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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

‘What became stronger were women & socks’

A WWI poster urging women to contribute to the war by knitting socks

ur cook, who likes to treat the kitchen like one does a bathroom, often sings while cooking. These are usually semi-devotional songs, the remnants of her girlhood in Bangladesh. For her, Hindi is a more difficult language than even mathematics, and so the mix of surprise and enchantment when I overheard her singing a Hindi song from the film Jab We Met a few months ago: Mauja hee Mauja. In her rounded Bangla diction, the words had changed into moja hee moja, 'socks and socks'. "It's cold," she said, "I wouldn't mind socks". Santona-didi's words would have startled anyone who knew her. In her 51-year-old life, in spite of her long history of bronchitis, no one has succeeded in making her wear a pair of socks. In the rural Bangladesh she grew up in, socks were for "boys from rich families". She cannot imagine herself wearing socks — for her it would be a kind of social violation.

A few days ago, Anindita Sengupta's poem Brink appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. "We limp-toed/into womanhood in spotless socks,/ a generation afraid of bringing things down" immediately reminded me of Santona-didi's words. Sengupta's poem is structured around a binary of "quiet" and "noise", both patriarchal tropes:

The meaning of quiet — those corridors
Knew it well. Softly girls.
A backyard of bramble and weed was where
we found noise.

Between this comes the discovery of "womanhood in spotless socks": the metaphor is self-explanatory, with its associations of virginity, honour and propriety. Under the supervision of a 'Mother C', what else could womanhood be?

This association between womanhood, perhaps femininity and clean socks, returned when I read Karthika Nair's poem Interregnum.

You had checked airline schedules while I
counted cash and clean socks that muggy night.

Both Sengupta's poem and Nair's are recording two important moments — the first a passage into an irreversible stage, 'womanhood', the second, as its title implies, a momentous pause. Nair's wonderful poem is a travelogue that works at many levels — from the alliterative 'Delhi, Dhaka' and 'Bangkok, Beijing' pairs of a geographical journey to "a latitude I/seek: the exact location of your smile". One does need 'cash' to make journeys, but with co-travellers like the 'moon' and the desire to break 'free from nations and rules', why the need for 'clean socks'?

In another poem, Ya'aburnee, Nair returns to the socks:

When I am returned, an old sock turned: inside out, holes darned, yarn
trimmed, a swollen foot ice-packed, maybe ironed
Then, and then, and then, do I reach out to wrap myself in your voice.

This is also a poem of travel, at least of imagined travel, "When tongue is the home that hitchhikes with me", and it is not surprising that all three poems that mention 'socks' are talking about journeys at some level — they are props for walking, after all. In this poem, the woman has become "an old sock" — what makes this identification possible?

hould it be a relief then to discover in Sampurna Chattarji's poem, Tokyo, a woman whose "voice smoked of a million cigarettes,/guttural, knocked the socks off /the men who gathered around her"? There's more to socks in Tokyo. Hiroko Storm, writing about women in Japanese proverbs, talks about the emergence of a post-World War II proverb: "What became stronger after the war were women and socks". It is interesting that the legal equality between men and women in Japanese society following the war needed to find a home in the trope of the 'socks' — the women and nylon equivalence, often used pornographically ("nylon stockings pornography"), is to be found in a proverb such as this one. As if the hideousness of the expression 'blue stocking' hadn't been enough, I kept on discovering the easy substitutability of 'socks' for 'fashionable' women. I found that Fang Zhimin, the Chinese communist military leader, had made a show of his poverty with these words: "Some old undergarments, a few pairs of socks.... These are all I have". He also refused to take a 'fashionable wife' who would, possibly, wear expensive socks.

Margaret Atwood, in her poem The Loneliness of the Military Historian, writes about the reactions of different sections of society to war, and this is what women do:

Women should march for peace,
or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,
... That, and the knitting of socks for the troops
and a sort of moral cheerleading.
Also: mourning the dead.

When women are not being socks, they are knitting them for 'troops', as if it is the responsibility of women to protect the feet of those who protect the nation. This association between war and socks is to be found in this brilliant short poem by the Lebanese poet Nazem el Sayed: "Socks on the line/dripping/the footsteps/washed this morning" (On the Clothes Line).

I often find myself thinking about the girl in Sudan who was arrested for not wearing socks and I wonder what my cook, Santona-didi, would make of it. I have to confess that my immediate thought is of Roy Gonzalez's poem, The Walls, where Salvador Dali's sock-wearing ways are catalogued:

Salvador Dali wore one orange
sock and a white one on days
he went to eat breakfast in cafes.
On days he stared at the wall,
he did not wear socks.

I've noticed Santona-didi staring at the wall often. Perhaps that is why she does not wear socks.

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