January 30, 2018

Yasmini - The Radical Art of Listening to Voiceless Women

Devadasi by Jasor

As in Zira, In Captivity, the poet encapsulates within a relatively few stanzas the loves, the losses and the few highlights in the life of an unknown and unimportant woman - Yasmini.   We enter the room and hang there like smoke from an incense coil, winding our way through chapters of Yasmini's recounted memories.

This is another of Hope's documentary style pieces, the poet acting like a camera lens to convey a faithful depiction of the scene without editorial or moralizing.  Just as a journalist will take on an overwhelming subject by choosing one human interest story, the poet has amplified a lone female voice who relates a life entirely decided by others.  Yasmini believes she had early prospects of a modest home and the love of a husband, but instead ended up serving the needs of a battalion of men - literally.  
The story is told languorously, unfolding in the warm bed of Yasmini, in that moment after sex when "Passion's ebbing tide left bare the Sands of Truth" and there is space and time to speak in the dark.  It may be a time when many people have memories crowd in, and Yasmini is no different, except that she speaks her thoughts softly aloud to her lover, who is spending the night with her "resting by my side."  This narrator is most likely a paying male customer, but possibly something else - a love match or even possibly a female.  That is the ever intriguing element in Laurence Hope's choices and style - the mystery of exactly who is speaking in any poem may be almost as interesting as the poem itself, and open the floor up to debate.   

The truth is that in this particular poem it doesn't really matter who the narrator is, their sex or station in life, as long as they have the trust of Yasmini, and allow her to speak for once unconstrained so that she can reveal what it is like in her world, on the other side of the looking glass. Yasmini is the only persona in the piece that matters, as if to convey the idea that "In the great River of Time, every single drop is important."  

When I first approached this poem, I found it vague, disjunct and even confusing.  With patience and curiosity its layers do peel away to reveal what is never said directly - Yasmini is some type of sex worker, possibly a temple girl, though not one of high artistic training.  During the Raj, the temple system degraded, and what was once a respected position in the social order decayed into pure sex slavery as these women were labeled "prostitutes" by Westerners.  This is a misnomer as a prostitute knowingly sells herself - women like Yasmini were dedicated as children by their parents, and never had the chance to make that decision.  
Devadasi or Devaradiyar means “servant of God”. These women were dedicated to...and given in marriage to God, meaning that they could therefore not marry any ‘mortal’. Nevertheless, they were free to choose partners, from among married and unmarried men alike. These relationships could be long and stable, or just for a short period of time. But in no way were these women economically dependent on their partners. They learned music and dance, and as many as 64 types of arts. They would dance and sing in temples or in front of royalty and earn gold and land as a reward. Some chose to dedicate themselves only to God and stayed without a partner all through their life.
The tradition of Devadasi culture can be traced back to as early as the 7th century, particularly in southern parts of India during the reigns of the Cholas, Chelas, and Pandyas. They were well treated and respected, and held a high social status in the society. It was common for them to be invited to be present at or initiate sacred religious rituals. As long as the temples and empires flourished, so did they...At present, Devadasis are nothing more than sex slaves or child prostitutes who are dedicated to temples when they are as young as four or five years old.   
It is hard to firmly establish whether Yasmini is actually a Devadasi.  Her room near the sea fringed with palm trees indicates the south of India, the traditional home of the Devadasi who live in parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra..  There is some kind of temple ceremony that happens in the middle of the poem in which Yasmini believes she lies with a god and becomes impregnated.  However the poem makes is no reference to dancing, singing or musicianship, which would have been one of the traditional indications of a Devadasi.  The ancient system was under attack by Raj era colonial Reformers when Hope would have been writing, and it may be that the Devadasi's status had already deteriorated to the point that the prostitution element had overtaken the artistic side of the profession.   Many Hindu rulers who supported temples and their staff had been defeated by the British, so temples were in difficult financial straights when Hope would have been observing and writing.  

There is also the question of exactly where Hope stands on the topic.   Her sentiments are clearly with the voiceless woman she showcases in the poem.  She may have felt that Raj Reformers didn't understand the full picture of sacred sex and could not fathom any combination of sex and holiness mixed together as valid.   The counter movement to the British reformers were the Hindu Revivalists.  "Pioneers like Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel H.S. Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical movement, had undertaken an extensive tour of South India and propagated the revival of Devadasi institutions and the associated art of sadir. They gained support from some sections of the native elite by their public denouncement of western Christian morality and materialism." (wiki)  

My instinct is that Adela Nicolson was more on the side of the Hindu Revivalists, as the strictures of Christian morality in league to wipe out the customs of "heathens" would not have been her cup of tea.  However, I also believe she saw that at this point the system had real and mostly tragic consequences for the women and children caught up in it.   In a few increasingly rare cases, a female may have found a better life as a Devadasi, rising into a better social strata through luck. But there must have been many, many girls and women that were obviously used and discarded as the ancient system broke down under colonial rule.   Even today's modern "sex workers", who consider themselves liberated women making their own choices, endure negative social stigmas and certain obstacles attached to their choice of profession.

