Friday, June 3, 2016

Book Review: ‘Burnt Rotis, with Love’ By Prerna Bakshi

Rahul Vaidya

‘Burnt Rotis, with Love’ is a collection of poetry by Prerna Bakshi, a sociolinguist, writer, translator and activist. It is a poetry written from a feminist and socialist perspective. In this book, she explores and interrogates the narratives of Partition of India/Punjab post British rule, women’s identity, gender and class struggle. The poems in this collection cover themes of violence, oppression, exploitation, abuse, struggle, survival and resistance. 

As a review of this poetry collection, I would like to explore certain issues/themes which I believe are important to contextualize Bakshi’s poetry as well as the broader oeuvre of radical art.

Recognition and assertion of art as ‘political’
The art and politics have shared a relationship fraught with tensions, at least since the growth of capitalism. Romanticism and anarchism of 19th century which shaped the modern poetry and art were the direct consequence and reaction to alienation under capitalism. The novelty lay in the clear rejection of romantic current to recognize it as such and thus it became an integral part of flourishing bourgeoisie culture which happily rejoiced over the separation of dirty ‘political’ ‘social’ chaos from ‘sacred’ ‘personal’ spaces.

Social Realism, and further, the socialist realism dented this utopia and boldly proclaimed their symbiotic link. However, it led to a formalist sneer from bourgeoisie cultural quarters- can sheer political ‘content’ overcome flaws of ‘form’? And it led to immense debates of Frankfurt School- Brecht, Luckacs, Bloch, Adorno, Benjamin et al[1]. Without going much into those debates, I would just highlight that there is a need to recognize the place of counter-culture in our politics as well as need for our art forms to duly recognize politics as an overarching presence in terms of the content as well as the form of the art.

Bakshi’s poetry is quite conscious and overt recognition and assertion of poetry being political. The bourgeoisie art continues to deceive and self-deceive about the irrelevance of ‘political’ for literature today. With its narcissist absurd, existentialist, surrealist turns, it continues to cherish & chase a mirage for itself of a ‘self’ detached from political. However, it is the fervor of socialist revolutions of 20th century as well as anti-colonial struggles, struggles of liberation for blacks, women, queer movement, environment struggles etc. which brought about a metamorphosis with the protest art and arts of marginalized people. Bakshi’s work upholds this legacy.  As in this poem, ‘because ‘Nature Poetry’ is Never about Nature Alone’ she takes on the imperialism and question of environment together:

‘Why must your skies be bright blue,
while ours covered in this thick black smog?’

Her poem ‘Communist Poetry’ cleverly plays on the famous quote about criteria for being called either a saint or a communist and quips,

‘When I write verse
About trees that bear fruits,
Flowers that bloom,
They call me a poet.
When I ask for whom some
Trees would never bear fruits,
Why some flowers would never bloom,
They call me a communist’.

Form & Content debate
It assumes greater importance since the poetry, a more classical form of literature (as compared with novels, a product of industrial capitalism) has greater risk of deviating into propagandist path while proclaiming its politics. Propaganda or agit-prop art has been more successful with theatre vis-à-vis poetry. At times, political poetry risks its lyricality and subtle symbolism, in its political assertions especially when it remains at the periphery of struggles while describing them. It is not to endorse the ‘lived experience’ argument but to highlight that the poetry of Namdeo Dhasal stands unique in its metaphors because the linguistic universe which cognizes and recognizes the exploitation and oppression remains foreign to hegemonic upper-caste, class cultural sensibilities.

Bakshi has by and large ensured that her poetry and politics remain in a mutual dialogue. Especially her poems about patriarchy, domestic violence and partition strike hard both with their radical feminist politics as well as lyrical balance achieved through deft use of words as well suggestive silences and provoking metaphors.

Her poem ‘Childhood Games’ about sexual abuse is a case in point. She ends it with following lines:

‘My interest in toys ended
That day and with it ended
My childhood, though not
My interest in guns. That grew:’

  Woman as the ‘hysterical’ subject
Feminist politics has had a complex history vis-à-vis psychoanalysis. Especially controversial has been the Lacanian treatment of rape as ‘violation of the imaginary integrity of the ego’.  What is of interest is structuring of sexuality, desire, gender etc. which remain central to both Feminist as well as psychoanalytic traditions. Further, both share the concern for the enquiry into how a subject is situated vis-à-vis the ‘Other’ of patriarchy, symbolic order etc.

It is this common link which I wish to stress upon and propose that the notion of ‘hysterical subject’ remains important for our creative as well as analytical efforts. For it is the hysteria which is perennially obsessed with “how I am being viewed by the ‘Big Other’” and it is this obsession which leads to provoking and eventually disturbing the ontological order of Being i.e. the hegemonic order of oppression such as patriarchy. Bakshi’s poems, such as ‘Be an Unruly Woman’ or ‘My Women Have Spoken’ offer a characteristic example of a hysterical subject and its irreverence towards the oppressive patriarchy. Dalit poetry, Black literature displayed the same streak and enraged the literary establishments and continue to do so.

What is noteworthy is Bakshi’s sense of underlying unity of oppressed and this political sense helps her firmly take on the ‘Facebook’ COO Sheryl Sandberg's corporate feminism of 'Lean In' and its approach to feminism and work in her poem ‘When the Poor Woman 'Leans In'’. So her protest against patriarchy doesn’t remain short-sighted or identity-bound but comes from ‘a critical, Global South Marxist feminist perspective’. In short, it is necessary for the ‘hysterical subject’ not to lose the sight of the ultimate oppressors- for if it does so, it no longer remains a subject as its hysteria is turned into perversion i.e. seeking pleasure in pain as is the case of corporate Feminism. 

In conclusion; this poetry stands in solidarity with all struggles of emancipation, is not afraid to being called partisan and wears its irreverence with a just pride. And yet, there’s a thread of compassionate humanism in all her poems which binds together the noisy struggles and pained silences of the oppressed. ’Burnt Rotis, With Love’ is an important work of radical poetry today. 

(The Book has been Published by Les Éditions du Zaporogue (Denmark)

[Just recently, ‘Burnt Rotis, With Love’ was long-listed for the 2015 Erbacce-Press Poetry Award in the UK. More information about the book can be found here -] 

[1] ‘Aesthetics & Politics’ covers this debate between Brecht, Luckacs, Bloch, Adorno and Benjamin. This book is edited by Fredric Jameson, and he has written an important afterword 

The author is an independent researcher based in Delhi. 

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