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Growing Up As A Woman Writer
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Growing Up As A Woman Writer
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About the Book

 

The present volume brings to the reader the works of women writers in India across languages, regions, religions, socioeconomic structures, caste hierarchies and genres. In its wide-ranging presentation of creative writing, it also works across generations.

 

A product of the proceedings of two seminars on women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi, the volume brings together debates on definitions of women’s writing and feminism, personal narratives and recollections, poetry and short stories that reflect different hues of life. The insights the writers provide convey the Indian reality with all its immediacy, and in this lies the strength of these writings.

 

Writing, as it moves from the oral to the written text, simultaneously represents a sense of freedom, a discovery of the self and a reaching out to the other. The critical essays go on to interrogate literary canons, modes of representation, aesthetics, feminist positions and the question of readership. Ranging from the personal to the political, from the lyrical to the hard- core intellectual voice, the volume conveys the vibrancy of the writing of women in India today. Under the cover we have here, the making of a new literary tradition.

 

About the Author

 

Jasbir Jain is currently engaged in research on the indigenous roots of feminism. She has been working on literature across the different languages of India for more than two decades. Her major interest areas are critical theory and feminist and cultural issues. Amongst her recent publications are Beyond Postcolonialism: Dreams and Realities of a Nation (2006) and Reading Partition/Living Partition (2006).

 

Preface

 

The present volume is a collection of the proceedings of the two conferences of women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi. The first of these “Women Writing in India at the Turn of the Century” was held in 2001, and the second “All India Women Writers’ Conference” in 2005. The writers and critics who participated in these came from different parts of the country, represented different languages and different genres. They also, in some measure, provided a cross-section of society. Yet, no matter how many conferences we may put together, none can be truly representative of the plurality, diversity and the experiential difference of circumstances. Many of us ran into each other at both the conferences. I happened to be one of those privileged ones.

 

In retrospect it is natural to ask the question what were the objectives and what the achievements of these two conferences. For the first time, a recognised and respected central academy took the initiative to explore the complexities of gender relations and their impact upon the creative mind. Another first was the intellectual sharing that went into the debates, discussions, breakfast sessions, walks, and the brushes we had with each other. A sharing, a bondedness, a friendliness - all these could be felt. We did feel pampered for a while. Insights into other worlds both frightened and inspired one. There was a freedom in being with each other.

 

One of the identified themes in the 2001 conference was “Growing Up as a Woman Writer.” In my subsequent researches, I found these essays very helpful and persisted in asking as to when they would be made available to a larger public. The natural fallout of this was that the proceedings of both the seminars were forwarded to me - some handwritten, some in Hindi, some faint copies of typescripts. It has been a long process getting them translated and ready for publication, contacting the authors for details and attending to other related tasks. But finally it seems to have acquired a semblance of some kind of order. As I put them together there were some problems that troubled me and these were (i) non-representation of certain sections and languages; (ii) more than one contribution by one author; (ill) non-representation of certain aspects of women’s writing and life; (iv) and a need to balance the specific feminine concerns with an expansion of feminine interests. In addition there were the missing transcripts of Mahasweta Devi’s opening remarks at the 2001 conference, of the interventions that Qurrutulain Hyder and Krishna Sobti made thereafter, or the debate that followed the contrasting viewpoints of Mahasweta Devi and Nabaneeta Deb Sen. I mention these to help the reader recreate the dynamic atmosphere that actually enveloped all of us.

 

Some of the issues that I have identified above, apparently had no solutions. I simply had to accept them as unsolvable. But I decided to invite articles to fill up some major gaps, which incidentally would also provide more representation. Prabhjot, Krishna Sobti, Tutun Mukherjee, Bama, B. Chandrika, Esther David, Neelum Saran Gaur, Lakshmi Kannan, Surjit Sama, Dhanwant Kaur, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Rachel Bari fall into this category. Each one of the above has been gracious and generous enough to let me have her poems, short stories, an autobiographical piece or a critical one. I am personally grateful to them. Lakshmi Kannan’s essay “The Rangoli Woman” was presented at a seminar in Yamunanagar and was first published by them. Surjit Sarna’s story, “The Distance to Lahore” was translated earlier and has been published in Indian Literature, Bama’s short story is taken from her collection published by Women Unlimited and was read out at a seminar in Jaipur, The essay on Sukhwinder Mann by Dhanwant Kaur was first published in an issue of Journal of Punjab Studies. The permission for including this material is acknowledged with gratitude both to the writers and their first editors. A word of gratitude to our translators, without whom this volume would not have been possible. Most of the translations from Telugu, Tamil, Oriya, Assamese, Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam were initiated by the writers themselves and I am greatly appreciative of the fact that they went through this to render their work accessible to all of us and others like us who are not conversant with those languages. I am indebted to them. Many of the translators are well known writers in their own right and have extended their creative talents in order to cater to the needs of a multi-lingual society. I am greatly indebted to all our translators.

