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ARTICLE: Dissent in Indian women’s writing
Friday, 22 February 2013 07:11

Indian women writers’ feminist writing has moved towards a broader spectrum of female writing. While feminist writing took half the world as its context, female writing deals with society as a whole, even while dealing with issues like rape
Dissent in Indian women’s writing

WOMEN have been writing since time immemorial but separate studies of their fiction started only in the early 20th century, with the emergence of feminist discourse in Europe. Most Hindi women writers took their cue from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex", where second meant inferior, rather than from Sanskrit ‘dwitya', which saw woman as different but not inferior to man. The personal experiences of wives, mothers, courtesans and prostitutes who became leaders of the community, recorded in “Theri Gatha", by 3rd Century BC women poets of India is ample proof. They moved beyond immanence to reach transcendence; took responsibility and chose freedom in writing; which is what Beauvoir campaigned for much later.

The collective memory of ‘dwitya', however, exerted a subliminal influence on women’s psyche. It helped women writers develop their own aesthetics and canons of dissent.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, feminist discourse was committed to individual choice rather than dissent with social mores; so the term of reference was asmita or identity. Since feeling inferior was a necessary adjunct of the concept of second sex, it gave rise to angst, expressed in tales of woe, injury, exploitation, rape, and suppression by males. During the latter 20th century, however, literary works began to break away from expressions of injury as women came to believe that they were in no way inferior to men in cerebral prowess.

Crude canons of dissent

At the same time we must remember that writers like Mahadevi Verma, a contemporary of Beauvoir and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan of ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ fame, who belonged to the earlier era, actively participated in and wrote about the freedom movement’ of India. It would hence be more accurate to say that at all times, there were some women writers, who looked beyond injury and angst, when they probed woman’s interaction with the society and the universe.

In broader terms, one important influence of feminism was that it redeemed women writers from self-censorship through rejection of shame. The oral poems and songs composed by women were free and frank expressions of female sexuality from the earliest days of kavya in India. But they were mostly recited in feminine spheres or in specific male/female relationships like jeeja-saali or dewar-bhabhi or in specific situations like the festival of holi or wedding rituals. So despite its unbridled free expression, it subscribed to the canon of female modesty. The modern written female text, on the other hand, is addressed to and read by male/female readers so the sphere of her influence is larger.Also since the writer is unaware of her readers, she can reject self-censorship more easily even if she is not totally indifferent to them.The attempt at liberation from the canons of moral correctness imposed by patriarchy often saw women writers move from tertiary to secondary and primary language to describe female sexuality and childbirth. The language was sometimes labored and affected, lacking the spontaneity of the oral poems. In fact, crudity of language to express female sexuality became a value with some women novelists, as in this Illustration.

A man of thirty with a dead rat like member of a child of eight…
forget we are related; you are male, I female that’s all… I had to do what the //#*** should have… massaged his member to erection, threw off my clothes, told him no harm came to me, what else was the body for…
(Maitreyi Pushpa in chhak)

Other works, however, like Krishna Sobti’s “Ei Ladk”i, Mamta Kalia’s “Beghar;" Nasira Sharma’s “Sangsar", Jyotsna Milan’s “Aa Se Astu," my “Chittacobra” use a more chiseled and multi-layered language for the same purpose. From the point of view of aesthetics, this is a welcome trend.

Dislodging inferiority

The concept of dwitya had a far reaching influence on the attitude of Indian women’s writing to motherhood , as did the ideology that the replacement of patriarchy by matriarchy would lead to a more peaceful and harmonious world. It implied a belief in an inborn difference between men and women. The biological uniqueness was apparent; women alone could give birth. Unlike France, a large part of feminist writing in India saw motherhood as an essential part of womanhood. This was equally true of the first generation of Krishna Sobti and Mannu Bhandari, the second of Manjul Bhagat, Sunita Jain, Chitra Mudgal, Mrinal Pandey, Nasira Sharma and Prabha Khaitan, and the third of Alka Saraogi and Geetanjali Shree.

But there was a dissenting factor to it. Gradually most women writers agreed with me that the real uniqueness of motherhood lay in its empowering a woman with the capacity to nourish and keep another human being alive without external material support. Nine months in the womb and six or seven, through lactation. This helped dislodge the feeling of inferiority. The womb was both an enriching and a limiting factor. It was a source of transcendence as it conferred greater compassion and sensitivity but it also made it more difficult to break the bonds of familial duty. Women writers resolved the dichotomy by redefining motherhood as a ‘nurturing principle'. It subsumed not only birthing and bringing up one’s own or adopted children but nurturing anything in need; individuals, institutions, society or the environment at large.

