The Republic of Verse: ‘The Fiends That Fetter Us’

The voices of the republic include dreamers, dissenters and rebels against borders and authorities. One poem of resistance, from a different Indian language, each day this week.

Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

A woman adjusts her saree as the sun sets. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

In a country that has no ‘national language,’ the presence of many languages is at once beautiful and politically charged.

For a week from Republic Day, The Wire presents poems that throw open how our languages can be oppressive, oppressed and insurgent. The poems are curated by Poorna Swami and Janani Ganesan, from a special edition of Asymptote, an online journal for international literature in translation.

Each of these poems is a work of resistance but also of presence – asserting a future where our many languages, while different, are more accommodating of each other.

‘The Fiends that Fetter Us’ is meant as a translation of a famous alliterating phrase – nammai pidittha pisaasugal – from the classic poet Subramania Bharati, quoted here by Revathi.

The Fiends that Fetter Us

sister… still many more breasts
for us to mould as if from clay
in this era when living breasts are bitten
by stones or by the tips of knives
they’re like the grain that feeds our world
but no fences to protect them
and why are birds of prey rooting in those silos?
eating sunshine straining to draw breath
from an arid field
that old woman’s breasts
fiends that fetter her
hanging low
knocking against the chest
like dried-up history beyond the borders on maps
not unlike those fiends that’s why sister
breasts like freshwater ponds to drink deep from
let’s not make them vessels of unending misery
for a day at least let’s make those breasts stones
to use in slings
let’s wander with a solitary breast
and carry our sun above us

– Kutti Revathi

Translated from Tamil by Padma Narayanan and Vivek Narayanan

Padma Narayanan is the translator of numerous books of literary fiction from Tamil. Vivek Narayanan has written two full-length books of poems, Universal Beach and Life and Times of Mr S.

This translation first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Asymptote, as part of its Indian Languages Special Feature. Asymptote is the winner of the 2015 London Book Fair’s International Literary Translation Initiative Award and a founding member of The Guardian’s Books Network with Translation Tuesdays.