Print Edition - 2015-07-11  |  On Saturday

An encounter with the foremothers

  • Readers looking to enrich their understanding of Indian women’s writing will be delighted
- Richa Bhattarai
An encounter with the foremothers

Jul 10, 2015-

Annie Zaidi has dabbled in many forms of the arts—a novella and some excellent short stories, movie scripts and memoirs, poetry and plays. Her latest attempt, though, is undoubtedly the most challenging and interesting of the lot. Zaidi has sought to include 2,000 years of Indian women’s writing into a single volume. This is quite a gargantuan task, and not only because India boasts a rich and assorted literary culture, which saw quite an explosion in the last millennium. The concept of ‘women’s writing’ is a much debated term, and there are many who even refuse to recognize it as a category, considering it a demeaning classification.

Zaidi is well aware of the extent of her endeavour. The very first sentence of her lucid introduction to the collection admits that the task is “daunting” and that she dealt with a “severe space constraint”. She emphasizes that the collection does not, and cannot, document all literary contributions by all Indian women, making it clear that it is mostly a subjective discretion. Rather than an all-inclusive volume, this is more a tribute to the sisterhood that continued writing steadfastly and was rarely given space in major literary collections.

The collection is divided into 11 sections and includes over a hundred pieces, which makes them seem like tiny helpings of desserts, or perhaps miniscule entrees served frugally. They whet the appetite, and will definitely make readers yearn for more. One instance is the sensuous description of a female character in the Telegu version of the Ramayanam by Molla. The short extract will have readers clamouring to read the

entire volume. It is impossible to include such detail in a collection like this, of course. But at least now, we have beautiful fragments to hold on to, to savour, to begin our search and research from the recesses that the editor has painstakingly resurrected.

To aid our exploration, Zaidi has also produced an index on the writers and translators, with additional notes. Even more helpful are the editor’s outlines at the beginning of each section, which offer a glimpse of the treasures that are to follow. The best among them is the introduction to the collection itself, a nuanced and thoughtful piece that provides answers to most of the queries and concerns that the anthology might produce.

The literary pieces are so varied in their genres and styles that the entire volume is likely to appeal to everyone—there is a poem, story, essay, and excerpt for all of us. And by the same logic, it is highly probable that readers will choose only the slices that they have a penchant for, and tune out the rest. That is

always a danger in a selection as wide-ranging as this. A single dose of it can be tedious.

Also, not all the creations are necessarily good choices. A majority of them are brilliantly crafted, but an alarming number are quite lackluster, and seem to have been chosen to justify the segments they are placed under, or perhaps because they represent their age, which is quite understandable, but which also takes away from the pleasure of reading. Some excerpts also seem inadequate and abrupt, again, quite understandable, but dissatisfying all the same. Then there are, as always, the limitations of translations—while many of them are beautifully rendered, some will make readers want to get their hands on the original copies instead, and seek the meanings obviously lost in translation.

The most poignant are the autobiographies, memoirs and personal pieces that chronicle the lives and times of the authors. These, more than the other forms, present true tales of longing, disenchantment, delusion and rebellion. They tell us what it meant to be a woman 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. They teach us to be grateful for authors like Rassundari Devi and her burning desire to read and write, which paved the way for millions of others later on. The incident where she hides a page of manuscript and memorises it over and over again to learn the alphabet is especially powerful.

In works like this, the power of words shines through—how writers before us have revolted through letters to create space for daughters and granddaughters to write and create, to express and show, to simply live the way their heart longs to. It is a tribute to the struggles of our sisterhood, and homage to our foremothers. The themes, which begin with the softness of spiritual and secular love, build up to a crescendo of identity, battle and journey before aptly culminating at ‘ends’.

It is interesting to note the subjects women have chosen, the way they have perceived their surroundings and the manner in which they have etched their characters, especially those who are female. The age they write in has little to do with it: some female writers are inherently bold and curious; they experiment and express in ways that writers these days wouldn’t dare to. There are lucid accounts of domesticity, such as Mamta Kalia’s After Eight Years of Marriage, and then there is Gagan Gill’s Child, Go Home, speaking eloquently and elegantly of all that comprises child birth. In a few pages, Nilanjana Roy humorously talks about how her vegetarianism evolved, while Mallika Sengupta, in While Teaching my Son History encompasses things women have always wanted to say.

The editor has confessed to leaving out some popular writing because she was partial to Indian writing in Indian soil. This means that some canons have been kept out of the collection, but it is praiseworthy that the author knows her boundaries and has attempted no more, thus keeping the assemblage under her control. One way this rich trajectory can be bettered in its following editions would be to adopt a relative consistency in the notes on the authors. The notes, while largely satisfactory, are sometimes erratic—not even listing the major works of the authors—so that it is difficult to ascertain at a glance whether a work is memoir, story, novel or essay, such as Rajalakshmi’s The Apology.

The collection might be a disappointment to rigorous researchers who are used to a methodical chronicle of events. The anthology follows no linear pattern, there is no clean segmentation of dates and authors, and there is not much explanation provided for any snippet.

There is such an overlapping of times, themes, styles and attitudes that it is difficult to draw a single pattern out of them. To researchers, it might seem like a textbook with a random sampling of writings. But readers looking to enrich their understanding of Indian women’s writing over the ages, their historicity, challenges, triumphs and perseverance will be delighted with the collection.

This brave attempt will make for essential reading for enthusiastic bibliophiles, though maybe not for stern academics.

Published: 11-07-2015 09:56

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