Sarojini Naidu's poem "Suttee" is reproduced several places on the internet (Wikisource, Allpoetry, Poetry Archive), but I don't know the context in which this work was written and published. The content of the poem makes it clearly about a person mourning the death of a loved one, and considering whether their own life is still worth living ("Shall the blossom live when the tree is dead?"), but the title connects it to the practice of widows dying on their husbands' funeral pyres.

Much has been written about this practice, and current Indian law makes even the support of it illegal. (According to Wikipedia, "Support of sati, including coercing or forcing someone to die by sati, can be punished by death sentence or life imprisonment, while glorifying sati is punishable with one to seven years in prison.") Naidu's poem, at the very least, doesn't say anything negative about sati/suttee - it focuses on the feelings of the widow, which could potentially be interpreted (?) as portraying her desire to commit suttee in an understandable light. But I'm not familiar with any of the cultural context here, so I don't want to make any assumptions.

What was Naidu's view of suttee, and what view comes across in this poem?

1 Answer 1



The poem's problematic representation of sati shows the limits of the strategy Naidu adopted in her pioneering attempts to craft a role for herself as an Indian poet writing in English.


"Suttee" was published in Naidu's second collection of verse, The Golden Threshold (1905). Makarand Paranjape notes the enthusiasm with which this volume was received:

The Golden Threshold was reviewed favourably both in the Indian and, especially, in the British press. There were reviews in The Times (London), The Manchester Guardian, The Review of Reviews, The Morning Post, Athenaeum, Daily Chronicle, Spectator, and T.P.’s Weekly. The Golden Threshold made Sarojini a celebrity in both India and England. Never before had a book of poems by an Indian caused such a stir abroad.

Paranjape, p. 174

Paranjape's list of reviews is not exhaustive; as CDR pointed out in an answer to a different question, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph also reviewed The Golden Threshold. The collection established Naidu as the premier Indian poet writing in English.

Naidu dedicated The Golden Threshold to Edmund Gosse, saying that he "first showed me the way to the golden threshold". In his preface to Naidu's subsequent collection, The Bird of Time (1912), Gosse describes his influence on her poetic idiom. Upon reading some of Naidu's poems in 1896, he had advised her to turn cultivate a specifically Indian voice:

I implored her to consider that from a young Indian of extreme sensibility, who had mastered not merely the language but the prosody of the West, what we wished to receive was not a réchauffé of Anglo-Saxon sentiment in an Anglo-Saxon setting, but some revelation of the heart of India, some sincere penetrating analysis of native passion, of the principles of antique religion and of such mysterious intimations as stirred the soul of the East long before the West had begun to dream that it had a soul. Moreover, I entreated Sarojini to write no more about robins and skylarks, in a landscape of our Midland counties, with the village bells somewhere in the distance calling the parishioners to church, but to describe the flowers, the fruits, the trees, to set her poems firmly among the mountains, the gardens, the temples, to introduce to us the vivid populations of her own voluptuous and unfamiliar province; in other words, to be a genuine Indian poet of the Deccan, not a clever machine-made imitator of the English classics.

Gosse, pp. 4–5

By inviting Naidu "to introduce to us the vivid populations of her own voluptuous and unfamiliar province", Gosse excludes from Naidu's readership those who needed no such introduction, or to whom said province was familiar—i.e., her compatriots. He was asking her to put India on display as the exotic Other to the colonial metropole. As Gosse notes, Naidu "instantly accepted and with as little delay as possible acted upon this suggestion" (p. 5).

"Suttee", like the rest of Naidu's œuvre, shows the results. The barbaric act of widow immolation is presented in uncritical terms as a voluntary response to incurable heartbreak:

Life of my life, Death's bitter sword
Hath severed us like a broken word,
Rent us in twain who are but one . . .
Shall the flesh survive when the soul is gone?

Naidu, "Suttee", ll. 9–12.

Of all the putative causes for sati, heartbreak was vanishingly unlikely. Far more probable was that the widow, bereft of any protector, faced with poverty but by training and custom unfit to earn a living, and threatened with sexual exploitation in a world of entrenched misogyny, would choose to end her life rather than endure a frightening future. More probable still was sati as murder perpetrated by those wishing to get the widow out of the way so as to seize the deceased's property. But Naidu papers over these realities to depict sati in a palatable way, making it the emblem of overmastering emotion.

