Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. Today’s Book Post 24 is after a gap of two weeks as January is an exceedingly busy month with the New Delhi World Book Fair and literary festivals such as the Jaipur Literature Festival.
In today’s Book Post 24 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought at the book fair and are worth mentioning.
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.
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.
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 Things, exploring 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).
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 Ordinary, became 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.
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.
BusinessWorld magazine as part of Women Day celebrations did a special issue on Women ( 20 March 2017). Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them. I spoke about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni.
If there is one sector that celebrates women and is run by women, then it has to be the publishing industry in India. A Ficci report says that the Indian publishing industry is among the top seven nations in the world. Sanjitha Rao Chaini asked some of the prominent women in Indian publishing to share their views on one book that has inspired them
URVASHI BUTALIA is a publisher and writer. She is co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publisher, and is now director of Zubaan
If I were to pinpoint one book that has been important to me as a feminist and a feminist publisher, it is a two-volume edited edition of Women Writing in India 600 B.C. to the Present Day, (1991) edited by Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita published by Oxford University Press India. The book is a compilation of the writings of hundreds of women from across many different Indian languages. Apart from being a stunning resource for those of us whose lives are shaped by feminism, it is also a book that gives the lie to the widespread belief that women do not and did not write. It shows that right from the time of Buddhism, women had been producing wonderful literary works, many of which did not see the light of day because of the male domination and hold of knowledge and knowledge production. There are many varieties of writing in the books, many genres, poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, dialogue… and you can go back to it again and again.
PRIYA KAPOOR is Editorial Director, Roli Books, co-owner, CMYK
Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day is a book that has stayed with me since I read it for the first time over 20 years ago. The book was first published in 1980 and I first read it as a part of literature class in high school and have read it twice since. The book stayed with me because it is subtle, delicate and it lingers much after you have finished reading it — like a great book should. The book is about childhood, family, loss, nostalgia, separation and forgiveness — universal themes that travel very well. You can relate to the characters, their impulses, thought process and weaknesses.
Desai describes the book as her most autobiographical to date and her power of observation is evident in the way she describes people, nature, her setting — Delhi (Old and New). Even though the novel doesn’t have a plot, it holds your attention and made me want to revisit it to find hidden gems.
PRIYA DORASWAMY is Founder, Lotus Lane Literary
Arshia Sattar’s Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (Penguin, 2011), is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is permanently on my bedside table. Her luminous exploration of Sita and Rama, particularly their motivations, and actions as mortals which are utterly inspiring, devastating, tragic and yet beautiful, is what makes this book so special.
The essays which are very much relevant to the now, but also timeless, brings to the fore notions of free will, complexity in relationships, and the universality of the human condition. To quote Sattar from Lost Loves, “by relocating Rama and Sita in a literary…universe”, she has indeed made “their existential conflicts and resolutions newly accessible and inspiring”.
Sattar is a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago.
RADHIKA MENON is Publishing Director, Tulika Books
What comes to my mind is a non-fiction book on gender issues called Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero by Tulika. This book tackles the gender issues head on and demystifies them. The tone is conversational so as not to intimidate the reader. Interestingly, this is a collaboration between three young women — two writers with Gender Studies backgrounds (Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran), and an illustrator (Niveditha Subramaniam) — who maintain a balanced and humorous counter-dialogue between the text and the illustrations. With a clear and gentle approach, they uncover truths, untruths, semi-truths and myths using everyday examples as well as references to popular media, and explore what it means socially and culturally to belong to a certain gender. Gender Talk: Big Hero, Size Zero is a much needed non-fiction book not just for teens and young adults, but also for parents and teachers to initiate discussions and dialogue on difficult issues.
PREETI SHENOY is an author and artist. Her last book It’s All In The Planets (Westland) was published in 2016
I First discovered Anita Nair about 10 years ago when I read Ladies Coupe. I loved the writing and how Nair emphasised the way Indian women are treated in society, very realistically, without any sugar-coating. If I had to pick one work of contemporary fiction, by an Indian woman, I would choose Nair’s The Alphabet Soup For Lovers (HarperCollins India, 2015). The prose flows as easily as the recipes, which Komathi —a character in the book, a cook through whose eyes the story unfolds — conjures up. Each chapter is named after a South Indian dish, with Komathi learning the English alphabets by comparing them to the dishes she makes. The loveless marriage that Lena is trapped in, the film star who comes to stay over, the coffee estates where the book is set, all of it comes alive, and it transported me to a world where I was happy to be lost in. When it ended I was left longing for more, just like a well-cooked meal, and therein lies the triumph of the writer.
MANJIRI PRABHU is an author and an independent film-maker for TV. Her last book The Trail Of Four (Bloomsbury) was published in February
My favourite contemporary Indian woman author is Sudha Murty. She has played several roles in her life — she is a prolific bestseller author, a social worker and a philanthropist amongst other things. She wants women to believe in themselves and to unleash the enormous power in them to achieve their goals. I like her writing because I think it comes straight from the heart. Her stories are interesting with a simple but engrossing and emotional narrative and touch a core inside you. Because they are stories about you and me. About characters we can relate to. I feel that her life’s experiences reappear in the form of stories, as well as people who have influenced her in her life, like her grandparents. Writers like Sudha Murty will always remain important to us. Her books propagate much-needed values in an entertaining manner and make it easy for us to understand life, which nowadays seems to be getting more and more complicated.
