Manju Kapur Posts

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review of a new Zubaan title, published in Tehelka earlier today. The url is given below.

http://tehelka.com/mommie-dearest/ ( published online 11 April 2013)

This is a collection of essays, fiction and poetry published in support of Save the Children. The contributors are all women except for one — Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Various aspects of motherhood are discussed — pregnancy, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to special children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection as the delightful Bulbul Sharma does to her brood of five. But when her grandchildren complain, “Why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home,” Bulbul argues that “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases… but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

Being a mother never quite ends, even when children become adults. When they are babies, children consider their mothers as extensions of themselves. As Shashi Deshpande writes, “What really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” Children can take over every minute of your life, but as Maya Angelou pointed out in a conversation with the BBC about her memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, mothering means learning to be patient with one’s offspring. Mothers are their children’s safety nets; they teach, nurture and love. This is not necessarily an inherent or ‘natural’ trait that women are born with. It is not inevitable that a maternal instinct is kindled the moment a mother sees her children, biological or adopted. The essay ‘Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy’ raises the pros and cons of the commercialisation of surrogacy, with its most immediate impact being on the family of the surrogate mother. She may opt to rent her womb as an economic necessity, but its emotional and social repercussions are still uncharted territory.

The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur’s, grieving for the loss of her 21- year-old daughter in a car accident 20 years ago. She had been helped by many to walk the “long, long road ah ead” till she experienced the “light again, a different light from the one they thought they would live in earlier, but light nonetheless”. Juxtapose this with Tishani Doshi’s poem, ‘The Day After the Death of My Imaginary Child’ and the pain experienced by Kapur is even more searing.

As always, Urvashi Butalia, when she writes, is very readable. Her essay on being childless (which has been widely shared on the Internet) dwells upon not having had a biological daughter. She comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have, including that of her friend, Mona Ahmed, a hijra, and her adopted daughter, Ayesha. Once Ayesha and Urvashi talked “about her life, a young girl, brought up in a hijra household, the father (Mona) actually her mother, the grandmother (Chaman) referred to as ‘he’ by everyone but Dadi, grandmother, to Ayesha. ‘Can you imagine what it was like?’ she asks me. They gave me so much love, but a young girl growing up, she needs some things, she has questions to ask about herself, her body, who was I to ask? There was no other female, only these men/ women, these people of indeterminate sexuality. I was so alone. Perhaps motherhood can’t be learnt after all.”

This book has been making its presence felt, given its release at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January by Shabana Azmi. At the Delhi launch, actress Nandita Das released it while holding her son on her hip. After closing this book (which I read in one sitting), I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards. What concerned me was that, except for Anita Roy, no one commented on the importance of nutrition and, by extension, the importance of the mother’s self-preservation. I say this advisedly, since late last year Zubaan co-published a book with Cequin, a Delhi-based NGO that, among its other efforts to aid the marginalised, runs nutrition camps to teach urban poor women to balance their diets within budget. Maybe a short comment could have been included from Cequin on the kinds of mothering that exist in the space they inhabit? Having said that, Of Mothers and Others is a fine, worthy read.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Of Mothers and Others:Stories, Essays and Poems, Ed by Jaishree Misra Zubaan. 285 pp; Rs 495

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

of mothers and others: stories, essays and poems

This is a collection of essays, some fiction and some poetry published in support of Save the Children. All by women except for one, which is by Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Even the editors of Zubaan, Urvashi and Anita have contributed essays. The other contributors include Kishwar Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Tishani Doshi, Namita Gokhale, Sarita Madanna, Smriti Lamech, Shinie Antony etc. All the women discuss their experiences of motherhood — expecting, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to differently-abled children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection without having to be responsible for their upbringing and all that comes with the every second to second engagement of rearing a kid as the delightful Bulbul Sharma is to her brood of five grandchildren. But when her descendants complain, “why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home.” Bulbul Sharma agrees that at one time the nanis and dadis did stay at home. But now “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases. …but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

The other day I met an old college friend after years. She lives abroad and visits India infrequently. She has a daughter who is 13 months older to Sarah. Naturally we were watching our daughters wander through the park, chase butterflies and watch the gorgeous flowers blooming and chatting, you know the conversation which skirts or suddenly revs into top gear with both women talking rapidly at the same time, exchanging information and surprisingly assimilating it too, all the time multi-tasking too. Suddenly my friend says, you know it is incredible what a sense of freedom you get when the kid learns how to clean herself. It is a moment of sheer independence –maybe more for the mother than the kid. As Shashi Deshpande says “what really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” It’s so true!!! Some things never change.

This collection of essays and poems is worth reading. The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur grieving for the loss of her 21-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident, twenty years ago. Some of the others are Sarita Madanna’s short story, “the gardener’s daughter” and Shalini Sinha’s essay about the relationship between her mother/nani with her son/grandson who had been born with Down’s syndrome. As always Urvashi Butalia when she writes is very readable. Her essay on being childless dwells upon not having had a biological daughter (and comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have) but she does not mention how as a professional she has/is been a mentor to many, nurtured fledglings much like a mother would do with her offspring.

This book has been making its presence felt given the high profile launch at Jaipur Literature Festival 2013 when well known film actress Shabana Azmi released it. At the Delhi launch of the book, Bollywood actress Nandita Das while holding her son on her hip, released it in Delhi. In today’s day and age having celebrities being associated with a book does wonders for it. But after closing this book (which may I add I read in one sitting) I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards, what left me very concerned was that except for Anita Roy, no one commented upon the importance of nutrition and by extension, the importance of self-preservation of the mom. I say this advisedly since late last year Zubaan co-published a book of essays with a Delhi-based NGO, Cequin. (Cequin amongst many of its activities runs nutrition camps for the urban poor women. A very good initiative since it teaches them how to create a balanced diet within their budgets.) What I found most alarming was that the women were being taught how to stretch a small portion of milk (given its spiraling price )to give maximum nutrition to their families. Maybe a short comment could have been included from the Cequin team too?

Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays and Poems (ed. Jaishree Misra). Foreword by Shabana Azmi. (Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013). Hb. pp.286. Rs. 495.