Suniti Namjoshi lives in the southwest of England. Her most recent books for adults are The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012) and Suki (Penguin and Zubaan, 2013). Her children’s books include the Aditi series and Blue and Other Stories (Chennai: Tulika , 2012) for which Nilima Sheikh did the art work. The Boy and Dragon Stories will be published later this year by Tulika.
Audio: Unreal Animals
Because birds and beasts abound in my poems and fables, I’m often asked ‘Why do beasts inhabit your mind?’ And I reply lamely, ‘That’s just the way my mind works.”
But here, by looking at some of my poems and fables, I’ll see if I can come up with a better answer.
In Feminist Fables which was first published in 1981 the animals multiplied and flourished. I realized that there was something about animal images that made my brain flare. And I also realized that this was true in some degree of everyone. Many of the creatures in my fables come straight out of Aesop or Greek myth or fairy tales. For example, here is the lion being caught in a net.
The Mouse and the Lion
One day a lion caught a mouse. ‘Spare me,’ said the mouse, ‘I am so little and you are so big; but, who knows, perhaps some day I will be able to do you a favour.’ The lion thought this funny and let the mouse go. But a few days later the very same lion was caught in a net. After a while the mouse came along. ‘Help,’ called the lion, ‘Help, little mouse. Chew through these ropes. Remember, after all, that you owe me a favour.’ The mouse started chewing and then suddenly stopped. ‘Why have you stopped?’ roared the lion. ‘Well, I just thought of something,’ said the little mouse, ‘You see, I think I have already done you a favour.’ ‘You haven’t,’ roared the lion. ‘Yes, I have,’ said the mouse. ‘What?’ roared the lion. ‘Well, you see,’ said the mouse, ‘I haven’t killed you.’
The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012) p 28
The mouse and the lion have come out of a fable and have entered into a different fable. No forest or jungle ever contained them. And, of course, I’m really talking about people and their notions of justice. But then why the allegory? Why talk about animals? Why not talk about people if that’s what I’m concerned with? Writers are different, but I think a case can be made for allegory. In a fable readers are lulled into thinking that they are just listening to a story and it’s the startling realization that the story is about them that is, I think, effective.
There’s also the animal imagery that refers to ‘real’ animals as opposed to fabulous or literary animals. From the Bedside Book of Nightmares (1984), contains a poem about fur seals as shown on television. In a way the poem is about seals, but there are human implications in this poem as well.
The Fur Seals as Shown on Television
A female of the species has strayed
The TV presenter and I are not looking at the seals dispassionately. He is identifying with the Beachmaster, I with the female seals. Is it possible to be dispassionate in our attitudes to fellow living creatures?
And human beings are also our fellow living creatures. What happens there? I’m not sure Bhadravati in The Conversations of Cow belongs with the unreal animals. Yes, she’s a cow, but sometimes she’s a woman and sometimes she’s just who she is perceived to be. She talks. But then so do many of the animals who inhabit books. The difference is that she is also a woman, and though women may have been silenced for many centuries, women can and do talk. ‘Animal imagery’ is a commonplace term, but ‘woman imagery’ isn’t. We make images of women (and men) of course, but there’s a difference. We know that individual women and men aren’t there just for our taking. It is not their function to be exploited. But I fear that our attitude towards animals – the non-human ones – is cheerfully and unthinkingly exploitative.
All this began to trouble me as I was writing The Blue Donkey Fables, and though the Blue Donkey herself walked straight out of Chagall, there’s a poem in the book which asks about the difference between the unreal animals and real ones.
Poem Against Poets
I fall upon the thorns of life,
I am not suggesting that we legislate against using animal imagery. I would have to censor a large chunk of my own work. But I do question the notion that animals are ‘dumb’ just because they don’t speak English. Even when their situation is clearly eloquent, we choose to ignore it. And though I’m not an activist, I think that our deafness is both sad and culpable. Living creatures are highly expressive and even when they seem not to be saying anything, their body language is shrieking at the universe. To consider the truth of this all you have to do is watch people on a train or a bus, or seagulls on a beach.
Here’s a relatively recent poem about birds, in which I just try to write about what I see.
I might wish to be connected to the birds, but we humans may have left it too long and the rest of creation is alienated already. The day may come when ordinary animals will glitter in the pages of books (or on electronic media) as brightly as any fabled creature, and poets will continue to refer to them because they will continue to exist – but only as poetically charged words.
We admire the birds and beasts and even the fish and the insects. We want to be like them, we want to partake of their swiftness, their courage, their beauty. In short we want to establish a connection with them. That is at least in part at the root of all the poems about metamorphosis (Ovid) and the poems of identification (with skylarks and nightingales and such) and the children’s stories abounding in creatures.
I think it’s our awareness – at least at a subliminal level whatever our cultural background -that we are connected to the birds and beasts that makes us unable to leave them alone. And perhaps what is so potent about animal imagery is that it allows an imaging of ourselves that no one and nothing else can offer. But we have failed them, and cannot hear their speech because we have chosen not to.
(Copyrights to writings cited in the transcript and podcast belong to Suniti Namjoshi. All Photos by Suniti Namjoshi.)