Caste/gender in a poem by Varavara Rao

I’m posting below a poem by Varavara Rao and a response to it by Rochelle Pinto. Comments and debate welcome, but trolls will strictly not be allowed regardless of caste and gender! Comments are regulated here by a disclaimer to maintain sanity. Not repeating your position ad nauseum helps, unless you desperately want to have the last word.



You are born rich
To say in your language
“Born with silver spoon in the mouth”

Your agitation sounds creative
Our agony looks violent
You are meritorious
You can break the glass of buses
In a shape

As symmetric as sun’s rays

You can deflate the tires
With artistic elan
While indulgent police look on
With their jaws rested on rifle butts

You can tie ‘Rakhis’
Even in
The dark chambers
Of a police station
You do not buy bus ticket
Not because
Your pocket is empty
That is practical protest

The beautiful roads
Are all yours
Whether you do a `Rasta Roko’
Or drive vehicles with `save merit’ stickers

We are bare-footed
Sweat-stinking road rollers
What if we built the roads?
The merit of plan is yours
The credit of contract is also yours

Those exhilarating sixty days, what fun!
When your cute little girls
And their daredevil mates
Were going on a delectable rampage,

Everybody was delighted
Parents, their parents
Brothers and sisters
Even the servants
And reporting Newspapers?
Oh, absolutely thrilled!

Boys and girls
Hand in hand
In protest
Of buried merit and dashed future
Going off to a picnic
O Yaar,
How heroic!

You are the marathoners
In merit competition
Poor tortoises
Can we run with you?

You serve “Chair” in Chikkadpalli
Sell “pallies” in cinema hall
Polish boots in Kothi Circle
Stop a Maruti or Priya on the Tankbund
To demand agitation fund

Media persons are `merit’ creatures
Their camera hearts `click’
Their pens shriek,
“Youthful brilliance”!

We are drab faced duds
Sitting in the stink of dead animals
We make shoes
By applying color with our blood
And polishing them
With the sinking light of our eyes

Isn’t the shine different
When polished
By someone in boots?

We clean up your filth
Carry the night soil on our heads
We wear out our bodies
Washing your rooms
To make them sparkle
Like your scented bodies

We sweep, we clean; our hands are brooms
Our sweat is water
Our blood is the phenyl
Our bones are washing powder
But all this
Is menial labor
What merit it has?
What skill?

Tucked-in shirts and miniskirts
Jeans and high heels
If you sweep
The cement road with a smile
It becomes an Akashvani scoop
And spellbinding Doordharshan spectacle

We are
Rickshaw pullers
Porters and cart wheelers
Petty shopkeepers
And low grade clerks

We are
Desolate mothers
Who can give no milk
To the child who bites with hunger

We stand in hospital queues
To sell blood to buy food

For the smell of poverty and hunger
How can it acquire
The patriotic flavor
Of your blood donation?
Whatever you do
Sweep, polish
Carry luggage in railway station
Or in bus stand
Vend fruits on pushcart
Sell chai on footpath
Take out procession
With `Save merit’ placards
And convent pronunciations

We know
It is to show us that
Our labor of myriad professions
Is no match to your merit

White coats and black badges
Hanging over chiffon saris and Punjabi dresses
`Save merit’ stickers
On breasts carrying `steth’s (stethoscopes)
When you walk(ed) in front of daftar
Like a heaven in flutter
For EBCs among you
And those who crossed 12000 among us
The reservation G.O.
Is not only a dream shattered and heaven shaken
But also a rainbow broken

Is movement for justice
On the earthly heaven
That is why
`Devathas’ dared more for the amrit

The moment
You gave a call for `jail bharao’
In the press conference
We were shifted out
From barracks
To rotting dungeons
Great welcome was prepared
Red carpet was spread
(`Red’ only in idiom; the color scares even those who spread it.)

We waited with fond hope that
The pious dust of your feet
Would grace not only the country
But its jails, too

How foolish!
The meritorious cream
The future
Of country’s glorious dream
How can they come
To the hell of thieves,
Murderers and subversives?

