Malathi Maithri was selected by Tamil poet Kutti Revathi for the special edition of PIW India, ‘Poets on Poets’.
Writer, feminist and activist Malathi Maithri (born 1968) is recognised as an important contemporary Tamil poet. She hails from Puducherry State in southern India. Her very first short story, ‘Prayanam’, was published in Kaniayazhi, a premier literary magazine, in 1988. This has been followed by the publication of three books of poetry and a collection of essays. She has co-edited Paraththal Adhan Sudhandiram (Flying is Its Freedom), an anthology of literary works, and Anangu (Woman), a collection of essays.
“Profoundly infatuated with water, Malathi Maithri has taken water as the title and core theme – indeed, the very subject – of two of her three poetry collections. Using language, she has attempted the aesthetic exercise of channelling water’s natural dramaturgy into poetry. This strategy, she believes, makes possible the effort, manifest in her poems, to obliterate gender identity.”
Deeply committed to the feminist debate, Malathi Maithri has, says Kutti Revathi, been “brave enough to confront . . . the oppression directed against women in contemporary Tamil writing . . . Much of the contribution towards integrating the creative history of Tamil women . . . into a whole tradition is owed to Malathi alone, who has achieved this by means of her sharp intellect that daily engages with the continuing tradition of women’s writing.” Importantly, Malathi Maithri herself “takes the lead”, says Kutti Revathi, through her own creative writing which “ceaselessly constructs images aimed at attacking traditionalists who are actively defining and consolidating codes of conduct for women”.
While her poetry implicates gender issues in a variety of ways, a recurrent theme in Maithri’s work remains the mother-child relationship. Her approach to the subject, says Kutti Revathi, is fuelled by her deeply held belief “that a woman taking charge of reproduction and demanding sole custody rights over her child is a form of cultural action”.
“Whereas contemporary Tamil poets are engaged today in transforming symbols, in addition to images, as keys to language, in Malathi’s poems alone do they turn into something more than just ornamental – here, images and symbols are functional and capable of serving a multiplicity of aims,” writes Revathi.
The five poems in this edition (translated by N. Kalyan Raman) clearly prove the point. While the poems reveal a deep preoccupation with “the politics of the body”, the images have a life of their own. They are limpid and yet vital; luminous, finely etched, and yet pulsating with a fierce, predatory energy. Never lapsing into the insipidity of so much agenda-based poetry, these shifting, subversive, watery metaphors are able to subtly challenge several cultural stereotypes, including the archetypal images of the Hindu Puranic tradition (as the ‘Proscribed Blood’ poems reveal).
Maithri’s poetic universe is a restless, fluid, liminal one where at any moment women may morph into panthers, light into shadow, Coke cans into advancing armies, vaginas into butterflies, androgynous divinities into resolutely individualised, menstruating goddesses.
As Kutti Revathi puts it:
“With her every line and word, Malathi takes forward the effort to broaden and expand the space available for women . . . her poems are passionate about freedom, and imbued with a demonic force as well as a delectable sweetness of language (relished earlier by the saint Andal in . . . our history).”
Neeli, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil, 2007 (second edition)
Viduthalaiyai Ezhuthuthal (Writing Liberation), Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil, 2004
Neerindri Amaiyaathu Ulagu, (There Can Be No Earth Without Water), Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil, 2003
Sankarabharani, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil, 2001
The Elephant Story and The Race of Homes
Two poems (in translation) by Malathi Maithri
C.S. Lakshmi: ‘Landscapes of the Body’: On the controversy over the language of Tamil women writers and ‘the goodwill and advice’ proffered by some Tamil men
Theodore Bhaskaran: ‘The filming of poetry’ – a review of SheWrite, a documentary film by Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar on four Tamil poets Malathi Maithri, Kutti Revathi, Salma and Sugirdharani.
Ambujam Anantharaman: ‘Women’s Poetic Power’ – an article on the new Tamil women poets who have found themselves in the middle of a raging controversy since they started writing more openly about sexuality.