‘Muliebrity’ by Sujata Bhatt is an eighteen line poem which is contained within one long block of text. “Muliebrity,” a word that is used in the title but not in the text of the poem, can be defined as the qualities of womanhood. This choice of title will make more sense as one understands the purpose behind the speaker’s description of the girl she sees on the streets near her home.
Summary of ‘Muliebrity’
The poem begins with the speaker describing how she has been unable to forget the sight of one particular girl on the streets nearby to where she lives. The girl is often on the streets of the city picking up cow-dung to sell for a small profit.
It is not only the sight of the girl that is halting, it is the smells that flow around her. The speaker is able to sense the smell of “road-dust,” canna lilies,” and freshly washed clothes. These smells are in stark contrast to one another and show the complicated existence that the girl is living.
By the end of the piece the speaker has come to describe the power that she sees in the girl’s presence. She has an inherent “glistening” that imbues her with abilities and a power that others do not have.
Analysis of ‘Muliebrity’
The speaker begins this piece by describing a thought which has often passed through her mind. It is of a girl whom the speaker often sees around the area in which she lives. There is very minimal description given of this girl, but one is able to infer that she is quite poor. The following lines describes the type of life that this girl was living and how that life overlapped with that of the speaker.
The first lines describe how the speaker has been unable to stop thinking about the “girl / Who gathered cow-dung.” This opening phrase is quite shocking and might force the reader into an immediate questioning of why anyone would do such a thing. While it is not explicitly stated in ‘Muliebrity’ , is most likely that the girl was gathering the “dung” so that she might sell it. It was, and still is, used in parts of India and Pakistan as a source of fuel. Its rich concentration of methane makes it a viable source of power in the more rural parts of the country.
The dung she picks up goes into a “wide, round basket” that she carries along with her. She travels down roads that are well known to the narrator, so much so that the speaker can pick out markers that the girl would have passed along the way. She mentions the “Radhavallabh temple” located in “Maninagar.” This temple is of the Vaishnava denomination, and is devoted to Radharani, also known as Radhika and Radha, a popular Hindu goddess.
It is important to note how the grandiose sounding name and purpose of this temple contrast with the young girl whose only source of money is made by gathering cow dung. The poet has already crafted a powerful, thought provoking setting for her narrative.
The next set of lines continue to describe what it is about this girl that has so attracted the narrator’s attention. She has been continuously thinking “about the way she / Moved her hands and her waist.” The girls body, and her physical movements, have stuck in the speaker’s mind. This could be for a number of different reasons. Perhaps the girl is quite thin, due to her economic situation, or perhaps she moves in an intriguing way.
The lines continue to state that the speaker has also been remembering the “smell of cow-dung” as well as that of “road-dust and wet canna lilies.” Once more the poet has created an interesting contrast. This time though, it is among smells rather than sights on the street. The beauty of the environment, portrayed through the image of “canna lilies,” is juxtaposed with that of the “road-dust” and “cow-dung.” It is clear that the world the speaker is living in is a complicated place.
An additional note of interest in regards to the “canna lilies,” is that they are often used in India in the production of alcohol, a fact that dampens their pure image in this piece.
The speaker continues on to describe a number of other smells that she can remember hanging around the girl. There is that of “monkey breath” as well as “freshly washed clothes.” Once more the poet has crafted an interesting contrast with these images.
Finally, she states that there is also the smell of the “dust from the crows’ wings.” It is a “different” smell, one that is not easily recognized, and is perhaps more ephemeral than physical.
In the next stanza of ‘Muliebrity’ the speaker returns once more to the smell of “cow-dung.” This seems to be a constant in the girl’s life. It is something that neither she, nor the speaker in her obsessive thoughts, can get away from.
The smells that are surrounding the girl are important to the speaker’s image of her, or at least they were— they have now come to represent something more much meaningful. The smells come to the speaker “simultaneously.” They are almost overwhelming in their number and presence, and it is for this reason that she has been “unwilling,” so far, to use the girl “for a metaphor.”
In the final section the speaker comes to the main point of ‘Muliebrity’ and describes why it is that she has spent all this time thinking on one poor girl she sees on the street. She had been unwilling, and still is unwilling, to utilize this girl as a “metaphor” in an effort to craft a “nice image.” The speaker does not wish to take advantage of the beauty that she sees in this young woman to advance her own words.
Above all else, the speaker has been “unwilling / To forget her” or to take the time to “explain to anyone” why the girl is “great.” This is a topic that is not up for debate. The speaker does not see the girl as being great, she knows she is. She can see in this young person a quality that she cannot find anywhere else.
There is a “power glistening” from the presence of the girl that radiates out through “her cheekbones” every time she passes by. It does not matter what task she is working at—in fact, the degrading nature of picking up cow-dung only further emphasizes the beauty inherent in her.
The girl has all the qualities of womanhood that make a person strong. She is doing what she needs to do to survive and just because it is not something that is traditionally thought of as being empowering or feminine, doesn’t mean that the girl cannot do it elegantly and powerfully.