Vous êtes ici : Accueil / Littérature / Littérature postcoloniale / Crafting a poetic voice as a 21st century Indian woman – An introduction to Menka Shivdasani

Crafting a poetic voice as a 21st century Indian woman – An introduction to Menka Shivdasani

Par Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud : ATER - Université Panthéon -Sorbonne
Publié par Marion Coste le 20/10/2022

Activer le mode zen

This article aims at shedding light on the work of Menka Shivdasani, a key figure of contemporary Indian poetry in English. It highlights her involvement in the collective poetry scene of Mumbai and her commitment to connect it to the world. It also focuses on the singular poetic voice she elaborates in the personal itinerary of her poetic work, shaping the self-portrait of a woman poetess in contemporary India.


In the post-independence years, the pioneer works of Dom Moraes (1938-2004) and Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004) sowed the seeds of modern anglophone poetry in Bombay which blossomed in the 60s and the 70s. Bombay became the beating heart of India’s most modern and innovative poetry, attracting poets from all over the country and abroad. Reflecting the diversity of the city, the Bombay poets came from various social backgrounds and origins and were remarkable for their many artistic interests. Poet-painter Gieve Patel, bilingual poet-translators Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, poets and prose writers Eunice de Souza or Adil Jussawalla are some of Bombay’s most eminent names. A creative turmoil animated the city in the second half of the twentieth century: Bombay was becoming the economic capital of the country while its artists were promoting their modern vision of art. The cosmopolitan city was a fertile ground for anglophone poetry but also for a flourishing Marathi theatre scene and for the emergence of modern Indian painting. The special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing ‘The Worlds of Bombay Poetry’ (2017) edited by Anjali Nerlekar and Laetitia Zecchini describes this effervescence and maps the different scenes.

Like the tides of the sea on which it is built, Bombay is relentlessly in motion. The turn of the century saw the city undergo yet another metamorphosis: from a postcolonial city it grew into a globalised megalopolis and changed its name to Mumbai in 1995. If Eunice De Souza was the first to publish her poems from the late 1980s, the powerful female voices of Menka Shivdasani and Arundhathi Subramaniam soon followed on the Bombay/Mumbai poetic scene of the early twenty-first century, asserting themselves in a predominantly male landscape. This article will focus on Menka Shivdasani, the elder of the two, who was born in Bombay in 1961 and now works as a journalist and an editor in Mumbai. She began her career as a journalist when she was still a student and made a very early debut in the artistic world of Bombay. She published her first collection Nirvana at Ten Rupees in 1990, the second, Stet, twelve years later in 2002, and a third, Safe House in 2015. Her selected poems from 1980 to 2017 were published two years later under the title of Frazil 1980-2017.

In this introduction to Shivdasani’s work, I mean to underline her constancy in her involvement with poetry, both on a personal and a collective level, which has made her an important figure in the city and beyond. I will show how this has influenced the construction of her poetic voice which keeps track of her development as a woman and as a poetess in the contemporary context of a changing Indian society. I will study how she reflects and stages the contradictions, the hopes and difficulties of her poetic persona confronted with the many imperatives placed on women in our contemporary world. Through a very original and tireless recomposing of her work, which involves including a selection of former poems in every new volume she publishes, Shivdasani has moulded and redrawn her poetic persona over the years. For instance, every decade of her life is celebrated with a self-portrait in an anniversary poem, which gives her the opportunity to recapture with acuity and self-derision the evolutions and changes she was subjected to in the time and place where she belongs. In the last section of this paper, I will examine more specifically these anniversary poems as well as the two prose poems that have functioned as landmarks in her work throughout the years.

