Women writers in India have carved a distinct gender niche in the sacred space of Indian literature — after centuries of discrimination — to write their voices in intelligent print on paper.
Three factors that trace their origin to the inherent bias against the “girl child” of mettle in the post-Vedic history of the nation have stood in the way of women litterateurs. In the medieval era, a concerted drive by the male dominated education bastions relegated women to the closed cloisters of homes and child bearing; entrenching them into the roles of caregivers rather than contributing to the community’s and the nation’s intellectual progress. The spread of monolithic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the advent of Islam laid down stricter gender laws – which when loosely translated sent men to the fields and women to the hearths- and behind the veil.
The multi-tasking nature of women in general and a forced lack of self-confidence imposed at birth by parents, families and extended clans have made the process of writing more difficult for women than their male counterparts till the dawn of modernism in the late 18th century in India – when women emerged from behind the purdah to integrate into the intellectual mainstream. Education stirred the latent creative juices in a large swathe of women, who cashed in on the opportunity to education.
Strangely — in this emotional paradox created by home and the world outside, the odds have stacked in favour of women to explore deep psychologies leading to a more powerful body of writing.
“There should be no distinction between women’s and men’s writing. It is just a difference in perspective. When I write, it is obvious that my gender influences my attitude. When a man writes, his gender shapes his writing. It is wrong to describe women’s writing as women’s alone and male writing as universal,” says writer Manju Kapoor, the author of critically acclaimed novels like “Difficult Daughters”, “A Married Woman” and “The Immigrant”.
Kapoor has compiled and edited a new volume about women writers unraveling their writing processes and influences in “Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves” (Penguin/Hay House).
“This is the kind of book I always wanted to read. It is an old age project. I contacted all the writers that I could think of and sifted my list from their responses. I also read everybody I contacted. I wanted the personal accounts of the writers – the nitty gritty of their lives, their aspirations, inspirations, travails, experiences and the way the way literature played out in their lives, “ Kapoor explained to this writer; outlining the process of the creation of the anthology.
“My account…,” Kapoor mused. “I thought the diary format was more effective to record the day-to-day anguish about all the obstacles I faced then in finding a publisher and being rejected. Even today, it is difficult to find a publisher. Is anybody out there to cater to women writers’ alone even today? I was rejected in India, rejected abroad- till Faber decided to publish my book,” Kapoor said.
In the anthology Kapoor describes the genesis and gestation of her writing process in a dated diary format that spans six years from 2008 to 2013 during which she wrote a novel about two warring brothers in Jat (caste) family in Rajasthan — which she christens “Bhai-Bhai (Brother-Brother)” — and a long suffering wife Tapti. The account is laced with humour and the delicate workings of the writer’s mind — a resolute but confused woman who quits her job at the university as a lecturer to write a novel and hunt for “probable beginnings” both as a creator and as an intellectual human being.
“This had to be a different novel in a different setting. I decide that my brothers will begin life humbly. The ladder from which they climb will begin in a mud hut. Which village, which state should be home to this rising . A friend o9f mine works in the rural districts of her birth place – Ajmer. She offers to introduce me to the villages she knows. I grab at the opportunity,” Kapoor recalled.
The writer’s forays into the hinterland of India, laborious writing exercises and the target of 100,000 words are punctuated by writers’ block, insecurity, household and the niggling guilt of “unemployment”— a situation that Kapoor captures with rare laughter and self-critiquing.
Pakistan-based writer Bapsi Sidhwa of the “Ice Candy Man” fame owes her tryst with literature to polio and an Anglo-Indian governess, “Mrs Penherow”, who was entrusted with “light tuition” for the child and the writer’s “solitary tedium of those hours”.
“I was about two when I got polio,” Sidhwa recounted. The doctors advised her parents not to send young Bapsi to school so that “her nerves were not burdened with things like geometry and exams”. “In retrospect, the creeping encroachment of my isolation and the arbitrary withdrawal of my right to be among children at school caused an increasing erosion of my self-regard…When on my 10th birthday Mrs Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, some favourable aspect of my horoscope may have been triggered. The novel, combined with the feast of my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading”. Books, which became the light of her life taking up every waking hour, sowed the seeds of her first novel, “The Pakistani Bride” – inspired by a Karakoram (on the Karakoram Highway) folk tale of a runaway bride and her killing for filial honour- a story she heard while honeymooning with her husband in the Karakoram reaches.
Writer-playwright and social activist Anuradha Marwah names her musings, “The Activist vs Sunflowers: Writing Fifty”. Marwah’s troubled childhood full of dark suicidal thoughts and sexual fantasies found an expression in rhymes— rhymed poetry which she wrote for years as fragmented sentences studded with “antiquities like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in the centre of the lined pages of her dog eared diary.
“A moment of disclosure came when the school anointed me as one of the four house captains and I was asked to address the assembly. I had prepared the event the event for four days. I recited a poem about the significance of my alma mater – cleverly rhymed with ‘…. In every weather’ and earned accolades. “Did you really write some of it or did your father compose it for you”, the writer was questioned.
