Passion of Women


(Picture: Separation by Edvard Munch)

Kurunthogai – Poem 39

by avvaiyAr

The hot wind
blowing strong and hard
rattles the dried fruits
of the ‘vaagai’ tree
in this hilly place
where the forests
are difficult to cross

such is the path
of my man
who went away 
refusing to lie down
on my breasts

We take up one more Avvai poem this week. Last week we saw the situation of girl who is yearning for her lover, who is not in town. In this poem, Avvai talks about the lover/husband going away to another place, probably in search of fame and fortune. This is how the poem would read the first time. It is about the separation of a couple for livelihood purposes. All of us would have seen this happen in our own families or to people whom we know. Separation happens for various reasons: job and children’s education being the primary reasons in modern times.

At another level the poem talks about the need of the man to find fame and fortune. This need is so strong that he is willing to be separated from his beloved wife. Being away from a woman he has just married would be the ultimate sacrifice a man can make.  It is a sacrifice he would definitely avoid if not for the circumstances or due to his own burning ambition. Sangam poetry has lot of poems which talk about this conflict: woman on one side and the need to seek fortune elsewhere on the other side and the separation hurting the woman a lot.

To me the poem is just not about separation, it also about the impact separation has on the sexual life of a person. The last line gives the clue to the state of the mind of the woman. Instead of saying the softer form of “refusing to lie down on my bosom”, Avvai says, “refusing to lie down on my breasts (‘mulai’ in Tamil)”. That is the key image of the poem. The lover / husband is not around to lie down on her breasts to satiate her sexual longing.  That image also conveys the loneliness of the body, not just the heart. There is no one now around whom the woman can put her arms, no on sleeping of that breasts and the absence weighs a lot on the breasts. The body will become lighter only when the lover returns and lies on her.

With this in mind, if you now notice the initial words of the poem, we can see how subtly the poet has incorporated the woman’s state of mind into the poem.  “The hot wind blowing strong and hard” takes a total different meaning now.  From the external image when read as normal separation to an internal image when read as the passion of a lonely woman. The desire of physical union is so great that it “rattles” her and without her man to quench her thirst she is like the “dried fruit” of the vagai tree. The external and internal become one in this outstanding poem. (In Sangam literature, especially the agam poetry, merging of external with internal is a standard feature.)

Poets at various points in time have understood the depth of a woman’s desire. Velchuri and Shulman in their book ‘A Poem at the right moment’ talk about a woman in times of Raja Bhoja and Kalidasa. Bhoja is walking the streets of his city incognito when he notices a woman fainting on hearing the mooing of a cow. When asked by her husband as to what happened, she replies saying that ‘pativratas’ can’t handle such harsh sounds. Bhoja is suspicious and waits near her house at night. Very late in the night, after everyone has slept, the woman comes out, carrying with her a basketful of meat and starts walking towards river Narmada. Bhoja follows her. On reaching the banks of the river, she starts throwing the meat into the river. Crocodiles in the river flock to eat the meat. With crocodiles out of the way, she swims across the river, meets her lover on the other bank and has sex with him.  Next day Bhoja tells Kalidasa these line, “In the morning, she is scared of the cow” and asks him to finish the poem. Kalidasa understands what would have transpired and finishes the poem with “in the night she swims across Naramada”. ‘ratre tarathi narmadau’ he says, a phrase which wonderfully describes the depth of passion in the heart of woman. Maybe it was this understanding that made people to get girls married at a young age.

The complete poem reads thus:

In broad daylight she is scared of a crow
In the night she swims across the Narmada
swarming with crocodiles
Mysterious are the ways of these
beautiful women

In the same book, through a Telugu poem, Velchuri and Shulman point out that sexual desire is natural. The poem talks about a woman who enjoys herself a lot during the wedding night leading her husband to have some suspicion. Seeing the look on his face, she draws a picture of a lion cub trying to kill an elephant and says that some things are natural and need not be taught.

An uneasy relationship exists between our society vis-à-vis expression of female desire by females. Society is very tolerant when males express the desire of females in their poems {Padams of Kshetrayya are an example.) whereas it is very scared and lashes out when a female expresses her passion. The Sangam age was definitely the golden age in Tami literature wherein woman can express her sexual desires in a very normal fashion. The social mores of those times seem to be more relaxed in this aspect compared to even our modern times. There is certain naturalness in the way sexual desire is expressed and more importantly man y such poems were written by female poets. Somewhere along the line things changed and it became a taboo for female poets to talk about their physical needs. In recent past we have seen many female poets challenging society by explicitly talking about sexual matters. I cannot claim to have read all such modern poems but in the few I read, there is more anger than eroticism. Somehow the naturalness of Sangam poems is missing and we cannot blame the poets for this.

This conflict will not be resolved easily in our society.  On one hand we imbibe the dreams of the west. On the other hand we refuse to change our social mores. The modern urban woman is in an unenviable position.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s