We read and rejoice
That function halls
Where rich marriages are celebrated
Became your jails

Ours may be a lifelong struggle till death
But yours is a happy wedding party of the wealth
If you show displeasure
It is like a marriage tiff
If you burn furniture
It is pyrotechnical stuff
If you observe `bandh’
It is the landlord’s daughter’s marriage

The corpse of your merit
Parades through the main streets
Has its funeral in `chourastas’
Amidst chanting of holy `mantras’

But Merit has no death
You creatively conduct symbolic procession
And enact the mourning `prahasan’
In us
To die or to be killed
There is no merit

We die
With hunger, or disease,
Doing hard labor, or committing crime,
In lock up or encounter
(Meritorious will not agree inequality is violence)

We will be thrown
By a roadside;
In a filthy pit;
On a dust heap;
In a dark forest

We will turn ash
Without a trace
We will `miss’
From a hill or a hole

Our births and deaths
Except for census statistics,
What use they have
For the national progress?

We take birth
And perish in death
In and due to
Miserable poverty
You assume the `Avatar’
When Dharma is in danger
And renounce the role
After completing the job
You are the `sutradhar’

You are lucky
You are meritorious.

(Varavara Rao (b. 1940) is a member of Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (VIRASAM—Revolutionary Writers’ Association). He lives in Hyderabad.)

A response to the above by ROCHELLE PINTO:

I found Varavara Rao’s poem poignant and politically charged. It is a  pity though that middle class women’s sexuality is still such a  convenient target for leftist opposition to middle class culture. (Since this  is the one thing that unites the left and every other party in India, I  see no problem in clubbing Varavara Rao with every other leftist  organisation.)

If one asks why the high visibility of middle class sexuality evokes  such a response, it will probably be met with a predictable and vulgar combination of repressive ideas of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sexuality are, what tradition is, and what the public role of revolutionary women should be. The phrase ‘cute little girls’ is both condescending and politically blind. It is a mistake for Varavara Rao to imagine that the female anti-reservation activists are unable to hold their own political views because they are so attentive to their appearance. It is disappointing that a writer and activist whose life and work are much respected, cannot find other means of criticism beyond ‘chiffon saris and punjabi dresses and breasts carrying …stethoscopes’. [Source]

27 thoughts on “Caste/gender in a poem by Varavara Rao”

  1. This poem is a bad translation. I read this well known poem in Telugu. Varavara rao criticises the upper caste girls for their dispaly of elitism and caste solidarities.The use of “breasts’ is a clear wrong translation. the word in telugu refers to “chest.” Assessing varavara rao based on his one badly translated poem is rather surprising.

  2. pavana,

    that s the wonder of kafila, like many of our elitist spheres. they create rules and regulations in such a way as to make a “devil” out of ur assertions.
    that s the post-modern way of dealing with the assertions f the marginalised. thank god they didnt ask him to be a martin luther in order to raise voice agaisnt brahmincal elitism

  3. This is hardly poetry – rather it is junk poetry as pragyan put it. Just a range of slogans strung together. I cannot see even the best translation doing anything to make poetry out of it. Rochelle Pinto has used it to point out something else, which – irrespective of whether you treat it as poetry, prose or a handbook of slogans – shows a deep suspicion in Left cultures of middle class sexuality and middle class women. There is something else also going on in this so-called poem. All the fun and sex is middle class; the poor it seems have neither fun nor sex nor anything else – except being tortured to death by the powerful. That is a representation that gives the likes of Varavara Rao their bread and butter. Only the humourless marxists (of different shades) seem to want to paint the proletariat in such colours. You don’t have to have a special vision to see that the ‘proletariat’ also has fun and sex and has little patience for Varavara Rao’s poetry.

  4. This translation (by who ?) has been floating around on the web for some years now. I wonder if Varavara Rao counts it among the best of his poems. It is not there on his bi lingual website – not even the original Telugu version !

    Any case, it is more of a versified pamphlet than a poem. Its value derives from the context and not from any intrinsic quality of the text. He adopts the voice of the sweeper and the cobbler and the prisoner in the same poem. Prison life, he certainly knew. The rest is no more than poetic identification! If you want to read brahminical arrogance in speaking for the marginalized, you can do that. If you want to read a criticism of upper caste girls for displaying elitism you can do that too. Just a question of what is expedient for us now.

