Making a difference | Edited by Ritu Menon
Publishing a collection of memoirs from activists who are not primarily writers is tricky. One can imagine an editor grappling with the dilemma of how much to nudge, push, or outright warp the primeval text into something coherent and engaging. Looking at the contributors for Making a Difference, it becomes clear that editor Ritu Menon chose an easy way out: The majority of writers are academics, all are college-educated with some form of previous published writing to their credit, and not a single memoir has been written (or spoken) in a language that needed translation.
From a publisher that prides itself on providing indigenous and subaltern voices, this lacuna becomes all the more inexcusable given that Indian women—including Gaura Devi and Bachhni Devi from the Chipko movement, Rojamma of the anti-liquor campaign in Andhra Pradesh, prostitute union organizers in Kolkata’s Sonagachi district, to name just a few—have long been leading movements to defend their rights without being literate, much less from the English-speaking middle and upper class.
Our feminist foremothers: An anti-dowry demonstration, circa 1981
We are told in the introduction to the book not to expect a comprehensive survey or analysis of the women’s movement in India. In the silences of Ruth Vanita’s memoir—where the only lesbian voice documents how painfully disconnected the women’s movement around her was from any support of queer feminists, in the photo essay of Sheba Chhachhi showing women choosing how they wish the portray themselves, and in SAHELI’s collective memoir, we are given glimpses of a larger movement, where dykes and Dalits and domestic abuse survivors might be spokeswomen, rather than subjects of study.
Meanwhile, reading these 20 memoirs is like trying to learn your family history by eavesdropping on all the arguments and gossip sessions of your grandparents, intermingled with the reminiscence they choose to dole out to the younger generation.
These writers are earnest about acknowledging the failings and fissures within their movements, best exemplified by the ruthlessly honest introspection in Kamla Bhasin’s piece: “My kind of socialist feminism was even more brutal as it forced me to question my caste and class, my duplicity in enjoying my class privileges while condemning the patriarchal privileges enjoyed by men….I see this as the biggest failure in my life.”
Some of the best moments arrive when the writers put together experience with professional or theoretical expertise. For instance, Nalini Nayak, who is a founder member of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, writes an incisive piece on how feminism intersects with Marxist analysis of labour in the Kerala labour force she studied. “The more money that was needed to keep the fishery going, the more aggressive did fishers become, both at home and at sea. As a result, dowries crept into fishing communities and increased excessively.”
Making a Difference - Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India: Women Unlimited, 412 pages, Rs 350
Or, working in the North-East, Roshmi Goswami says, “I realised…that when women are on home ground, they are less guarded about expressing themselves and their views on gender discrimination. The same women in a meeting in Delhi would be fiercely loyal to their ethnic identity and the ‘honour’ of the tribe.”
Disappointingly, ecologist Vandana Shiva’s contribution fails to tease out the theoretical underpinnings that connect ecology and feminism, focusing instead on the author’s own career. In contrast, Indira Jaising—the first female additional solicitor general of India—writes a brutally trenchant analysis of the legal system and the challenges it faces in order to be equitable and truly just. As she observes, “Political will, not economics, dictates development for women.”
These are the women whose political will brought dowry deaths to the front pages, and linked feminism with anti-capitalist economics. Their memories of growing up, largely post-independence and pre-liberalization, are a timely reminder of how much change in our social landscape has been actively fought for. This book acts as a notable, if disorganized, literary milestone commemorating a specific segment and time in the Indian women’s movement. It might not be the sort of read that you would hand to a straight man in order to say—here, learn about feminism. But for those who like to delve into the roots of our activist heritage, this is a good chance to listen to some of our feminist foremothers.
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In six words
Feminism’s second wave in India remembered.