Anish Krishnan Nayar : Poems of Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila

Select Poems of Irom Sarmila: An Existential Critique

Irom Chanu Sarmila (1972- ) is hailed for her tireless crusade against the human rights violations in Manipur. Apart from this, the attention of the intelligentsia got focused on her from the 4 November 2000 for another reason. Since then, Sarmila has been on a hunger strike. Her demand is that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which, according to her, provides the army with extra constitutional powers in Manipur should be repealed. Apart from being a political crusader, civil rights activists and journalist, Irom Sarmila is a poet too. Fragrance of Peace (2010) contains twelve of her poems. The poems were originally written in her native language Meiteilon before Sarmila started her phenomenal hunger strike. These poems were translated into English by a few translators including Longiam Jayachandra and Waikhom Romesh. The poems of Sarmila consist of a unique blend of passion, protest and hope. In spite of the simple structure, the poems of Sarmila bring in the pangs and problems of her homeland. The objective of this paper is to highlight the existential concerns of Irom Sarmila through her poems. The paper seeks to establish that the poems of Sarmila have elements of existentialism.

As stated earlier the book contains twelve poems of Sarmila. The number twelve has a special significance here. Debabrata Roy says that he chose that number to highlight the fact that Sarmila is arrested once in twelve months by the police for attempting to commit suicide. These poems are a frail, grey recollection of things and people she had to lose as to become an activist (Sarmila 2010: 7).

In her poem “love” (The titles are not capitalized in the text) Sarmila says that she is unable to bear any more love as she had to accept a lot from the public. She says: “my frail vessel is full to brim” (Sarmila 2010: 6) .She means that bodily love has become unbearable to her as she is overwhelmed with the brotherly love for her people. She understands that she can be the chooser. She can either make a personal preference or live happily forever, or make a sacrifice for the people. She has chosen the latter. There is often the temptation to lead a ‘normal’ life. But she is determined to overcome those temptations. She accepts her fate and thinks that God has put her on such problems to test her determination. Sarmila says: “my life has been put as fire /to test me if I’m strong or weak” (Sarmila 2010: 13-14). In her poem “a fortunate woman” which seems to be a sequel to “love”. Sarmila laments on a rendezvous with her love. She is moved during the meeting. But she controls herself by saying “perhaps, I belong today / to another” (Sarmila 2010: 9-10). ‘Another’ is obviously the political struggle.

Sarmila’s “like a child” is a prayer for the life she longs for. She does not dream of power, glory and political achievement. In contrast she says:

Without malice to anybody
Without hurting anyone
With tongues held right
Let me live 
Like a child
A three-month old (Sarmila 2010: 1-6)

It is interesting and encouraging to know that in spite of intense political activity, Sarmila prefers an innocent inconsequent existence. She wants to live “like an ambitionless insect” (Sarmila 2010: 19). These lines make it clear that Sarmila has been a victim of compelling situations. She chose a public life only because she could not bear the cruelties carried out against her brethren.

In the eponymous poem, “fragrance of peace” she explains her mission. She says that when she dies, her body should not be cremated. She hates the idea of trees being chopped and ground being dug to put her to rest. She is against the idea of disturbing ecology for her sake. It she says that it would be better if her body is ditched and allowed to rot. She says:

let it rot under the ground 
Let it be of some use to future generation
Let it transform into the ore in the mines
I’ll spread the fragrance of peace (9-13)

Even in her death she wants to be of some use to the people and contribute towards the peace of the nation.

Apart from exhilarating her mind, Irom Sarmila’s poems also revolt against exploitation of the oppressed. A few of her poems are testaments against abuse of authority. One such poem is “that cane of the policeman!” The poem describes a day when an innocent rickshaw man was ruthlessly assaulted by the policeman. The victim and the onlookers are muted by the authority. She says: “I came back with a heavy heart that days whose creation could have made it possible/ the policeman’s cane I saw that day” (Sarmila 2010: 31-32).

In her poem “be brave, sister”, she exhorts the oppressed to fight against injustice. This poem which has tones of existentialism makes it quite clear that fate has now role to play in human existence. Irom Sarmila says: Why blame fate endlessly / prove your strength, sister” (Sarmila 2010: 7-8). She is against the hegemonial attitude of the oppressed people. Due to this reason she is against the biblical adage, ‘meek shall inherit the world’. She says: 

Stop hitching rides in their vehicles
To bare more of meekness
Can only invite disrespect (Sarmila 2010: 10-12)
She advocates resistance against submission and meekness.

In “Victorious worm”, she pours out her anger and indignation against power and hypocrisy. At times people become highly influenced power that they consider themselves to be almighty god. With this attitude they meddle with the life of ‘ordinary people’. These people do irrevocable damage to the life of a common man / woman. Sarmila says:

Man of integrity
Is revered as god himself
A dirty worm like me
Detests them as enemies (Sarmila 2010: 7-10)

Yet another important theme in the poems of Irom Sarmila is subversion of birth rights. Often people who have power subvert the lives of others to suit their needs. Look at the following lines from “the fish were fighting in the aquarium”

In the water inside man made aquarium
Fishes, the lord’s creation
Unable to taste life in the sea (Sarmila 2010: 1-3)

In the above-mentioned lines she illustrates the fate of human beings by bringing in the analogy of fish in cage. God has created the fish and provided it with vast oceans to live. However, human beings create an artificial atmosphere, and force the fish to live within them. This act is done for the sole purpose of human entertainment. Similarly, oppressed people are deprived of their birth rights for the profitable endeavors of oppressors. This deprivation can be physical or psychological.

The poems of Irom Sarmila can be better understood if they are read with an existential point of view. Existentialism is:

… a literary philosophy which places its entire emphasis on the individual’s existence, an existence which postulates man as free from any natural or human standards in term he must act. The existentialist creates his world of experience through a choice of alternatives, a choice which makes him free from all other men but a choice which enslaves him to his own doubts, uncertainties and to the consequence of his own choices. He has a consciousness which must consider what his choice has done to others (Barnes2010: 216)

When one tries to define Sarmila as an existentialist, one should account for the repeated positive references to God in her poems. This is essential as the literati are mostly under the misconception that existentialism advocates atheism. This may be true for Sartrean existentialism. However one should not forget that there is theistic existentialism which was supported by Martin Bubber and Paul Tillich. Theistic existentialism accepts God along with the cardinal principle of free choice. Sarmila is a theistic existentialist. The reading of her poems can be equated to a journey into existentialist mind. It is said that an existentialist cannot escape agony, anguish, alienation and dread in his or her life. These words, as emotions, have specific meaning in existential philosophy. These emotions accompany the freedom to choose. Wesley Barnes defines these terms. Agony is the result of the revelation that a person’s choice is going to affect others too. Anguish accompanies the process of decision making. Once the choice is made the existentialist is alienated from others. He or she ends up living in dread of the choice that he or she has made. The above discussed poems contain these emotions in myriad forms. They vary from a desire to love and to be loved to indignation against injustice. The weight of the responsibility and choice hangs in the poem “love”. The lines, “perhaps, I belong today / to another” (Sarmila 2010: 9-10) shows the degree of alienation. Sarmila wants to live a simple contended anonymous life in a far corner. Instead, she is in the midst of a political struggle. She could have led a life of her dream by the exercise of a single choice. In spite of this she resists authority as she knows that her decision affects millions of people. This act proclaims that Irom Sarmila is a committed existentialist. 

Works Cited 

Barnes,Wesley. 2010, The Philosophy and Literature of Existentialism.
New York: Baron’s Educational Series Inc.
Sarmila,Irom. 2010, Fragnance of Peace, New Delhi: Zubaan.



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