    While we are talking about the context, it is also worth keeping in mind that not so long before this poem started circulating, Varavara Rao was assailed as a ‘manuvadi in naxalite garb’ by Kancha Ilaiah – an ardent bahujan spokesperson for the dalit bahujan identity in Hyderabad. Here is a reprodction of the article originally published in the local daily Deccan Chronicle.

    Thanks Pavana and Spark for opening up the question of what makes for fair criticism.

  5. shivam,

    i think the goal posts should be shifted. I think it will help to get away from varavara rao and the poem. we should also get away from cultures of oppression and domination for a bit and instead focus on cultures of opposition. Pinto starts that but we can go further.

    let me explain.

    if something claims to be a poem, it would be disrespectful not to ask what kind of poem it be. :) varavara rao has spent over 30 years offering free verse at the altar maoist revolution. that is the terms on which it must be appreciated /critiqued first. when we read Manto’s letters to uncle sam, we first acknowledge the anti american sentiment and socialist merit in them and then get to his wistful complaints about pakistani female body (as opposed to the bare legs he got to see in some hollywood films).

    i have no complaint with rochelle pinto on that score. she starts by acknowledging the poignancy and political energy of the poem — But what kind of politics is it ? it is maoist politics and at this level, it is not fair to treat the left as general undifferentiated mass.

    Rochelle pinto goes on to point out that it is part of the left tradition of using the female body and mind as foil to attack middle class culture.

    Frankly i think this poem is a bad example to make this point. First, it is a translation. We dont know if it is approved of by him. But more importantly, this poem comes over a decade after the most bitter battles over female sexuality and left politics were fought in telugu. revolutionary writers association has made several attempts to work through these sorts of tensions in the meantime.

    varavara rao was centrally involved in helping resolve some of those battles. if nothing else, he would be very very careful in the choice of his words on that score.

    In the interest of furthering the debate, I think it would be better not to use varavara rao as foil for left prudery. that i could have said right away. but at this point, i have a couple of other points to add.

    i think it would be good also not to take his criticism of upper caste girls as evidence of his freedom from brahmanism. As I said in my previous post – he is speaking for people who life experiences he shared only while being in prison. for the rest, it is an intellectual identification and poetic imagination. he is projecting on to the poor what he thinks of their lives. and thats why as aftab noted correctly, they come across as if they dont have any fun and are spending all their lives being tortured by the rich.

    that leaves Ilaiah’s portrayal of varavara rao as manuvadi in naxalite garb. I posted that link here just to unsettle this easy charge that kafila, the elitist sphere is setting up rules and regulations about fair debate to discredit a voice against brahminical elitism. rochelle pinto’s criticism of varavara rao is like praise in hyperbole in comparison to what ilaiah, the dalit bahujan theorist has to say about varavara rao.

    what is it that makes varavara rao a fair target for both feminists and dalits ? what do these exchanges tell us about the articulations and tensions between feminist, dalit and maoist revolutionary politics ? is it possible that we are seeing a lot of alliances of convenience that break down as easily as they are formed ? what should be the basis of a politics of opposition in such times ? will it be just contingency and convenience ?
    will it be based on some new principles of selfhood and appreciation of the other of being able to distinquish and yet see the connections between exploitation, oppression and non recognition ?

  6. I remember the poem in gerenral. This seems to be a poor translation. It may not be wise to pass judgment based on a inferior translation. I don’t think VV is bereft of artistic sensitivity to belittle women whatevert their class, based on gneder.

    Incidentally, let me state that I do not agree with his political support of the PWG/Maoists. I am not supporting him out of misplaced political solidarity.

  7. The Pinto comment was the most absurd one, bringing in middle class sexuality. Is there paranoia here, as middle class sense of security is threatened by reservations. Typical of the so-called ‘new social movements’, wouldn’t you say! Zizek was touching a raw nerve when he pointed out the silence of these movements on the rapacity of global capital. the world ‘sexuality’ is also puzzling. Is there a direct link between ‘cuteness’ and sexuality? Ask me another! And what about ‘daredevil mates’ ?(here there is at least a hint of midddle class male sexuality, since many psychologists would say that daredevilry of various kinds, including bike stunts are sexual acts in disguise. The bike is in fact a phallic symbol! ) This is not the first time pseudo-feminist logic is used against political activists. Moreover, it takes blindness of a high order not to recognize that ‘cute little girls’ and ‘daredevil mates’ are popular media images. It doesn’t take a poet like varavara rao to invent them. Pinto’s original contribution to the English language must, however, be commended. The English idiom ‘finding a needle in a haystack’ must now be replaced by ‘finding middle class female sexuality in varavara rao’s poetry’! Ciao!

