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A Woman Well Set Free! How Free I Am -- Sumangalamata

Guest poem sent in by Arun Simha

This is an interesting poem from the 6th century BC. It was
written in Pali, an ancient Indian language.
(Poem #1265) A Woman Well Set Free! How Free I Am
 A woman well set free! How free I am,
 How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery.
 Free from the harsh grip of hunger,
 And from empty cooking pots,
 Free too of that unscrupulous man,
 The weaver of sunshades.
 Calm now, and serene I am,
 All lust and hatred purged.
 To the shade of the spreading trees I go
 And contemplate my happiness.
-- Sumangalamata
            (Pali - 6th Century (600) B.C
             Translated by Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum Roy)

The poem is from "Women Writing In India" edited by Susie Tharu and K.
Lalita. It was published in by The Feminist Press, City Univ of New
York, New York (1991). Susie Tharu teaches in the Dept of English
Literature at the Central Inst. of Eng. and Foreign Languages in
Hyderabad, K. Lalitha is a political scientist and co-ordinator of
Anveshi, Centre for Women's Studies, Hyderabad.

My first impression upon reading this poem was the timelessness of its
theme. The imagery created by the poet is striking. The seamless
movement from the bondage of the interior (kitchen) to the comfort of
the exterior (garden) is mere explanation for the loud proclamation
that precedes it.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief - nay - joy, of the woman who,
having spent the previous few hours satisying others needs, now goes
out to seek her own. And she does it in solitude. The poet seems to
suggest spiritual contemplation as the culmination of a day's

Or does she really suggest that?

What else could she have endevaoured to do after her cooking was done?
Could she have hoped to have a  meaningful role in society which was
disassociated from the kitchen and with religion? Was this the only
freedom that she could hope to achieve?

A Marathi poem by Janabai (from the same book) written a few centuries
later, may provide some answers to those questions. Here too the woman
casts off her "place in society" to achieve religious ecstasy and
therefore, freedom.

     Janabai (1298-1350), Marathi

    "Cast off All Shame"

    Cast off all shame,
    and sell yourself
    in the marketplace;
    then alone
    can you hope
    to reach the Lord.

    Cymbals in hand,
    a *veena* upon my shoulder,
    I go about;
    who dares to stop me?

    The *pallav* of my sari
    falls away (A Scandal!);
    yet will I enter
    the crowded marketplace
    without a thought.

    Jani says, My Lord,
    I have become a slut
    to reach Your home.

     -- Janabai
   (Translated by Vilas Sarang)

Arun Simha

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