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ANALYSING AND EXPLORING THIRD SPACE IN MEENA

ALEXANDER’S ‘HER GARDEN’

Meena Alexander was a New York-based Indian writer and scholar of


international standing. Her contribution to Indian literature consists of multiple
collections of poetry, essays and works of fiction. Alexander was born in
Allahabad, India on 17 Feb.1951, and grew up in Kerala and Sudan. She completed
her Ph.D. from Nottingham University. Her teaching career, of over 30 years,
consists of stints at University of Hyderabad and Columbia University. Some of
Alexander’s notable works include the two novels Nampally Road and Manhattan
Music, her poetry collections, Illiterate Heart, Raw Silk, Quickly Changing River
and Birthplace with Buried Stones. She is credited with editing a volume of essays
and poems on the themes of migration and memory called The Shock of Arrival:
Reflections on Postcolonial Experience and collection of poems called Indian Love
Poems. She published her autobiographical memoir, Fault Lines in 1993 which
was revised in 2003. Her writings stay unique due to its lyrical style and
exploration of social issues of migration from a personal perspective. She died in
New York, United States on 21 Nov.2018.
Third space or “the third space of enunciation” was a concept put forward by
Homi K Bhabha in his work The Location of Culture. He associates the idea with his
earlier discussed concept of hybridity in the same work and to denote
interdependence and mutual construction of the subjectivities of the colonizer
and colonized. The third space can be defined as a space in between the first
space of parent culture and the second space of forced or acquired culture as a
result of colonisation. This third space thus acquired is hybrid in the sense that it
is a blend of the culture and practices in the first and second space. This can also
take place in individuals who face identity crisis as a result of exposure to a
number of different cultures like Meena Alexander who was born in Allahabad,
raised in Allahabad, Khartoum and Kerala, educated in Sudan and Britain, married
and settled in New York City. The third space can also result in mimicry and
ambivalence as Bhabha discusses in the work Of Mimicry and Man whereby he
connects the idea of mimicry to the Lacanian vision of the same idea as
camouflage resulting in colonial ambivalence describing ambivalent relationship
between the colonizer and colonized. This act of mimicking the superior culture
might result in a view that the parent culture is inferior to the culture of the
colonizer. Ambivalence, originally a concept deriving from psychoanalysis,
disrupts the clear-cut authority of colonial domination because it disturbs the
simple relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.
In the poem Her Garden, Meena Alexander builds such a third space, but not to
depict contradicting cultures but to show the space in between her and her
deceased grandmother. The garden or “her garden” as the title signifies is
symbolic of the past nostalgic memories that the grandmother had in the garden.
She tries to connect these memories to her current situation or life by stating that
“we are one.” It can be symbolic of the lonely experience her grandmother
underwent in the past. The third space can also be suggestive of Alexander’s
diasporic culture and her urge to stick to the parent culture or the Indianness of
which she and her grandmother, both are a part of. Even though, Alexander’s
grandmother died even before she was born, the poet is able to connect with the
departed soul through memories and experiences. She urges to encounter the
same experiences her grandmother underwent in the garden.
The poem is a free verse without a rhyme scheme or pattern. The poem is
actually an explosion of the poet’s thoughts and feelings without following a
particular idea. The images related to nature symbolise a connecting path that
brings the poet and grandmother together. They can also be considered as
objects that witnessed the life of grandmother and the poet, bringing Alexander
more close to these elements of the garden. The poet’s feeling of dislocation is
carried away by the mountains, cicada, mulberry tree and other elements that
form a part of nature or the garden.
The crackling of the mountains, bristling of cicada are all auditory images that
arouse the presence of grandmother in the poet. The cicada is also a Greek
symbol of immortality and resurrection. The barks of the mulberry tree are similar
to the wrinkled hands of the old lady. The first two stanzas deal with the elements
of nature which form a part of the garden. The third stanza surprises us, as the
poet hints the death of her grandmother which she presents casually as though a
conversation with the reader. The garden and nature had witnessed the death of
her grandmother and she loves to think that the lonesome lady died looking at
the sky symbolising her desire to send the departed soul to heaven. The sun
above might have been an onlooker of the death. She compares grandmother’s
death to the setting of the sun which is calm and peaceful. The soul departed
without creating any chaos. Her soul must have been like a young goat leaping
over the cracks symbolising a happy journey to heaven. The last stanza reveals
that the poet and her granny had never seen each other but their experiences,
memory and surroundings bring them together. The poet feels that she and her
grandmother are one like a sky abandoned by sun and star symbolising their
loneliness. The memory that the poet has about her grandmother is similar to the
“rare fragrance of dry mulberry” during monsoon. The poem is an imaginary one
in the sense that the poet tries to describe the life of her grandmother whom she
has not even seen in real life. The forced images in the poem create a vague idea
and try to produce a third space in the mind of the poet and the reader. The poet
through the poem might find it successful in identifying herself with the dead
grandmother and thus reach a state of solace.
Meena Alexander was always successful in creating different versions of third
space due to her experiences and exposure to multiple cultures. She was a
diasporic writer confused of her ‘self’ and individuality. The character Mira she
presents in her novel Nampally Road faces such an uncertainty as she was a
young woman educated in England, working in a college in Nampally Road,
Hyderabad. She was confused whether to identify herself as a western or Indian
woman. Meena Alexander in the poem, The House of Thousand Doors tries to
string together her fragmented dreams, visions and imaginations about her native
place in an attempt to patch up her torn postcolonial identity. The image of black
female migrant as ‘other’ when compared to the narrator as seen in Fault Lines
analyzes how Alexander herself feels and understands the racial disparity and
otherness in the society. She has also dealt with writings like Manhattan Music
where an Indian woman like the protagonist Sandhya Rosenblum faces conflict
based on identity and race amidst the vertigo of whites in the land forcing her to
create a third space. Alexander’s exposure to diverse ethnic and religious
communities and her multicultural experiences have greatly influenced and
shaped her work by creating various ‘third spaces’ that differ from one another.
The recurrent themes of heritage and cultural displacement mark her literary
productions.
In an interview, Meena Alexander had stated herself to be both an Indian and
American suggesting her acceptance of both the culture and identity. She thus,
was a writer who created a third space in her own life accepting parts of culture
she was exposed to.