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The Poems in Chant

Several issues are discussed in Chant of a Million Women. There’s also quite a range of emotions carefully placed between the pages. In the following weeks I’ll talk about a few poems.

Image may contain: shoes and text But I’ll start with the first poem. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” This not only sets the stage as it were to the collection but it also kind of pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present not being very different.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outsides of temples depict women in many poses. Almost all of them are of women with large breasts and voluptuous hips.

I’ve traveled a lot in India and seen many interesting places. Since I like art, history and culture my travels tend to take me to places where I can find all of this in abundance and the old temples are a definite must see on my itinerary.

Viewing the statues and images I came across an interesting find. In quite a few of the images of women in the carvings in mandirs and abandoned places the breasts were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw why when I turned a corner in a lonely mandir and surprised a devout follower of whatever God resided inside that mandir.

The image of that encounter I witness stayed in my mind although I wrote about it many years later.

At the Side of the Old Mandir

 

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.

 

Satiated temporarily,

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

comprehension.

 

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,

circumambulating

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?

 

This idea behind the incident I saw and the image of the dark breasted statues reminded me of something I saw in a telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time 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, put down in verse.

 

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Celebrating Sri Lankan Women’s Writing in English

The English Writers’ Cooperative (EWC) of Sri Lanka in association with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) organised an evening of poetry and prose by Sri Lankan women writers to celebrate International Women’s Day. Some of the work can be viewed here.

December 16, 2012 is one of the poems I read out. It was written in January this year and was in response to the horrific event that took place in Delhi, India in December that sent shock waves across the world.

December 16, 2012

They made a movie on a bus

riding around town, no one

.

heard the songs, or

saw the dances. The action stars

.

were new. Later, someone threw

in a name – Amanat. On and

.

on they moved around Delhi’s leafy

avenues, curtains drawn while the engine

.

kept time to the sounds inside. No cuts

no breaks the actors played their

.

part. The heroine protested – like all

heroines do. A new face she was dressed

.

for the part. An item girl they sang as

she danced. Munirka to Dwarka

.

it purred on its way. The wheels turned

round and round as the winter chill crept

.

through the leaves on the trees

and a single leaf fluttered to the ground,

.

torn apart. It fell across the road and no

one took note. Just another

.

leaf among so many in the city. Action

spent the bus came to a stop but

.

before they could shoot again the city rose

in wrath to demand a ban on the script’s

.

repeat. Candles lit, they waited it out, but

the wheels grind slowly round

.

and round. And while the old men argued

in vain inside colonial walls another

.

leaf fell silently to the ground.

.

© 2013  Shirani Rajapakse

Islam on the Rampage

It doesn’t take much to annoy a Muslim. Draw a cartoon figure and call it Mohammad and you’ll have the Muslim world up in arms, destroying property and killing a few hundred innocent people who have nothing to do with the cartoon.

Nearly seven years ago Muslims ran amok protesting vehemently when Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist published a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in Jyllands-Posten. Over 250 were left dead and approximately 800 injured as a result of Muslim extremism.(Huff Post)

Muslims went berserk worldwide recently when Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the California based film maker made a movie on the life of the Prophet Mohammad. This time too it was innocent people that got killed as Muslims the world over took to the streets and forced non Muslims to take note of the insult to Muslims.

Those same Muslims went on the rampage killing Buddhist monks in Bangladesh just a few days ago. Why? Because someone, no one is quite sure who it was, allegedly posted a photograph of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook. Did they wait to verify the authenticity of the person before they turned violent? No. They didn’t merely target the person who is alleged to have posted the photograph. They targeted the entire community. It was as if the Muslims were waiting for the opportunity to destroy the Buddhists community and that one photograph gave them the much needed excuse to go ahead and kill in the name of Islam. Not so long ago, a young Christian girl was arrested in Pakistan for allegedly burning pages from the Koran.

Muslims are quick to shout out against the slightest insult they feel that is directed at Islam but they don’t seem to care about insulting other religions or hurting and destroying the life of non –Muslims. When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Kandahar, Afghanistan, non-Muslims didn’t go on the rampage killing and destroying property of Muslims or dragging out the ambassadors of Islamic nations and killing them. The Bamiyan Buddhas were ancient statues depicting the form of the Buddha. Not only were they of value to Buddhists but they were also of historical and cultural value to the world.

Religions are supposed to, and claim to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs and view. Yet this doesn’t appear to be so in practice, or at least it doesn’t seem to hold true in Islam where it seems it’s alright to destroy and kill people of another religion.

Innocent Buddhist monks were killed, their temples burned to the ground and the homes of hundreds of Buddhist followers were destroyed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. A photograph posted on Facebook a few days later, of a monk sifting through the charred remains of what once must have been a temple in search of books that were saved from the fire brought back startling memories. It reminded me of another incident way back when in history. Nalanda University, in north India was one of the world’s oldest centers of learning and was once a thriving center of study. But it was razed to the ground by Islamic fundamentalists that didn’t appear to tolerate other religious views. It was said that the University burnt for days. Everything was destroyed, books, journals, and many students perished too. It was said that scholars came from far and wide to study there. Not anymore.

What Islamic fundamentalists burnt down that day in history was knowledge and the freedom of expression and discourse; the people they denied were the scholars and intellectuals, the cream of any society; they also denied future generations gaining from Nalanda’s vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge. It was not only a gross injustice to freedom of expression but also a violation of the very basic rights of all peoples – the right to knowledge, education, freedom of expression and importantly the right to life and liberty.

Sadly it’s still the same.  Nothing seems to have changed. Except that the temples and houses they burnt recently in Bangladesh was no Nalanda, yet it represented a place of learning, of discourse among people living in that area. These were also their homes that gave them shelter. Now these innocent people are forced onto the streets.

How can a religion claim to be tolerant or peaceful when it burns down and destroys places of religious value? How can it be called peaceful when it destroys life? Islam does all this and still expects the world to feel sympathetic towards them when someone insults Islam. Isn’t this hypocrisy? Or is that allowed?

The Pakistani ambassador recently condemned the anti-Islam video made by Nakoula that defamed the Prophet. Speaking at the UN on behalf of the 56 Islamic states that make up the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) he spoke of the urgent need to protect against “acts of hate crimes, hate speech… and incitement to religious hatred.” His speech is clearly directed at what he believes to be insults towards Islam and not to other religious or peoples.

“Incidents like this clearly demonstrate the urgent need on the part of states to introduce adequate protection against acts of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation and negative stereotyping of religions, and incitement to religious hatred, as well as denigration of venerated personalities,” Pakistan’s ambassador Zamir Akram said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Reuters)

The OIC hopes to introduce laws to make insults against religions an international crime. It has backed a resolution submitted by African states and calls on all countries to introduce a provision in domestic criminal law to prosecute those responsible for racism or xenophobia.  While the text deplores “the targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons” one wonders if this will be applied to crimes such as those that took place in Bangladesh recently, or even in Pakistan or any other country. Will this piece of legislation, if adopted by countries be applicable for all citizens living in those countries, including Muslims, or will it only target non –Muslims? If found to be guilty of inciting religious hatred or acts violence against believers of other religions or faiths, would Muslims agree to abide by the decision of local courts or would they try to get away from punishment by hiding behind Shariah? Only time will tell and hypocrisy rules.