A poetess committed to the city and involved in Mumbai’s artistic scene

Menka Shivdasani was only sixteen when she first went to Nissim Ezekiel’s PEN office seeking advice from the founding father of post-independence Indian anglophone poetry. After she showed him her first poems, he became her mentor and they established a life-long relationship. Like the younger poets (Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Jeet Thayil, Vijay Nambisan…), she was very much aware that she was living in a city of poets and inscribing her work in the tradition their mentors had created (Nerlekar, 2016 and Zecchini, 2014). Her first collection, Nirvana at Ten Rupees, was published in 1990 by Xal-Praxis, a Bombay publishing venture sponsored by an industrialist and edited by the poet Adil Jussawalla. The short life of this publishing house reflects the difficult times poets and artists were having in the rapidly changing economy of the city. The 29-year-old Shivdasani received the support of two important patrons in the blurb of her first collection: Nissim Ezekiel who emphasized the maturity of her voice: “Menka Shivdasani's first collection remains one of the best first collections published by this new generation”, and Adil Jussawalla who underlined the sharpness of her voice: “[she] brings a practiced journalist’s eye to day-to-day situations […] and charges them with rare, barely controlled electricity; it shocks and it stuns. [...] I am happy to be able to publish what I consider to be a strong, startling first book."

This first volume offers a selection of poems written over a period of twelve years and already contains some of the themes that she will pursue in her later work. They examine the issues and contradictions met by a woman in her twenties, from her life as a student to that of a young professional. The young poetess raises her voice against the social and cultural conventions that repress the imagination of an angry and frustrated lyrical ’I’. She also evokes the negativity of urban life: the turmoil of Bombay life, the red-light district and the slums, the difficulty of living as a single woman in a tiny apartment, the power cuts and the cockroaches. Her poetry makes room for the dark reality of the city, which includes drugs, sex trade and isolation. The tone of her poetry is sharp, ironic and critical of a social order that makes life particularly hard for single independent women. Her awareness as a journalist of the social and religious issues in the city intersects with her determination to ground her poetry in the collective experience of the Bombay poets. Her first book is also the result of her active involvement in the Poetry Circle, a poetry workshop of which she was a founding member.

At the end of the 1980s, the city poets found themselves in a paradoxical situation. As Bombay’s economy was changing from an industrial to a service-oriented economy, the sprawling city saw its poetic centre disintegrate. If the younger poets could still count on the support and the attentive ear of the former generation, Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes or Adil Jussawalla, they felt the necessity of a new collective dynamics for the anglophone poetic scene in the city. Thus, a trio in the image of this new generation, composed of Menka Shivdasani, a journalist, Akil Contractor, an ink manufacturer and Nitin Mukadan, a publicist, decided in May 1986 to create a new event that would break the isolation they all felt and bring out new talents. The very first meeting of the Poetry Circle took place in the offices of the advertising agency ‘Gannon Dunkerley & CO’. The advertiser recalls: “All the Marwari babus sitting there were quite shocked when these lines of poets, with their flamboyant dressing style, began walking in. So many came that we could not fit them in the conference room and had to ask people to stand in the main hall” (Silgardo, 2015).

Very soon, the Poetry Circle gathered around the original trio multiple personalities from very various backgrounds: R. Raj Rao, a professor of literature at Pune University and biographer of Nissim Ezekiel, Marilyn Noronha, a banker, Charmayne D'Souza, an advisor, Prabhanjan Mishra, a customs employee or TR. Joy, a professor of English literature… One of the great successes of the Poetry Circle was to manage to broaden the horizon of the public and participants to different professional circles. It was no longer just academics and artists but a much more diverse crowd, yet the participants were not writing poetry simply as amateurs. These meetings were an opportunity for them to put their work to the test of a critical audience. Many of them subsequently published a collection of poetry and pursued careers as poets parallel to their other professional occupation.

The young trio could also count on the help of the elders who continued to support the efforts of the younger generation. During the first official session, on October 3rd 1986, Dom Moraes agreed to come out of a seventeen-year-long poetic silence and read his poems. The success was on a par with his reputation and more than one hundred people flocked to Cama Hall, an unheard-of audience for a poetry reading. He then published a column in the Sunday newspaper praising the ambition of the young poets, insisting on the seriousness of the organization and reiterating his support and encouragement. Subsequently, the Poetry Circle succeeded in bringing out of their silence other big names of Indian poetry, for example by inviting Kamala Das to come and participate in the first anniversary of the Poetry Circle.