 

Gitanjali Chattetjee, Deputy Secretary, Sahitya Akademi has handled the printing at her end and always with a smile. J.K. Verma and K.S. Rao, both from the Sahitya Akademi, have attended to my innumerable phone calls and helped me with addresses, missing articles, tapes etc from time to time. I express my sincere gratitude to all of them.

 

Finally K. Satchidanandan, during his term as Secretary, initiated these two conferences and yielded to my request to get them published though he put the ball in my court, so that the responsibility fell to me. The present secretary, A. Krishna Murthy, has gone ahead to support this project. Their support alone could have made this possible and I express my sincere gratitude to them as well as the Sahitya Akademi as a body, its President and the Vice President.

 

A word about the organisation of the material. Rather than go on to make two independent but overlapping volumes, I have gone ahead to put them all together, dividing them into five sections. The first consists of the Keynote Address delivered at the 2001 conference with another article on the acquisition of the male persona. The second section comprises the autographical reflections. Then poetry and fiction make two independent sections and the last section, the fifth, examines critical issues of aesthetics, representation, narratology, ageing, readership, feminine imagination and the revision of the canon.

 

The task is incomplete and inconclusive - just the way life is. But moments of this life have been selected, held in a moment of stillness, anchored in memory and desire, anguish and freedom, body and mind. In itself it doesn’t aspire at any perfection or completeness but hopes to present fleeting glimpses of the writing of the women of India as they push against traditional boundaries.

 

Introduction

 

One of the central debates in the two conferences held in 2001 and 2005 was the self-definition that women writers sought. Writing, gender difference as reflected in writing and the relationship between gender, experience and writing, were also some of the issues that cropped up repeatedly. How do we look at ourselves? And how do we define feminine experiences and go on to address the question of aesthetics? In the opening session of the first conference, Mahasweta Devi and Nabaneeta Deb Sen adopted almost two diagonally opposite views. Devi was dismissive of gender concerns and placed writing in a world of higher commitment while Sen foregrounded the feminist perspectives and reflected on socio-cultural constraints. The writing of the two writers also reflects similar concerns. Mahasweta Devi ordinarily adopts omniscient narration, outwardly directed, framing social concerns. Especially in her post-Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa phase. (But that does not rule out gender concerns. “Draupadi” or “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur” or for that matter “The Witch” - all reflect a consciousness of the woman’s body, one that may not be possible for a man). Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s work, whether her reworking of myths, her poetry, or her writing of contemporary concerns is rooted in felt reality and in the physical experience of being a woman.

 

There are other positions as well. For instance Krishna Sobti’s taking on the male persona of Hashmat as an effective means of entering the male world and Shashi Deshpande’s stance that she is a writer who happens to be a woman, the implication being that the fact of being a woman does not, in any way, subtract from the quality of writing, it is merely incidental. But does that also rule out difference?

 

None of the above positions is either wholly valid or supported by any inner logic. Yet the directions the arguments are likely to take, need to be looked at more closely. Feminist or not, women’s writing is framed by gender-governed social constructs, socialisation patterns, histories and myths and needs to confront them and their many pasts. Any isolated, highly personalised approach sidelines larger issues, while a wider encompassing of social issues also downplays them.

 

Gender neutral writing is likely to carry with it several implications. The first of these is a lack of feminine awareness or contact with reality. Alternatively it looks upon gender consciousness as part of an apprenticeship that one needs to outgrow at some point. Second, it places commitment above personal experience or personal imaginative spaces. And third, gender neutrality, or rising above the body and a woman’s life, can become in itself a higher aesthetic value than writing that expresses specific feminine realities. Would that mean a concession to patriarchal values? Or would that imply a heroic non-concern? True, women need to be as much concerned about issues such as injustice, inequality, earthquakes, social violence, economic planning as men but can all these concerns be totally devoid of personal experience and perspective?

 

The debates arising out of women’s writing tend to adopt binary positions - mind versus body, experience versus aesthetics, person versus society - but binariam offers no help. Women Jive in the same world in which men live. But their locations, experiences and perceptions are different. The debate needs to focus on the nature and quality of this difference. Does this difference infiltrate their writing and how valuable is this in itself? As gender locations in culture happen to be different, perspectives are bound to differ. Use of language, petception of reality, reaction and response to it, available spaces, freedom and mobility are all gender governed. Ignorance and non- awareness, intensive socialisation leading to internalisation of patriarchal attitudes, a lifelong attempt at adjusting to role models are, in themselves, denials of the individual feminine self. The freedom from biological processes that ageing brings can help one rise above these limits. Else it is choices, struggles and a conscious attempt at confronting and contesting these boundaries that begin to crowd one’s life.

