With an uncanny eye for the nuances of individual situations and strong evocative styles, the three writers in this volume give us an insight into the interior landscapes of characters drawn largely from the Hindi-speaking middle and poorer classes.
We meet restless and frustrated characters fighting against the demands and hypocrisies of both the conservative and so-called 'liberal' aspects of society. Here the interior monologue is the primary form of expression, loneliness and alienation are dominant and the personal is the chosen space for the articulation of politics.
These are three profoundly existential writers and the stories, masterpieces of psychological realism.
About the Author
Mannu Bhandari (b. 1931) is the author of eight short story collections and was one of the founders of the Nayi Kahani movement. Apart from her novels, Aapka Banti (1971) and Mahabhoj (1979), she published Ek Inch Muskaan (1966) with Rajendra Yadav, as well as plays, film scripts, a textbook on script writing, and a novel for young readers. Her memoir, Ek Kahani Yeh Bhi, appeared in 2007. Bhandari's works have been translated into many languages and have been adapted into films, plays and telefilms. She has won several awards, including the Hindi Academy's Shalaka Samman.
Rajee Seth (b. 1935) is the author of two novels, Tatsam (1983) and Nishkavach (1988), eight short story collections, essays, poems, and a translation into Hindi of Rilke's letters on creativity. Her works have been widely translated and she has won many awards, including the Hindi Academy Samman and the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award.
Archana (Sinha) Varma (b. 1946) was Associate Editor of Hans from 1986 till 2008, and thereafter of Kathadesh. She is the author of two books of poetry, Kuchh Door Tak (1981) and Lauta Hai Vijeta (1993), two short story collections, Sthagit and Rajpaat, a critical work on Nirala, a novel for young adults, and a collection of essays on women's issues, Asmita Vimarsh ka Stri Swar (2008).
Ruth Vanita co-edited Manushi from 1978 to 1990. She is the author of several books, including Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History (with Saleem Kidwai); Gandhi's Tiger and Sita's Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture; and most recently Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870. She has translated many works from Hindi to English, including Ugra's Chocolate and his memoir, Apni Khabar, Premchand's stories, Mannu Bhandari's The Great Feast, and Rajendra Yadav's Sara Akash.
Feminism in India has always had to face the charge of being a Western import. Interestingly) Marxism rarely comes under the same sort of attack; its validity or invalidity is assumed to be universally debatable. Perhaps because women carry the burden of preserving virtue and culture and are expected to find their fulfilment in the happiness of others) their demand for freedom is often labelled the product of self-indulgent hedonism) which in India is often mistakenly considered a product of the West alone.
Indian-language fiction provides some of the strongest evidence of feminism) s indigenous roots. The stories in this collection) written over a period of more than four decades) are characterised by a particular kind of feminism that is as unmistakably "Indian" as the tropes) idioms and allusions the writers employ. Eschewing labels and avoiding simple-minded pro-women positions) this is a skeptical feminism but also a compassionate one; rather than lamenting women's victimhood or exalting them as courageous heroines) it presents them) like men) as "human) all too human".
The title of Manushi, the magazine I co-edited for many years, refers to the humanity of woman or the femaleness of the human. Inherent in this humanity is the under- discussed right to be flawed, the right to make mistakes, the right to experiment. As Archana Varma points out in her watershed essay, 'A "Grand Celebration" of Feminist Discourse', when women are suspected of experimenting in the area of sexual relations they get labelled sluts or whores, and even women writers who depict this experimentation get similarly labelled. The meaning of fidelity, Varma writes, has changed. A woman's fidelity was earlier perceived as a transaction between men - an exchange between lover and husband. But for the woman who writes her own story and makes visible the heretofore hidden reality, "fidelity means fidelity to truth"
That truth, as it emerges in these stories, centres on the fact that a woman's primary relation in life is not to men but to the ever-changing world - both the world outside the living room, the kitchen and the bedroom, and also to the world within.' These worlds appear unrecognisably altered when presented as permeated by a woman's consciousness. In Hindi literature, women writers are not the only ones to represent reality from female perspectives; several male writers, from Premchand to Rajendra Yadav, have done this with remarkable success. However, the searing depths to which women writers have taken their explorations is unprecedented in Hindi literature.
As I write this in the aftermath of the gang-rape, torture and murder of a young woman in Delhi that led to huge protests in December 2012, Archana Varma's highly controversial story "Joker", published in Hans in 1995, appears particularly relevant. The young woman in Delhi, who died not of rape but of severe torture and mutilation, was universally referred to in the media as the "rape victim", as if that was the worst and defining aspect of the merciless assault on her. Most of the protests focused on demanding fast-track courts for rape, and harsher penalties for sexual crimes. But there were few demands for reviewing the laws regarding other types of physical assault, such as the horrific torture she underwent which had nothing to do with rape per se. Likewise, the courts, the police and the media displayed an absurd preoccupation with concealing her name, the police even going so far as to prosecute her male friend for giving information in a television interview that might have led to her being identified.
