(India, 1945)   

Vaidehi is the pen name of Janaki Srinivasa Murthy. Born in 1945, she published her first book of short stories (Mara Gida Balli) in 1979. She has since then established herself as a significant presence in Kannada literature. A versatile writer, she writes short fiction, novels, essays, children’s plays and poems. She has two collections of poetry to her credit: Bindu Bindige (1990) and Parijatha (1999). Born and raised in Kundapura, in the scenic Udupi district of Karnataka, she now lives in the city of Manipal.

English translations of her poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including In Their Own Voice: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women Poets and Hot is the Moon (published by SPARROW). She has received a number of awards, including the ‘Dana Chintamani Attimabbe Prashasthi’ (an award from the Karnataka State government in 1998) and the ‘Sadodita’ Award (from the Shashwathi Trust, Bangalore) for her contribution to Kannada literature.

This edition features four of Vaidehi’s poems, two of which have been specially reworked for this occasion by translators Dr Ramachandra Sharma and Ahalya Ballal. ‘She, he and language’ is (notwithstanding the many challenges the translators had to grapple with) a minor classic. Ironic, spare and poised, it is an iconic poem about language, gender and intimacy. A man and a woman, their conversation at perennial cross-purposes, groping for each other, missing each other all the time – the scenario is a familiar one. What makes the poem work is the scrupulous absence of sentiment. There is no attempt to assign blame, to identify victim or perpetrator; there is no attempt to tell the reader what to feel. We simply eavesdrop on this conversation right down to the telling last lines:

She: Shall I open the window for some air?
He: What? Hungry? Thirsty?

In ‘Tell Me, You Who Know . . .’, words are implicated satirically yet again. The poet undercuts the notion of writing as a grand imperial project, and reflects instead on the recipe of a staple South Indian dish: rasam. The craft of making rasam is not to be scoffed at, she tells us; it takes a deep understanding of arcane principles of physics (of “water, aroma and essence”). And a pot of this humble brew can hold its own among the most sumptuous meat dishes. In counter-pointing the creation of poetry to this modest daily ritual of cooking, the poet is not merely honouring the domestic; she is also downsizing the poetic project, the grandiosity, mystique and self-importance that so often accompany it.

Yet another delightful poem is ‘A Song for Shiva as She Gives Him a Bath’. Here again we find a feel for the subtle nuances of the gender equation, the tenderness and treachery, the love and rage of the man-woman relationship. The only difference here is that the protagonists happen to be gods – Shiva (Nataraja) and Parvathi (Gowri) – and archetypal figures in their own right. What does it mean to live with a man who is both ascetic and lover, god and human? A being that is both cosmic and individual, personal and impersonal, embodied and formless all at once? The classic tensions of this relationship (with a sly reference to Shiva’s ‘episode’ with river goddess, Ganga) are explored with subtlety and humour.

But here again there is no attempt to philosophise or moralise; the poem’s strength is its crisp sense of the particular. The volatile gamut of human emotion – Parvathi’s pride, anguish, rage, love and resignation – is skilfully invoked. There can be no easy peace either. It is not difficult to guess that the medicine of kiratha twigs Parvathi finally gives him will be particularly astringent. Shiva would be foolish to expect any easy reconciliation with this tempestuous goddess he has chosen for his consort!

© Arundhathi Subramaniam

Selected Bibliography

Parijatha, Christ College Kannada Sangha, Bangalore, 1999
Bindu Bindige, Akshara Prakashana, Sagara, 1990

Hot is the Moon: Poems and Stories of Women in Kannada, Tamil, Konkani And Tulu, (ed. Arundhathi Subramaniam), SPARROW, Mumbai, 2009
In Their Own Voice: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary Indian Women Poets (ed. Arlene R K Zide), Penguin, New Delhi, 1993 ISBN: 0140156437


Gulabi Talkies and other stories, (English translations) edited by Mrs. Tejaswini Niranjana, Penguin, New Delhi, 2006
Alegalalli Antharanga, Akshara Prakashana, Sagar, 2006
Ammacchi Emba Nenapu, Akshara Prakashana, Sagar, 2006


Muse India: Some more poems by Vaidehi.

Library of Congress – The South Asian Literary Recording Project: Vaidehi reads extracts from her stories and poems. ‘My Mother's Sari’ (5.Nanna ammana sire) and ‘A Song for Shiva’ (2. Sivana misuva hadu).
The Hindu: Review of Vaidehi’s collection of short stories, Gulabi Talkies
Blogspot-RusticRumblings: ‘Vaidehi: A Reluctant Feminist’ –Vaidehi's fiction examined.


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