Editing a collection of Indian women's writing over 2000 years would be an intimidating task - a spunky enterprise in fact, when this follows on the impressive 2-volume tomes edited by Susi Tharu and K Lalita.
Annie Zaidi admits it was a "daunting" prospect, but one is glad she undertook it. Tharu and Lalita's pioneering work had covered vast creative, non-fictional and academic territories, with exhaustive introductions and classifications, but their volumes were not for the faint-hearted or those not engaged in academic pursuits.
Zaidi's anthology, on the other hand, provides a helpful access point to those readers whose interests remain largely literary and who may be unaware even today of the vast body of Indian women's writing through the ages.
Zaidi's introduction raises the question of whether "women writers" should be tagged as such. This ghettoization of women (women writers, women doctors, women lawyers, women politicians, even women's studies) has long been the subject of debate both within and outside feminist circles, with no satisfactory outcome. While Zaidi remarks that patriarchy is essentially domestic ("there is more sex, violence, politics and overall drama in the average household than, say, the average office") she confesses she squirms to recall how she had once dismissed "kitchenized" fiction.
Taking off on this one can only deplore the fact that a demeaning term like "chick lit" still flaunts its acceptability, with even the most exclusive litfests assigning sessions that allegedly represent it.
Reviewing the prejudices women still encounter today (a website discussing Romila Thapar termed her a "BIYATCH…nothing but a whore of the commies"), Zaidi argues for the need to look at women's work in a historical continuum: "Ignorance of the past leads to contortions in our understanding of our present selves."
Diaspora writing set in other countries is wisely excluded from the anthology which groups the selections into 11 categories, some predictable (Spiritual Love, Secular Love), others less so (Food, Work, Identity, Battles). These broad classifications allow for considerable flexibility in interpretation. In the section Work for instance, Vaidehi's entertaining Gulabi Talkies has Lillabai abandoning her profession as a midwife to become a gatekeeper at the women's entrance to a new cinema house. Her new job transforms Lillabai into becoming in turn a movie critic, the local grapevine, and even a means for women to go unaccompanied to the cinema.
Many of the selections inevitably echo Tharu and K. Lalita: the Buddhist theris, the bhakti poets, Rassundari Devi, Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati to name a few. However, they offer glimpses of revolts to readers who are unfamiliar with the earlier volumes (a large majority) and have complacently come to take bigger victories in the women's struggle for granted. Entering a monastic order as the theris did might for instance appear as a somewhat bizarre road to freedom to the uninitiated unless viewed in context, as perhaps the only escape route from domesticity and its discontents.
Zaidi's thematic categories allow past and present to nudge each other within sections with for example Urmila Pawar sandwiched between theris Citta and Vimala, while Sarojini Naidu's spirited case for women's franchise aptly finds a place in Battles. In her Introduction Zaidi describes how Sarojini Naidu's impassioned fight for women's franchise had shaken her belief in the role played by the freedom struggle in women's empowerment. What if there had been no Naidu, Zaidi queries: "Would we be marching down the streets even today… screaming for women's right to vote?" I would rather suggest that we regard Naidu like many of her contemporaries, as a historical accident (albeit an extraordinary one) in the evolutionary process which became India's struggle for Independence.
May 1946: Sarojini Naidu, poet, freedom fighter and activist for women’s franchise with the Maharani of Nabha and her daughter. (Getty Images)
Many of the excerpts are teasers, often ending abruptly and making one want to read more. Despite Zaidi's misgivings about ghettoization, the writing is not necessarily angst-driven and is also individualized, imbuing the phrase "women's writing" with new possibilities. Shivani's Apradhini, set inside a women's correctional facility, is a brutal account of woman as both victimizer and victim, while Mridula Garg's Country of Good-byes subtly uses authorship to recapitulate the many ways in which men have appropriated their women's writing.
The excerpt from Baby Kamble's memoir The Prisons We Broke gives us glimpses into forms of indignity and social injustice that still survive. Mamta Kalia's After Eight Years of Marriage is wryly understated the way her poetry always is, while Popati Hiranandani's dilemma in A Homeless Sindhi Woman has been sensitively captured in translation, mirroring as it does the story of both a community and the historical event (Partition) that uprooted it. This event is starkly discussed in the excerpt from Urvashi Butalia's non-fictional The Other Side of Silence which also outlines her predicament in pursuing her project, not least because what often emerged from her interviews with the victims of Partition was "so bitter, so full of rage, resentment, communal feeling, that it frightened me."
Butalia recognized, as many of us do, that there were no easy answers but that she had to go on with her search simply because it meant so much to her. On a personal level I wish the selection had included (to name only two) Hira Bansode (b. 1931) who has deftly critiqued conventional myth and its heroines, and Anjali Purohit's imaginative use of bhakti poet Bahinabai Choudhari (1880-1951). But no anthology could ever be all that one wants. Zaidi's project is sound without being pretentious, a welcome diving-board for the uninitiated who, hopefully, would want to test the waters further.
Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women's Writing; Edited by Annie Zaidi (Aleph; Rs.595; PP357)
Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former Chair of English, Mumbai University.