This book is an attempt to suggest a methodology for Women’s Studies in India, particularly as it relates to interpretations of literary texts in English. Recasting some significant works by writers from Toru Dutt to Bharati Mukherjee in the mould of masked autobiography, the book argues that women’s personal lives are often disguised in fiction as narratives of a depersonalized time and place. In reality, the women were often struggling with their articulation of a problematic interface between their familiar home base and a world of tantalizing possibilities beyond the parameters of the ‘known.’ While it was indecorous to speak in the direct persona of the self, their creation of the literary ‘other was never an ordinary equation. In most instances the fragmentation felt by the Indian writing-woman was expressed through many disunited literary artifacts that she cunningly wove into an apparently innocent ‘Story.’ The heroines of these stories are often conventional women who encounter the ordinary vicissitudes of domestic living but come to some extraordinary consciousness of domestic living but come to some extraordinary consciousness of their selfhood. The dramatic changes are recorded on the tranquil surface of the text which, almost irritatingly, follows a linear pattern in the narrative and uses variations of ‘standard’ English in its linguistics. But when a careful reader disturbs the surface, it is my conjecture that the underlying expressions will reveal troubled sentiments bordering on the subversive. Yet, these are not allowed to breach the literary front of cogent narrative ‘order’.
The choice of India women’s writing in English is deliberate. A reconsideration of this group provides fascinating ground for examining what I call the ‘Law of the threshold’ which complicates their writing. As inheritors of English learning during the colonial and post-colonial periods of Indian history, their tool for literary expression was an English, neither indigenous nor alien. One must remember that writers such as Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee though vastly separated in time, were ‘Natural’ learners of English as they came to the language because of social forces determining their education. They did not choose, self-consciously, to be schooled in the language and its accompanying literary and social constructs. Instead they found themselves in the system without awareness of the implications. What happened subsequently is a matter for considerable thought. English education brought a felicity with language quite akin to the skills of native learners, but the cultural schisms of westernized Indian life styles created disjunctions in the writers psyche. The Indian English writer is perpetually posed on the threshold between the acquisitions through English education and sociology of Indianans which erupts with regularity in personal lives. The dichotomy gets transferred to the writing.
While this ‘Low of the Threshold’ ( detailed in the next chapter) will hold true for men and women writers gender difference creates a further problematic. Indian women, from Toru Dutt’s time in the late nineteenth century to Bharati Mukherjee’s more ‘liberated’ world, have been subjected to far greater sociological forces than Indian men. The storylines that had to be lifted from the gamut of everyday living were to had to be lifted from the gamut of everyday living were to contain, for the Indian women, constant mental exercise negotiating the paradigms of English literature and their own real encounters in a conventional household. For instance, though influenced by Jane Austen’s portraits of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma woodhouse, the Indian writing-woman in the nineteenth century could never adopt the open speech and the dynamics of a mixed society for stores of her own. Romantic attachments that she read of in Charlotte Bronte of George Eliot were immensely alluring to the intellect but totally false to her own position as an ‘objects’ agreeable to an ‘arranged marriage’ through flights of fancy the woman writer could transform some of her insistent reality but not very much because, essentially, she tended to write narratives reflective of the sociological base familiar to her. What she managed in these transformations were re-telling of her own life in one way or another. Autobiographical encounters were wrapped in obliquity so as to deflect the possible embarrassment of direct statement. The reader would not be embarrassment of direct statement. The reader would not be encouraged to detect the repressed desires, the sad compromises, the frustrated anger that may have formed the subtext of the apparently simple woman-centered story. Yet just below the apparent, the clever writer expressed her particular threshold of strenuous poise-between the outer would of patriarchy and colonial influences and an inner world of energy let loose by selected visions of the ‘Other’.
In post-independent and modern India the position changes only marginally. Sociological constraints still put the burden of community valuations upon the tales that are narrated by the fiction maker. Some freedom and liberalization become permissible in life and in literature but more in the portrayals of an environment in flux than in the offer of any new fixates in changed gender roles. The writers of this generation acquired the a free Indian certainly interacted with the politics of their thinking about the place of women. The earlier writers used the subterfuge of poetry as a disguise for their troubles-words, phrases which hint but never tell, and which, by poetic convention need not be extended into ‘character’ and narrative.’ The writers of post-independent Indian wrote mostly fiction which clothed and encased their musings about their female destiny in rapidly changing country which, somehow, refused to notice women as significant factors. The intervention of the Indian National Movement and Mahatma Gandhi disturbed social order for limited period of patriotic zeal but even there, none had questioned the old premise that a woman’s place was essentially at home and her language was one of silence., It is a truism in history that most women activists returned to the hearth after the political crisis was declared to have ended in 1947.
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