Such facile representations of complex realities are characteristic of Naidu. Paranjape's reading of "Palanquin-Bearers" is instructive. One of Naidu's best-known poems, this is the first lyric in The Golden Threshold:

Softly, O softly we bear her along,
She hangs like a star in the dew of our song;
She springs like a beam on the brow of the tide,
She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride.
Lightly, O lightly we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Naidu, "Palanquin-Bearers", ll. 7–12.

Paranjape points out that the poem ignores "the toil, sweat, and oppression of the palanquin bearers" in order to paint a "pretty picture" (p. 173). Paradoxically, such exoticized images of the oriental Other are for Gosse evidence of the authenticity of Naidu's identity as an Indian poet:

She springs from the very soil of India; her spirit, although it employs the English language as its vehicle, has no other tie with the West. It addresses itself to the exposition of emotions which are tropical and primitive, and in this respect, as I believe, if the poems of Sarojini Naidu be carefully and delicately studied they will be found as luminous in lighting up the dark places of the East as any contribution of savant or historian.

Gosse, p. 6

Gosse's delight at Naidu's exploration of "emotions which are tropical and primitive", such as those expressed in "Suttee", has not been shared by critics of Indian heritage, who have long raised a skeptical eyebrow at Naidu's tendency to fetishize and romanticize India. Lotika Basu wrote in 1933:

In trying to sing of Indian life she has succumbed to the temptation of making it picturesque. By doing this she merely continues the tradition of Anglo-Indian writers who would make India a land of romance and mystery. The song of the palanquin-bearers, the flute music of the snake-charmer, an old beggar sitting in the street—all these she surrounds with a halo of romance.

Basu, p. 89

Even earlier, in 1919, James Cousins had commented on Naidu's retrograde portrayal of womanhood. He quotes the following stanza from "The Feast", part of the long sequence "The Gate of Delight":

Bring no scented lotus-wreath
Moon-awakened, dew-caressed;
Love, thro' memory's age-long dream
Sweeter shall my wild heart rest
With your foot-prints on my breast.

Naidu, "Temple" I.2, ll. 6–10

Cousins says:

the above stanza, despite its delicate beauty—or, rather, perhaps the more insidiously because of its beauty—is a menace to the future of India, because of its perpetuation of the "door-mat" attitude of womanhood.

Cousins, p. 261

Cousins, an Irishman who converted to Hinduism and spent most of his life in India, commented on the contrast between Naidu's own life and her portrayal of women:

It is curious to observe that while, in both her private and public life, Mrs. Naidu has broken away from the bonds of custom, by marrying outside her caste, and by appearing on public platforms, she reflects in her poerty [sic] the derivative and dependent habit of womanhood that masculine domination has sentimentalised into a virtue: in her life she is feminist up to a point, but in her poetry she remains incorrigibly feminine.

Cousins, p. 262

In her public role, Naidu was an advocate for Indian freedom and women's rights, seeing both as necessary for true liberty. She specifically referenced the custom of sati in 1906, during one of her speeches entitled "A Plea for Social Reform". Since Naidu typically spoke extempore, a written copy of the speech is not available. However, her remarks are reported to be along these lines:

Ancient women of India recognized the worth of man and were prepared to make any sacrifice for their sake. Men of those days had sufficient worth in them and if women performed sati they did it out of love and regret for their men. But do men of our days deserve sati? What sort of men do we find now? They are not men at all. They can be called the degenerate descendants of ancient heroes.

Naidu, "Plea", p. 22

Malashri Lal points out that this is a "disturbing romanticization of the evil custom" (p. 69). She attributes it to Naidu's being forced into a "double persona" which "creates difficulties for the conventional reader who is looking for certitudes" (p. 68). This double persona stems from the contrast between, on the one hand, Naidu's ambitions for herself and the country, and on the other, the limited options available to her as a woman in colonial India. Naidu had to negotiate for herself a public space where she could present radical ideas in a fashion that would be acceptable to conservative audiences. According to Lal, when Naidu discusses sati:

The glamourizing of the custom is locked into the past. Naidu's strident denunciation of modern men is to shock the women into a recognition of possibilities in their own lives. The historical divide between "then" and "now" permits a non-controversial statement on the present irrelevance of an ancient practice. Naidu's audience contained women from a cross-section of Indian society and cut across differences in age and attitudes. She herself was an enigma to the listeners. Clad in spectacular silks, with matching flowers tucked into her hair, she stood confident and poised on the dias [sic]. Naidu was adored and admired for her "unfeminine" prowess but she was also considered virtuous and "safe" because she was a Hindu wife and mother. The strategy of successful rhetoric for Naidu was to speak from the position of advantage that "convention" had granted her, and having appropriated the public space, to air her unconventional ideas in palatable form.