JAYA BHATTACHARJI ROSE is an international publishing consultant and blogger
For me, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books have always elegantly examined multi-cultural identities and what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi (people from the Indian sub-continent or South Asia who live abroad). Her stories engage with the immigrant story specifically from the point of view of the woman. In Before We Visit The Goddess, young Tara epitomises the new generation of American-Indians, not ABCD (American Born Confused Desis) anymore but with a distinct identity of their own. The novel examines these many layers of cultures, interweaving the traditional and contemporary. It is also the first time men and women play an equal role in her story.
To her credit, Divakaruni never presents a utopian scenario focusing only on women and excluding any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly help them develop into strong personalities. The popularity of her books is evident: The Palace of Illusions was among the top 3 bestsellers at the World Book Fair.
Divakaruni’s next book is going to be worth looking out, as it is about Sita.
This article was published in BW Businessworld issue dated ‘March 20, 2017’ with cover story titled ‘Most Influential Women 2017’
‘Till you take decisions for Rama’s sake and not yours, it will continue to pursue you, Sita. Look at yourself. You are enduring great pain. You think you are enduring for the sake of someone else. You think that you have performed your duty for the sake of someone else. Your courage, your self-confidence …you have surrendered everything to others. What have you saved for yourself?’
‘What is “I”, sister? Who am I?’
‘The greatest of sages and philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of an answer to this question. You means you, nothing else. You are not just the wife of Rama. There is something more in you, something that is your own. No one counsels women to find out what that something more is. If men’s pride is in wealth, or valour, or education, or caste-sect, for women it lies in fidelity, motherhood. No one advises women to transcend that pride. Most often, women don’t realize that they are part of the wider world. They limit themselves to an individual, to a household, to a family’s honour. Conquering the ego becomes the goal of spirituality for men. For women, to nourish that ego and to burn themselves to ashes in it becomes the goal. Sita, try to understand who you are, what the goal of your life is. It is not easy at all. But don’t give up. You will discover truth in the end. You have that ability. You haev saved Sri Ramachandra, can’t you save yourself? Don’t grieve over what has already happened. It is all for your own good, and is part of the process of self-realization. Be happy. Observe their lives. You belong to this whole world, not just to Rama.’
( Ahalya in conversation with Sita. p 40-41)
Volga’s Vimukta or The Liberation of Sita is a slim collection of five stories. It has been translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijaysree. ‘Volga’ is the nom de plume for Popuri Lalitha Kumari. These are five interlinked yet independent stories inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana. In each of them Sita meets the minor characters of Valmiki’s epic — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. With each interaction Sita learns a little more about herself and more importantly about what it means to be a woman, have her own identity rather than it being defined by the presence of a man in her life. As the translators say in their note: “The title story signals Sita’s emergence as the liberated one while the final story, ‘The Shackled’, shows Rama imprisoned in the bondage of Arya Dharma.” According to them Volga’s stories belong to a literary tradition of feminist revisionist myth-making but she takes it further and makes it her own.
Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete. She also creates a community of women by re-presenting myths from alternative points of view, and by networking women across ages and generations. She achieves this through different narrative strategies: giving voice to women characters marginalized in the ‘master narrative’, extending the story of a character beyond its conventional closure; forging female bonds and creating a female collective; and redefining many conventional epistemes including liberation.
In fact reinvention of myths has figured prominently in Indian women’s writing. For instance, Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’ and ‘Stanadayani’ ( Bangla), Yashodhara Mishra’s ‘Purana Katha’ ( Odiya), Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visha Vrikham ( Telugu), Sara Joseph’s Ramayana Kathakal ( Malayalam) and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s magnificent Palace of Illusions. Now Volga’s brilliant 2015 Sahitya Akademi award-winning The Liberation of Sita can be added to the list.
Volga was an active member of the Communist Party of India ( ML) but quit it in 1980, frustrated by the party’s patriarchal attitude towards women, she quit left politics and devoted herself to propagate feminism among Telugu readers through her activism and writing. Her favourite genre of writing are the short story and criticism. She has written over fifty books. For many years Volga was at the helm of the brilliant women’s organisation Asmita which is based in Hyderabad. Asmita were in fact responsible for creating the iconic “pink poster” which I fell in love with while curating Zubaan’s “Poster Women” — a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India.
It is commendable that HarperCollins India chose to print the name of the translators on the book cover rather than on the back cover or only inside. Translators names need to be displayed prominently too. A practice that has as yet not been widely adopted by publishers.
The Liberation of Sita is truly Volga at her feminist best. (For once I have to agree with the book blurb! )
Volga The Liberation of Sita ( Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree) Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 199