Marwah recalled that that “it wasn’t as though the plain-speaking, scarily inefficient principal – a handsome nun Sister Frances — was clueless about poetry”. “She sent me off to a British priest at the brother school (only for boys) to burnish the raw gold that she had mined from the native boondocks. Thus began my writing apprenticeship with a white man…”. The two years that she trained under Father Lesser “trying to emulate Hopkins, Keats, Coleridge and E.E. Cummings” were the most “exhilarating period” of her life. However, Marwah explored diverse streams of literary consciousness before she found her calling as a playwright and a social activist.
In Pakistan, writers are either scarred or compelled into critical creative thinking by the tumultuous politics of the last four decades from the era of General Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s reign. Writer Bina Shah, the author of novels like “A Season for Martyrs”, “Where They Dream in Blue” and “The 786 Cybercafe”, is a child of a political lineage — the erstwhile Pir Pagara’s Pakistan Muslim League (Functional) which was fighting the Bhutto regime. Bina’s father fled to the United States as a post-graduate research scholar with his young family of a wife and a four-year daughter in tow. The young Bina was inspired by father’s “thesis”— a high-sounding unfamiliar exercise which made her father write and painstakingly type reams of printed paper on a typewriter everyday for his doctoral degree.
“My fascination with writing started when I was very young. We lived in a small apartment in the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My parents read to me all the times- I was surrounded by books for children… but at the same time I was learning to read, my father was working on his thesis and his books were everywhere,” she remembered. “I learnt from an early age that writing was serious business,” she said. The seriousness, coupled with her education at Harvard and Wellesley College and political awareness, gave her easy insights into the Pakistan of her times posited as a “political riddle” on the global map.
Bina’s life as a writer is reminiscent of Fatima Bhutto, who writes from the violent recesses of her personal encounter with Pakistan’s politics of strife, battle, blood and loss— an insider with the fresh insight of an outsider and a victim.
The political sensitivities of an old Congress guard of a father, the rich Kannada culture, early afternoons spent reading “Chandamama” on the porch at home and the self-less life of rural surgeon have been writer Kavery Nambisan’s literary sustenance. “Father was in favour of sending me to the local government school but mother insisted that my sister and I be sent to the convent school, learn some English. It was 35 miles from home and the fee was a steep Rs 60. She won..,” Nambisan recalled.
“I became a doctor first and then a writer,” Nambisan said. The author of books like, “On Wings of Butterfiles”, “Mango-coloured fish”, “The Truth (Almost) about Bharat”, “The Scent of Pepper” and the “Hills of Angheri”, lives in two worlds The first is of anatomical knowledge and the second is where Nambisan tries to put her imagination on paper in meaningful sentences. “I come from a non-literate background. My mother went to a local school for eight years. She was a skilled wife and mother with many talent. My father’s passion for social change and his tenacious integrity made him my role model. I imbibed a little of my mother’s plainness and my mother’s dogged integrity,” Nambisan said.
It has paved her writing with an indigenous colour and the depth of international literary sensitivities.
Writer Janice Pariat’s life as a writer has been a “Journey Down the Hills” fashioned by the stories from the hills of Assam and Meghalaya — the mysterious terrain of spirits, totems, folkores, colonial legacies, green hills, hill cascades, lush tea estates and the life of the ethnic people. A native of Shillong, who grew up in a tea estate near the Assamese town of Tezpur, Pariat’s earliest desire to write – rather to emulate from the books she read – was born on a bookshelf “ordinary, made of dark wood, devoid of elegant carvings”.
“In my mind, it looms far above me,” she refreshes from memory. “The reason why I write can be traced, with a magical longwinded silver thread, to that moment – the seconds before I pick up my first holiday read (usually from Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series), all of 10 or 11, looking at the book shelf with wonder,” Pariat recollected.
Early attempts at plagiarizing from Enid Blyton tales and writing about urban blues in New Delhi gave away to a grown investigation of her traditional roots in northeastern India – the primitive lives of the tribes and the confluences of eastern and western cultures during the colonial Raj. These narratives found their way into her anthology of short stories, “Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories” which won the Sahitya Akademi’s young writer award for 2013.
Writer ad poet Tishani Doshi sums up her early realizations about good writing in an epiphanic poem that she composed on the passing of her brother afflicted with Down’s Syndrome—
“I hold my uncles in plastic bags
He is whispering like a soft, worn thing,
Drop me here, drop me gently
Sandy, my tutor asks’ ‘Why uncle? Why not husband or father?
‘Because it was my uncle’, I say
Dosen’t matter. Change it’.
I hold my husband in plastic bags
His’s whispering like a soft worn thing
Drop me here, drop me gently.
Everything is terribly light – incense
ash, the thinness of his voice falling
into waves, disappearing.
“Sandy was right of course. The weight of husband easily displaces uncle, gives the poem immediate emotional charge. It is one of my earliest and the most important lessons in writing: its okay to make things up and the things you make up can be more real and more powerful than the truth itself,” Doshi says.
The complex and colourful psyches of Indian women writers- a fast growing legion- gives contemporary native literature its sharpest edge.