Other Side of Silence 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 

Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

Award-winning writer and social activist Arundhati Roy’s second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is primarily about Anjum, a eunuch/hermaphrodite, and the relationships she forges over many decades. The story about Anjum is fascinating but the narrative is often interrupted by long expositions about modern India. The history lessons begin from the Emergency till present day after covering regions such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat etc. There are most certainly two narratives operating in this novel pulling it in different directions.  Laura Miller writing in The Slate ( 19 June 2017 ) refers to it as a “deeply rewarding work, if you can let the novel wash over you rather than try to force it into shape. ” Parul Sehgal writing in The Atlantic calls it a “fascinating mess”.  Ellen Battersby writing in the Irish Times ( 3 June 2017) refers to it as a “Rushdie-like concoction” but where “Roy prefers to overdescribe and overexplain”. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is most certainly written in the style popularised by Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children ( 1981). What is truly fascinating to realise is that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been published in the seventieth year of India’s independence from the British and picks up from where Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children concluded.  Midnight’s Children discussed Partition and the creation of two nations — India and Pakistan and contemporary history before it was published in 1981. Ministry of Utmost Happiness begins its political history with a description of the imposition of Emergency ( 1975) by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later the turbulent 1980s with rise of communalism, the political and civil strife in Punjab and Kashmir which led to the imposition of President’s Rule and reverberations of which are felt even now, pogroms in Gujarat to the Maoist turmoil in Chhatisgarh and more.

Creating a transgender person as a character is also an effective literary tool. Despite being acknowledged in Hinduism and Islam by their existence in the religious stories eunuchs remain on the margins of society while having the ability to flit in and out different socio-economic classes. Eunuchs like Anjum by being at the crossroads of socio-political activity are able to participate and/or witness significant contemporary events. Though there has always been a social stigma attached to that of being a hijra in South Asian cultures and they have been ostracised yet they are expected to attend major social events like births and weddings to bless the family.  It is a curious space the eunuchs inhabit in society and it exactly this vantage point which is exploited by Arundhati Roy to bring her two passions — activism and writing fiction — to comment upon India in 2017. The legitimacy of Anjum’s viewpoint on contemporary India is further strengthened by the Supreme Court of India’s landmark judgement in 2014 on declaring transgender people to be a “third gender”.

There has been some speculation that the character of Anjum is loosely based upon Mona Ahmed who was introduced to the world by well-known photographer Dayanita Singh. In fact Arundhati Roy acknowledges Dayanita Singh for the “idea”. If that is the case then feminist-publisher Urvashi Butalia who interviewed Mona for her book The Other Side of Silence also wrote a long piece about Mona in Granta (2011). Later Urvashi Butalia was  interviewed as well about her profile of Mona Ahmed.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness had an enviable global release with a publicity campaign that would be any author’s dream come true. There were reviews of the English version pouring in from all over the world. The social media was abuzz for weeks with comments about the book. People who were not voracious readers were reading the book and posting their comments online. The media blitzkrieg has been phenomenal and the author herself has over summer travelled in Europe and Canada to promote the book. The production quality too is rich and elegant with a gold filigreed embossed hardcover, an equally sumptious dust jacket using the image of a grave and ivory-cream pages that are heavy and delicious to turn. The manuscript it is rumoured sold for an extraordinary sum of money and a few translations are already planned but it is not easy to confirm this fact. At the end of the day Midnight’s Children and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness will go down in the annals of history as being pathbreaking examples of literary fiction that keep the spotlight on modern India displaying its ugly violent side co-existing with the incredibly syncretic and humane side. While it exists in this manner there is hope.

Read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It may not be to everyone’s liking but it will certainly be a book which will be much discussed for a long time to come.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House India, 2017. Hb. pp 450. Rs 599