The lack of funds did not stop the inventive trio who multiplied initiatives. Shivdasani launched the newsletter "I to I " which was typed on the computers of a famous advertiser; the visuals were created by a graphic designer friend, Sudarshan Dheer and another friend, Rajesh Chaturvedi, covered the printing costs. If the newsletter did not survive long, the members of the Poetry Circle did not give up on their goal and embarked on the production of a magazine called Poesis, edited by Prabhanjan Mishra, TR. Joy and the publicist, Narain Sadhwani. All of them dedicated much of their time and their resources to this project for free.

A poetry competition was also organized from the first year and the extent of its success is astonishing when we know the limited means of the organizers: "In the first year, we organized a competition, with prize money coming from our own pockets. It was meant to be a small local event, but when the newspapers announced it, entries came in from all over the country, and even Dubai!” (Shivdasani, 2005) This competition gave an opportunity to discover and make visible new poets who would become important names such as the winner of the first edition who was none other than the poet Vijay Nambisan with his poem "Madras Central". (King, 2001, 287) Over the years, the Poetry Circle enabled the emergence of many young poets who have become respected names in Indian poetry in English like Arundhathi Subramaniam or Jerry Pinto for example. At the time, it was considered to be “the most visible symbol of a new revival of Indian poetry in English” (Tripathi, 1988), giving this new generation a newfound legitimacy and confidence.

Menka Shivdasani’s commitment to poetry has thus always had both a personal and a collective dimension. All her work demonstrates her awareness of the responsibility that befell her generation to pursue the heritage of the Bombay poets and project it into the twenty-first century both in her city and in the world. Her ambition to connect the Bombay/Mumbai poetry scene to the globalised contemporary poetic scene is illustrated by her role as Mumbai coordinator for the global movement 100 Thousand Poets for Change dedicated to the promotion of poetry and to the involvement of poets in the world’s social issues. As a translator and anthologist, she has also shown her commitment to make the voices of poets heard.

In Freedom and Fissures: an Anthology of Sindhi Partition Poetry published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1998, she explores her Sindhi heritage and aims to give an international visibility to Sindhi, a vernacular Indian language, through its translation in English, thereby continuing the tradition of the Bombay poets as translators of poets. In 2004, she chose to publish her Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry with an American publishing house, Big Bridge, in an effort to connect Indian poets to the worldwide anglophone scene. Finally, in 2014, she published If the Roof Leaks, Let it Leak, an Anthology of Writing by Indian Women with Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), thus continuing her lifelong work to give visibility to women as vital actors of Indian society.

A poetic persona in constant recomposition, a mirror of instable times and values

Menka Shivdasani’s poetic work is so far composed of four volumes: Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990), Stet (2002), Safe House (2015) and Frazil 1980-2017 (2018). If Stet, published when she was 41, was already composed of previously published poems, her last volume is a collection of selected poems spanning from her twenties to her mid-fifties, with the dates (1980-2017) typed on the cover inside the letter “L” of Frazil. It opens on ten new poems and is then divided in two sections going back in time: 2000-2015 and 1980-2000.

Publishing selected poems or including some previously published material in a new volume is a common practice for poets to make available work that is otherwise out of print. Some poetry publishing houses do not live long and very often it means that their catalogue will not be reissued. Nirvana at Ten Rupees was published by the ephemeral Xal-Praxis and though it gave Shivdasani the opportunity to have her first poems published, it soon ran out and was never reissued. It is therefore vital for the survival of her work that she should select a few poems from her first collection in her second volume, Stet. The same goes for Frazil which has twenty-five out of the thirty-two poems from Nirvana and twenty-seven out of the thirty-two poems in Stet, the first two volumes being unavailable today.