Diluted feminism

There were two fall outs of this approach. One, feminist writing diluted its confrontation with patriarchy and began to incorporate the concept of ardhanaris’vara (male/female synthesis) in it. Two, heterosexuality was rejected to free women from the demands of male sexuality and of bearing progeny. A greater part of feminist writing in India veered towards the ardhanaris’vara principle than lesbianism.

More significantly, lesbian relationships were also seen as affirmation of the otherness and sisterhood.

When darkness rides on the breeze and the axis of the ceiling brings the sky down, this is what happens.

No one can come in the way of two female friends ... our hearts surge into our mouths as longing spirals ahead like a balloon and we run to catch it…
Jump over and you will find the body has its own beat, the heart its own. You jump over wall, fence, roof, boundary, moon…as you jump, laughter claims you. You, son, cannot understand that laugh. You have to be a girl to laugh like that. A girl is always naked. So naked that she has to put on layer upon layer of clothing to cover it … how can you understand the laugh of a girl, son?
(Geetanjali Shree in Tirohit)

The feeling of being the other persisted with the advent of feminism but again it took the form of avowed dissent. Women now came together deliberately in place of the instinctive sisterhood of yesteryear. Accepted feminine spheres excluding men had always existed in India. The well or riverside where women drew water, the forest land where they gathered firewood and relieved themselves and the nightly music-dance parties during weddings,when the men folk were away. Women indulged in graphic sexual banter and gossip at all these venues, almost in the manner of a Masonic lodge or secret cabal. The modern day equivalents are mahila mandals, lekhika sanghs, women’s magazines, press clubs, websites etc.

Writing about the violence of rape

There was the added threat of forced motherhood through rape. The biological difference made women more liable to it, though male youths could be victims of sexual assault too. For a long time both men and women writers looked upon rape as loss of honor or izzat rather than an act of violence, with intent to torture, maim or murder akin to violence on men. Most raped women were portrayed as full of guilt and a sense of worthlessness, which made them incapable of healthy sexual relationships later. Krishna Sobti’s famous novel, “Surajmukhi Andhere Ke” is a celebrated example. This was in keeping with the patriarchic view of woman’s physical purity or the fallen woman syndrome.

A heartwarming trend in women’s writing of the last 2-3 decades is that they are now writing stories which show women dealing with rape as an act of violence, born out of criminal exercise of power. The victim is shown to seek justice without feeling guilt or shame and also manage to change the attitude of their families. Chitra Mudgal’s “Pretyoni," Chandrakanta’s “Aavazen” Namita Singh’s “Jangalgatha” are some of the names. More importantly, writers recognize that sexual innuendo, verbal insult and abuse, stalking, voyeurism and blaming women for inviting rape, all lead to the final act of sexual assault. The general atmosphere of insecurity at home, workplace, public spaces and transportation create an atmosphere conducive to rape. There are innumerable stories which deal with this phenomenon. I have dealt with rape as violence, both marital and familial and the fight of women for justice and closure without guilt or feeling of inferiority in my novel “Kathgulab." But I realize that it has immense psychological complexities. However free of shame and guilt a woman might be, sexual assault and humiliation make her question the innate beauty of male-female relationship and also dents her sense of freedom and hence self esteem. I would say that the humiliation, anger and helplessness were akin to that felt by tortured, wounded and maimed soldiers on the losing side of a war.

Creating broader spectrum

The ardhnaris’vara principle on the other hand was largely responsible for the progression of feminist writing towards the broader spectrum of female writing. While feminist writing took half the world as its context, female writing dealt with society as a whole. The term of reference progressed from identity to social relevance.

Krishna Sobti’s “Zindaginama", Mannu Bhandari’s “Mahabhoj”, my “Anitya", Chandrakanta’s “Ailan Gali Zinda Hai” and “Katha Satisar", Manjul Bhagat’s “Khatul," Mrinal Pandey’s “Patrangpur Puran," Nasira Sharma’s “Saat Nadian Ek Samandar", Alka Saraogi’s “Kalikatha via Bypass," Madhu Kankaria’s “Jalte Chinar” are some of the important political/historical novels by women writers.

On the whole we can say that women’s writing is trying to develop a sophisticated, multi-linear poetics. As emphasis shifts from discourse-oriented novels to those depicting experienced reality in all its intricacy, contradiction, dilemma and confusion, female poetics should come into its own.