Veena Venugopal 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.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fa43991b7 4453 4607 ab48 c9b60e498d5b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
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.

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f7780d9e4 ea1a 4527 a38d c374c19851fc inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
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).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2fc6eb0cba 6b25 4ce4 8aa8 8bd2f9b25771 inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
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).

Https%3a%2f%2fs3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads.bookwitty.com%2f54573804 57c3 4017 aade a11972735d4b inline original.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1
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 

Maid in India

On 12 July 2017 a terrible incident happened in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. It involved the alleged illegal confinement overnight of a maid, Zohra, accused of having stolen money from her employers living in one of the recently constructed gated communities.  Early next morning people from the village where Zohra lived surrounded the housing complex where she was supposed to be. After that it became ugly — events on the ground and the narratives being circulated and published. One version says she says her employers had not paid her for months. Another one says she asked for a loan against her unpaid wages. Another version says the employers had suspected her of stealing earlier but were only able to confront her now and Zohra had confessed. Whatever the truth in this case ( as it is still under police investigation) the fact is such events expose the vast socio-economic divide which exists between employers and domestic staff, particularly the maids. There are many stories such as this that happen every day, most of which go unreported.

With growing demands and increasing number of nuclear families there is an exponential rise in the demand for maids. Also women from poorer families are being sent to work in middle-class homes as it is perceived as a “win-win” situation where the woman not only earns an income, saves money since her food is taken care of by the employer and she is also “safe” in the employer’s home. But it is far, far more complicated than that; impossible to analyse in one article or book.

Of late there have been books and articles published in India exploring the status of maids. These range from memoir, non-fiction to fiction. The first of these books about maids was Baby Haldar’s memoir A Life Less Ordinary. Baby was working as a maid in Delhi when her employer gave her a notebook and pen to write her story. She wrote it in Bengali and it was translated from Hindi to English by Urvashi Butalia to resounding international acclaim in 2006. Earlier this year Speaking Tiger Books published Pooranam Elayathamby’s Perhaps Tomorrow: The Memoir of a Sri Lankan Housemaid in the Middle East. Pooranam has co-authored it with her husband Richard Anderson.

Recently there have been other perspectives published as well. A seminal book is Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India just published by Aleph. It is a sobering and disturbing account of maids. It is based on innumerable interviews.

Award-winning fashion designer Wendell Roderick’s extraordinary collection of short stories Poskem: Goans in the Shadows It is about the Poskim of Goa. These were young children taken in by wealthy families and retained most often as servants. Through a bunch of short stories focused on events which he says are “all tragically true” though the names and characters are his creations Wendell Rodericks shows another side to this complicated relationship.  In the Winter 2015, Granta 130 issue which focused on writing from India, Deepti Kapoor wrote a hard-to-forget story, A Double-Income Family,  about a Mrs Mehra and her domestic living in a gated community. And then there is award-winning children’s literature writer Payal Kapadia’s first “grown-up” book Maidless in MumbaiIt has been published by Bloomsbury India and promoted with the blurb: “A funny, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at the maid-memsahib relationship on the cusp of social change: the horrifying prospect of being wholly dependent on those we employ; the terrifying notion that maids are a dying breed; and the spectre of surviving in a world without them!”

It is an extremely tangled socio-economic relationship that exists in Indian society today. As Veena Venugopal, journalist and author, wrote recently in “Pop goes the class bubble” ( Hindu Blink, 30 June 2017) :

Class and caste difference are, of course, endemic to India. Yet, never before in our history have so many people managed to employ so many others in their service. Predictably, we are unsure about the exact terms of that engagement. An Indian upbringing instinctively teaches us to negotiate for everything. And so we do, browbeating the maid to take ₹1,000 less in her salary, offering the driver an overtime and then arguing about the calculation of it. And then we go shopping, and hey! everything’s on sale, and we don’t even realise when the bill gets to ₹15,000. The maid sees this. She knows enough mathematics to calculate how many months’ salary that is. But we carry on — consumption is our entitlement, social parity is not our problem. Until, one day, we turn around and find two decades of resentment standing in our kitchen, bearing a knife that is not intended to be used for dicing potatoes. “Shocking”, we’ll all say when we hear that account.

For a while, a couple of years ago, with the intention of writing a book, I researched stories of housemaids in India. The accounts of employers — people like us — that I heard were horrific. No holidays, no food, no increments, no healthcare and, more often than you’d think, no pay even. In an ad that was running on television those days, Amitabh Bachchan scolded his help for buying the wrong brand of bulb, and said, “Please stop this habit of thinking”. Several helps I spoke to referred to this ad. “It’s bad for you when we think,” one said, “because in your hearts you know that you haven’t done anything to deserve happy thoughts from us.”

In this uneasy, mutually suspicious cohabitation lies the real future of the country’s social fabric. 

13 July 2017 

 

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email.  It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )

The Mother-in-Law8 July 2014

Dear Veena,

I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.

Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.

What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)

I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.

I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.

Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts.  I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.

Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.

….

What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

 

Dear Veena,

A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.

I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!

I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!

 

Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.

The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.

And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.

The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)

I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.

… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.

The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.

Warmly

Veena

 

Dear Veena,

Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.

I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.

Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?

…..

With warm wishes,

Jaya

 

Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.