women writers Posts

On plot, process and storytelling

Recently I heard a couple of brilliant conversations online as well as read a book of interviews with Tamil women writers where all the writers concerned were discussing plot, narrative, structures, methodology, what comes first — meticulous planning or writing, followed by multiple drafts. The conversations also veered towards adaptations and multiple formats of the original story. Also how writers manage their time and focus upon their writing, especially as many of the Tamil women writers mentioned, they also hold day jobs.

Here are the two links:

First is a fabulous conversation between journalist Razia Iqbal with Salman Rushdie regarding his latest novel, Quichotte. It was an Intelligence Squared event held in London on 29 August 2019.

The second link is an absolutely brilliant conversation between Leigh Bardugo and  Erin Morgenstern at the San Diego Comic Con, moderated by Petra Mayer, Books Editor,  NPR. 

And the final is a book recommendation. Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu edited by K. Srilata and Swarnalatha Rangarajan, published by Women Unlimited.

18 Sept 2019

“Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu”

Preeto & Other Stories : The Male Gaze in Urdu is a collection of short stories edited and introduced by noted writer and translator Rakhshanda Jalil. This extract is taken from her fabulous introduction that gives a broad overview of Urdu writing. While there is a detailed portion on Urdu women writers the selected extract focuses on the reasons for Rakhshanda Jalil’s selection with a brief commentary on the male writers she chose to include in the anthology.

This extract is published with the permission of the publishers Niyogi Books.

***

The woman has been both subject and predicate in a great deal of writing by male writers. In poetry she has, of course, been the subject of vast amounts of romantic, even sensuous imagery. Be it muse or mother, vamp or victim, fulsome or flawed, there has been a tendency among male writers to view a woman through a binary of ‘this’ or ‘that’ and to present women as black and white characters, often either impossibly white or improbably black. Since men are not expected to be one or the other but generally taken to be a combination of contraries, such a monochromatic view inevitably results in women being reduced to objects, of being taken to be ‘things’ rather than ‘people’. That this objectification of women, and the consequent dehumanisation, effectively ‘others’ half the human population seems to escape many writers, even those ostensibly desirous of breaking stereotypes or those who see themselves as liberal, even emancipated men. Films, television and media have traditionally aided and abetted the idea that women are objects to be pursued and eventually won over like trophies or prizes. Literature has fed into the trope that women are bona fide objects of sexual fantasy, or blank canvases on which men can paint their ideals, or even empty vessels into which they can pour their pent-up feelings and emotions.


Feminist theoreticians would have us believe that there is, and has always been, a traditional heterosexual way of men looking at women, a way that presents women as essentially sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), termed this way of seeing as the ‘male gaze’. Mulvey’s theory was based on the premise that ‘an asymmetry of power between the genders is a controlling force in cinema; and that the male gaze is constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer which is deeply rooted in the ideologies and discourses of patriarchy’. Within a short span of time, the expression slipped into accepted usage and moved seamlessly across medium: from film to literature to popular culture. Today, we use the term loosely to describe ways of men seeing women and consequently presenting or representing them. 

In the context of Urdu, I have always been intrigued by how men view women and, by extension, write about them. For that matter, I am equally intrigued by how women view women and the world around them. In fact, as a precursor to this present volume, I had edited a selection of writings in Urdu by women called Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, 2007). I had set myself a deliberately narrow framework by looking at women writers from Pakistan as I was curious to discover how women, in an essentially patriarchal society, view the place of women in the world. I chose 13 contemporary women writers and tried to examine the image and representation of women by women.

Now, ten years later, I have attempted to do the same with male writers, except that this time I have chosen Indian writers. While I have begun with two senior writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar, I have chosen not to go back to the early male writers such as Sajjad Hyder Yildrum, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar or even Premchand, for that matter, who wrote extensively on women. For the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers. In a world where more women are joining the work force, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, I was curious to see how, then, do male writers view and consequently present or represent the women of their world.

….


My task was made easy by two progressives — Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar — who continued to be active long after the progressive writers’ movement had petered off. Nurtured by a literary movement and a body of writers that prided in looking at women as comrades-in-arms, both have written powerful female characters but both can be occasionally guilty of a sentimentalism, a tendency to idealise a woman in an attempt to appear even-handed. The first story in this collection, ‘Woman’ (‘Aurat’) by Bedi shows the writer struggling to shake off a centuries-old conditioning, one that sees a woman as a nurturer, a preserver of a life force no matter how flawed or frugal that life force might be. A father might be willing to get rid of a child that is less-than-perfect, a bit like a vet that puts diseased or broken animals to sleep, but a mother can never envisage such an idea. Added to this view is the familiar trope of unrequited love, that too for a damsel in distress, of a male viewer drawn to a woman who loves her child unconditionally. This ability to love makes everything about her so attractive: ‘I don’t know if she was beautiful in real life but in my fantasy she was extremely attractive. I really liked the way she patted her hair in place. She would flick her hair off her face, stroke them in place with her fingers, stretching her hands all the way behind her shoulders — making it so difficult for me to decide if this was a conscious habit or an involuntary action.’

Krishan Chandar’s ‘Preeto’, also the title story for this collection, has two seemingly unrelated tracks that converge in a most unexpected manner: both lead to a point where the woman is eventually perceived as beautiful and enigmatic, the depths of whose heart can never be plumbed by a man. While one track leads to a gruesome tragedy, the other leads nowhere. The parallel tracks meet at a point of sorrowful acknowledgement: ‘A woman never forgets. Those people do not know women who think she comes to your home in a palanquin, sleeps on your bed, gives you four children and in return you can snatch her dream away, such people don’t know women. A woman never forgets.’ A man may love her and pamper her but there is no knowing that she will love him in return or that she will ever fully reveal what lies buried beneath seeming normalcy.

