These words accompanied the WhatsApp image that Geetha sent me on November 3rd. Geetha is the woman in the black tunic, leaning against Subathra, her friend, wearing the pink saree. These five women are core members of the Tamilaga Penngal Oringinaippu (TPO), a feminist collective in Tamil Nadu in southern India, that was formed in the early 1990s. These women are gathered to celebrate Subathra’s 60th birthday. Subathra realized on that day that she has cherished these intimate friendships for exactly half her life. The picture was sent to me a few hours after I left the celebration.
Subathra’s birthday was celebrated with much fanfare; her extended family, and the many friends and comrades she had acquired through years of activism, made their way from different parts of the region to her new home in Trichy city. The birthday celebration was styled much like a political rally. A large marquee had been placed outside, right next to her house, a stage set up with microphones and chairs for the many speakers to address the gathering. However, unlike Leftist political rallies that honour a comrade by listing their public-political achievements, each of the speakers spoke about their personal and intimate relationships with Subathra, how their friendship evolved, and what Subathra brought to each of their lives. Geetha was the last to speak, and at the end of her speech, she gifted Subathra with a mock-up book, a collection of Subathra’s poetry, curated, type-set, and illustrated.
Subathra was the poet of this feminist collective. She wrote about a range of themes that inspired her. While some of her poems were a direct challenge to patriarchal Tamil culture and society, much of her poems were spiritual, allowing us to glimpse the subjectivity of a feminist woman making sense of her connection with the universe, the cosmos. Subathra described herself as a believing Christian, but a lapsed Tamil Catholic in practice. Many of her poems illustrated the dynamic of a feminist woman finding spiritual grounding through her everyday actions, and the ways she sought to express care towards the world around her. While many of Subathra’s poems were published in Tamil feminist magazines and journals, the majority of them remained unseen by the world. Subathra would write a poem and when satisfied with it, send it to Geetha, or maybe Selvam (the person resting her elbow on Subathra’s lap in the picture above). These were her two feminist friends most invested in articulating a feminist politics through writing.
Geetha had been persuading Subathra for years to publish a poetry collection, by saying that “the world needed to see her work.” Subathra would often reply to this by saying: “I have sent it to you, and to Selvam. That is enough, you are my world.” Some other times, Subathra would lament that she does not have enough time or energy to translate these creative pursuits into a form that can be disseminated, or publish them. Over time, Geetha sensed that Subathra nurtures this desire, and decided to fashion a mock-up of what this poetry collection could be.
Along with some others, these feminist women in the picture have become a care network for each other, over time. While care is expressed to ease a comrade’s life, to enable them to survive, many forms of care also enable people to thrive. Geetha’s gesture that day indicates a recognition of her friend’s embodied intellectual pursuit, an effort that will enable her friend to thrive.
Anusha Hariharan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has engaged with queer and feminist movements in India since 2007. Her dissertation work examines friendship, care, and ethics of solidarity-building among feminist activists, and the role played by Christianity in enabling social justice activism in Southern India.