Lal, pp. 69–70

Lal situates Naidu as a liminal personage, one who needs to cross various thresholds: between public speeches and private beliefs, between the exteriorizing political life and the interior world of poetry, between the travel necessitated by her nationalist activism and the domestic comforts of home, between her high aspirations and the limited possibilities open to her.

Paranjape has a similar reading of how Naidu navigates her liminal identity as an Indian poet writing within a colonial tradition:

Sarojini subtly but certainly complicated the apparently simple relationship of the colonized and the colonizer. I would argue that her poetry illustrates both a collusion with and resistance to the dominance of the metropolitan aesthetic. It shows not only an obvious collusion in her apparently transparent obedience to Gosse, but also resistance in the manner in which she appropriates and nativizes the Orientalist project. As an Indian, she is reclaiming her right to represent herself and the experience of her fellow Indians. Even if the poetic programme and its aesthetics are borrowed, the control over the representation is in native hands.

Paranjape, p. 180

According to Paranjape, Naidu was writing at a time when "there was no tradition of writing poetry in English to speak of, and thus no place for an Indian English poet in society" (p. 180). When Gosse offered her such a place, she had no choice but to accept it gratefully. Given her unique position as an Indian poet writing in English, Naidu had to depict India; Gosse was right that derivative verses about Midlands skylarks would not cut it. But as a nationalist, Naidu could not bring herself to depict any aspect of India negatively:

Of course, it would have been too painful to portray it with all the horrors of its poverty, inequality, disease, and suffering; if only these were glossed over, then a very attractive image of India would emerge, traditional, vivid, vibrant, colourful, and joyous. Moreover, in a period of almost exponential social and technological change, she could see vanishing before her eyes a way of life which the West had already lost and now pined for. She felt compelled to capture it in poetry and song because she probably longed for it herself. All these factors contributed to her attempt at offering to Indians a picture of themselves which they might be proud of, something that might salvage some of their crippled self-respect as a colonized and humiliated people.

Paranjape, p. 181.

One can extend Paranjape's insight to "Suttee". Sati was a horrifying custom, but given a choice between depicting its horror (thereby justifying colonial intervention to save the natives from themselves) or idealizing it (thereby salving the pride of the colonized), Naidu chooses the latter.

Paranjape is sympathetic to Naidu's aesthetic choices without endorsing them. He says that her work was doomed to failure:

everyone knew that her India was too romantic, too pretty to represent the Indian reality as they knew it. ... Her palanquin-bearers, wandering singers, Indian weavers, Coromandel fishers, snake-charmers, itinerant beggars, and so on, the “folk” in her folk songs, become suspect. They are all made to deny the hardship and toil of their occupations, hide their dispossession and marginalization, and celebrate their lowly and oppressed state. They become picturesque, exotic figures in tableaux, frozen in various attitudes of quaintness. These folk are pretty; they are simple; they are guileless; they are sincere. They are, moreover, in harmony with nature; the social order in which they live is seen as an extension of the natural order. Whether this order is just or unjust, whether they can rebel against it or not—such questions never occur to them. In other words, they are as their social superiors would like them: obedient, docile, and yet fascinating, interesting, picturesque. A symptomatic reading thus hints at the rich context and subtext of these poems. Such a historicist-materialistic approach would explain the absences in Sarojini’s text as examples of the overwhelmingly harsh reality of colonialism which the poems seek to repress and banish.

Paranjape, p. 181–182

Naidu's poetry escapes the brutal realities of colonial capitalism by depicting a glorified, feudalistic India:

It has a stable feudal social structure, where everyone is happy with his or her place. No wonder many poems show a repeated fascination with retrogressive social customs and practices including sati and purdah.

Paranjape, p. 182

Using insights from both Paranjape and Lal, one might argue that "Suttee" exemplifies yet another threshold among the many that Naidu has tried but, in this poem at any rate, failed to navigate: that between her politics of liberal democracy and her aesthetics of romanticized feudalism. The poem casts a sharp spotlight on the dangers of Naidu's enterprise; a threshold is also a trip hazard.


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