  8. I would disagree with this:
    “The phrase ‘cute little girls’ is both condescending and politically blind. It is a mistake for Varavara Rao to imagine that the female anti-reservation activists are unable to hold their own political views because they are so attentive to their appearance”
    Rather than assuming that these ‘cute little girls’ are not able to hold their political views due to their preoccupation with dresses and looks,it seems to challenge the dominant discourse of Politics as whole, which is characterized by:-

    Merit plus Gender minus Caste minus Class plus Superficial Modernity- the underbelly of which harbours Kangaroo courts, Khap Panchayats, Police tyrannies, Patriarchy and what not.

    Again, what difference it would make, if ‘breasts’ is replaced by ‘chest’, in the English translation of this poem? It looks bit ridiculous to say that the word ‘breasts’, ‘cute’,’jeans’, ‘shiffon saries’ etc,etc are all used in a sexist manner:

    “White coats and black badges
    Hanging over chiffon saris and Punjabi dresses
    `Save merit’ stickers
    On breasts carrying `steth’s (stethoscopes)
    When you walk(ed) in front of daftar
    Like a heaven in flutter”

  9. I think Rochelle is quite right – not only about Vara Vara Rao’s poem using middle class women’s sexuality as a stand-in for elitism in an otherwise powerful and poignant poem, but also about the tendency on the left to use sexuality in general and women’s sexuality in particular as shorthand for elitism and symbols of globalised/Americanised culture. It used to be common, for instance, for popular left speeches to target Michael Jackson’s dances as examples of ‘degenerate culture’ fostered by globalisation. I’ve had many arguments with comrades on this – arguments which I am glad to say had good effect. In the CPI(ML) Liberation at least (I can speak for my party) we have made some conscious and organised efforts to combat some of these notions.
    At a recent workshop where activists discussed some of these issues, we read a paper that said, “It is true that capitalist society creates bourgeois individualism – including somewhat greater economic and sexual freedom for women (though this has happened to a very limited extent in India’s semi-feudal variety of capitalist development). But it is very important for us to remember that “with all its defects, bourgeois individualism represents an advance over feudalism” (Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class, Aakaar Books, 2006). At every step, we must beware of glorifying feudal ‘traditional’ values in the name of resisting capitalism. Even as we hold capitalism responsible for its commodification of women, and for the neglect of children and the elderly, we must defend each and every freedom that women enjoy [in a relative sense] in capitalism – the freedom to dress as they wish, love and marry according to their choice, freedom to divorce, freedom to break any relationship where love no longer exists etc… Our critique of these bourgeois freedoms is not from a feudal, traditionalistic standpoint: rather it is from the vantage point of socialism. In other words, we critique these freedoms because each of them comes with continuing chains of economic inequality and new forms of exploitation; because women are not free enough, not because women are too free!” At that workshop we specifically spoke about the misguided (but common) tendency to target women’s clothing and sexuality (jeans etc) as symbols of capitalism.

    It is important to recognise that the Left parties, merely by virtue of being Left, cannot but inherit from gender ideologies widely prevalent in society. The point is that they should recognise this, be aware of it and challenge it in their daily practice. Not easy to do – but it must be done.

    1. It is similar to the support Sarah Palin got from elite feminism in her fight with progresssive movemnts in the obama episode.But one sould say all positions are justified in their own way.

  10. Fully agreeing in all the points raised here by Kavita Krishnan about typical left representations of middle class women’s bodies as the sites of celebration of bourgeoise individualist/anarchic /licentious sexual freedom.
    But I doubt, there is a big problem, for example when you ‘discover’ all these sexist innuendos and without conceding a little allowance for the context.
    When I find the media images of women representatives of hard core right wing and left parties hugging each other ,sporting huge bindis on ther foreheads, I felt more like talking about the bindis than boasting about the hard fought battle for womens reservation!