Safe House stands out as the only volume of poetry that does not include previously published poems. One can venture a guess that it is because it was published by Poetrywala, a vibrant Mumbai poetry publishing house whose editors, the Divates, support contemporary poets and help poetry radiate internationally by connecting poets from diverse languages. For many poets in Bombay/Mumbai and elsewhere, Poetrywala has provided some relief from the pressure of the constant quest for publication. It ensures a broad online diffusion and the continuous availability of their work. Therefore, with Frazil, also published by Poetrywala, Shivdasani gives the reader almost forty years of her experience as a poetess.

What started as an issue of accessibility that many other poets have to deal with one way or another has become, for Shivdasani, a challenge to craft a continuity in her poetic work through selecting and rearranging the order of the poems. When composing Stet, she was not just presenting her current production but also creating a continuity in perspective which gave consistency to her poetic persona. “Stet” is a word sub-editors use to indicate that material originally deleted should be retained. Not only is it a reference to her work as a journalist which is central to this second volume, but it is also a metaphor of the material produced by her younger self which is not to be erased or deleted by this new volume but rather expanded as her voice has evolved.

Shivdasani manages to encapsulate in the fourteen selected poems the essence of her first collection: the portrayal of a young woman growing from childhood to adulthood, who is uncompromising in her relation to spirituality (“Are You There?”, “An Atheist’s Confessions”), forcefully advocating for the emancipation of women from the clichés of a conservative society (“Schoolgirl No More”, “Today’s Fairy Tale”, “Spring Cleaning”) and determined to do so thanks to poetry as she claims in “Hinges”, a poem written when she was only sixteen: “Now I’m building / another body for myself”. The selection closes with three poems that embody the dual persona that Shivdasani will keep exploring throughout her work: her identity as a woman journalist and as a poetess. She also ironically portrays herself as a “housewife poet” who unbeknownst to the world uses her kitchen knives to cut and dissect herself and the world around her (“Why Rabbits Never Sleep” or “Repair Job”).

All of this second volume is built around the voice of a female professional in her forties whose career has taken her to work for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong for one year in 1989 and back to Mumbai where she has settled into family life. She pursues the uncompromising self-portrait of the modern Indian journalist she embodies. In “Stet”, her experience as an editor for a newspaper is one of lassitude: “Harassed / by too many telephone calls, / I did not check it, just cut / the line I didn’t understand”. In this poem, she evokes a repetitive and stupefying job through the metaphor of mould that gradually covers her body although she tries to hide this rotting. The material comfort brought by this position does not bring her any liberation. The feeling of alienation in repetition and banality is also expressed in the poem "A Traveller’s Tale" which echoes "Stet": "Sitting on this grey executive chair / she tells herself she's going somewhere // Her pen is a gun, / but watch her run, / run away into her executive chair." The echo between “gun” and “run” illustrates the limitation of her power and the meaninglessness of her writing. Likewise, her subaltern position underlined in the poem “The Head” (“He was the head / of the department / and I guess / I was the foot”) ironically describes the contradictory feelings of a writer who has to make her way in the male-dominated work-field of journalism.

If her commitment to poetry has not wavered, it takes on darker shades in the second volume (“Epitaph”, “Upper Crust”). The theme of the kitchen and the sharp knives appears once again but it is far from what it was in Nirvana. In “Kitchen Dream”, she writes: “She’s lost her way to freedom, doesn’t know it anymore” or “How does she deal with the knife-edge that slices every need? / Tell her, friend, is that really you? / You used to speak of poetry, she thought your words were true. / But now her life is whitewashed, the door is firmly shut. / She wants to shatter this security, instead she takes the blade / to cut / a portion of that lively brain that once she so well knew.” Compared to the cutting irony and fierce youthful determination of the first collection, the tone of the second volume is more melancholic and marked by disillusion (“The Quality of Darkness”, “Returning to Emptiness”, “Sarcophagus”): the security of a home and a job cannot compensate for living in the harsh reality of divided and segregated Mumbai.

