminars in Bangalore.


Perhaps there is no better definition for world literature than the expanding universe of works that compel us to become that ideal reader, dreaming of that ideal insomnia.

– David Damrosch (How to Read World Literature)


My Kali kills. My Draupadi strips. My Sita climbs on a stranger’s lap. All my women militate. They brave bombs, belittle kings, take on the sun, take after me.

– Meena Kandasamy


            Damrosch states that a piece of literature changes when it stops being a national work and becomes an international work (Wood, 170). World Literature today comprises of works that transcend geographical borders and touch lives of people in all corners of the world. These works not only succeed in their depiction of authenticity, they also employ various techniques such as imagery and surrealism which have not been sufficiently explored by other writers. Damrosch brings in the idea of an “elliptical” approach to the reading of World Literature (13) and states that a literary work never really leaves its place of origin but simply has two foci, one in the host country and one in the original country.

            Meena Kandasamy effortlessly weaves a sharp social critique of the suppressive nature of caste in India into her poetry. Her poetry, stemming from a mistrust of patriarchy and disgust towards discrimination outlines fundamental problems of the society while extending its critique to realms beyond the geographical borders of the country.

            In her poems, she also provides solutions to the problem of subjugation – “Sometimes, the outward signals of inward struggles take colossal forms, And the revolution happens because our dreams explode.” Through the examination of such paradoxes of caste and religion, she seeks to move towards a more compassionate and egalitarian society, this makes her one of the major writers in the realm of World Literature.

            Damrosch is of the opinion that a work of World Literature provides a unique window into the culture of the region/country they talk of. He says:

A great work of literature can often reach out beyond its own time and place, but conversely it can also provide a privileged mode of access into some of the deepest qualities of its culture of origin. Works of art refract their cultures rather than simply reflecting them. (2)

            The same can be said of the poems of Meena Kandasamy, when she writes her poem We Will Rebuild Worlds, she not only brings the struggle of a long supprsed section of the society to the fore, she also provides us with their perception of the society around them and their irrepressible desire for liberty. By giving us a sneak peak into individual experiences of the people, she tells us how an entire community suffers in silence. She says:

poured poison and pesticide through the ears-nose-mouth/ or hanged them in public / because a man and a woman dared to love/ and you wanted / to teach / other boys and other girls / the lessons of / how to / whom to / when to / where to / continue their caste lines (Kandasamy)

            Damrosch is of the opinion that any text can be better understood in relation to other works within its realm. He takes the example of Dickens and states that the novelists purpose could be better grasped when the reader has knowledge of the works of Defoe, Austen, Trollope, Eliot and even Rushdie.

Reading our way beyond our home tradition involves a more pronounced version of the part–whole dilemma or hermeneutic circle that we already encounter in a single tradition. We have to start somewhere and work outward to a broader view. (Damrosch, 3)

            Meena Kandasamy deals with similar movements of being influenced by the past and thereby influencing the present and the future. In her poems, we observe undertones of rebellion that are exhibited by Kamala Das. A better judgement can be reached by examining them in comparision. In her poem Freaks, Kamala Das writes:

Can this man with
Nimble finger-tips unleash
Nothing more alive than the
Skin’s lazy hungers? (60)

            Kandasamy in her poem My Lover Speaks of Rape echoes similar sentiments through the lines:

Open eyes, open hands, his open all-clear soul . . .
Has he learnt to live my life? Has he learnt never to harm? (29)

            Chakraborty highlights the ability of Kandasamy to transcend geographical, political and cultural barriers to provide an accurate description of the human condition. Talking of her poetry and activism he says:

Meena Kandasamy’s poems may be seen as products of a counter-hegemonic discourse that seeks to scream into the national imaginary those subalternized Dalit voices which lie beyond fringes of political tokenism.

            Kandasamy seems to echo the words of Frantz Fanon by advocating violence towards the suppresors. Her retelling of famous myths and mythologies bring forth this sentiment. Kandasamy’s version of Ekalavya does not accept Dronacharya’s command and vanish into passive oblivion but resists it.

You can do a lot of things

With your left hand.

Besides, fascist Dronacharyas warrant

Left-handed treatment.


You don’t need your right thumb,

To pull a trigger or hurl a bomb. (44)

            By giving agency to characters that have been deemed inferior, Kandasamy brings back their characters from oblivion giving them a new lease of life. Similar to Aime Cesaire’s Caliban in his play Une Tempest when he lets Caliban speak thus:

Underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That s the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I know myself as well. (87)

            Damrosch continues his notion of the elliptical approach to works of World Literature to state that it is necessary for them to be embedded in their own culture while appealing to a global audience. He says:

Its relative freedom from context does not require the work of world literature to be subjected to anything like an absolute disconnect from its culture of origin. when we read in the elliptical space of world literature, we don’t exactly understand the foreign work on its own terms, and a leap of the imagination is still needed. (297)

            Keeping this in mind, the poetry of Kandasamy evokes a different memory based on the reader of the same. To elucidate this better, let us consider the poem Aggression:

Ours is a silence
that waits. Endlessly waits.

And then, unable to bear it
any further, it breaks into wails.

But not all suppressed reactions
end in our bemoaning the tragedy.

the outward signals
of inward struggles takes colossal forms
And the revolution happens because our dreams explode.

