Five years ago, in January 2013, Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay conceived of Veils, Halos & Shackles, dedicated to ‘Jyoti Singh Pandey, Nadia Anjuman and the uncountable number of other women and girls who have been victims of gender violence’.
This is a two-part feature consisting of the book review and an interview with Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay. Today we carry the review to be followed by the interview tomorrow.
Title: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
On the night of 16th December 2012, in New Delhi, Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped and tortured – which included the removal of her intestines with a metal rod – in a moving bus, and thrown out. She and her friend lay on the road for a long time before anyone stopped to help. She died in Singapore a few days after. For those who would like to know the details, it is here in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Delhi_gang_rape.
New Delhi is a city notorious for its treatment of women, where assault of all kinds occur with alarming regularity, with percentages being somewhat more than in the rest of India. This time, there was such brutality involved that it shook a nation which is normally in a state of extreme torpor with regard to women’s dignity and safety. India erupted into nationwide protests and not just through marches and candle lit vigils. In the hearts of Indian women and sane Indian men, a single voice seemed to rise – ‘Enough!’ The world too, took note, with horror. That was five years ago.
Since then, newspapers, television channels and other media, including social, have regularly reported similar outrages meted out to women and children, both girls and boys. At times it seems like the number of incidents has increased, and that instead of a nation trying to become better, India has regressed into perversion and misogyny. A number of cases have been reported of foreign objects being inserted into girls as young as two. The crime rate seems to be spiking. Women and survivors from other genders braving social media with their protests and stories are being trolled regularly. Parents are still worried sick for their daughters when they come home late or are unreachable on their phones.
Did Nirbhaya die in vain?
The rumble went deeper than imagined. It created fissures at depths where visibility is near non-existent. Nirbhaya was the turning point.
Now people are increasingly open. They refuse to be intimidated into silence. We hear of more cases because more people are reporting them. There is greater support and understanding for survivors and victims not just in India, but across the world, for while India may have a terrible reputation with regard to all those who identify as women, the situation is far from good even in developed and apparently liberal societies.
Across the world, much needs to be done. In India, we are a long way away from being a safe and respectful society towards girls and women and gay men. The change, unfurling all around us, often so quietly we barely note its presence, is shaking the core of our society. However slowly, however timidly. There is protest through vigils and media outcries. Much of it is inner dissent. A lot of it is quiet. Some of it pours out in artistic expressions.
The shape of protest is protean. The colours of its pain and beauty are myriad. Protest’s life span is longer than that of placards, and the decibel level of its call is higher than that of individual angry voices. The storm brewing, gathering and collecting force has a language. One of the languages of this protest is poetry.
Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay is that protest. The book’s name is a mouthful, and at around 500 pages with the works of 186 poets from around the world, and more than 250 poems, it’s a tome as far as poetry is concerned. However, the book is not for the casual browser looking for a poetic fix. One cannot wade into it. One must be prepared to swim into deeper waters.
In her introduction to the volume, Laura Madeline Wiseman illustrates how the word ‘male’ is often dropped from the phrase ‘male violence against women’, and how in spite of a changed and changing world the same types of crime and oppression are inflicted upon women: ‘Sometimes the culture of gender violence feels hopeless, as if there is no way to delete the horrors and create something better,’ says Wiseman. And then she provides a ray of hope, ‘When it feels like there is nothing that can be done, it’s time to make a book.’
Fishman and Sahay share Wiseman’s sentiments, when they write in the preface of their book: ‘Telling the truth about the violence and oppression that women are subjected to, and moving individuals and even governments to protect and support women… Veils, Halos and Shackles will speak to a global audience and that tragically, its subject will remain current in the foreseeable future.’
Perhaps that is why the editors have included as many facets to the violence and poetic sensibilities in their project as they exist in reality and also included, beside every poem, the incidents and the poet’s thoughts, the history and reasoning behind each. So the poem becomes much more than a creative entity. It forces the reader to see it in its exact realistic context, and reach out to the story within. From rape to domestic violence to acid attack to child abuse to sexual exploitation to enslavement to female circumcision to body shaming to superstition based persecution to enslavement and captivity to incest… you name it, they are all here in the book, brought to life through poem after poem.
Well known poets have their say alongside those who are beginning to venture out. At times the poems give in to the weight of protest and end up losing out on the aesthetics of poetry. One cannot fault those poets though, those who were unable to withhold and reign in their anger and pain for the sake of rhyme and metre and poetic sensibility. There is no question of choosing between staying true to the issue (that led to the poem) and poetic indulgence. Rage and pain resonate throughout the book. Page after page lays bare sometimes deeply personal narratives. This is not a book that one can read at one sitting. Poems first read as they are and then read again after the context or poets’ statements grow into living entities. It is impossible to stare straight into the horror’s eye, to not to blink and look away.
I have deliberately refrained from mentioning and/or quoting from any specific poem. It would be unfair to mention just a few from the 186 contributors, especially when each exposes a slice of social fabric, history as it plays out before us; however small that slice may be, it’s made up of human pain. It is up to the reader to reach out to the experience or the art. Either way, the poems will follow the reader around. For where this volume completely succeeds is in its depiction of the sheer variety of oppression and disempowerment of women across the globe, documenting it for posterity and with good reason. As one poet puts it in her statement, : ‘because violence happens to women every day, every minute, everywhere.’
So we need to stay informed and empathetic at the very least. We need to keep on listening to their songs, raised above the oppression. We have to. If we are to make any dent in the world as it is, today. We may not immediately see the change around us. Delving into the poems will change us. This is what makes Veils, Halos and Shackles a necessary book.
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection ‘Immoderate Men’, was published by Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad, and been widely published worldwide.