 

The quarrel is between experience and imagination: does the first limit the second? It is also between self and the other and the ability to cross from one to the other. Furthermore, with limited access to the ‘front yard’ as U.R. Anantha Murthy defines the male environs, how do women relate to the outer world, that is how do they acquire knowledge? Moving a step further, epistemological structures and ways of knowing become important. As one goes through the various essays of self- reflection, it is obvious that religion, caste, family structures and marriage can become confining presences in the female world, that educational and professional choices do not easily present themselves as viable ones to women of all backgrounds. One writer goes so far as to say that she decided to remain single. On the opposite side are narratives of support coming forth from fathers, fathers-in-law, husbands and brothers bearing evidence to the need for a collective effort to work out solutions to some very complex problems.

 

The autobiographical pieces tell us of writing going on in the dining rooms, on top of middle-sized refrigerators and in the kitchens interweaving domestic chores with writing. Several writers write about handwritten magazines being copied and circulated. It seems to be a fascinating way of learning, self- expression and team work. My mind goes back to my own childhood when we four siblings of whom I was the youngest, sat around a big table in a long verandah and wrote out multiple copies of our magazine. We titled it Sunehre Din. It was a multi- lingual one. Surjit wrote in Punjabi, the next Kultar, a gifted artist, did all the sketches and drawings, we the two younger ones wrote out jokes, skits and poems in English or Hindi. And when our grandmother would summon us for the afternoon meal, we’d all respond “Akhbar ka daftar hai, nahin hai nani ji ka ghar.” Why did we do this? Was it an extension of our imagination or the nurturing of our talent? Did it give us a sense of achievement and power? We would mail them to a small circle of pen friends of both sexes. Later there were opportunities to meet some of these friends. The magazine writing that seems to have characterised this age which had moved to literacy but not to computers or home possessions of typewriters, signified a faith in the written word and was in itself a demonstration of a newly-gained freedom.

 

The written word shifts the focus to the text. It also fore grounds enclosures and exclusions in terms of readership and reception. It makes it relevant to ask - how do others see us, read us and interpret us? Language, whether oral or writter, is an act of communication. But oral and written literatures transcend the limits of time in entirely different ways. More loaded with cultural meaning and dense in its references the written word is more difficult to transfer into another language. Oral literatures, carried over from one generation to another, have a tendency to lend themselves more easily to myth, fable, fairytale and, in the process, acquire flexibility. I am aware that this may not always be true and that this is a generalisation but reproduction of meaning of a written text has to stay close to the ground; it cannot acquire wings. Women’s writing has further extended the reach of the written word by intricately weaving oral narratives into it.

 

This brings me to the fact of translation. This volume is, in large measure, made up of translations; images and ideas, situations and cultures all have been translated. Even the writing that is originally in English, carries a culture into a different linguistic tradition creating space for itself. At one level, translation performs a function similar to the act of writing. The translator first shares a world with the author. Significantly, some of our translators happen to be men, going on to prove the accessibility of a woman’s sensibility to the other. No matter how hard one tries, there is no getting away from the word ‘happen’. Shashi Deshpande defines her position as a writer who happens to be a woman. This phrase offers itself as a temporary solution; I too have used it often enough. But now I am beginning to have second thoughts about it. It is dismissive of the fact of being a woman. The various meanings of ‘happen’ are ‘to come to pass’, ‘to take place’, ‘to chance’, ‘to be’, ‘to turn up’. The Shorter OED comments that it is “the most general verb to express the simple occurrence of an event”. True a happening can be a fortunate one; both happy and hapless look for the origins in the root of this word. Happenings are also ‘special’ events. Thus, when one happens to be a woman, the implication is that it is something that happened, outside human agency, and contains within it a two-way approach. But then is the fact of being a woman important? Does the writerly self have to shift out of this? Is it a supplementarity that doesn’t connect up with the rest of the world? Are women writers what they are despite the difference or is the ‘happening’ a privileging of difference? Or this happening is incidental and it is only by rendering it so, will it be possible to demand same standards of evaluation, of recognition and reward as men?

 

All these queries are by no means irrelevant. They relate to the way women think of themselves and their work, their self- image and the nature of representation. Their choices are reflected in the selection of images they project: the victim who suffers, accepts passively, or the woman who struggles and is presented heroically. Both are in themselves stereotypes and need to be dismantled. Several of the writers here are doing just that. They are engaged in creating new roles that do not conveniently fit into given models. Their ideas of ‘self’ and ‘art’, together make the statement that feminism is not merely or only a resistance; it is self-awareness with very positive elements. Feminism incorporates within it feelings and emotions, ways of knowing and of cognition, sexuality and physical sensation, the need for touch and communication on our own terms, to think independently, relate to others out of personal choice and above all to be ourselves without being cut and shaped to fit into different moulds.