Yasmini speaks first of two early loves which promised to take her to a dreamy river and the sea and build a house.  She either is hearing promises from youthful clients when she herself is very young, or possibly she had two prospects of marriage that fell through before her parents decided to dedicate her to the temple.   While girls were sometimes dedicated in infancy, they may have not actually taken up their duties until the prime ages of about 8-16.   Yasmini may have well thought she had marriage prospects while her parents knew all along they'd come to nothing, or she might have genuinely been unfortunate in contracting marriage twice and then been given away.  Because the tone is so accepting of these misfortunes, I'm inclined to believe they were more like fantasies of hers woven out of pillow talk, and she had been dedicated to the temple early on before she could understand the implications.  It must have been bewildering, as a girl-child to sleep with men who made lovely plans and then left, never to return - until eventually the maturing young girl finally began to realize what her actual status was.  As her days pass, she listens to wonderful stories from men and retells herself the parts that make life palatable for her so that she can rise to live, work and survive another day - much like we all do.

Devadasi Yallamma Goddess cult is strong in the south of India
When Yasmini lies with her first soldier, she still harbors the idea he too could become a husband.  She describes his martial qualities in detail, and is also very charitable about his abandonment of her, assuming he died in battle in Kabul (possibly this refers to the 1st or 2nd Afghan wars).  His story fades as the next tragedy unfolds. 

It seems like Yasmini was older than her 16 year old lover, who has "transparent red" cheeks - perhaps an indication of disease, or that he was a half cast or ferengi.  She saw him die and her tears fell on him - unlike the others who vaguely disappeared she knows that this one really died instead of just abandoning her.  This loss marks a change in Yasmini's young optimism. She despairs, saying "He died, and all my youth went down with him," which is also a poignant statement in Hope's confessional style poem "Unforgotten".  Also shared with Unforgotten is the idea of faithfulness as defined by an inner devotion and love, and not by physical fidelity.   "The riven heart more keenly knows It's own inviolate faithfulness."  

Next Yasmini lays in the temple "one strange, mysterious night" in order to conceive a child,   
indicating she believes she was impregnated by "God's delight", only to have the child die as she gave birth - another tragedy in the life of this unlucky, forbearing young woman.
Devadasi Initiation
"Devadasi temple dedication:  In the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the devadasi-initiate begins her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in 'bridegroom'. From then onward, the devadasi is considered a nitya sumangali: a woman eternally free from the adversity of widowhood." 
Since a baby was actually conceived, there are a couple of options to consider :
1)  Yasmini believes that a real god, possibly in the form of a temple priest, is among those she has taken as lovers.
2) Yasmini believes that since she is dedicated to god, any baby she conceives in her sex work is heaven sent and born of a god.  

At this point in analyzing this piece, it becomes clear how many complicated ideas have been embedded in what first appears to be a fairly straightforward poem.  And now, it is going to get even more complicated!

After the loss of her youth and her holy-conceived child, Yasmini's story seems to jump to a period    where she is apparently the favored girl of a whole company of Lancers.  Whether of the Indian Army or British, fighting men certainly visited prostitutes. Since Yasmini clearly states "from the war beyond the seas, The reckless Lancers home returned", they cannot be anything other than Army Lancers of the day, a battalion of which could have been sent to South Africa for the Boer Wars, or could have been sent to Britain to garrison there for a few years before being brought back.  The relationship Yasmini has with these men seems to be particularly warm and convivial -

   " Their spoils were laid across my knees
        About my lips their kisses burned."

Yasmini seems almost lifted in status as some kind of mascot for these Lancers.  She admires their fighting spirit and the sense of camraderie she gains upon their return.  The gifts and glad embraces they shared with her as victors must have been a high point in Yasmini's life.  In fact the best thing about these Lancers may be that they are the first men to return to her.

    "Back from the Comradeship of Death,
        Free from the Friendship of the Sword,
    With brilliant eyes and famished breath
        They came to me for their reward.

Soldiers back from battle and lining up for a particular female?   It sounds exceedingly outre to our ears, but I suppose that men who were pressured to stay unmarried and who shared life, death and everything else with one another might have thought very little about sharing their favorite "comfort girl."  The fact that she is associated with an entire company of men, and not just one man, seems to be treated matter-of-factly, without moralizing or an inner monologue of shame.  

