The NI Interview
Rukmini Sekhar chats with an effervescent Indian activist who manages to combine
a literary life with a fierce passion for social justice.
Indian feminist Sugatha Kumari is a rare mixture – a widely-respected poet and a gutsy social activist. A self-described ‘troublemaker’ in her home state of Kerala she has been both an environmentalist and a campaigner for women’s rights. ‘I’m very proud to be a woman,’ she says. ‘But it is not easy in a male world. Men don’t mind accepting me as a poet, but when I stick my neck into hot water that’s when things can get unpleasant. My life has been threatened many times but I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear.’
It was the savaging of nature in a fast-modernizing India that led her to combine her poetry and her activism. The Western Ghats, the spectacular tree-covered mountain range that divides Kerala from Tamil Nadu were under attack from logging concessions and Ms Kumari decided to use her talents as a poet to save one region of particular beauty called Silent Valley. ‘I wanted to draw attention to the plight of nature versus development,’ she recalls. So she cajoled and browbeat a collection of Kerala’s writers into an effective pressure group both to protest the devastation and to inform people about the destruction. ‘We set up special prakriti mushairas or nature poetry gatherings and invited the public. We were able to touch many hearts with our songs and poems.’
Ms Kumari scoffs at the fatalism which many Indians accept as part of Hindu teachings. People feel there is little they can do to alter fate and that change is impossible -- though in fact this reaction is not much different in India than in the rest of the world.
She bristles at the suggestion. ‘You can’t sit idle and say it is all karma. We are masters of our karma; the Gita [a sacred Hindu text] says we have to do our duty. We have to fight, to be active, to work hard. If we can wipe the tears of even one woman, it must change her karma as well as ours.’ Experience has taught her that it is better to wade into the fray, to take a chance, than not to act at all. She is convinced that the stakes are too high for apathy. ‘If we remain indifferent,’ she says, ‘we will be swallowed.’
Ms Kumari was inspired by her father’s poetry as well as his strong beliefs: ‘He was a freedom fighter filled with the all too rare ideals of patriotism and sacrifice.’ His example influenced her deeply and led her eventually to the conviction that the writer has an important obligation as a social conscience. Although she admits, ‘most creative writers are introverts and merely want to write peacefully,’ Ms Kumari knows from her own campaigns that good story-telling can be a powerful tool for social change. When she was battling on behalf of Silent Valley she found that ‘people were much more inspired when writing touched their hearts than by scientific or technical information.’ She has little hesitation in claiming that ‘a poet can communicate much better than a scientist.’
Although she is best known as a poet-environmentalist, Ms Kumari is also the founder of Abhaya (refuge) -- an organization which gives shelter and hope to female mental patients. Her work to launch Abhaya was prompted by an off-chance visit to the government-run Mental Hospital in the capital, Trivandrum. There women were housed in 19th century conditions, sexually abused and regularly prostituted to men in the neighbouring police camp. When she visited the hospital she saw ‘women’s bodies covered with sores and stark naked. They were emaciated and their hair was matted. They didn’t even look like human beings.’ The horror of this experience was embedded in her mind and she decided on the spot to do something about it, despite vehement opposition from the psychiatric community.
‘They were dead against us; they told us they were the professionals and that it was none of our business. We said mentally ill women are human beings too. They must be allowed to live with dignity and their basic needs fulfilled.’
While hospital authorities denounced her in the press, Ms Kumari organized a group of activists, politicians and intellectuals, who managed to create enough publicity and chaos to eventually instigate a legal inquiry into the matter.
‘We initiated protest marches and rallies all over the state,’ she recalls. ‘Finally the High Court set up a commission. Meanwhile, we decided to do some constructive work. We collected thousands of old clothes, food and other things and began to distribute them to the women in the hospital.’ Out of this concrete work grew Abhaya.
Since then Ms Kumari has also set up a home for destitute mentally ill women with as well as a de-tox and counselling centre for drug users and alcoholics. The good news is that conditions in Kerala’s psychiatric hospitals conditions are rapidly changing.
‘After 150 years the closed doors of these hospitals were thrown wide open. The searchlight of society is now on these places and they will never be dark again.’
Though she has had great success and satisfaction in changing the real world, Ms Kumari finds equal nourishment in the process of creation and the world of the imagination. It’s sometimes hard to explain she says, ‘but poetry is part of my being, like breathing. I can’t live without it.’
Reprinted and adapted with permission from The Eye, New Delhi, India.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996