It was as if, even after her death, a woman's "honour", residing in her genitalia, is the most important thing about her, and consequently violation of the genitalia more consequential than deadly violation of other bodily parts that she has in common with men. As Archana Varma's character, Dr. Pratima Kant, puts it in "Joker", after she has involuntarily burst into hearty laughter at the sight of her elderly would-be rapist: "I looked at myself. The same hands, the same feet. Pratima Kant, double MA in sociology and social work, PhD, Reader in Sociology, your honour - as I thought this, I again felt like laughing - has perhaps been saved by a hair's breadth. In the last quarter of the twentieth century the address of this wretched honour has still not changed".
"Joker" (whose title is perhaps a tribute to Bhandari's "Hero, Villain, Clown") created a stir when it was published, because it is a story about five women of different ages and backgrounds who live together and run a women's organisation together; all of them, in different ways, have been victims of male abuse and prejudice. At one point, three of the women write some notes on the issue of rape, among which are such statements as, "Where there is smoke there is fire. Where there are men, there is rape" and "Marriage is an institution founded on rape". At another point, the narrator's daughter says, "Just as there are ants, mosquitoes and bedbugs in the world's so also there are men. Is it necessary to call them lions, wolves and bears? The similes can change". She then tells her mother, "It's good, Amrnu, that Papa died so soon and there is no other man in our house. I think I am lucky. Really lucky". Although these are statements made by fictional characters in fictional circumstances, they were attacked as if they were statements by the author in a political essay. She also, however, received many letters praising the story.
The Nayi Kahani (New Story) movement of the 1950s and 60s, of which women writers like Mannu Bhandari and Krishna Sobti were founding members, pioneered the exploration of interiority in Hindi fiction. Moving away from the nationalist and social reformist focus on poverty, as well as from sentimental and didactic frameworks, this new kind of short story dealt with urban middle and lower- middle-class characters who were closer in circumstances to the authors and readers themselves. Following that period, Hindi fiction writers, although retaining a preoccupation with lower-middle-class urban life, the depiction of which, as Bhisham Sahni pointed out in 1989, is their forte, now also deal with a very wide variety of subjects and settings, ranging freely through the rural and the urban) the Indian and the foreign) the political and the domestic.'
Psychologically realistic representation of the erotic life) including women's erotic life) was and is an important dimension of the interiority that Hindi writers explore. Ironically) despite over five decades of this exploration) the Hindi literary world retains many of its parochial attitudes. Varma's essay on feminist discourse was produced in the context of a storm that shook that world in August 2010) when Vibhuti Narain Rai, a Hindi writer) former IPS officer) founder-editor of the Hindi journal Vartman Sahitya (Contemporary Literature) and now the vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University) Maharashtra, commenting on womens memoirs and fiction in Hindi) remarked in the August 2010 issue of Naya [nanadoya: "Feminist discourse has been reduced to a grand celebration of infidelity ... Hindi women writers are competing with each other to prove who among them is the greatest slut i chhinaal)", As disturbing as these comments were) the number of readers) including women) who wrote in to support Rai's position was even more disturbing) although many others did denounce him.
The moral panic evident in responses like Rai' s arises from the outspoken feminism of writers such as the late Prabha Khaitan, scion of a major business family and herself an accomplished businesswoman) who translated Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex into Hindi) and whose bestselling autobiography Anya se Ananya (2007) honestly recounts her long-term relationship with a married man. Mannu Bhandari's memoir) Ek Kahani Yeh Bhi (This too is a Story), conversely, works as an excoriation of the double standard of sexual morality which allowed her husband, the writer Rajendra Yadav, to get away with openly conducting numerous affairs during the course of their marriage.
A month or so after her marriage in 1960, Bhandari wrote perhaps her most famous story, "Yahi Sach Hai" (This is the Truth). This much-translated and anthologised story, on which the film Rajnigandha (1974) was based, is a masterly study of a young woman's flickering, wavering consciousness, and provides a novel perspective on the concept of fidelity. Proximity, distance and loneliness work to bring to the fore different emotions as the young female narrator convinces herself that she is in love with one or the other man. Throughout the story, Bhandari repeatedly uses variants of the words sach, sachmuch (true, truly) as Deepa insists on the lasting truth and reality of states of mind that the reader increasingly perceives as fleeting. This insistence is cast into relief by Deepa's frequent use of jaaney kyun (who knows why?), indicating the ambiguity she is at pains to deny. While the depiction of simultaneous attractions has a universal quality with which anyone can identify, a clue to Deepa's emotional vulnerability appears when her friend asks her about her brother's indifference to her, and she does not want to talk about it. Parentless and alone in the world, Deepa lives by herself and is determined to build a career, but finds it hard to spend evenings alone and longs for assurances of love.
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