Long years ago when Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house, set out to
publish a volume of short stories by Indian women writers, the task of locating authors was
not easy. Existing anthologies had little to offer, most women writing in their own
languages in India were not known outside the language group or area. Many saw their own
writing as somehow inferior, and preferred to keep it in the background in deference to the
work of their writer husbands, or other writers. Thus it was not surprising that the first
two anthologies put together by Kali, Truth Tales and The Slate of Life, passed
virtually unnoticed. A larger project, begun some years later and covering many different
genres of writing, excavated other writers, other work and brought to public attention the
wealth of writing by women that lay in obscure libraries or that had been written but not
published for lack of attention and importance on the part of the publishing world.
Together, the work of feminist scholars and feminist publishers represented the first steps
towards the remaking of the canons of writing, and questioned how these canons were made,
and indeed who made them.
The kinds of silences that had, for long, surrounded women and women's writing are
perhaps best represented by a moving story in this volume. The protagonist of The Story of a
Poem' by chanddrika B. is a housewife and also secretly a poet. It is this that provides the
oxygen in her life. Whenever the urge to write takes her, she struggles to find time in the
little moments of freedom she has between household work, between her daily tasks of
sweeping and swabbing and washing and cleaning. One day, her husband and children leave the
house, he to go to work and the children to go to school. She quickly finishes her morning
chores and goes in for a shower. While there, the first few lines of a new poem come to her.
She runs out to pen them down before they go out of her head. Standing naked and dripping by
the dining table, she writes her lines. Later, involved in housework, she thinks of another
few lines, rushes to where her piece of paper lies, and writes them down. Then, between this
and that, other lines are added. As evening falls and the light begins to fade she writes
the last few lines and just then, hears her family returning. Immediately, she picks up the
paper with the by-now-complete-poem and shreds it to bits, throwing it into the bin. The
author now tells the reader that if she wishes to read the whole poem, the only way to do so
is to piece it together from the story!.
While Chandrika's story reflects one kind of silence, there are many others, for
example of language, of region, of subjects for some subjects were considered
'permissible' for women and others not that meant that women's voices remained unheard.
Indeed, a long history of writing on a wide variety of subjects did not, for long, ensure
for women the kind of space in the literary scene that their writing so richly deserves. Not
only has it been difficult, sometimes almost impossible for women to get published, but even
today what they write continues to be seen as marginal, the issues they write about as
peripheral. Faced with the difficulty of being taken seriously, many women like Chandrika's
protagonist, choose to destroy their writings, or keep them secret. Others hide their
gender, assuming a male persona, and still others choose to write on the 'safe' areas, those
that remain within the realm of the 'private' and do not encroach on the 'public' the one
being seen as female and the other male.
The general truth that women's writing is, by and large, given a subordinate status
to men's writing still holds across the world. The time-honoured division of labour ensures
that women occupy the domestic space while men monopolize the public, and the hierarchies
that attach to this, ensure that women's roles are generally seen as subordinate. Different
histories and environments, however, contextualize these histories differently. India's
ancient civilization, its rich history of women's writing on a vast variety of subjects,
have come down to us through its many languages that have long and well established literary
traditions, and literally hundreds of dialects. And writing is only one part of it, for as
important as its many writing traditions are India's oral cultures, and its traditions of
storytelling on which women play a major role. Add to this a multiplicity of cultures,
people's lands, histories and traditions, and you have a writing environment that is rich
with possibility. And yet, as many women writers have asked, how many actually have access
to everything the environment offers? How many have been able to benefit from it in the same
measure as men have? 'A woman's writing,' says Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, 'is her
gesture, and like all gestures, is subject to social codes.' Social codes, moral sanctions,
attitudinal biases, political manoeuvring have all ensured that women have for long remained
at the margins of the literary world.
As everywhere else, however, women have not taken this without protest. They have
resisted, confronted and negotiated with the world of patriarchal writing. As early as 1940,
the Andhra writer, Unnava Lakshmi Bai, walked out of a literary gathering where only male
writers had the floor, saying, 'In a thousand years of Andhra literary history, couldn't you
even find a single woman? I cannot sit in a meeting which dishonours women thus.' In the
1930s Urdu writer Ismat Ghugtai chose her own form of protest by writing what is by now a
well-known story, 'Lihaaf' (The Quilt) about a relationship between two women. For this she
was arrested and pilloried, but she remained steadfast and went on to become one of India's
best-known writers. Or take the work of Ruth Vanita, Maya Sharma and other younger writers
who have dared to speak of same sex love, rescuing many unknown and invisible writers from
the past and present, questioning how canons are made and established. Or that of Mridula
Garg, a Hindi writer, who was castigated by the literary establishment for writing on the
taboo subject of sexuality.