Shivdasani’s fourth collection Frazil was published by Poetrywala only three years after her third book, Safe house. Selected poems are common in the catalogue of this publishing house. The aim of Hemant Divate, the editor, is to allow active poets to take a retrospective look and structure their work in progress. This flexible form accompanies the evolution of the poet’s work and its transformation is extremely interesting to study when one has the chance to have access to the original collections. These selections show the poets’ constant concern to make their poetic work a living material. It allows them to compose the architecture of their collection, to publish texts which were left aside due to lack of space in previous books, or even to rewrite certain texts.

This is the case of Frazil, which brings together the poems Shivdasani composed between 1980 and 2017. In this collection, the poetess has chosen to organize her texts in a backward chronological order. As the title “Frazil” indicates, those clusters of poems are like pieces of ice floating on the turbulent sea of her poetic work, unable to assemble into a solid and consistent whole despite her effort to do so, thus remaining fragments that dates can nevertheless organize and give coherence to.

Therefore, in this collection, the perspective that the authoress gives to her work underlines the different steps of maturation of her poetic voice in nearly forty years of production. Her contemporary voice comes first: she is now a woman in her sixties and offers the reader a transformed perspective on the places she has known and the different periods of time through which she has lived. For example, the series of angry kitchen poems from her beginnings find their resolution in two poems selected from Safe House: “Homemaker" and "The Woman Who Speaks to Milk Pots”. Having moved on from the undercover “housewife poet” of the poem “Why Rabbits Never Sleep”, from the disillusion of the frustrated “Kitchen Dreams”, the cook in “Homemaker” watches with a relative indifference her decayed kitchen, warped and faded, being torn apart by workers: “it’s time to break the kitchen, / to take your fires elsewhere”. The early urge to transgress a conventional destiny is still very much there. Destroying and rebuilding, composing and recomposing testify to the incessant quest for an adequation of the self in an unwelcoming context for women.

Some poems in Menka Shivdasani’s work stand out as self-portrait poems. She uses the classical form of celebratory poems to record the passing of time, capturing a reflection of herself that she transforms into her poetic persona. In that regard, two poems can be compared as they share a very similar form: "The Atheist’s Confessions" from Nirvana at Ten Rupees and "Bewitched" from Stet. Both poems follow the same pattern as the mention of age opens each line but their point is quite different.

"The Atheist's Confessions" is the opening poem of the collection and asserts the bold statement the young poetess wants to make as she evokes her evolving relationship with religion from the age of thirteen to twenty-two. "At Thirteen I believed in rose petal / strewn at the earth-god's feet. […] At fourteen my purse got slashed / in the temple crowds. […] Fifteen, and the Beatles / became my gods […] I was eighteen, and worshipped myself. […] Twenty-two, I no longer worship / myself, or him." The succession of years is here portrayed as various steps she took while emancipating herself from the need to believe. Declaring herself an atheist in the Indian context of religiosity makes her a radical outsider impossible to situate in the very hierarchised society she lives in, which is all the more daring for a woman. She clearly places herself in the continuation of the poets from the sixties and seventies (D. Chitre, A. Kolatkar, A. Jussawalla, G. Patel...) who, despite their various family traditions, were themselves unreligious and more in line with the secular vision of independent India.

"The Atheist’s Confessions" is echoed in the collection by several other poems that highlight the portrayal of a fearless and audacious young woman anxious to free herself from oppressive social conventions, thus making Nirvana at Ten Rupees a sort of manifesto or programmatic declaration. In this volume, she defines the horizon that she sets for herself and for her generation, for instance in the poem "Cigarette" where she takes pleasure in disrupting conventions by smoking in public or in the poem "Schoolgirl No More" in which she expresses her need to break free from tradition and forge her own path: "History taught me not to live / in the past, and English literature / that I belong nowhere." The succession of poems echoing the opening poem gives a determined rhythm to the collection as if asserting over and over the message the poetess wants this volume to convey. She belongs to a new generation of women who have to assert their existence on their own terms.

