Anitha Thampi (born 1968) is a Malayalam poet with two collections of poetry to her credit. Her first book, Muttamatikkumbol (Sweeping the Courtyard), published in 2004, was chosen as “the best poetry book of the year” by the influential Malayalam newspaper, Mathrubhumi. Her second collection, Azhakillathavayellam (All that are bereft of beauty) was published in 2010 after a span of seven years. In 2007, her Malayalam translations of Australian poet Les Murray were published in a bilingual edition.
Born into a progressive political family, Thampi was the eldest of three girl children and describes her growing years “against the rural background of Central Kerala, the green expanse of which turned into crowded towns even as I grew up”. This still unfolding transition, she says, has left a deep impact on her work.
The translated poems here are from Thampi’s first and most recent collections. The first thing that strikes one about these poems is their imagistic clarity and vividness. One almost smells the overripe, near-sexual odour of the jackfruit in ‘Fruit, as it is’. Likewise, one can visualise the woman sweeping outside an old Kerala home, her “bent backstep” as she scours the yard of all traces of history, in ‘Sweeping the Front Yard’. Thampi attributes this sharpness of image to her formal education in science and engineering with its emphasis on the value of precision. There remains, she says, an enduring quest “for the finest and the simplest, the most concentrated, intense and crystallised” in her formulation of the poetic utterance.
This incisiveness of metaphor is accompanied by a political consciousness as well. The poem on the hammer, sickle and star – which uses the election emblem of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as its title – becomes a coded critique of the politics of the state of Kerala, with its decades-old reign of Communism. There is a gendered awareness as well. Thampi acknowledges that the poet in her work is usually female although “not necessarily and adamantly so”. The poem ‘Fruit as it is’ uses the image of the jackfruit – slippery, fecund, moist, bulging – to talk about the female form. But interestingly, the ‘observer-artist’ here is a woman, and her gaze is determinedly integrated. None of the aspects of the fruit are reified as separate body parts; they are viewed as part of a whole – so the fruit comes alive “just as it is”.
The dynamic tension between “the self and the universe, within and without” – the individual’s subjective consciousness against a vast impersonal expanse of external reality – lies, says Thampi, at the heart of all her poetry.
Muttamatikkumbol, Current Books, Thrissur, 2004
Azhakillathavayellam, Current Books, Thrissur, 2010
Les Murray (into Malayalam), Katha Books, New Delhi, 2007. ISBN 978-81-87649-62-5
More of Anita Thampi’s poems in translation in Muse India
Extract of an oral history interview with Anita Thampi by V. M. Girija in Malayalam in SPARROW
Thachom Poyil Rajeevan writes about the ‘new poetry’ in Malayalam in The Hindu