    Similarly, when you hear in certain reports that quite a few of UC women living in posh areas of Gujarat were seen driving Maruti cars and encouraging their husbands and brothers to loot, kill and even rape Muslim women, the imagery of ‘cute’ middleclass UC women participating in anti reservation rallies en mass comes so natural and critiquing this is anything but part of ‘left wing anti-woman’ tendency or sexism,as made out here.
    The argument by someone that the word ‘chest’ is decent and the word ‘breasts’ is sexist itself looks like a mirror image of the same sexism we like to oppose!

  11. Totally agree wth Comrade Kavita .
    Am reminded of the last days of Naxalism at Presidency College in the early seventies. Disapproving looks at smoking or wearing any dress other than the ubiquitous saree and dubbing the same as “apasanskriti” still reigns supreme in my mind .
    It goes to the credit of liberal trends globally within the Left that such archaic notions are being challenged and that too by a strand of the Ultra-Left.
    I do not however agree with the views on Varavara Rao . He may be referring to the apparent “symbols” of upper-caste reservationists but I do not think it follows that he expects women to revert to the bondages of feudalism.
    At least there are no reports of these values gaining prominence even among Maoist cadres .
    The moderate Left is also much more liberated than what they were though it leaves a lot to desire.
    Somewhat related are the personal attacks in bad taste on political individuals which were witnessed in the posters and wall-writings in Kolkata those days. I even remember a poem referring to a Congress leader Atulya Ghosh , (perpetually wearing his sunglasses on) as “kana” or blind and the CM P.C. Sen , (with a defect in his gait) as “langra” or lame.
    Such lampooning is rarely visible these days.
    An encouraging sign for the future of the Left.

  12. @ Upal – just a clarification – I am in no way suggesting that Varavara Rao wants women to revert to feudal values (that line in the paper quoted had nothing to do with VVR’s poem). Just that the symbolism of ‘miniskirts/chiffon sarees’ etc simply carries a gendered connotation about women’;s sexuality that a comment about fashionable male clothing, for instance, would not.
    @ Joe – those who opposed Sarah Palin’s politics were still incensed by the sexualised and sexist representation of Palin in the media.

  13. @Venu –
    Sorry, I don’t really agree.. I think there’s a degree of wilful blindness in your argument to the point that representing elitism in terms of miniskirts etc is inevitably gendered in its connotation – it is similar to Sharad Yadav type remarks about ‘parkati’, ‘balkati’ women (i.e women with short hair/short sleeves) to indicate urbanised women. Why after all is the dress of women singled out and given extra attention in poem (the anti-quota men’s clothes are not similarly satirised to the same degree)?
    About the breast/chest word I give VVR the benefit of doubt – it is not necessarily gendered to say that stickers are worn on chests. But there’s simply no excuse for ‘cute’ when condescendingly applied to women, I’m afraid. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about it – except that ‘common sense’ is often gendered…

    1. Generally agree with Kavitha. Brilliant, her exploration of ‘cuteness’. But apprehensions….Was there a ‘holier than thou’ smell here….Is the fratricide between CPIML(liberation) and Maoists still going on here…….Patriarchy in V.V.Rao….Agreed! The same Kavitha, in an earlier post on women’s reservation, accorded the status of a feminist on a Hinduised bindi sporting Brinda Karat, who kept mum on the brutality on subaltern women in Nandigram and Singur…Was there no patriarchy?….sorry, I am only a well wisher of the left….. really. If I am wrong forgive my ‘folly’ and correct me

  14. I completely agree with the basic thrust of Kavita’s argument. There is a need for fraternal criticism aimed at corrections. But ultimately it is the political position of criticism and intention that matters. On Michael Jackson too I agree with kavitha. But a small addition. Any cultural product in spite of the cultural premises of its origin and meaning is received in a different context with a different meaning. Thus Jackson was received by ’anglophiles’ like me in those days as a fashion celebrating the west blindly in our ridicule of anything local. Western capitalism came as package reinforcing local elitism. But the left’s blunt crtique had some significance in it’s context, at least in projecting the local. Also the ‘baritone voiced male’ image was the space through which western capitalism created a breathing space in local feudalism abound in polygamy, child marriage and even paedophilia, giving a definite edge to capitalism. But It also reminds one of the urgency for a feminist critique and correction of truncated modernity.
    On Kanchi Ilaiah-VV.Rao may be a Manuvadi or not. Despite the brilliance shown in analysing the organically fascistic Hinduism, the solution he offers makes one wonder. He exhorts Dalit -bahujan to cast away local languages study English, and take part as a junior partners in facilitating capitalism, if they get their ‘due’. So, what about the millions of tribes devastated by the self same capitalism. On his advice to Dalits in turning to Christianity for liberation, a caveat. Indian Christianity is highly discriminatory on caste lines, vouched by my own experiences before my atheistic phase. He even says that any movement which denies the conception of god is bound to fail-again a deep distrust on the potential of the dalit bahujan to think and an indirect acknowledgement of orientalist discourse.