Most of the time:

Aggression is the best kind of trouble-shooting. (16)

            If an African-American were to read this poem, his thoughts would immediately form a connection to the poetry of Langston Hughes who proclaimed in his poem Democracy:

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread. (248)

            The same poem of Kandasamy’s when read by a Jew could conjure up images of the Holocaust and the poetry of Niemöller who penned the famous lines:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew. (Hockenos, 94)

            On the other hand, the very same poem echoes the images of partition and viloence in the minds of a Pakistani reader similar to the sentiments expressed by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. When read by a Russia, it reminds them of Szymborska’s poetry while a Spanish reader might be reminded of Neruda’s devotion to his homeland and an Afghan woman might reminisce about the poetry of Farrokhzad who says:

                        In the homeland’s loving bosom,

my pacifier: glorious historical traditions,

my lullaby: civilization and culture,

my toy rattle: the rattle box of law.

my worries are over now. (Darznik, 22)

The essence of World Literature can be understood in through the words of Goethe, who said :

I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. The epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach. (Eckermann, 30)

             Vajda talks about the universality of World Literature and proceeds to list out certain features that is characteristic of it. He says that it is “A common product of humanity and of human spiritual integrity” (29). This aspect is seen in Kandasamy’s own words in an undated interview where she elaborates:

The annihilation of caste is a historic necessity, and at the same time, it is a historic inevitability as well. So, I am sure that it is a dream that I share with thousands of others. I think that such a change can come about only through a social revolution . . . And I think it is in the hands of writers to make people think about it. Writers have the power of the written word, and they can plead with people to unite for change. (3-4)

            Dionyz Durisin’s concept of World literature in his book Theory of Literary Comparatistics gives us certain parameters that can be applied in the study and analysis of World literature where he talks about the “interliterary” (19) nature of the text also supported by Konstantinovic (141). Redefining Goethe’s idea, Carols Fuentes is of the opinion that works of World literature are involved in “reading, writing, teaching and learning aimed at introducing civilazations to one another” (Prendergast, 15).

            Kandasamy thus embodies the spirit of “everywoman” in order to highlight the problems of the society. Her being a woman furthers this agenda of awareness. As explained by Sagar who says: Resistance by women takes various forms of expression and comes up in their lives and in societal productions like art, literature, speech, and different modes of popular culture (34).

The very act of writing by women signifies that they pronounce their ideas in the public space. Writing also signifies their attempt to move beyond the spaces allotted to them. (Sagar, 110)

            Sarangi, speaks of her poetry as revolutionary and says: “The poems of Kandasamy resist colonial acts of authority and oppression through their textual transmission.” Through her poetry, Kandasamy bridges the gap between India and the World. Her versatile poetry is effective and expressive, is rooted yet universal. Kandasamy’s work is a work of World Literature because by thus assuming the role of a consciously political poet, who is aware of her historical responsibility, she authors a poetic discourse that not only castigates the prevalent modes of subjugation but also resolutely strives towards futures that are yet to be born.


Works Cited

Chakraborty, Abin. “Venomous Touch: Meena Kandasamy and the Poetics of Dalit Resistance.” Postcolonial Text 4.4 (2008): 3.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

— “World Literature Today: From the Old World to the Whole World.” Symplokē 8.1/2, Anthologies (2000): 7-19. JSTOR. Web. 05 July 2016.

How to Read World Literature. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Das, Kamala, S. Harrex C., and Vincent O’Sullivan. Kamala Das: A Selection with Essays on Her Work. Bedford Park: CRNLE, Flinders U of, 1986. Print.

Durisin, Dionyz. Theory of Literary Comparatistics. Bratislava: Veda, 1984.

Hockenos, Matthew D. “Martin Niemöller, the Cold War, and His Embrace of Pacifism, 1945-1955.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 27.1 (2014): 87-101. Web.

Hughes, Langston. “Blues on a Box.” Poetry 69.5 (1947): 248-49. Web.

Jasmin Darznik. “Essay: Forugh Farrokhzad: Her Poetry, Life, and Legacy.” The Women’s Review of Books 23.6 (2006): 21-23. Web.

Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, trans. John Oxenford as J. W. von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann, repr. North Point Press, 1994.

Kandasamy, Meena. Touch. Mumbai: Peacock, 2006. Print.

—.”Aggression.” Meena Kandasamys Poetry. WordPress, 01 June 2008. Web. 28 July 2016.

—. “We will rebuild worlds”. Meena Kandasamys Poetry. WordPress, 01 June 2008. Web. 28 July 2016.

—. Interview for with Dr. Krishna Kalaichelvan, n.d. 28 Oct. 2011

Konstantinovic, Zoran: “Response to Claus Clüver’s ‘The Difference of Eight Decades: World Literature and the Demise of National Literatures’.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 35 (1988): 140-42.

Sarangi, Jaydeep. “Jaydeep Sarangi Reviews Touch by Meena Kandasamy.” Http:// N.p., 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 July 2016.

Vajda, Gyögy M. “Contemporary Trends in Comparative Literature”. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 1986. 193-202.

Wood, Michael. “What Is World Literature? (review).” Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004): 168-72. JSTOR. Web. 3 July 2016.

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