 

Writing the theoretical perceptions of writers, their poetry and fiction as they enter the world interacts with both readers and critics. It is this meaningful interaction that makes or mars a book. Literary histories are marked by masterpieces - texts that have won recognition, experimented, introduced new trends and have worked with the major preoccupations of society; works that can rise up over and over again with meaning for every successive generation. Writers need not only to be read or heard, but also evaluated. Their work, once it is available to the reader, is laid open to multiple interpretations and connections, some which the writer may not have in mind. It is with this view that critical perceptions found a place in the two conferences and find a place here. What is remarkable about them is almost a total non-application of western theories. This is in itself a healthy and a much-needed step if our perceptions of our realities are to have any relevance to our lives. Awareness of differences of gender theories and cultures is a necessary part of one’s self-growth. But what next? After that what we need is a questioning and understanding of our own pasts, histories, cultures and to have a face to face encounter with them.

 

The writers in this volume present a whole range of experiences, concerns, emotions, images, struggles and histories, which despite their range still do not reflect every shade of meaning in women’s lives. But in itself, in its present shape, it opens out the possibilities of coming together across differences, of the need and the willingness to listen to each other, and the possibility of intellectual issues jostling amicably with experiential ones. In some measure it hopes to capture the excitement of the actual conferences and the sense of freedom we all experienced.

 

Contents

 

Preface

xiii

Introduction

xvii

I

Women Writing In India

Women Writing in India at the Turn of the Century

3

Discovering Hashmat

19

II

Growing Up As A Woman Writer

Growing Up as a Woman Writer

29

Provoked Into Writing

36

My World, My Writing

43

The Meaning of One’s Being

48

Being a Writer

52

How Did a Woman Get Hold of a Pen ?

58

From Being to Becoming

69

Sky is Not the Limit

77

My Journey as a Writer

85

Grandmother’s Storeroom

94

Grandfather, Are You Listening?

99

III

Different frames

The Ball

113

Tonight

127

Nanki Chirai

135

Septic

143

Under the Bodhi Tree

150

The Birth

160

Yeh Rehguzar Na Hoti’ : Were It Not For This

167

‘Hear Me, Sanjay ... ‘

176

That’s Culture

185

The Distance to Lahore

191

The Journey

201

Release from Bondage

211

Confluence

221

Just One Night

231

Sprout of Darkness

253

Annachi

261

IV

Songs of the bird of fire

The Songs of the Bird of Fire

269

To My Sister

270

Ask for the Moon

272

Beware of ....

275

The Penthouse

277

The Giver

279

Ring Master

280

Frames

281

Discovery

282

Blue Bird

284

A Swayamwar of Crows

286

The Door

288

Women

289

All By Herself

291

Through a Rain-Soaked Night

293

Moored to a Silvery Night

295

The Laboratory

297

Stones of Kuneitra

298

Shakuntala and Dushyant

301

Doomed

303

She

305

The Mirror

307

As Soon as I Finish Writing a Poem

309

Our Sky

311

Keeps Beating the Drum

313

Metamorphosis

314

Talking About Dharma/ Adharma

315

Rain

317

Dreams

319

The Bedsheet

321

Bread and Poetry

322

Time Saves Me

324

Water

325

Generation

326

V

Histories, Positions, Redefinitions

Transforming Gaze: Some Kashmiri Women Poets

331

In Search of Infinity: Parallel Strands in Women’s Fiction in Malayalam

343

Women as Society in Literature

354

From Experience to Aesthetics : The Dialectics of Language and Representation

361

A Language of My Own : Language, Self and Representation

370

The Feminist Interrogation: Three Oriya Texts

377

The Rangoli Woman

388

Priya Sarukkai Chabria The Centrality of Wander

398

Bodily Issues: Reflections on Women’s Poetry in Telugu

408

Writing ‘Age’ : Senility and Gender

421

Malayalam Women’s Writing in the 20th Century

441

Turn of the Century Women’s. Writing in Kashmir

459

Dalit Feminist Experiences :’ Subversion of the High Theory of Femlnisril

471

Empowering Vengefully

480

Sukhwant Kaur Mann :

Preserving Cultural Memory Through Fiction

494

Feminist Writing and the Question of Readership

504

Contributors

520

 

Sample Page


Growing Up As A Woman Writer

Item Code:
NAJ379
Cover:
Hardcover
Edition:
2007
Publisher:
Sahitya Akademi
ISBN:
9788126025473
Language:
English
Size:
8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Pages:
550
Other Details:
Weight of the Book: 795 gms
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About the Book

 

The present volume brings to the reader the works of women writers in India across languages, regions, religions, socioeconomic structures, caste hierarchies and genres. In its wide-ranging presentation of creative writing, it also works across generations.

