Witty and wise
The Fabulous Feminist | Suniti Namjoshi
The genius of Suniti Namjoshi would have remained practically unknown to a generation of readers had Zubaan not come up with this anthology of a range of her writings from the 1980s to the present. Born in 1941, Namjoshi is commonly described as a lesbian feminist writer, though such a dour description does not do justice to one of the wittiest fabulists of our times.
Namjoshi came into prominence with Feminist Fables (1981), a crisp retelling of canonical and apocryphal folk tales—drawing on sources as varied as The Panchatantra, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and European fairy tales—from a distinctly queer perspective (I use the qualifier in a literal rather than a political sense). Reading these tales, you might be reminded of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath exclaiming: “By god! if wommen hadde writen stories....”
Namjoshi’s work draws its subversive energies from a hard-nosed understanding of social realities rather than from bookish theories. As she points out, “The fable form should make it clear that they question what happens to anyone whenever there’s an imbalance of power.” The point is driven home in tale after tale with striking perspicacity, a wry, Swiftian sense of humour, and without a trace of sentimentality.
The sensitive princess who could not sleep because she was troubled by an obscure pea hidden in the depths of the mattress catches a cold in the end and dies of it. A simple-minded cobra falls in love with a mongoose and is killed by the object of his affection. “This tale has no moral,” Namjoshi explains darkly, “but I might point out that not all simple-minded cobras finish as victims.” A “very high-minded child” goes to the forest, prays long and hard to seek an end to the ills of the world, only to be mocked by the goddess: “Live with it and lead your life.” Shocking, comical and sobering, these stories straddle Alice’s wonderland and Kafka’s nightmare-land.
Much of Namjoshi’s investigations into the female psyche, and the society that shapes it, are carried out in a mode of fictional life-writing in the best tradition of the genre. Think of the vicious wit of Virginia Woolf, laced with the tender melancholia of Hélène Cixous, spiked with the subtle eroticism of Anaïs Nin.
There is no self-aggrandizing loftiness as she pokes fun at “earnest lesbian feminists” in The Conversations of Cow (1985). The protagonist, Suniti, is struggling in this Orwellian tale to come to terms with her emotional entanglements with a beautiful but moody cow called Bhadravati. In the end, having faltered in her self-deprecating quest to carve out an identity, Suniti realizes that our “ultimate aim is not to achieve a particular identity, but to divest ourselves of the particulars of identity”.
In The Authentic Lie (1982), which includes a sequence of grief-haunted poems addressed to her father who died in an air crash, Namjoshi is stark, acute and unsparing. “I…realized that if I went for the jugular, if I seized my experience and tried to capture it as honestly as I knew how, then I would be intelligible, not exotic,” she writes.
Namjoshi shifts between these multiple registers with remarkable agility—no wonder she wrote her PhD thesis on the notoriously polyphonic Cantos of Ezra Pound—regaling the reader with her chatty, facetious blue donkey fables one moment before quickly moving on to scathing social satire in The Mothers of Maya Diip (1989).
Decay and mortality haunt her later poems, addressed to her dear departed cat, friends dead and gone, and to Sycorax, Caliban’s monstrous mother in The Tempest . Skittishness fades into heavy irony as she struggles to humanize the life of a servant, Goja. “I’m tired of all this heart/raking,” Goja’s words keep ringing in our ears as she snaps at Suniti, “You get a little bit of life/like the sparrow flitting in the Great Hall./Then it’s over.”