Excerpt | Unbound: Edited by Annie Zaidi

The editor of this anthology of Indian women's writing on how her disdain for 'kitchenized' fiction gave way to an understanding of its relevance in our lives

An odd thing happened soon after I took on the daunting task of editing this anthology. I found myself inscribing my own name on the first pages of the books I had bought. As a student, I was in the habit of writing my name in books I owned but over the years, the more I bought, the less ownership mattered. But now, again, I found myself wanting to stamp certain books as ‘mine’—ones by Krishna Sobti, Mahasweta Devi, Sivakami, Salma, Meera, Geetanjali Shree. As soon as I began to feel a kinship with the work, I’d write my name on the first page. I even wanted to make notes in the margins and underline passages with ink.

In this way, I discovered that I belong to the books as much as they belong to me. It was the same impulse that led to me scratching my name on rocks when I climbed the hills near my childhood home. It’s a way of saying: I was here. And on several pages written by the women represented in this book, I have found my own self.

When I began work on this project, I struggled with several questions. The biggest one: several women writers are celebrated not just as ‘women writers’ but as writers, period. Some have won the nation’s highest literary honours. Must we continue to put ‘women writers’ in a box of their own?

Part of the answer came as I read more and more Indian women. Women bring to their writing the truth of their bodies, and an enquiry into the different ways in which gender inequity shapes human experience (and destroys lives). Many women writers also place women protagonists at the centre of their work and many stories set within the household have the power to illuminate the ways in which women’s lives are shaped and controlled.

It is worth noting here that there has been a sort of dismissal of ‘domestic’ fiction in the recent past. Editors and writers, male and female, have equated domestic themes with dullness, or the lack of imaginative daring. In fact, there was a time when I (and I’m squirming as I write this) used to say that I didn’t care much for ‘kitchenized’ fiction. It took me over a year of exclusively reading women writers to realize how deep and strong the roots of my own bias were and how foolish our undermining of ‘domestic’ fiction.

Of course it’s domestic! Patriarchy is nothing if not domestic. Besides, there is more sex, violence, politics and overall drama in the average household than, say, the average office. Why are we surprised if domestic settings are chosen for fiction? From such settings emerge stories of great rebellion, and poetry that directly challenges the myths fed to us over thousands of years.

Hindi writer Krishna Sobti had once said in an interview that she wants to have fun, to live and not just write. She also said that families and marriages were anti-art, anti-writing. Yet, it is marriage and family that form the basis of her own writing. Her delicately crafted, aurally delicious novel Dil-o-Danish (translated as ‘The Heart has its Reasons’) is firmly domestic. It tells of endless manoeuvring by women as they struggle for economic security and personal dignity. And while the bold reclamation of a woman’s sexuality was one aspect of her novel Mitro Marjani (To Hell With You, Mitro), it was also the story of a joint family.

There have been periods in our literary history when it seemed women cared less about craft or form; all they wanted was to be heard. The argument against patriarchy could turn into a howl of rage, as in P. Sivakami’s tightly spun novels, or it could be a lucid, almost detached account of Indian women’s lives as seen in Mahadevi Varma’s essays. Kumudini was wittily subversive as was K. Saraswathi Amma; Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s anger was brushed with sardonic humour. Rassundari Devi’s account was quite simply that—an account of her life, where she expresses more gratitude than rage, while Baby Kamble, Bama, Joya Mitra and Devaki Nilayamgode wrote memoirs that reflect their consciousness as activists.

At various points in our history, the very act of reading and writing was a protest. Most Indians were illiterate but women’s literacy was actively discouraged, even prohibited. Only a few managed to document their lives. It is against this backdrop that the introduction to Ramabai Saravati’s The High Caste Hindu Woman says: ‘The silence of a thousand years has been broken...’ This is not entirely accurate, of course, for women in the thousand years preceding 1887 did write. But in 1887, it was rare for a high caste Hindu woman to express herself in the public domain. To write fluently in English, to travel abroad and to be published in America was very, very rare.

The High Caste Hindu Woman remains relevant even today, speaking as it does about infanticide, establishing clear links between marriage, dowry, caste, religious scripture and the violence done to little girls. A hundred and fifty years later, the sex ratio is still alarmingly low in several parts of the country and the government is still trying to stop female foeticide through law enforcement. Pandita Ramabai’s descriptions of the woes of upper caste women ought to be read alongside Baby Kamble’s account of the lives of Dalit women, and Bama’s autobiography, Karukku. All of them speak of a cycle of oppression and the need for literacy and financial

independence in order to break this vicious cycle.

India has come far since Independence but violence against women continues to be so common that only the most gruesome acts shake the average citizen out of his/her complacency. Many activists now openly say that the ‘freedom’ we won in 1947 was a political transfer of power, and that women must struggle for their freedom again. There is a lot of hostility directed at those who are part of this struggle and the abuse directed at women writers is also a reflection of this hostility.

Contemporary writers have faced abuse and threats after having written about bodies, sex, and religious institutions. Tamil poets like Salma and Kutti Revathy were accused of ‘obscenity’ and threatened with violence. Criticism is often accompanied by sexual abuse and this was painfully evident while I was looking for essays by historian Romila Thapar. I came upon a website discussing her work and one comment described her thus: ‘That BIYATCH Romila thapar is nothing but a whore of the commies’. It was both amusing and sad to realize that more money, better education and exposure (mainly to American culture, judging from the language used) has not rid our civilization of men who, unable to disprove a woman’s scholarship, start to abuse her sexuality.

In recent years, we also had a senior academic declare in an interview that women writers (with reference to contemporary Hindi literature) are competing with each other to establish who is the greatest whore among them. This is not a far cry from the way male social reformers had, in the early twentieth century, called for a ban on the work of Muddupalani, calling it the work of a prostitute; Nagarathnamma, the woman artiste who salvaged the Telugu classic and re-published it, was also dismissed as a prostitute.

Even today women are still judged by a different set of social and moral standards than men. It is in this context that an Indian woman must be read, alongside the generations that came before her. We cannot know what to do next unless we know what we have already done, or what was done to us. Ignorance of the past leads to contortions in our understanding of our present selves. For instance, I had grown up believing that there was something remarkably bold and progressive about the Indian political leadership of the pre-independence era. I was proud of the fact that women were given equal voting rights in a sovereign India, which makes us better than the UK or the USA where women had to fight for it. What I did not know is that, initially, the plan was to offer only limited suffrage to Indian women. Reading Sarojini Naidu’s impassioned plea to an overwhelmingly male leadership was a real eye-opener. She appealed to their generosity, their sense of justice, even to their dedication to our traditional values. But what if there were no Sarojini Naidu? Would we be marching down the streets even today, chaining ourselves to the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan, screaming for women’s right to vote?...

...Finally, let me turn to a quote attributed to Hindi-Urdu writer Premchand. He said that a writer’s task is not to entertain, or even to hold up a mirror to society; a writer bears a torch that lights our way ahead. I had wondered if this philosophy would hold up over time. If we read a book a hundred, a thousand years after it was written, can it still light our way?

Having read the women who wrote in centuries past, I now believe the answer is: yes! Yes, they continue to light our way ahead.

Edited excerpts from Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing (357 pages, 595), with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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