 

A product of the proceedings of two seminars on women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi, the volume brings together debates on definitions of women’s writing and feminism, personal narratives and recollections, poetry and short stories that reflect different hues of life. The insights the writers provide convey the Indian reality with all its immediacy, and in this lies the strength of these writings.

 

Writing, as it moves from the oral to the written text, simultaneously represents a sense of freedom, a discovery of the self and a reaching out to the other. The critical essays go on to interrogate literary canons, modes of representation, aesthetics, feminist positions and the question of readership. Ranging from the personal to the political, from the lyrical to the hard- core intellectual voice, the volume conveys the vibrancy of the writing of women in India today. Under the cover we have here, the making of a new literary tradition.

 

About the Author

 

Jasbir Jain is currently engaged in research on the indigenous roots of feminism. She has been working on literature across the different languages of India for more than two decades. Her major interest areas are critical theory and feminist and cultural issues. Amongst her recent publications are Beyond Postcolonialism: Dreams and Realities of a Nation (2006) and Reading Partition/Living Partition (2006).

 

Preface

 

The present volume is a collection of the proceedings of the two conferences of women writers organised by the Sahitya Akademi. The first of these “Women Writing in India at the Turn of the Century” was held in 2001, and the second “All India Women Writers’ Conference” in 2005. The writers and critics who participated in these came from different parts of the country, represented different languages and different genres. They also, in some measure, provided a cross-section of society. Yet, no matter how many conferences we may put together, none can be truly representative of the plurality, diversity and the experiential difference of circumstances. Many of us ran into each other at both the conferences. I happened to be one of those privileged ones.

 

In retrospect it is natural to ask the question what were the objectives and what the achievements of these two conferences. For the first time, a recognised and respected central academy took the initiative to explore the complexities of gender relations and their impact upon the creative mind. Another first was the intellectual sharing that went into the debates, discussions, breakfast sessions, walks, and the brushes we had with each other. A sharing, a bondedness, a friendliness - all these could be felt. We did feel pampered for a while. Insights into other worlds both frightened and inspired one. There was a freedom in being with each other.

 

One of the identified themes in the 2001 conference was “Growing Up as a Woman Writer.” In my subsequent researches, I found these essays very helpful and persisted in asking as to when they would be made available to a larger public. The natural fallout of this was that the proceedings of both the seminars were forwarded to me - some handwritten, some in Hindi, some faint copies of typescripts. It has been a long process getting them translated and ready for publication, contacting the authors for details and attending to other related tasks. But finally it seems to have acquired a semblance of some kind of order. As I put them together there were some problems that troubled me and these were (i) non-representation of certain sections and languages; (ii) more than one contribution by one author; (ill) non-representation of certain aspects of women’s writing and life; (iv) and a need to balance the specific feminine concerns with an expansion of feminine interests. In addition there were the missing transcripts of Mahasweta Devi’s opening remarks at the 2001 conference, of the interventions that Qurrutulain Hyder and Krishna Sobti made thereafter, or the debate that followed the contrasting viewpoints of Mahasweta Devi and Nabaneeta Deb Sen. I mention these to help the reader recreate the dynamic atmosphere that actually enveloped all of us.

 

Some of the issues that I have identified above, apparently had no solutions. I simply had to accept them as unsolvable. But I decided to invite articles to fill up some major gaps, which incidentally would also provide more representation. Prabhjot, Krishna Sobti, Tutun Mukherjee, Bama, B. Chandrika, Esther David, Neelum Saran Gaur, Lakshmi Kannan, Surjit Sama, Dhanwant Kaur, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Rachel Bari fall into this category. Each one of the above has been gracious and generous enough to let me have her poems, short stories, an autobiographical piece or a critical one. I am personally grateful to them. Lakshmi Kannan’s essay “The Rangoli Woman” was presented at a seminar in Yamunanagar and was first published by them. Surjit Sarna’s story, “The Distance to Lahore” was translated earlier and has been published in Indian Literature, Bama’s short story is taken from her collection published by Women Unlimited and was read out at a seminar in Jaipur, The essay on Sukhwinder Mann by Dhanwant Kaur was first published in an issue of Journal of Punjab Studies. The permission for including this material is acknowledged with gratitude both to the writers and their first editors. A word of gratitude to our translators, without whom this volume would not have been possible. Most of the translations from Telugu, Tamil, Oriya, Assamese, Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam were initiated by the writers themselves and I am greatly appreciative of the fact that they went through this to render their work accessible to all of us and others like us who are not conversant with those languages. I am indebted to them. Many of the translators are well known writers in their own right and have extended their creative talents in order to cater to the needs of a multi-lingual society. I am greatly indebted to all our translators.