However, the story is dropped here - Yasmini admonishes herself now for speaking so freely, remembering her client's needs.  Still, we learn quite a bit in the last lines of the poem - Yasmini is of sufficient status to have a lover for an entire night.  Her life seems to be characterized by a calm acceptance of fate.  The client/narrator is particularly mild and neutral, allowing Yasmini to speak until she wishes to stop, and recording it all for the reader.  Thus Yasmini is another example of Hope's more modern work - handling the dicey and politically charged topic of India's sacred prostitutes like a reporter would, allowing a typical sex worker speak in a conditions of trust, documenting without prejudice her surroundings and what she says.
In 1902, it was a decisively and even radically feminist act for Laurence Hope to write about a low cast female, also a prostitute, with such equanimity.  She depicts her as a viable bed partner and a companion worthy of being listened to, despite her age, low status and profession.  As a subject, Yasmini is not lectured or degraded, but treated humanely as a woman who lives worse than some, but better than some "beside the palm fringed sea" in an incensed and trellised private room with comforts like a glass window pane.  In my opinion, the implied message is - "you may listen too, but do not judge.  Instead try to understand what life has been like for this woman who is ultimately here because she is a survivor - as are we all."  
A Radical Thought
Hygeia by Klimt
It may be a radical take and to some a leap too far, but using Hope as my model, I feel I should not hesitate to speak because of fear of offending someone.   So I pose the question, could Yasmini contain veiled biographical moments from the poet's own life?

There is some very specific storytelling entwined in this poem, and in the course of parsing it, I have considered things that would not have occurred to me with a casual reading.  Could the poet be using the character of Yasmini to voice events she did not want to present in her own voice? 

I first entertained the idea because of the fact that Adela and Malcolm, as far as we are aware, did not conceive a child for the first decade of their marriage.  This seems highly unusual for marriages at the time.  Could Violet have entertained the idea of employing a temple ceremony to help her conceive?  I can imagine her being curious about such things.  The temple ritual in the poem does not sound like an devadasi initiation - it sounds like a ritual specifically aimed at begetting a child:

"Our Gods are kind and still deem fit
As in old days, with those to lie,
Whose silent hearths are yet unlit
By the soft light of infancy."

Could Violet have marked and mourned the death of a stillborn infant privately through the following lines?  
"Also to me the boon was given, 
But mourning quickly followed mirth, 
My son, whose father stooped from Heaven, 
Died in the moment of his birth."

A father that "stooped from Heaven" could be referring to "The Heavenborn", a reference to the civil and military elite men in British India, of which Malcolm was certainly one.

The reference to "the reckless Lancers, home returned" and having their spoils laid out for her and receiving their kisses in the plural seems to indicate a sort of queenly position, as though a troop of mercenaries had been fighting and then "they came to me for their reward."Could Yasmini's Lancers actually be drawn from a unit under Hope's husband's command, who treated her with spoils and warm greetings - but respectfully as their commanders wife - like a sort of Queen or Rani over their regiment?  There is a distinct flavor of that in Yasmini, and in a way it makes more sense than the idea of a prostitute that is the pet "comfort girl'" of an entire battalion.   

Earlier in the poem Yasmini describes her most important and lost early love - "He was the Lover of my Youth And all my youth went down with him." while Hope writes "My youth went down with you to the grave" in "Unforgotten", a confessional style poem which seems to be in the poet's own voice, and which caused and still causes much wonder and speculation on the nature of this youthful tragedy and what it meant to Violet.

And it could then be argued that perhaps the early loves - the two boys who made pillow talk out of going to the sea or the river to live, and the young soldier, were possible early boyfriends of the poet during her years in India between 1882 and meeting Malcolm in 1889.  Each may represent varying degrees of intimacy from puppy love to passionate youthful attachment. 

And it is always possible that the poet combined some of her life stories with those of other women she'd listened to over the years.   In my first post on this blog I stated that one of my aims was to really listen to what Laurence Hope is saying to us in her work.  Going native with Indian ritual, bearing a first child that was stillborn, early lovers that died or didn't keep promises, these are the private stories of a woman's life, not meant for public consumption and never to be found in any official narrative.  But as a writer and a confessional poet, it may have been impossible to keep them out of a character's backstory and off the page.  Hidden under the veil of a lady of the evening, no one would ever associate those tales with the poet, and her secrets would remain safe, yet expelled through the catharsis of ink and pen. 

With Yasmini, the more we come to know her, the more her mysteries deepen.  In the end we realize we could enfold ourselves into millions upon millions of unheard stories murmured behind the bungalow walls, wooden doors and stone lattices of India.  On behalf of women everywhere, Laurence Hope sends us her compassionate message that every life has its tales, every drop in the River of Life is important, and every woman is worth listening to.  

NOTE:  "Yasmini" is recorded in the fourth section of India's Love Lyrics and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview, and will not be available  on Librivox until the entire book has been recorded.
BONUS:  This documentary on the modern Devadasi is very well done, with all the color, fatefulness, beauty and sheer horror that describes life in India, at least for some.  

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