If in "The Atheist’s Confessions", poetry is a means to explore and report on her own evolution and to draw the generational self-portrait of a woman’s emancipation, in the poem "Bewitched", which follows the same pattern of age introducing each line, time has stopped. It is blocked on the age of thirty-three, which is repeated again and again like the broken mechanism of a biological clock in which she finds herself stuck: "At thirty-three, the hair is not yet white; / the skin, drier, yet moist and young. // The world still burns [..] the tongue still thirsts // At thirty-three, you must let your throat be still / just for a while; time moves in for the kill. // But whom do you cheat as the witches boil their brew? / Be quiet now; one day they will get you." The dialogical ‘you’ at the end of the poem sounds like a warning which is confirmed by the last line, predicting a probable unhappy and violent ending.

In Stet, the poem "Bewitched" shows a moment of suspension before the fall which happens in the closing poem entitled "The Price of Potatoes", a long prose poem, as if this choice of form was the only possible one to tell the banal story in the third person of a wild unconventional girl turned into the perfect yet dissatisfied housewife. It takes the irruption of communal violence in the city to disrupt this woman's well-ordained life which is reduced to the boring façade of an arranged marriage and to link her story to that of the city. Religious prejudices have multiple consequences. The deadly 1993 riots in Bombay bring her "long-ago lover" – an impossible match because he was Muslim – at her door wounded, seeking refuge from a violent mob. Their past failure at overcoming religious prejudices despite their love finds its counterpart in the divided city where Muslims are being slaughtered by Hindus. Confronting the mob for his sake, she takes his side this time. Her husband arrives in a ransacked apartment: "In the bedroom, as he followed the crimson trail, he found the two of them, entwined, unmoving."

The woman’s diary printed in italics ends the prose poem and is read by the husband who hears his wife’s true voice. While the riots were disrupting the whole city, she remained a spectator of her life in her bourgeois interior with the everyday concerns of a bored housewife:

These days my concerns are the dust on the TV, the food on the table, keeping a husband happy whom I do not love. Outside, the city is riot-torn […].

In these middle-class moralities, nothing stirs except the spoon in my cup of tea.

[...] I used to be a good writer; I’m told. But the words have been knocked out. My concerns are the price of potatoes and the recipes that can transform them.

These things promise safety, don’t they?

But I forget that the price of potatoes is in inverse proportion to the price of human life.

Watch the stove exploding in my face.

The hypocrisy and cynicism of this divided society literally explode here in the richest city in India and it takes extremely violent situations to eventually shake the passive acceptance of such an unfair social order. Here, Shivdasani creates characters who each in their own way have had to renounce their desire and pay the price of this renunciation.

In all of Shivdasani’s poetry, there are only two prose poems. The second prose poem “A crow finds its feet” is also placed at the end of the collection and is explicitly presented as an epilogue in Frazil. These two texts in prose, which are both several pages long, are clearly apart from the rest of Shivdasani's poetic production but they continue the self-portraits that are typical of her poetic production.

"A crow finds its feet" greatly differs from "The Price of Potatoes" in that it deals with the universal theme of growing old. The irony and self-derision that characterize Shivdasani’s tone are still there but without the bitterness and violence of the first prose poem. Here the dialogic ‘you’ that is heard breaks the logic of separation that pervaded the first poem, and on the contrary connects the experience of different women with that of the persona speaking about her body and feelings: "At first the lines are gentle […] The mirror stares back at you, and the waist is still twenty-four inches because you are in denial mode the truth—the truth is that somewhere along the way it has doubled but you haven’t a clue."

She resumes her counting in decades. In her twenties, her life-span is seen as limited to the prospect of her death in her forties: "Well, forty is a good age to die, it will give you enough time to experience life and you would still be youthful enough to go out looking good”. She reaches her fifties unexpectedly: "Your fiftieth birthday takes you by surprise. However did you make it this far, you think, as you dye your grey hair to the darkest shade of brown". Her sixtieth birthday cake has only one candle: "for good luck".