 

Gitanjali Chattetjee, Deputy Secretary, Sahitya Akademi has handled the printing at her end and always with a smile. J.K. Verma and K.S. Rao, both from the Sahitya Akademi, have attended to my innumerable phone calls and helped me with addresses, missing articles, tapes etc from time to time. I express my sincere gratitude to all of them.

 

Finally K. Satchidanandan, during his term as Secretary, initiated these two conferences and yielded to my request to get them published though he put the ball in my court, so that the responsibility fell to me. The present secretary, A. Krishna Murthy, has gone ahead to support this project. Their support alone could have made this possible and I express my sincere gratitude to them as well as the Sahitya Akademi as a body, its President and the Vice President.

 

A word about the organisation of the material. Rather than go on to make two independent but overlapping volumes, I have gone ahead to put them all together, dividing them into five sections. The first consists of the Keynote Address delivered at the 2001 conference with another article on the acquisition of the male persona. The second section comprises the autographical reflections. Then poetry and fiction make two independent sections and the last section, the fifth, examines critical issues of aesthetics, representation, narratology, ageing, readership, feminine imagination and the revision of the canon.

 

The task is incomplete and inconclusive - just the way life is. But moments of this life have been selected, held in a moment of stillness, anchored in memory and desire, anguish and freedom, body and mind. In itself it doesn’t aspire at any perfection or completeness but hopes to present fleeting glimpses of the writing of the women of India as they push against traditional boundaries.

 

Introduction

 

One of the central debates in the two conferences held in 2001 and 2005 was the self-definition that women writers sought. Writing, gender difference as reflected in writing and the relationship between gender, experience and writing, were also some of the issues that cropped up repeatedly. How do we look at ourselves? And how do we define feminine experiences and go on to address the question of aesthetics? In the opening session of the first conference, Mahasweta Devi and Nabaneeta Deb Sen adopted almost two diagonally opposite views. Devi was dismissive of gender concerns and placed writing in a world of higher commitment while Sen foregrounded the feminist perspectives and reflected on socio-cultural constraints. The writing of the two writers also reflects similar concerns. Mahasweta Devi ordinarily adopts omniscient narration, outwardly directed, framing social concerns. Especially in her post-Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa phase. (But that does not rule out gender concerns. “Draupadi” or “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur” or for that matter “The Witch” - all reflect a consciousness of the woman’s body, one that may not be possible for a man). Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s work, whether her reworking of myths, her poetry, or her writing of contemporary concerns is rooted in felt reality and in the physical experience of being a woman.

 

There are other positions as well. For instance Krishna Sobti’s taking on the male persona of Hashmat as an effective means of entering the male world and Shashi Deshpande’s stance that she is a writer who happens to be a woman, the implication being that the fact of being a woman does not, in any way, subtract from the quality of writing, it is merely incidental. But does that also rule out difference?

 

None of the above positions is either wholly valid or supported by any inner logic. Yet the directions the arguments are likely to take, need to be looked at more closely. Feminist or not, women’s writing is framed by gender-governed social constructs, socialisation patterns, histories and myths and needs to confront them and their many pasts. Any isolated, highly personalised approach sidelines larger issues, while a wider encompassing of social issues also downplays them.

 

Gender neutral writing is likely to carry with it several implications. The first of these is a lack of feminine awareness or contact with reality. Alternatively it looks upon gender consciousness as part of an apprenticeship that one needs to outgrow at some point. Second, it places commitment above personal experience or personal imaginative spaces. And third, gender neutrality, or rising above the body and a woman’s life, can become in itself a higher aesthetic value than writing that expresses specific feminine realities. Would that mean a concession to patriarchal values? Or would that imply a heroic non-concern? True, women need to be as much concerned about issues such as injustice, inequality, earthquakes, social violence, economic planning as men but can all these concerns be totally devoid of personal experience and perspective?

 

The debates arising out of women’s writing tend to adopt binary positions - mind versus body, experience versus aesthetics, person versus society - but binariam offers no help. Women Jive in the same world in which men live. But their locations, experiences and perceptions are different. The debate needs to focus on the nature and quality of this difference. Does this difference infiltrate their writing and how valuable is this in itself? As gender locations in culture happen to be different, perspectives are bound to differ. Use of language, petception of reality, reaction and response to it, available spaces, freedom and mobility are all gender governed. Ignorance and non- awareness, intensive socialisation leading to internalisation of patriarchal attitudes, a lifelong attempt at adjusting to role models are, in themselves, denials of the individual feminine self. The freedom from biological processes that ageing brings can help one rise above these limits. Else it is choices, struggles and a conscious attempt at confronting and contesting these boundaries that begin to crowd one’s life.