  15. @ Kavita
    Agreed that ‘common sense’ is terribly gendered!
    But I think that nowhere does occur a reference to mini skirts in VVR’s poem or else in this discussion.
    So is the case of your critical references to Yadavs’ usages like paar-kati, baal-kati,etc. A radical poet like VVR being accused for manifestations of crass sexism in his poems would have been ok; but substantiation for that is either inadequate or totally lacking here,at least in this poem.
    I searched for the meanings of ‘cute’ in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.In US English, the word cute also means ‘clever’; this is of course apart from the meaning as ‘charming’ which is common to both the US and UK English usages of ‘cute’.
    Qualities like charming, likable, adorable or aesthetic, etc are generally opposed to ruthlessness, chivalry etc. One can see the former are usually attributed to the feminine while the latter is identified with masculinity.
    It is like describing a woman beautiful and a man handsome. To which extent these nuances of language are valid for a perfectly gender-neutral vision is another question. I wish we accepted the challenge without falling to the trap of reductionist postulations.

    Lastly, the dictionary meanings of cute suggests nothing particular about gender. But one might argue that VVR’s reference to cute girls/women was in the context of the fiercest power struggle in the “post independence”India between the elites and the depressed castes, around quotas and merit. The popular images of well off ‘cute women’ is juxtaposed with those of the poorest ‘other-ed’on the one hand, and the power savvy cute(clever) women arrogantly articulating their unjust demands for burying the quotas once and for all to save merit are portrayed on the other.

  16. @Venu – if you haven’s seen ‘miniskirts’ in the poem, you have not it seems read the poem carefully. read again” “Tucked-in shirts and miniskirts/Jeans and high heels”
    As for ‘cute’ – cuteness is well known to connote attractiveness of a childlike kind, prettiness that lies in appearing helpless. That’s the literary connotation of cuteness – and it is very very gendered indeed. I am yet to come across ‘cute’ used as ‘clever’ in any literary or popular usage. Of course I do not know the original Telugu word used and how it has been translated – it’s possible that the word used there does not convey the same sense that it does in English.
    But there’s no getting away from the fact that ‘miniskirts’ and ‘high heels’ etc have been used as symbols of elitism – which is quite problematic since that notion is all too often used to explain and defend violence against women wearing such clothes, on the plea that the violent men are actually expressing a protest against class privilege as represented by the women. Such explanations were offered, for instance, in the New Year attack on women coming out of a pub in Mumbai a couple of years ago. The question then is – why are WOMEN and their sexuality targeted as symbols of class privilege – not men?!

  17. @ Joe – I did not call Brinda a feminist and I have in several articles critiqued the AIDWA’s position on Singur, Nandigram, AFSPA, you name it. I only said she is no ‘Sita-Savitri’.
    I certainly do not single out the Maoists or VVR for the gendered expressions – I said in my posts that in my own party, the same kind of tendency exists, and shared our efforts to fight it. Even in a very powerful poem by Gorakh Pande, a poet from our party, (whose poetry is actually very gender sensitive generally; women and gender issues are an integral part of much of his poetry) the same kind of expression can be seen. The poem is Swarg se Vapasi, about how the poor labourers are evicted once the palace has been built through their labour. There’s a phrase I recall in that poem that similarly uses the image of elite women dancing seductively (I forget the exact phrase in Hindi) to symbolise class privilege. So VVR is no patriarchal poet and nor is Gorakh – but such poets too can be called upon to be alert about gendered connotations in language.

  18. First, my sincere apologies for having overlooked the word ‘miniskirts’ and request for a modified reading of my comment.