Gulzar heralds the onset of modernity in Urdu literature. In his story, a woman may work and play the field, she may find love outside marriage, she may stray as far as her former husband but she is still tethered to the yoke of motherhood, of being answerable to a man: in this case her son, a 13-year old boy who stops being her son the moment he turns a male gaze at her. The same son who is willing to stand up for her when she is a woman wronged, a victim, turns against her when she is perceived as a woman who has committed a wrong and set foot outside the proverbial lakshman rekha or line of chastity and honour. Gulzar’s ‘Man’ (‘Mard’) reminds us how ingrained these notions of honour are and how stringently women, more than men, must subscribe to them.

Faiyyaz Rifat’s ‘Shonali’ and Ratan Singh’s ‘Wedding Night’ (‘Suhaag Raat’) are classic instances of the male gaze: one is directed by an older man at a young nubile servant and the other at a maalan (a girl who tends a garden). In this thinly-disguised moral tale, the flowers are symbols of ‘pure’ love that a girl gives her groom on her wedding night. Both stories show a preoccupation with beauty and youth, a preoccupation that is also found in Baig Ehsas’s ‘A Heavy Stone’ ‘Sang-e Giran’ and Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘Awaiting the Zephyr’ (‘Baad-e Saba ka Intizar’). Deepak Budki’s ‘Driftwood’ and Hussainul Haque’s ‘The Unexpected Disaster’ (‘Naa-gahaanii’) are troubling stories: the former makes a case for women who have been victims of abuse in childhood (incest in this case) becoming wayward and wilful as adults and the latter for victims of marital abuse having every reason to find love outside a loveless marriage yet refraining from doing so out of a sense of honour and uprightness. Both stories, in a sense, dwell on the notion of moral turpitude and its opposite, a dignity that men expect from women.

Zamiruddin Ahmad’s ‘A Bit Odd’ (‘Kuchh Ajeeb Sa’) is a niggling look at the idea of dignity, a quality that is intrinsic to women in a patriarchal world view and is only enhanced by the institutions of marriage, home, religion, domesticity. Abdus Samad probes a woman’s heart, scouring the ashes for a lambent flame in ‘Ash in the Fire’ (‘Aag Mein Raakh’): a thick blanket may douse a fire but beneath the ashes something will continue to smoulder. Rahman Abbas presents us with a contrarian view: What if a woman is self-avowedly asexual? What if she is willing to be a man’s friend and companion but nothing else? Will the male gaze continue to peer and prod looking for something that does not exist? What if a woman says ‘I don’t feel any need. I’m a dry river’? The woman in Siddique Alam’s ‘The Serpent’s Well’ (titled ‘Bain’ meaning ‘lamentation’ in the original but given this title by the translator) is as ancient as the forested heartland of India, and just as darkly mysterious.


To conclude, let me rest my case with these words by Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

‘The male glance has often been described. It is commonly said to rest coldly on a woman, measuring, weighing, evaluating, selecting her — in other words, turning her into an object… What is less commonly known is that a woman is not completely defenseless against that glance. If it turns her into an object, then she looks back at the man with the eyes of an object. It is though a hammer had suddenly grown eyes and stare up at the worker pounding a nail with it. When the worker sees the evil eye of the hammer, he loses his self-assurance and slams it on his thumb. The worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea.’

While a woman is certainly no tool, nor should she know how to be ‘handled’, there is something to be said for returning the gaze, of looking back. Perhaps if more women were to turn a steady gaze back at the beholder, there is no knowing what the ‘seeing eye’ will see.

Preeto & Other Stories : The Male Gaze in Urdu , Edited and introduced by Rakhshanda Jalil. Thornbird, an imprint of Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. Pp. 200. Rs 450

8 March 2019

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

YouTube links with authors, worth watching.

YouTube links with authors, worth watching.

In the past week, I have seen a few clips that are worth sharing. I am posting them in one blog post. On diverse topics such as freedom of speech ( Salman Rushdie), feminism and women writers ( Rachel Holmes), on bullying and the magic of being different ( Neil Gaiman) and a conversation between two creative people — Art Spiegelman and Neil Gaiman. 

Published by Leigha Cohen Video Production. Here is the text printed with the YouTube film.

Salman-Rushdie_1507797c“Salman Rushdie speaks passionately about present Indian Elections and how the Indian Government is failing to protect free speech, religious freedom and personal safety in India.

The PEN World Voices is a week-long literary festival in New York City. The Festival was founded by Esther Allen and Michael Roberts under then PEN President for the last ten years Salman Rushdie who retired from his position at the event.

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is an Indian British novelist and essayist. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), won the Booker Prize in 1981. Much of his fiction is set on the Indian subcontinent. He is said to combine magical realism with historical fiction; his work is concerned with the many connections, disruptions and migrations between East and West.
His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), was the center of a major controversy, provoking protests from Muslims in several countries. Death threats were made against him, including a fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on 14 February 1989.

Filmed in The Great Hall, The Cooper Union 7 East 7th Street, New York, NY 10003 on April 28, 2014 at the 2014 PEN World Voices Festival. Some of the globe’s most prominent thinkers each, in turn, brought their enthusiasm for societal improvement to the stage for a short oration http://worldvoices.pen.org/event/2014/03/11/opening-night-edge”

Rachel Holmes at International Women’s Day, Niniti International Literature Festival, Kurdistan. 8 March 2014. Holmes is also the author of Eleanor MarxThe Hottentot Venus: The life and death of Saartjie Baartman (Bloomsbury) and The Secret Life of Dr James Barry (Viking & Tempus Books).

Neil Gaiman on bullying. “Different is Good”.

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman

6 May 2014