What do we understand when we identify ourselves as feminist?
The Wire’s Histories of Feminisms project is an attempt to emphasise that there is no linear or one way of understanding and experiencing feminism. Through a series of articles, The Wire draws your attention to some of the different narratives and debates that, over the decades, have come to define feminism. For instance, we recall the first generation of feminists in Kerala, the first women lawyers who surmounted formidable challenges to claim their rightful place in the legal system. We shine a light on women authors who pushed the boundaries of feminism in literature, bring before you the perspectives and experiences of feminist Dalit and Muslim women. We talk about how protagonists of many radical movements and uprisings in public memory are usually male.
Side by side, we bring you important debates around 19th-century cultural nationalism and gender reform, the discussions around sexual violence, the law and the MeToo movement.
Perhaps the first time I became conscious of what or who a feminist writer is – someone who writes on the world of women – was through the stories of Amiya Sen, my maternal grandmother. It is significant that her stories came to me in the language I first spoke and heard: my mother tongue, Bangla.
A lot of her writing is autobiographical – not only as a mirror of her own self but also of the women in the environments she inhabited within the household and outside it. In The Kitchen, one of my favourite stories by her, the protagonist, an East Bengali refugee woman, negotiates with tenuous dignity – her last footstall to hold on to the middle class – a job that will provide her residential accommodations and more importantly, a kitchen – that intimate space, which recent poverty has robbed her of.
While there’s rarely a strident pitch to the voices of her female characters, they often carry an uneasy edge, usually manifesting as cynicism or barely contained pain. It is possible she wrote in the vocabulary of her time – the 1940s to 70s – operating within an invisible perimeter that was tough to cross.
Tough but not impossible, for there were writers writing in Indian languages even then who were slamming that border and daring readers to enter worlds shorn of inhibition. Think of Ismat Chughtai and Krishna Sobti – two writers who kept pushing the boundaries with writing that rejected gender stereotypes and celebrated with fierce passion the free spirit of women.
I began reading Chughtai’s memoir Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (The Paper Attire) in the original Urdu (in Nagari script) about a year or so ago, and despite faltering my way through her chaste Urdu with the aid of glossaried footnotes, Chughtai’s candid sentences – saucy bordering on profane – had me enthralled. When her father says no to her idea of getting enrolled for matriculation, she defies the fear welling up inside her and tells him to his shock and horror,
“I will catch a tonga to the station and get onto any train coach.”
“And then?” her father dares her.
“I’ll get down at any station and ask someone the address of Mission School, go there and become a Christian. Then I can study as much as I want to and nobody can stop me.” [Translation mine]
That incident is but a snippet of how Chughtai forged her own path, be it in her life or writing. The memoir itself is a sparkling mirror, reflecting both with her acerbic, cracking humour.
Krishna Sobti, who won the Jnanpith award in 2017 and has a new book – A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There – releasing posthumously this year, has been a powerhouse of creating women characters who are unabashedly expressive – through words, sexual independence or their refusal to fit into preordained patriarchal moulds.
The label “woman writer” irks Sobti as the women in her works – the indefatigable Mitro in Mitro Marjani (To Hell with you, Mitro), for instance – aren’t merely women but human beings who exhibits their sexual desires as unapologetically as men would in the society they are a part of. In this, I find her style to resonate with Chughtai’s – both use overt sexuality as a trope to assert a woman’s freedom, yet underlying that trope is the instinctive human desire – largely asexual – to breathe free.
Woman and the environment
A writer who pushed the boundaries of feminist literature even more, taking it inside dense forests and prohibited corridors, was Mahasweta Devi. Her life and work with Adivasi groups lent her a close lens to not only their outer world, which, if difficult, is still accessible, but crucially, to their vulnerabilities and convictions – systematically stifled by the classes that have directly or insidiously oppressed them.
A close reading of her short story Draupadi – explosively brilliant and commendably translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – brings one within uneasy proximity of this bristling inner world of the marginalised, particularly the marginalised woman.
Mahasweta’s use of Draupadi, a character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, as a trope to tell the story of Dopdi Mejhen, a young Adivasi woman, is neither an accident nor the arguably more fashionable literary practice of “retelling” the classics. It’s a well-determined, clinical act of subversion. The writer exposes with disturbing precision the malignancy of patriarchy in the Indian bloodstream. But even more subversive is the echoing and upturning of the epic at once in the way Draupadi’s Adivasi parallel, Dopdi, makes patriarchy shiver in its boots using the very object it uses to divest her of her dignity – her naked body.
That the author who also wrote Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of 1084), a novel dealing with the agonies and angst of a bhadralok, middle-class mother grieving the loss of her Naxalite son, could write a story like Draupadi is a mark of the range of Mahasweta Devi’s feminist territory. In Draupadi this territory is real, not merely a literary one – alive with the heartbeats and vibrations of the forest, of the lives it sustains, of the despoilment it suffers.
Malayalam writer Sarah Joseph has also ventured into the ecofeminist space with her novel, The Vigil (Oorukaaval in the original Malayalam). Joseph, like Mahasweta Devi, retells the other Indian epic – Ramayana – from the perspective of the underdog. The character she chooses for this – Angadan, the son of monkey king Bali – is significant as much for his obscurity as his vulnerability. Bali was killed by his power-hungry brother Sugriva, Rama’s devoted lieutenant, using deception.
While the novel could have been remarkable for its contrarian viewpoint alone, Joseph makes it even more arresting with her lyrical prose and her crafting of the female characters. Rich attention has gone into the detailing of these characters and their marriage with the environment – the conjoining of the feminine with her prakriti or nature, her metaphorical twin.
Consider this brief exchange between Angadan and his mother, Tara:
“Amme, how does the rice get cooked?”
“Through love, Angadan! One fistful of cooked rice is made of many people’s love.”
“Amme, what is love?”
“When seed is sown and the crop is harvested, after the paddy is winnowed and pounded, as rice is cooked and served, as you stand guard, the feeling that rises in your heart, that is love.”
∼ The Vigil, Sara Joseph (Translation: Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan)
Joseph’s agenda, like Mahasweta’s, goes beyond retelling for the sake of it. The duplicity of conventional epic heroes like Rama and Sugriva preoccupy her for not only the way Rama treated Sita (making her take the fire test and casting aspersions on her character) and the debauchery of Sugriva but also the environmental damage they caused by building the Rama Setu to Lanka. She writes with eloquent pathos on how forests and mountains were destroyed, leading to the loss of precious flora and fauna, to construct the bridge.
Mridula Garg, who writes in Hindi and English, also taps into fables and allegories to weave intertextual narratives on the lives of women and the natural world they inhabit and influence. Her short story, Yahan Kamalni Khilti Hai (The Lotus Bud Blooms Here) combines elements of fantasy and magic realism to draw a fascinating contrast between two very different women – urban and rural – and the way they connect with each other and the sustenance they draw from their environs. In Saat Kothree, which the author herself translated as Seven Little Rooms, Garg employs folklore to tell a chilling tale of female repression. A story that reads beguilingly simple initially becomes a complex interlacing of themes like patriarchal hypocrisy, environmental abuse and casteist practices as the story reaches its climax.
This confluence of the woman and her worlds – the ones she shapes, nourishes and often struggles to sustain – is what makes feminist writing in Indian languages such a pulsating and diverse landscape. As I translate my grandmother’s nonfiction book on East Bengali refugees who were rehabilitated in Dandakaranya in central-east India, I see how the stories of survival, displacement and re-rooting have continued to concern her successors.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first book of fiction is forthcoming from Yoda Press.