    Still, I’m embarrassed with the way one finds these lines loaded with sexism:

    “Tucked-in shirts and miniskirts
    Jeans and high heels
    If you sweep the cement road with a smile
    It becomes an Akashvani scoop
    And spellbinding Doordharshan spectacle”

    I find these lines speaking more about the class- caste privileges enjoyed by these ‘cute'(likable.?..) women. Hence, it is far from matching the ‘customary’ sexist accusations like ‘she invited it’- the ways women dress are invariably linked in such contexts to exonerating rapists and perpetrators of crimes motivated by moral/cultural policing.

    If you have a look at the Cambridge Advance Learners Dictionary(CALD) the meaning of cute in US English is given as ‘clever’ and further explained as wishing to see clever, sometimes in a rude and unpleasant way. A sample usage given there is “Don’t be cute with me, Vicki”

    Any case, the poet finds either lot of charm or cleverness or both in these girls and perhaps no malice per se for their shiffon saris , miniskirts, jeans or high heeled shoes. Therefore I would rather see no sexism in the above lines. Further, I’m afraid that if we go by such an ‘all inclusive’ understanding of sexism the term itself gets bereft of its political rigor.

    The main contention of Rochelle Pinto also seems to have a problem:
    “The phrase ‘cute little girls’ is both condescending and politically blind. It is a mistake for Varavara Rao to imagine that the female anti-reservation activists are unable to hold their own political views because they are so attentive to their appearance”
    It is worth noting that concerns for fashionable looks and appearances are less a matter of upper castes men and women alone. One could not have made even a mention of this,had it not been in the context of media celebrations of the merit drama scripted by the anti reservation-ists for these ‘cute’ upper caste women. Sweeping the roads, polishing shoes etc etc had all been acted out just to suggest unabashedly that such ‘cute’ youth born with merit would be forced to take up such menial jobs in future ,because jobs mediated by quota system were going to the meritless, who ought to be doing such menial jobs.
    Perhaps this peculiar Indian context of anti-reservation struggle could not have been communicated with its political rigor,avoiding all references to the cute, upper caste women, wives of IAS/IPS Officers, etc who thronged to the streets demanding prospects of better grooms for their girls!

  19. The discussion is getting too cacophonous. Much ado about nothing, perhaps. Try this poem by L Thomaskutty, the Malayalam poet:

    Crow Shitting

    L Thomas Kutty

    It takes just a shit on your head
    For the crow to retrieve its identity.
    The notorious sidelong glance helps
    (Sectarian views will do –
    At least for crows).
    The lonely hermit on the power line,
    The faithful soldier in the dark legion
    On its homeward flight at dusk,
    The starkest of poetic images,
    A stop in transit
    For an ancestor’s transmigrating soul.

    But we know how to put it in its place:
    No upstart crow ever became a swan.
    The British East India Company’s
    Records will tell you that.

    Undaunted by the taunt
    It goes back to business.
    Shitting on the petrified expressions of guilt
    And glorified legends of sacrifice
    Of the men of destiny –
    Ineffectual scarecrows in stone –
    Who darken the city squares
    With their looming shadows,
    Making no distinction
    Between subaltern and hegemon.

    The grey shit
    Retrieves its black identity.

  20. We have seen how caste/gender complications can arise in certain contexts, but when a male poet very unselfconsciously uses words like “mini-skirts” and phrases like “cute girls” as simplified codes of pejoration against women of any class, it is no longer necessary to doubt what he has in mind, or try and raise caste/gender debates.
    The point is simple – you can’t describe your poetic/political angsts by using stereotypical images of women.
    The point however is not that a “mini skirt” or “cute girls” can’t be used in poetry. There are surely other devices to draw out the insensitivities of/among women. But what would always come up for scrutiny is the way these images/devices are being used in a poem.
    The question to be asked in this specific sense to sensitive poets like Varvara Rao is – How come political sensibility doesn’t cross over to treating the gender question with as much responsibility as any other? Whose sexuality is being caressed and whose is being restricted, by using “cute girls” and “mini skirts”?!

  21. Apparently, high heels, jeans and miniskirts also reveal a class behind these attire, and the attack by the poet is on the class that the attire so represents, it may not be about any moral ethos for a feminist to take offence to. The poet never suggests or rules against the dress code in light of tradition or trickled down morality taught by religion.

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