Writing a new world

‘Women’s writing’ now spans various genres. It wasn’t always so. Ahead of International Women’s Day 2019, we map the challenges writers face when they try to tell their story
(L-R) Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Memon founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house in 1984.
(L-R) Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Memon founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house in 1984.
Updated on Mar 09, 2019 03:17 PM IST
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When Baby Haldar’s Aalo Andhari came out in 2002, it was a bombshell. A searing narration of how she was sold off at 13, raped, and then eked out a living as a domestic worker, stealing time to write between hours of swabbing the floors and cleaning the dishes, the book catapulted Haldar into literary stardom.

Haldar found time from her daily chores to give lectures at universities and chair panels at litfests to an audience both amazed and perplexed at the eloquent and forceful domestic worker who was not afraid to tell her story, sans flourish and aesthetics. When her book was translated into English in 2006 by writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia, it took her fame global. The royalties from the book allowed her three children to be put in good schools, and build a small house for herself in Kolkata.

More important, she says, was the respect she received. “People looked at me differently. I was no longer the ordinary maid Baby, I was the writer Baby,” she says. Despite travelling the world and her book being translated into 24 languages, she never earned like a superstar writer, and continues to work in an NGO. “Her life did not necessarily change for the better,” says Butalia, pointing out that though she earned more, her income was never enough to guarantee a comfortable lifestyle.

In many ways, Haldar’s story encapsulates the journey of women and writing in India – one that has made giant strides but continues to be dogged by old prejudices and structural restraints. It also spotlights the sea change women from the margins can effect when they pick up the pen.

The publishing scene

When Butalia and Ritu Menon set up Kali for Women in 1984, the biggest challenge they faced was not with audience or financing, it was with the writers themselves. “Most women were reluctant to write, had no faith in themselves. That was the battle, to get women to believe what they had to say was important,” Butalia says.

She had just returned from England, where she had worked in publishing, and had toyed with the idea of setting up a house dedicated to women’s writing for a long time, when she stumbled upon the name Kali. “It was both really exciting and challenging in the beginning. We started off with discussions on what we wanted it to be, business or not for profit. We wanted to centrestage feminist knowledge and maintain a connection with movement, and so finally went as a not-for-profit. In those days, Ritu and I would often discuss in the car how happy we were doing what we wanted to do.”

The logistical hiccups were many. Radha Kumar’s A History of Doing, which would go on to be a seminal text in feminist literature, was commissioned in the mid 1980s but published only in 1993. And, during the writing of another iconic book, Recasting Women by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Butalia would take turns to babysit Sangari’s infant child so that she could focus on her writing. “I also had one of the first computers, an Amstrad, and I bullied them to come to my flat and finish writing the introduction,” Butalia laughs.

In 2003, Menon and Butalia split, with the former setting up Women Unlimited and the latter Zubaan Books. For Butalia, a big change is the number of women writing today, and the variety of genres they are writing in. She gives the examples of humour and satire, which used to be male preserves.

“The scenario has changed, there isn’t that kind of indifference about women’s writing.” Women are more in control of content at publishing houses now, Butalia thinks in what she calls a “feminisation of publishing”, but admits that certain forms of knowledge continue to be devalued.

Menon draws a distinction between feminist publishing and women in publishing. The former is associated with the women’s movement, is related to a cause and has a social objective, she says. “There is still a gendered division of labour in publishing houses. And that we use the category of women writers, and not male writers, shows what is the norm and what is the deviation from the norm.” Her Women Unlimited imprint has carried forward feminist publishing, with authors such as Kamla Bhasin (Understanding Gender), Bama (Kisumbukkaran), Romila Thapar (Sakuntala) and Qurratulain Hyder (Fireflies in the mist).

The primary concern remains about how to give “voice to collective knowledge created from ground”, Butalia argues. “That is why people like us never make money.”

Breaking the stereotype

The stereotype of women writers not selling well has also been smashed. “Some of our prominent books by women authors have become lifetime bestsellers, crossing over a lakh in volume sales. Arundhati Roy ’s God of Small Things, Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Sudha Murty’s books Three Thousand Stitches and Wise and Otherwise collectively sold several lakhs of copies since their launch,” said Ranjana Sengupta, deputy publisher, Penguin Random House India, which is running a campaign called The Women’s Library with SheThePeople to showcase women writers online – a reflection of how women’s writing is now mainstream in big houses.