 

The quarrel is between experience and imagination: does the first limit the second? It is also between self and the other and the ability to cross from one to the other. Furthermore, with limited access to the ‘front yard’ as U.R. Anantha Murthy defines the male environs, how do women relate to the outer world, that is how do they acquire knowledge? Moving a step further, epistemological structures and ways of knowing become important. As one goes through the various essays of self- reflection, it is obvious that religion, caste, family structures and marriage can become confining presences in the female world, that educational and professional choices do not easily present themselves as viable ones to women of all backgrounds. One writer goes so far as to say that she decided to remain single. On the opposite side are narratives of support coming forth from fathers, fathers-in-law, husbands and brothers bearing evidence to the need for a collective effort to work out solutions to some very complex problems.

 

The autobiographical pieces tell us of writing going on in the dining rooms, on top of middle-sized refrigerators and in the kitchens interweaving domestic chores with writing. Several writers write about handwritten magazines being copied and circulated. It seems to be a fascinating way of learning, self- expression and team work. My mind goes back to my own childhood when we four siblings of whom I was the youngest, sat around a big table in a long verandah and wrote out multiple copies of our magazine. We titled it Sunehre Din. It was a multi- lingual one. Surjit wrote in Punjabi, the next Kultar, a gifted artist, did all the sketches and drawings, we the two younger ones wrote out jokes, skits and poems in English or Hindi. And when our grandmother would summon us for the afternoon meal, we’d all respond “Akhbar ka daftar hai, nahin hai nani ji ka ghar.” Why did we do this? Was it an extension of our imagination or the nurturing of our talent? Did it give us a sense of achievement and power? We would mail them to a small circle of pen friends of both sexes. Later there were opportunities to meet some of these friends. The magazine writing that seems to have characterised this age which had moved to literacy but not to computers or home possessions of typewriters, signified a faith in the written word and was in itself a demonstration of a newly-gained freedom.

 

The written word shifts the focus to the text. It also fore grounds enclosures and exclusions in terms of readership and reception. It makes it relevant to ask - how do others see us, read us and interpret us? Language, whether oral or writter, is an act of communication. But oral and written literatures transcend the limits of time in entirely different ways. More loaded with cultural meaning and dense in its references the written word is more difficult to transfer into another language. Oral literatures, carried over from one generation to another, have a tendency to lend themselves more easily to myth, fable, fairytale and, in the process, acquire flexibility. I am aware that this may not always be true and that this is a generalisation but reproduction of meaning of a written text has to stay close to the ground; it cannot acquire wings. Women’s writing has further extended the reach of the written word by intricately weaving oral narratives into it.

 

This brings me to the fact of translation. This volume is, in large measure, made up of translations; images and ideas, situations and cultures all have been translated. Even the writing that is originally in English, carries a culture into a different linguistic tradition creating space for itself. At one level, translation performs a function similar to the act of writing. The translator first shares a world with the author. Significantly, some of our translators happen to be men, going on to prove the accessibility of a woman’s sensibility to the other. No matter how hard one tries, there is no getting away from the word ‘happen’. Shashi Deshpande defines her position as a writer who happens to be a woman. This phrase offers itself as a temporary solution; I too have used it often enough. But now I am beginning to have second thoughts about it. It is dismissive of the fact of being a woman. The various meanings of ‘happen’ are ‘to come to pass’, ‘to take place’, ‘to chance’, ‘to be’, ‘to turn up’. The Shorter OED comments that it is “the most general verb to express the simple occurrence of an event”. True a happening can be a fortunate one; both happy and hapless look for the origins in the root of this word. Happenings are also ‘special’ events. Thus, when one happens to be a woman, the implication is that it is something that happened, outside human agency, and contains within it a two-way approach. But then is the fact of being a woman important? Does the writerly self have to shift out of this? Is it a supplementarity that doesn’t connect up with the rest of the world? Are women writers what they are despite the difference or is the ‘happening’ a privileging of difference? Or this happening is incidental and it is only by rendering it so, will it be possible to demand same standards of evaluation, of recognition and reward as men?

