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Reading Anees Jung

Two decades after Anees Jung's first book, she treads the same paths, sadder and wiser. Benita Sen looks on.

books Updated: Jan 22, 2004 11:52 IST

At the outset, let me make it clear: This is not a book review. Rather, it's a recollection of an evening with a woman whose sixth book promises to flood bookstores. A woman who is so candid about herself that you want to tell her, keep some of that to yourself. You never know…

In a land where continuity has been a hallmark, the winds of change have turned into a bit of a gale over the last two generations. Habits, lifestyles, even individual and collective fates that had been taken as decreed, are doing a headstand. And small change is jingling out of upturned pockets.

That's when 19 years can mean much. A century ago, it may have been a drop in the ocean of a civilisation's chronology, but today, each generation is trying its feet in the midst of new influences and rising consumerism.

This, among all the other issues discussed, caught the attention at the launch of Beyond the Courtyard, the sequel to Anees Jung's first book, Unveiling India. Coming 19 years after Unveiling India, Anees treads the same trail, older, wiser, more saddened by events around her. Events that include Babri Masjid and Gujarat riots, on the macro scale, and a feeling of a hitherto freedom of being who she is, closing in on her in her personal world. A woman who feels "threatened by Hinduism today."

This, from the infant who was weaned by Hindu wet nurses, the woman who sees godhead in anything beautiful and could be dubbed a pantheist, if labels are a must, a human being who, the moderator Ratnottama Sengupta likened to a Sufi in her respect for all forms of faith.

After the generation that has gone by, Anees Jung, the woman who crossed her ancestral courtyard at 17 to study in the US, goes back to see for herself if the new economic and social liberalisation has done anything to improve the lives of the underprivileged women she'd met 19 years ago. Or, for that matter, of their adolescent daughters, now at virtually the same place in life that their mothers were, when she met them for Unveiling India. The moderator tried, at several points in the discussion, to make Anees comment on the positive changes in our lives. But Anees, widely travelled over --- what? 15,000 km? --- the length and breadth of the country, couldn't spare us the complacence of an out and out affirmative. Instead, she mentioned the anguish of seeing a rise in female foeticide, the unchanged reference to a woman vis-à-vis the man in her life.

But at the end of the day, the observation that remains freshest in my memory was made at the start of the session by film director Mrinal Sen. That morning, one of the best-read Bengali dailies listed the evening's event, giving the author's name as Anwi Yung (perhaps mistaking her surname for the European 'Jung', which is pronounced 'Yung'). In Kolkata, the city of books, what could be a sadder reflection of the truth of where books such as Beyond the Courtyard stand! And indeed, where the Indian woman stands, since Anees' book is about the poor woman of rural India, who, she believes, has preserved India.

First Published: Jan 21, 2004 14:35 IST