Poignant Pen-wielder

Meena Kandasamy, nominated for the Kesten Award, is a rebel with a cause, writes Ratan Bhattacharjee

By Ratan Bhattacharjee

Weiter Schreiben in German means ‘keep writing’. This is the website of PEN Germany, which gives a special award for encouragement to authors in exile and writers from conflict zones as a platform to express their thoughts.

The PEN Centre, Germany, will present its award to Indian author and poet Meena Kandasamy Ilavenil at a ceremony in Darmstadt on November 15. The winner will receive an amount of €20,000 ($19,996) as prize money. The award this year coincides with the 85th birthday of D.C. Hermann Kesten, the honorary secretary of the PEN Centre of the Federal Republic of Germany. A medal in his name is awarded for outstanding efforts in support of persecuted writers, according to the principles of the Charter of PEN International.

Until 1993, the medal was awarded every two years. Since 1994 it has been awarded annually. For the first time in 2000, the Hessian Ministry for Science and the Arts endowed the medal with prize money of €10,000. The Hermann Kesten Medal was renamed Hermann Kesten Award in 2008.

In 1940, as Nazi troops were advancing, Kestel fled to the USA. There, with Thomas Mann, he became active in the Emergency Rescue Committee for German-speaking writers, many of whom owed their escape from Europe, even their deliverance from the hands of the Gestapo, to his untiring involvement. He managed to procure emergency visas, money for passages across the Atlantic, and the affidavits prerequisite for entry into the USA. Numerous petitions and thank-you letters by prominent expatriate authors, documented in a collection titled “German Literature in Exile” (edited by Kesten), are testimonies to his efforts.

Born in Chennai in 1984, Meena had a penchant for writing poignantly. In her novel ‘When I Hit You: A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’, she wrote: “I am the woman who is willing to display her scars and put them within exhibition frames. I am the madwoman of moon days. I am the breast-beating woman who howls. I am the woman who wills the skies to weep in my place.”

Seduced by politics and poetry, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor and agrees to be his wife, but what for her is a contract of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about reducing her to his idealized version of a kept woman, bullying her out of her life as an academic and writer in the process, she attempts to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape. Smart, fierce and courageous, ‘When I Hit You is a dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence, a brilliant, throat-tightening feminist discourse on battered faces and bruised male egos; and a scathing portrait of traditional wedlock in modern India.

Her book ‘Gypsy Goddess’ is based on a massacre that took place in the village of Kilvenmani on Christmas day in 1968. At the time, Marxist ideology was gaining popularity among disenfranchised Dalits or the untouchables, who toiled away on paddy fields in brutal conditions. The Green Revolution had also begun to irrevocably alter food production, boosting harvests but forcing farmers into a dependency on toxic fertilizers sold by American corporations. In the author’s fictionalized version of this tragedy which draws on historical documents and survivor interviews, farm workers are on strike after landlords murder a popular communist leader. The landlords try to bully them back to work. They impose debilitating fines, use the police to intimidate them and savagely assault Dalit women. But the hungry people are resolute in their demand for justice. Meena is widely known for her unapologetic approach to fighting patriarchy and the caste system. Being born into a marginalized nomadic tribe, she views caste oppression through a feminist lens and presents them in the form of anthologies, novels, columns of different magazines, and her social media.

Her first poetry book Touch, with a foreword by Kamala Das, was published in 2006 and received widespread acclaim as a unique piece. In an interview with Sampsonia Way Magazine, she said: “My poetry is naked, my poetry is in tears, my poetry screams in anger, my poetry writhes in pain. My poetry smells of blood, my poetry salutes sacrifice. My poetry speaks like my people, my poetry speaks for my people.

The title of her second poetry collection, Ms Militancy suits its unapologetic verses. In this book, her resistance is targeted at the two main oppressors; the caste-based Brahmanical Hindu society and patriarchy. She tackles multi-layered oppression through confrontational lines, directly accusing the players of this system, stripping them of their so-called reverence, and exposing their hypocrisy. In her novel The Gypsy Goddess, Meena is equally vocal in her resistance and wrote: “The problem with thinking up a new and original idea within a novel is that you have to make sure that Kurt Vonnegut did not already think of it.” Quite naturally, she deserves the Hermann Kesten Prize that honours personalities who, in the spirit of the charter of the PEN association, stand up for the rights of persecuted authors and journalists. Their writing is closely connected with the concept of humanity. Meena, a leading Indian Dalit woman writer developed her career as a poet, novelist and translator in Chennai. She is a feminist and anti-caste activist who has been vocal about the arrest of fellow writers like Varavara Rao and former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba.

Cornelia Zetzsche, the vice-president of the German PEN Centre, described Meena as “a fearless fighter for democracy and human rights, for the free word and against the oppression of landless, minorities and Dalits in India; not a ‘Ms. Pleasant’, rather a ‘Ms. Militancy’,” referring to her 2011 book of poems.

She previously held an editorial role at the English-language magazine ‘The Dalit’. Her works, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017)Ayaankali (2007)Tamil Tigresses (2021) and poems including Touch (2006), and Ms Militancy (2010) revolve around the issue of gender, caste, sexuality, patriarchy, and oppression by the Brahmanical nexus. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Hindu Lit Prize. Even after all these, what she said deserves special mention when she writes in Exquisite Cadavers: “No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived.”

The author is a contributor at The Shillong Times

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