More recently, a strong and dynamic women's movement and its confrontation with the
many aspects of women's oppression, has helped to create a hospitable environment within
which women's writings are received. Many writers have testified that they felt encouraged
to know that there was at least the beginnings of a constituency of readers 'out there' who
were interested in their writings. The growth of feminist presses, for whom the project of
searching, excavating, presenting and disseminating women's writing, has been both a passion
and a single point agenda, has been another major factor in bringing these hidden voices
into the public arena. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that the market for women's
writing and women's books in India has, in many ways, been created by feminist publishers.
As well, a flourishing publishing industry, growing numbers of bookshops, and the success of
a few women authors in both the national and international marketplaces, have meant that
publishers are now much more open to publishing women's voices, and indeed, many publishers
will agree that these are the books that sell the most out of their entire lists.
In response to the interest in the marketplace, more and more women are writing and
getting published. Subjects such as homour, satire, sex, earlier often taboo for women
writers, are now being addressed boldly and imaginatively. While there is plenty of writing
in the classical mould, a new generation of younger writers is experimenting with language,
genre, structure and subject. All this makes for a vibrant writing environment in which the
woman writer now occupies an important place.
The Indian literary tradition is not only rich and varied in content and tone but
also multi-lingual. However, in the way that these histories unfold in countries that have
been colonized, the language of the colonizers, in this case English, becomes the language
of privilege and social mobility. So also in India: while writing takes place in all
languages, and some languages such as Hindi and Bengali are spoken by millions of people,
they still remain, in the terminology of literature, 'regional' languages, at some sort of
disadvantage in terms of hierarchy while English, which is spoken by only 5 per cent of the
population, remains the language of privilege. The stories in this volume come from some
not all of India's many languages, and a relatively larger number come from English. The
reality is that these latter make for an easier transition into international translations.
But whether Indian languages or English, which is also now another Indian language, they
represent a sensibility that is deeply gendered.
The writers who feature here are among some of India's best known women writers.
India, as the cliché goes, but like all clichés, this too has some degree of truth in it, is
a country of contrasts and contradictions. So the 'truth' of some of the darker stories in
this volume is as authentic as the truth of the lighter ones. Each story testifies to
women's many concerns, whether with a way of life, or with being caught inside the other
than the husband or being caught at the intersection of many forces within a situation of
political violence and armed conflict. In one way or another the woman's body becomes a site
upon which many battles like place: for control, for power, for progeny, but there is seldom
a resolution in which the woman remains a mere victim, or more acted upon than acting.
Whether she is in the palace of the gods, or caught in the body of snake, or speaking
through the spirit of the countryside which witnessed her rape, the woman's voice is unique,
singular and in each story, different. While this gives substance to the cliché that India
is a country where many and varied realities exist simultaneously, it gives the lie to the
cliché that all women speak with a sameness and a commonality of experience.
Back of the Book
Each story in this anthology testifies to women's many concerns, whether with a way of life,
or with being caught inside the four walls of the home, or in a relationship with someone
other than the husband, or being caught at the intersection of many forces within a
situation of political violence and armed conflict. In one way or another the woman's body
becomes a site upon which many battles take place: for control, for power, for progeny, but
there is seldom a resolution in which the women remains a mere victim, or more acted upon
than acting. Whether she is in the palaces of the gods, or caught in the body of snake, or
speaking through the spirit of the countryside which witnessed her rape, the woman's voice
is unique, singular and in each story, different. While this gives substance to the cliché
that India is a country where many and varied realities exist simultaneously, it gives the
lie to the cliché that all women speak with a sameness and a commonality of experience.
Urvashi Butalia is a publisher and writer. Co-founder of Kali for Women,
India's best-known feminist publisher, and now Director of Zubaan, she is also author of the
award winning oral history of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the
Partition of India. Her other publications include: Women and the Hindu Right (co-edited
with Tanika Sarkar) and Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir (edited).
Contributors: Vandana Singh, Indira Goswami, Temsula Ao, Mridula Garg, Sharma
Futehally, Shashi Deshpande, Nayantara Sahgal, Mahasweta Devi, Anjana Appachana, Manjula
Padmanabhan, C.S. Lakshmi (Ambai), Bulbul Sharma, Anita Agnihotri, Priya Sarukkai Chabria,
Githa Hariharan, Chandrika B.
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