For this poetry feature, we have two poems and short essay by poet Shirani Rajapakse. The poems are from her recent collection, Chant of a Million Women, and her essay goes into the themes of the collection and the role these two poems play.
I am honored to provide a forum for the discussion and interrogation of such complex issues as these poems and prose take on. Rajapakse’s work is filled with astute observation and insight. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” takes its time meditating on the act of men groping a statue; the pace of the poem allows the nuance and charge of the situation to be dwelled upon in a way in an unflinching manner. This ability to dwell on the problematic until it gives over something human is found again in “On a Street in London.” In both poems, and throughout Chant of a Million Women, Rajapakse provides space to acknowledge discomfort, injustice, and hurt, but also to begin the work of healing.
At the Side of the Old Mandir – Shirani Rajapakse
They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.
You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.
Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting,
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.
Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?
Shirani Rajapakse on “At the Side of the Old Mandir” & “On a Street in London”
Women’s bodies have always been depicted in art as objects of desire and of un-attainability. The artiste or sculptor creates his work of art that is so perfect it moves the audience to gawk and stare and imagine possibilities in their drab little lives. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” speaks of this desire for a statue by a man who can’t have the real thing – a woman in his life – because of whatever economic or social factors, or maybe because the wife he has doesn’t reciprocate his love. He stands in front of a statue fantasizing about what could be.
The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (Hindu temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outside of mandirs depict women in many poses. Almost all of the women have large breasts and voluptuous hips. What was interesting was that in some Mandirs the breasts of these statues of women were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw the reason.
“At the Side of the Old Mandir” sets the stage to the collection. It also pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present and demonstrates that it really isn’t very different, although separated from time and space. Women were seen and continue to be seen as objects of desire; larger than life depictions of male fantasies.
The image of the abused female statues reminded me of what I once saw inside telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time just before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.
It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men, and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced and will continue to face unless and until society realizes that something has to be done to halt this negative trend.
If women were objects that men in ancient times used to sculpt dreams of – narrow waist broad hips and voluptuous breasts – then women have down the centuries become the objects themselves, sculpting their own bodies to create a false view of what men want. Between the ancient statue and the modern woman who add breast implants and nips and tucks her body to please a man we have not progressed much. In fact we have come full circle to finally become what men have always wanted us to be – objects, a very visually pleasing object that is molded to certain parameters.
On a Street in London – Shirani Rajapakse
inside the telephone booth too small to hold
such wonders overflowing their space.
Glass and steel surround him
with a view of the street beyond.
They stare at him defiantly at
eye level sticking out strong and proud.
come buy my wares, a business card
stuck to the side cries out to the world.
Lonely hearts stir at the sight
every time they glance inside.
Her eyes beckon, pick up the phone and
dial me in, they blink lustily, as
watermelons heave inside tomato red spandex
stretched to accommodate.
Tiny shivers run marathons down
his spine as he envisages the feel of it
in his palm yet dares
not lift a hand to touch.
Too many eyes watching silently as
footsteps tap around him.
The city drifts this way and that as he stands
still, inside the box in the middle
of the pavement watching her globes
straining to jump out.
Her voice purrs at the other end,
trembles down the line, he
listens mesmerized and
imagines the thousands of possibilities
squashed between watermelons
brown like the earth, trembling
like an earthquake.
Shirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Chant of a Million Women was self-published (August 2017). She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India). She interviews, promotes and reviews books by indie authors on The Writer’s Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com