Introduction

Arun Kolatkar is the poet of the poem, “An Old Woman.” The poem is about encountering clinging old women when visiting a shrine or religious place. This poem depicts an old woman in a totally different vision, as the poet discovers her with a unique outlook owing to the woman’s demeanour and her words.

He comes across this woman, fragile yet fierce in her gaze. For a fifty paise coin, she asks him to take her service to tour around the horseshoe shrine. Though the speaker first wants to dismiss her, she persists, and he finally recognizes her strong desire to earn a respectful life on her own. Eventually, his perspective shifts.

About the Poet

Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) was educated and employed as a graphic artist in Mumbai. Kolatkar, a Commonwealth Poetry Prize recipient, has written to ‘Kavi,’ ‘Opinion Literary Review,’ ‘New Writing in India,’ and ‘The Shell and The Rain,’ among other publications. He is a poet who is bilingual and has also translated Marathi poetry. This poem is from his book ‘Jejuri,’ which contains a compilation of his poetry.

Theme

In this poem, the visitor’s impression of the woman as someone who just pestered the tourists for money has transformed. He realizes that despite witnessing a catastrophe, this woman prefers to earn her life on her own. The poem ends on a note that, no one can be taken for granted.

Structure

The poem is structured into 11 stanzas that are made up of irregular tercets. A tercet is a three-line stanza which may or may not consist of a rhyming pattern. The length of the lines may contain a single word or multiple words. There is no particular rhyme pattern in the poem “An Old Woman.” However, in stanza 10, the words crone and alone create a rhyme.

  • The poetry is summarized by grouping together a few stanzas.

Stanza 1-4

An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve 
and tags along. 

She wants a fifty paise coin. 
She says she will take you 
to the horseshoe shrine.

You’ve seen it already.
 She hobbles along anyway
 and tightens her grip on your shirt 

She won’t let you go. 
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.

An old lady grabs the sleeve of a tourist and follows him. A ‘fifty paise coin’ is what she wants. She promises to show him ‘the horseshoe shrine’ in exchange for the coin. The traveller walks away since he has already seen the shrine. The elderly woman ‘tightens her grip’ and ‘hobbles’ along, refusing to give up. She is determined. She clings to him like a prickly seed pod that clings to clothing, a ‘burr.’

Stanza 5- 7

You turn around and face her 
with an air of finality. 
You want to end the farce. 
When you hear her say, 
‘What else can an old woman do 
on hills as wretched as these?’ 

You look right at the sky. 
Clear through the bullet holes 
she has for her eyes.

Annoyed by her persistence, the traveller chooses to ‘end the farce’ with an ‘air of finality,’ declaring that he would not submit to her and, as a result, putting an end to the ‘farce.’ He believes that his hard-headed response will drive her off. But the old woman’s statement – ‘what else could an old woman do to survive on these wretched hills’ – hits the narrator like a flash of light. The narrator is able to ‘see’ her up close because of the harsh truth that confronts him. He is taken aback when he turns to gaze at her face. He discovers that his eyes are like deep ‘bullet holes.’

Stanza 8-11

And as you look on, 
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack. 
And the temples crack. 
And the sky falls

With a plateglass clatter
 around the shatterproof crone
 who stands alone. 

And you are reduced
to so much small change 
in her hand.

Her skin is wrinkly, and cracks around her eyes and her skin appeared to grow. Everything seemed to be crumbling around him. The atmosphere then undergoes a tremendous change. A disaster has occurred. The sky descends as the hills collapse, the temples break.  The old woman, on the other hand, stands as a symbol of all-around deterioration.  

The pilgrim undergoes an emotional transfiguration at the very same moment when the woman stands alone. He is embarrassed. He has been reduced to a smidgen (tiny bit) of change in the heartland. His self-esteem is diminished as a result of this understanding.  The image of the woman as someone who is only harassing the tourists for money has altered in the mind of the speaker.

He now realizes that this woman is strongly determined and prefers to earn her life on her own. His spiritual awakening to the ‘real’ world makes him feel ‘insignificant,’ much like the penny in her palm. The end of the poem asserts that not a single person must be judged or taken for granted.