In "A crow finds its feet", she humorously draws the portrait of a mature woman caught in the contradictions of the contemporary cult of youth and its aesthetic standards. She confronts hers with the selective eye of young people who are quick to categorize her with the cliched image of her age: "On a trip to Goa, when you visit the casino, you wear sexy floral jeans and hide the bulge beneath the jacket. ‘Auntie’, the youngsters call you anyway, appalled to see gin and tonic in your hand because old women aren’t meant to be drinking, it sets bad example. 'Auntie?' you fume to a friend later, 'auntie!' 'Arrey, yaar', she consoles you, 'at least they didn't say granny!'" In this passage, she paints a sharp and ironical portrait of herself by combining several points of view. She makes fun of her own age by repeating younger people’s comments while mocking at the same time their old-fashioned bigotry and then she immediately counterbalances it with a brief and witty aside which reverses the irony on herself.

Shivdasani also writes about the contradictory life in an urban setting where modernity and tradition are in constant clash. The early twenty-first century which corresponds with the liberal explosion of a globalised economy, the rise of internet and social media and their global culture, has also seen the rise of a populist nationalism. Caught between these contradictory tensions, her poetic persona has constantly tried to capture the ironic situation of a generation for which youth meant freedom and transgression but who has finally accepted the existential emptiness but comfortable life of the privileged classes.

If the passing of time is an inevitable road to decay and death, it seems that for Shivdasani nothing is more important than to be in sync with her time. Finding a personal balance in the ever-unstable context of a mega-city has been at the heart of her work. The danger of fossilisation is much greater for her than old age. In one of her last poems, entitled “Unfinished Journeys” she celebrates the fecund circularity of time and the vitality of movement. Finding joy in the fact that despite the trials and errors in life “There are too many unfinished journeys left, / too many tangled ends. / In the hush of this familiar space / as the spiders crawl out / I must pick up my bags, / scratch off the scabs, / begin the journey again.”

Conclusion: crafting her place in a chorus of women

Throughout her work, Menka Shivdasani has been weaving her poetic persona poem after poem. With her irony and her wit, she is neither self-complacent nor self-righteous. Her latest metamorphosis is to be found in the poem “Iron woman” which is present in her two latest books, Safe House (2015) and Frazil (2018). It evokes the ultimate transmutation of the persona she has created over the years: "Freed from the meteorite / with lightning tongue, / I expand without breaking. / You may melt and mix me, / I emerge even purer, / magnetic and ready to strike – / Iron woman, in her element."

The geological, volcanic metaphors of the “Iron Woman” whose will and sharp tongue can no longer be restrained or constrained by her age or her sex are reminiscent of another key figure of Bombay poetry, the poetess Eunice de Souza. One of Shivdasani's new poems "The Almond Leaf" is an echo of de Souza’s last book Learn From the Almond Leaf published one year before her death in 2017. In this poem, Shivdasani pays tribute to another powerful presence of a poetess in the city with the collective ‘we’, "we blow bubbles, suck air, / soundlessly opening our mouths" and celebrates their inexhaustible passion and daring. The poem ends on the line "no longer flamboyant, / but still flame". The presence of a collective body of women in the city finds multiple examples in her work (“The Whole Deal”, “Bird Woman”, “Everywoman is an Island”, “Tigress” …). They insist on the necessary empowerment of women in the world and this ensemble of poems creates a chorus of women, a female collective, a “we” that the poetess has built from the self-emancipating women in Nirvana at Ten Rupees to a renewed and transformed chorus of older female figures in her latest work. Shivdasani’s poetic itinerary has demonstrated an unfailing determination and dedication to poetry. She made up for the long absence of a publishing house in Bombay by publishing texts in magazines, newspapers or on the internet. The community of poets she has contributed to build is moving on and the baton has been handed over to younger poetesses like Arundhathi Subramaniam or Sampurna Chattarji. Since the sixties, the Bombay/Mumbai poets have made it their trade-mark to share their experience and immerse their poetry in the multiplicity of cultural, religious and social layers that their city provides. Menka Shivdasani definitely belongs to that tradition.


