Poetry

Yamini Pathak:
“Manifesto for the Indian Widow Who Wishes to Live”

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

In life, I work hard to stay open to possibility and experience, to hear all sides, and this can make me wishy-washy, overly agreeable, eager to please. In art, I love a good declaration—an ars poetica, a manifesto—something in which the very form plants a flag and announces an ideology or perspective with confidence and clarity. The manifesto in particular appeals to me because of its roots in the word “manifest;” a manifesto creates, sometimes numerically, rules for a world the author wants to live in or remind us of. Manifestos can be imperative, provocative, and political. As this manifesto on manifestos reminds us, they are themselves “a kind of storytelling,” creating a narrative for the world as it is, or could be. When combined with dangerous ideologies, a manifesto can be a frightening document indeed. Sometimes they declare a view I want no part of, and yet in poems, I am drawn to the way manifestos can be used to explore persona, skewer dominant thought, and provoke an action or response in the audience.

Yamini Pathak’s “Manifesto for the Indian Widow Who Wishes to Live” is a creative take on the form, straddling both the real world, where some Indian widows still face mistreatment, and an imaginative realm imagined in Pathak’s epigraph as a fictional text, A History of The Care & Treatment of Unnatural Beasts. Here, true-to-life details about the experiences of Indian widows are interwoven with dramatized visions of widow-as-beast who will “molt [her] plumage” and unite with various water creatures to create a “new breed of monster.” The use of the manifesto form at first seems to lend authority and credence to the view of widows as a problem to be solved, if cruelly. But ultimately, through the use of fantastical elements and irony, the piece transforms into a strong negative commentary on what Pathak calls in her Poet’s Note “the traditional treatment of widows in Indian society.”

The interplay between the title of the poem and the manufactured text (“A History of The Care & Treatment of Unnatural Beasts”) it is “taken” from is particularly resonant, dancing as it does between the real and the imagined. It is no doubt difficult for any widow to find the will to carry on after the loss of a spouse, yet the title’s specificity—“Indian Widow Who Wishes to Live”—evokes something more than just the usual period of adjustment, sadness, and struggle. The practice of sati in India, in which a woman throws herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband, was an ancient, voluntary tribute that over time became a forced practice in some families and castes. Sati peaked between the 15th and 18th centuries and hasn’t been practiced regularly in India for nearly two centuries. However, it wasn’t wholly outlawed until the Sati Prevention Act of 1987 was enacted following another young widow’s death by immolation. [Sources here and here] Although ancient, terrible, and rare, this tradition comes to mind when I read today’s poem. Even without that cultural insight, though, the title evokes a widow seeking a z full, vital life after her husband’s death instead of becoming irrelevant or fading away. In either reading, that a widow must “wish” for it implies that for them, life is not a given. The manifesto form, though, suggests a way forward.

The title seems to assert the widow’s right to “live”—figuratively and literally—and the words “manifesto” and “for” suggest an intent to provide rules and instructions for that. The undertaking is complicated immediately by the epigraph with its invented source material. In creating a text that compares women and widows to “Unnatural Beasts,” Pathak lets us know her tongue is firmly in her cheek as she begins her list. Fully aware of what her title has evoked, she raises the ante on the poem’s conceit by “quoting” a text which essentially equates widows with “beasts” in need of “Care & Treatment.” The juxtaposition of the seriousness of the title and the absurdity of the source material reminds us from the beginning that while immolation may be legally off the table, the current societal treatment of widows still sometimes gives them little to “live” for.

The poem addresses each instruction to a “you,” planting the reader in the widow’s shoes as she faces her new life and its new standards of conduct and is, in the poem, transformed into an animal. She is bestowed an “honorary” title that is anything but honorable, and her husband’s family is invited to “address/taunt/curse” her. Befitting her status as a “beast,” the widow is compared to a cannibalistic praying mantis and then a bird doomed to become “un-feathered” and “flightless.” Further stripping the widow (and thus the reader) of humanity, she is given permission to “mate” with a member of her husband’s family, then encouraged to “[u]nite with the river dolphin / freshwater shark / corpse-eating crocodile.” To read these imperatives in the second person is to feel the affronts more keenly and personally, heightening the emotional resonance of the poem.

The animal language and imagery may make this situation feel figurative, but as noted above, the poem speaks to the actual experiences of widowed women in many parts of India. Traditionally, the loss of a husband is thought to drain all color (“plumage”) from a woman’s experience. Also, she is expected to wear white for the rest of her days, a visual image of the manifesto’s fourth precept: “The women of your husband’s household shall bleach all evidence of matrimony.” Likewise, a widow is not supposed to have long hair, in the poem “shorn to the skin of your skull.” While Pathak was inspired by her grandmother’s long-ago experience, a New York Times dispatch from India published last summer about a government-run ashram for “castaway widows” describes how these customs are still followed in some parts of the country, making the poem relevant, current, and vital in the contemporary world. [Source here]

What I like most about this manifesto is the way it professes its tenets and then undermines them. That makes the poem more subversive and provocative as it first reels the reader in, then exposes the cultural practices for their lack of humanity. Certainly, the message here is not what it seems to literally say, for example, that a widow should accept having the “red sun in the center of [her] forehead obliterated.” By depicting these practices in exaggerated, absurd, and even animalistic ways, the poem offers a critique of various traditions and ideas. I particularly appreciate the reference to an “ill-Omen score” and also the imaginativeness of that veritable bestiary of punishments.

By leaning into the manifesto form, organized with numbers and sub-items, Pathak emphasizes the cold logic that underpins the cruel treatment her poem exposes. There is little humanity in this ordered list, no room for nuance and exception. And yet, even within its regimented form and subtle critique, the poem manages to offer more than mere condemnation of the cultural values controlling widows’ lives in India. Should a widow’s wish to live remain ungranted, for example, she can at least expect a “free pass to heaven” or redemption for her suffering. Even more encouraging is the way Pathak’s inspired manifesto resolves itself in fantasy. The poem ends with a widow immersed in “sacred waters,” merging with river creatures to create a “new breed” which, in contrast to the forces that control widows on earth, may not be so monstrous after all.

 

 

Contributing Editor Amanda Moore‘s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. A 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author Photo Credit: K. C. Ipjian.

 

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