Strange Fruit and the legacy of Maya Amma

This has been a week to pay attention to all that we easily try to forget, things we’d like to pretend don’t exist. The words used, bandied about in the public sphere, powerful in theory, have become hollow by repeated use as the abuse continues unabated. The image of the pixelated figures of the girls in mauve and green hanging from the mango tree in rural Uttar Pradesh is not going to vanish quickly from our thoughts. Brings to mind the Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit – written originally by a Jewish poet who was inspired by a photo of African-American men hanging from a tree, after being lynched.

It is also the week when Maya Angelou died. She, the survivor of rape, racism and poverty who rose to such great literary heights has disappeared. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised by the suddenness of the news. I travelled on a flight with an Indian American who spoke Tamil better than English. He lived in N Carolina and showed me photos of his teenage daughters. I was reading one of Ms Angelou’s books on the journey and he called her Amma (mother) and said she was a fine woman. I was impressed.

When I stop to introspect on what happens when a girl or woman is treated this way, it takes me down long dark corridors. From an early age, girls (even the privileged ones) are soon made aware that their dignity, safety and self-respect are not guaranteed. Even when a young girl tries to articulate a molestation to an older relative, the message is clear. It is shame that is predominant, not outrage at the act.

I’m sure women, like me, who travelled in buses in India have plenty of stories to recount. I was one of the lucky ones to be relatively unscathed by the casual brushing of a heavy breather’s erection against my bottom or the shaky, unwanted hand that came to feel my breast for years. As an eight-year old, I would pull out a compass or divider from my geometry box and give the conductor who came to sit on my lap a good poke in self-defence during the empty stretch (from Santhome to Queen Mary’s college). Are we really unscathed? The fact that we remember it, many years later means that it remains a violation.

I met a woman in the rural south of India who had her five year old son beat up his drunken father and her abuser in front of everyone. She won’t divorce him, but was planning to set him right – get him off the alcohol and make him see light. When it isn’t a violent murder that ends a girl’s life, but just occasional to regular violence against a wife or girlfriend – poor or rich, the woman keeps hoping that the man will see the error of his ways. Soon, she thinks he’ll show remorse, wish to be a better person, tap into his best side.

While we wait for that to happen, I suggest we women celebrate our lives, do our bit to enrich the world, to interpret it in ways that feel authentic to us. That’s what Maya Amma would’ve wanted.

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3 Comments

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  1. Thank you, Mites, for telling it like it is, and for your tribute to Maya Angelou, another woman who leaves behind a legacy of fearless commentary.

  2. And still she rises , we rise against this as women together , daughters, Mothers, sisters, friends, and here in deepest rural Suffolk , the haunting memory of 1600 witch hunts by Cromwell et al against innocent women , stands now in the Museum spaces , for schoolgirls to shiver before – the ” scold’s bridle ” the ” ducking stool ” the market places cobbold and now bestrewn with flowers and cafe tables convivial in sunlit spaces , where hundreds of women were burnt at the stake – time has not changed , and faces turn away , instead , rise up and cry with the poetry and beauty and bravery of Maya Amma’s words as our touchstone – We shall stand together , we shall not be silenced .
    Beautifully written tribute , yet chilling piece , Ms MN .

    • Thank you both! Jackie- it’s an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as Ms Angelou. Gives me strength! Thanks Gillie for your eloquent thoughts. I can feel you getting fired up by your trip down the passages of time and I look forward to hearing more.

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