CHAUDHURI, Rosinka (ed). 2016. A History of Indian Poetry in English. Cambridge University Press.

KING, Bruce. 2001. Modern Indian Poetry in English. Oxford University Press.

NERLEKAR, Anjali. 2016. Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture. Northwestern University Press.

NERLEKAR, Anjali and ZECCHINI Laetitia (eds). 2017. « The worlds of Bombay poetry », Journal of Postcolonial Writing, volume 53, n°1-2, https://doi.org/10.1080/17449855.2017.1311401. Accessed on 27 October 2020.

SILGARDO, Dustin. « In Mumbai Poetry never ends », LiveMint, 14 March 2015, https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/PiIf2yCkU724MEaeTO1UIM/In-Mumbai-the-poetry-never-ends.html. Accessed on 27 October 2020.

SHIVDASANI, Menka, 1990. Nirvana at Ten Rupees. Bombay: XAL-Praxis.

---. 1998. Freedom and fissures: an anthology of Sindhi partition poetry. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

---. 2002. Stet. Calcutta: myword! Press.

---. 2004. Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. California: Big Bridge Press.

---. « The Beginnings of Poetry Circle ». The Daily Star, 31 December 2005, https://archive.thedailystar.net/2005/12/31/d512312102104.htm. Accessed on 27 October 2020.   

---. 2014. If the Roof Leaks, Let it Leak, an anthology of writing by Indian women. Mumbai: Sound and Picture Archives for Research in Women.

---. 2015. Safe House. Mumbai: Poetrywala.

---. 2018. Frazil (1980-2017). Mumbai: Poetrywala.

TRIPATHI, Salil. « English poetry: Popular revival sweeps the literary scene, poets gain more recognition »,  India today, 31 May 1988, https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/society-the-arts/story/19880531-english-poetry-popular-revival-sweeps-the-literary-scene-poets-gain-more-recognition-797292-1988-05-31. Accessed on 27 October 2020.  

ZECCHINI, Laetitia. 2014. Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India, Moving Lines. London: Bloomsbury.

Further reading

Newspaper articles

SHIVDASANI, Menka. « Nissim Ezekiel: you missed out a comma in the fourth line », Daily Star, 24 January 2004, http://archive.thedailystar.net/2004/01/24/d401242102108p.htm. Accessed on 27 October 2020.

---. « For many poets in a megacity like Mumbai, writing poetry is not a peaceful activity », Poetspath.com, http://www.poetspath.com/Scholarship_Project/shivda.html. Accessed on 29 October 2020.

Other works by women poets from Bombay

CHATTARJI, Sampurna. 2007. Sight May Strike You Blind. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

---. 2010. Absent Muses. Mumbai: Poetrywala.

---. 2015. Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien. New Delhi: Harper Collins.

DE SOUZA, Eunice. 1979.  Fix. Bombay: Newground.

---. 1988. Women in Dutch Painting. Bombay: Xal-Praxis.

---. 1990.  Ways of Belonging. Bombay, Edimbourg: Polygon.

---. 2009. A Necklace of Skulls: Collected Poems. New Delhi: Penguin.

---. 2016. Learn from the Almond Leaf. Mumbai: Poetrywala.

SUBRAMANIAM, Arundhathi. 2001. On Cleaning Bookshelves. New Delhi: Allied Publishers.

---. 2009. Where I Live: New & Selected Poems. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books.

---. 2014. When God Is A Traveller. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books.

---. 2019. Love Without A Story. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud, "Crafting a poetic voice as a 21st century Indian woman – An introduction to Menka Shivdasani", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2022. Consulté le 14/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/introduction-to-menka-shivdasani