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Rakhshanda Jalil
Friday , March 08, 2013 at 11 : 54

International Women's Day: Subcontinent's women writers in English


Published in 1895, Saguna is said to be the first autobiographical novel in English written by an Indian woman; its author was Krupabai Satthianadhan (1862-1894), the daughter of a first generation Christian convert from Ahmednagar who wrote about her life as a 'native Christian' and her pioneering journey in search of an education. Possibly in an age when female authorship was as rare as female readership, the category of a 'woman writer' was no more than an exigency of the times. However, now while male and female literacy levels may not be at par across the length and breadth of the country, female readers as well as women writers are to be found in sufficiently large numbers to make this label superfluous. Why, then do we persist in prefixing the gender to the vocation of writing? Clearly, we don't feel the need to say women doctors, women lawyers, women teachers; so why women writers?

Is it because of an underlying assumption that writing by women is, by its very nature, for women? On the face of it, such an assumption seems as bizarre as assuming that writings of, say, South Asian writers must be of over-powering interest to those from the sub-continent alone, or that Dalit writing is of interest, or should be of interest, only to Dalit readers, or Black writing to Black readers, and so on. Yes, there was a time when women's writing concerned itself exclusively with "female" areas of experience such as marriage, motherhood, family dynamics; from their it went on to women's need and search for education and work, or negotiating sexual identity in an essentially patriarchal society. But now women's writing covers everything from class, caste, citizenship, cultural practices, religion, politics and social responsibility. In such a changing scenario is such a label not derogatory, if not outright pejorative? Opinion is divided.

Rebutting the charge of VS Naipaul who claims there is no female author whom he considers his equal, Renu Kaul Verma, Managing Director of Vistasta Publishing says: 'Contrary to what Naipaul says I find women writers meticulous, literary and intellectually stimulating. Their feminist ideologies have begun to influence the writing in India. Women today have their own mind. They have the money and urge to succeed. This clearly shows in their writings and the aam reader seems to relate to it. As a publisher, I also find it easier to deal with women writers. They are reasonable and patient.'

Ritu Menon, publisher of Women Unlimited, who has carved a niche in the publishing industry and located women writers in the continuum of Indian writing in English, says: 'The most encouraging thing that's happened over the last decade or so is that so many women writers from other Indian languages are being translated into English now - this can only be a happy development. The multiplicity of voices that all our literatures have should be available to as many as possible, because we have such a multiplicity of experiences and realities.'

In poetry - especially in Hindi and Urdu - there has always been a tradition of ecriture feminine or 'writing the feminine'. In earlier times, there was the poetic genre of rekhti where male poets spoke in a feminine, but fake, voice. This was followed by 'courtesan poets' or women who were often fairly accomplished as poets but were, nevertheless, beyond the pale of society.

Gradually, women from sharif families too began to compose poetry; their output, slender and scattered as it was, was read privately and not meant for public consumption or publication. Women were encouraged to read but not write resulting in a huge disparity between women's readership and authorship. The notion of women poets addressing mainstream concerns as well as overtly feminine ones is, therefore, still a novel one in the literatures of Upper India. From the pioneering flights of Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu to Kamala Das and Imtiaz Dharker to the younger crop of women poets such as Eunice Desouza, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Reshma Aquil, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Leela Gandhi, Anjum Hasan, Anita Nair, Meena Alexander, Tishani Doshi, it has been a long journey.

Anthologies of women's writings - especially short stories - have, to my mind, done more harm than good. More often than not, these hastily cobbled-together collections are neither representative nor uniform: random, indiscriminate and patchy as they are, they offer a melange of the good, bad, indifferent put together between the covers of one book with one eye on political correctness and the other on cost-effective publishing with some much-anthologised stories appearing as tired ghosts. As some of their titles suggest - Other Words: New Writing by Indian Women (1992), or The Inner Courtyard (1990) - they evoke a world that is separate and distinct from the male world and of academic, if not limited, interest to the male reader. Possibly what is needed are collections of women's writings that rise above the publisher's demand of a 'peg' and instead showcase the diversity of women's voices that interpret real women's hearts and bodies and minds in a multitude of ways and express concerns that go beyond a woman's world of aangan and chaardiwari. It is time editors and publishers freed anthologies of the self-limiting traps imposed by a peg or focus for a collection; it is only then that we will see women's writings in all their splendid diversity.

And the scene in Pakistan...Viewed through Indian eyes

In Pakistan, women who write in English are often charged with writing for a small incestuous group that is far removed from the 'real' Pakistan. Disparaged as elitist and accused of suffering from a colonial hangover and a west-fixation, Pakistani women writers have, therefore, traditionally found themselves doubly marginalized. Save for a lone Bapsi Sidhwa and in later years Kamila Shamsie and Sara Suleri who have found ready publishers and eager audiences abroad before becoming 'known' in their own country, not much is known or read of contemporary women writers from Pakistan. The precious little that is available - as stray articles through the internet or in anthologies - is usually overtly 'feminist' and concerned exclusively with issues of gender, space and identity. Two anthologies have attempted to remove this anomaly: And the World Changed, edited by Muneeza Shamsie (Women Unlimited, 2005) and Neither Night Nor Day, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Harper Collins, 2007). Both anthologies have tried to showcase new writings that give a glimpse into the everyday lives of Pakistani women; they make no attempt to 'exoticise' their 'alien-ness' for western readers.


More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.