 

All these queries are by no means irrelevant. They relate to the way women think of themselves and their work, their self- image and the nature of representation. Their choices are reflected in the selection of images they project: the victim who suffers, accepts passively, or the woman who struggles and is presented heroically. Both are in themselves stereotypes and need to be dismantled. Several of the writers here are doing just that. They are engaged in creating new roles that do not conveniently fit into given models. Their ideas of ‘self’ and ‘art’, together make the statement that feminism is not merely or only a resistance; it is self-awareness with very positive elements. Feminism incorporates within it feelings and emotions, ways of knowing and of cognition, sexuality and physical sensation, the need for touch and communication on our own terms, to think independently, relate to others out of personal choice and above all to be ourselves without being cut and shaped to fit into different moulds.

 

Writing the theoretical perceptions of writers, their poetry and fiction as they enter the world interacts with both readers and critics. It is this meaningful interaction that makes or mars a book. Literary histories are marked by masterpieces - texts that have won recognition, experimented, introduced new trends and have worked with the major preoccupations of society; works that can rise up over and over again with meaning for every successive generation. Writers need not only to be read or heard, but also evaluated. Their work, once it is available to the reader, is laid open to multiple interpretations and connections, some which the writer may not have in mind. It is with this view that critical perceptions found a place in the two conferences and find a place here. What is remarkable about them is almost a total non-application of western theories. This is in itself a healthy and a much-needed step if our perceptions of our realities are to have any relevance to our lives. Awareness of differences of gender theories and cultures is a necessary part of one’s self-growth. But what next? After that what we need is a questioning and understanding of our own pasts, histories, cultures and to have a face to face encounter with them.

 

The writers in this volume present a whole range of experiences, concerns, emotions, images, struggles and histories, which despite their range still do not reflect every shade of meaning in women’s lives. But in itself, in its present shape, it opens out the possibilities of coming together across differences, of the need and the willingness to listen to each other, and the possibility of intellectual issues jostling amicably with experiential ones. In some measure it hopes to capture the excitement of the actual conferences and the sense of freedom we all experienced.

 

Contents

 

Preface

xiii

Introduction

xvii

I

Women Writing In India

Women Writing in India at the Turn of the Century

3

Discovering Hashmat

19

II

Growing Up As A Woman Writer

Growing Up as a Woman Writer

29

Provoked Into Writing

36

My World, My Writing

43

The Meaning of One’s Being

48

Being a Writer

52

How Did a Woman Get Hold of a Pen ?

58

From Being to Becoming

69

Sky is Not the Limit

77

My Journey as a Writer

85

Grandmother’s Storeroom

94

Grandfather, Are You Listening?

99

III

Different frames

The Ball

113

Tonight

127

Nanki Chirai

135

Septic

143

Under the Bodhi Tree

150

The Birth

160

Yeh Rehguzar Na Hoti’ : Were It Not For This

167

‘Hear Me, Sanjay ... ‘

176

That’s Culture

185

The Distance to Lahore

191

The Journey

201

Release from Bondage

211

Confluence

221

Just One Night

231

Sprout of Darkness

253

Annachi

261

IV

Songs of the bird of fire

The Songs of the Bird of Fire

269

To My Sister

270

Ask for the Moon

272

Beware of ....

275

The Penthouse

277

The Giver

279

Ring Master

280

Frames

281

Discovery

282

Blue Bird

284

A Swayamwar of Crows

286

The Door

288

Women

289

All By Herself

291

Through a Rain-Soaked Night

293

Moored to a Silvery Night

295

The Laboratory

297

Stones of Kuneitra

298

Shakuntala and Dushyant

301

Doomed

303

She

305

The Mirror

307

As Soon as I Finish Writing a Poem

309

Our Sky

311

Keeps Beating the Drum

313

Metamorphosis

314

Talking About Dharma/ Adharma

315

Rain

317

Dreams

319

The Bedsheet

321

Bread and Poetry

322

Time Saves Me

324

Water

325

Generation

326

V

Histories, Positions, Redefinitions

Transforming Gaze: Some Kashmiri Women Poets

331

In Search of Infinity: Parallel Strands in Women’s Fiction in Malayalam

343

Women as Society in Literature

354

From Experience to Aesthetics : The Dialectics of Language and Representation

361

A Language of My Own : Language, Self and Representation

370

The Feminist Interrogation: Three Oriya Texts

377

The Rangoli Woman

388

Priya Sarukkai Chabria The Centrality of Wander

398

Bodily Issues: Reflections on Women’s Poetry in Telugu

408

Writing ‘Age’ : Senility and Gender

421

Malayalam Women’s Writing in the 20th Century

441

Turn of the Century Women’s. Writing in Kashmir

459

Dalit Feminist Experiences :’ Subversion of the High Theory of Femlnisril

471

Empowering Vengefully

480

Sukhwant Kaur Mann :

Preserving Cultural Memory Through Fiction

494

Feminist Writing and the Question of Readership

504

Contributors

520

 

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