At the other end of the spectrum are small publishing houses that were the pioneers of women’s writing and are women-led and run. Mandira Sen, who set up Stree Books in 1990, recounts how big companies were risk averse in the early years. “It was earlier seen as not serious but women’s articulation changed the whole framework. Women’s experiences matter, if you don’t listen to them, you have a partial view of the world. The same flow has come into Dalit, LGBT writing,” she says.

From the margins

The span of women’s writing now spans satire to science fiction, from queer-trans experiences and Northeastern writing to Dalit articulation. But it was not always like this.

Maya Sharma, who wrote the landmark 2006 book Loving Women, remembers the pervasive silence around lesbian experiences, even within the Left and women’s movement. “We would talk in a muted voice and there was nothing except some scandalous headlines and the suggestion that this was not a working class problem, or a western implant. The larger stigma affected the movement also. When I started the book, I thought I would have difficulty finding people to talk, but people were keen to share their lives,” she says.

Similar ground was broken by Tamil writer Living Smile Vidya’s searing autobiography and A Revathi’s The Truth About Me, which transformed the literature around transpeople in India and brought forth a cascade of trans writers.

“For someone who is going through something, writes it in their own words, it will be different from someone who is thinking and imagining. They cannot show where those lives come from, the lived experience, of entertainment, joy and sadness. If we write about our lives and community, it is a matter of pride,” explains Reshma Prasad, a Patna-based Hindi poet.

The bias against women from marginalised communities is often pernicious and subtle, as academic Ghazala Jamil found out. She was repeatedly asked by senior academics to lay out experiences and narratives but avoid theorizing. “I realised if you came from a subjugated identity, you came from powerless position. Some people theorise and some people have experiences. For Muslim women in particular, some narratives are privileged such as those showing their expression is inhibited, while others showing them as journalist, travelogues and diverse is ignored,” she says, recounting how the writing of Muslim women in Urdu magazines 100 years ago has been disregarded by the so-called canon.

A similar curtain of silence continues to veil disabled women writers and their issues, highlighted in books such as Rethinking Disability in India by Anita Ghai. And, in the Northeast, women writers such as Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Indira Goswami and Easterine Kire are writing about a phalanx of local and global influences -- from stories of love set in the 19th century to the harrowing trials of World War I.

Sen admits the biggest challenge in the future is inclusiveness. “What we thought of as feminism was class and caste bound.” “We could be publishing only urban women writing in English..But that is not enough if you see yourself as a feminist publisher. How can we widen the base of feminist knowledge, and expand our practice without tokenising,” Butalia says.

New voices

Some of the biggest transformation in literature has been led by Dalit women, who have changed not only what women’s experiences mean, but what good literature is. The words of people such as Bama, Shanta Kamble and Urmila Pawar underscore the important place of women in the Ambedkarite movement, and the fact that Dalit women have been writing far before the 80s and 90s.

Writer and journalist Cynthia Stephen argues that for marginalised women, things haven’t changed that drastically in the last 30-odd years. “Dalit women are seen as objects, not possessing agency. There is a certain disregard and neglect of their voices,” she says, pointing out that the movement around Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016 was a watershed moment for Dalit women writers and activists, led by his mother, Radhika Vemula. But she is also careful in not privileging the written word over other forms of expression. “For women from marginalised section, expression is not just writing but also things like culture, singing, telling stories and oral histories.”

This is a point made repeatedly in Telugu writer Gogu Shyamala’s seminal work, Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket, But... For her, the greatest change has been the push for education among Dalit communities that has allowed women to take up writing and recording their experiences, despite a continuing barrier of access to English language, which as Butalia explains, continues to wield power in book promotion and outreach. “ “You know, earlier Dalit women had a tone of victimhood, would be submissive. But now they believe in their power, they are writing about the aesthetics of their life and culture, about their identity with self-respect.” That may be the biggest change of all.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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Saturday, January 22, 2022