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Indian women writing over the centuries, have many fascinating stories for us to hear. Start building your 2016 reading list with this selection.
For many of us in India, the word ‘Classics’ conjures up names like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy – or Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; if you consider yourself a feminist, you probably add Virginia Woolf to the list, and if your inclinations are more towards poetry, you think of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and perhaps Eliot.
The truth is, that when it comes to our literary heritage, we are doubly disadvantaged; as Indians brought up in a colonial influenced tradition of learning, and secondly, as women who are unaware of what women before us thought and wrote.
I am not by any measure arguing for a parochial system of learning that focuses on Indian literature to the exclusion of everything else. Yet, there are many sound reasons for us as modern Indian women, to know our literary foremothers.
First, it is good to know that our concerns are not the concerns of our times alone. That women over many centuries have questioned the norms that bind women in a patriarchal society. Of course, not all women write about things specific to women, but life as a woman is not wholly distinct from writing as a woman.
Second, to understand the lives of the women who went before us, is an enjoyable experience in itself. Some medieval poetry sounds shockingly bold to modern ears and makes it obvious that Indian culture was not prudish or narrow-minded.
Third, if we understand literature as a tradition that builds on the work of those who have gone before, it is important for us to know what we are building on (and this will especially appeal to you, if you write).
Until even a couple of decades ago, there was very little available to read, especially from women writing in India before the 19th century, especially for a reader in English. This is changing now, with more editors and publishing houses delving into the subject.
So, if you haven’t explored women’s writing in India before the twentieth century, here are some good places to start:
A gentle satire as well as a fantasy, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (and Padmarag, another novella by the same author) is an enjoyable read set in a feminist utopia; not something many of us would expect from that period.
An Unfinished Song by Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal evolves around a young Bengali girl in the process of discovering herself amidst a gradually changing India. As reviewer Sunayana Roy states, “It is a reflection on the way we treat our women writers that her legacy would have died with her in 1932, were it not for renewed literary interest, during the last decades of the twentieth century, in the role played by women in the Bengal Renaissance and rise of Indian nationalism.”
Written by Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati, The High Caste Hindu Woman, is an exploration of the (often horrifying) life of women in a patriarchal society. The author wrote about high caste women since that she is what she was familiar with, as a widow who had to fight societal norms to get educated and fend for herself and her daughter.
The first Indian woman to qualify in Law at Oxford, Cornelia Sorabji was the daughter of social reformers, and her knowledge of life as it really was for Indian women, was commingled with a deep sense of empathy. She drew upon these experiences to write Love And Life Behind The Purdah. As reviewer Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta says, “In fiction, Sorabji found the space to trace the varied nuances of these lives. Not only the relationships of men and women, but also those within the community that lived behind the purdah: the subtle betrayals, the unspoken friendships, the solidarity, the generosity.”
Besides these four works, two other anthologies to get you started on this journey are:
I am sure there are others that I am unaware of (perhaps not published in English yet), and many more waiting to be discovered from obscurity.
If you know of other good works by Indian women writers before our times, do share in the comments below, and I (and other readers) can add it to our 2016 reading list too!
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Darlings makes some excellent points about domestic violence . For such a movie to not follow through with a resolution that won't be problematic, is disappointing.
I watched Darlings last weekend, staying on top of its release on Netflix. It was a long-awaited respite from the recent flicks. I wanted badly to jump into its praise and will praise it, for something has to be said for the powerhouse performances it is packed with. But I will not be able to in a way that I really had wanted to.
I wanted to say that this is a must-watch on domestic violence that I stand behind and a needed and nuanced social portrayal. But unfortunately, I can’t. For I found Darlings to be deeply problematic when it comes to the portrayal of domestic violence and how that should be dealt with.
Before we rush to the ‘you must be having a problem because a man was hit’ or ‘much worse happens to women’ conclusions, that is not what my issue is. I have seen the praises and criticisms, and the criticisms of criticisms. I know, from having had close associations with non-profits and activists who fight domestic violence not just in India but globally, that much worse happens to women. I have written a book with case studies and statistics on that. Neither do I have any moral qualms around violence getting tackled with violence (that will be another post some day).
Gender stereotypes, though a by-product of the patriarchal society that we have always lived in, are now so intricately woven into our conditioning that despite our progressive thinking, we are unable to break free from them.
Repeatedly crossing, while on my morning walk ̶ a sticky, vine-coloured patch on the walkway, painted by jamuns that have fallen from the jamun tree, crushed by the impact of their fall, and perhaps, inadvertently trampled upon by walkers, awakens memories of the mulberry tree that stood in my parents’ house when I was growing up. Right at the entrance of the house, the tree caused a similar red and violet chaos on the floor, which greeted us each time we entered the gate.
Today, as I walked by this red-violet patch, I was reminded of an incident that my mother had narrated to me several times. It had taken place shortly after her marriage and her arrival in this house from her hometown.